Recovery after a C-section

Recovering from a C-section is similar to recovering from any other major surgery, with one very significant difference – most major surgeries don’t leave you with a brand-new newborn on your hands. While there’s no doubt that the addition of a baby goes a long way towards putting a positive spin on this surgery, it also means that you have to be extra careful to take care of yourself in the aftermath of a C-section, instead of just getting caught up in taking care of your newborn.

C-section recovery: an overview

  • The come-down: Women who had an epidural or spinal anesthesia during the operation may feel a kind of full-body itch as the anesthesia leaves their systems, while women who were unconscious under general anesthesia are more likely to feel groggy and to experience a bout of shivering.
  • The stay: Women who have had C-sections can stay in the hospital from 2 to 4 days after surgery, depending on complications.
  • Relief: Around the second day, many women switch to oral pain relievers. The second or third day is also about the time when pain around the incision point may start to lessen, but it’s totally normal for pain to last for weeks afterward, though it should become progressively less painful every day.
  • Up and at ‘em: Nurses often encourage women to get up and move around shortly after the operation. This is because as a general rule, women who start moving around earlier also heal earlier, although it’s important to stick to gentle exercise, like short, slow walks. Moving around early on and on a fairly regular basis can also help protect against blood clots, help get bowels moving again, and relieve gas pain.
  • Waiting on some gas: Although a bowel movement is not necessary, many women are not released from the hospital until they have passed gas. Women who have had C-sections often have a significant amount of gas trapped in their abdomens after surgery. Women who are slow to pass gas may be given medication to help before leaving the hospital.
  • Support: During recovery, it’s important to support the stomach and abdominal muscles, which means good posture when standing or sitting upright, and using a pillow against the abdomen for support when sneezing, coughing, or laughing.
  • Undercover: It’s important to keep the incision site covered until a healthcare provider says it’s safe to stop. While it’s important to keep the wound clean, generally by letting warm water and mild soap run over the incision, it’s not a good idea to rub or soak the area, whether in a bathtub, hot tub, or while swimming, until a healthcare provider gives the okay.
  • Heavy lifting: During recovery from a C-section, the baby should be the heaviest thing a new mom lifts.
  • Eat and drink up: Drinking lots of fluids is important for a healthy recovery, since it’s important to replace the fluids lost during delivery and, for moms who breastfeed, breastfeeding. Fluids can also help prevent constipation, which can be a particular problem after delivery, especially since pain medications prescribed after a C-section can cause constipation. Women who have had C-sections are also encouraged to start eating whenever they feel ready.
  • Active but not too active: Getting up and walking around early on is important, but just as important is not pushing too hard, too early, in recovery. Any exercise that results in heavy breathing is probably too much, and any sit-ups should be put on hold a while.

Possible complications

  • Infection: Infections show up either in the skin incision or beneath the skin, in the uterus. Signs of infection include fevers higher than 100.4 F (38 C), redness and tenderness or pain around the incision site, or if the incision is swollen or leaking discharge. Infections are generally easily treated by antibiotics once they’re reported.
  • Discharge: Some vaginal discharge is normal, but discharge that gets suddenly heavier or starts to smell bad could be a sign of a problem, and should be reported to your provider. This includes heavy bleeding – some light bleeding, called lochia, is normal after a C-section, but heavy bleeding (bleeding that fills up more than one pad an hour, for example) can be a sign of a problem.
  • Swelling, redness: Swelling or redness either in one leg or in an area on one breast can be a sign of a problem, and should be checked out.

If you notice signs of any of these complications, it’s important to get these signs checked out by a doctor or healthcare provider, to give your body the chance for a healthy, smooth recovery.

Pain relief

Pain relief during recovery from a C-section isn’t one of those medications that’s controversial – pretty much everyone agrees that it’s necessary, and new moms should use it early and often without feeling guilty. It’s a good idea to try to stay ahead of the pain in the way pain relievers are staggered by taking a new one before the old one wears off, to avoid a span of time after one wears off but before the next one kicks in.

New moms recovering from C-sections generally go home with two types of pain relief medication, a narcotic and an anti-inflammatory. Over the first few days at home, it’s a good idea to follow your healthcare provider’s dosing instructions carefully. After that, it’s okay to start to reduce the narcotic dose based on how you’re feeling. One danger of pain relievers, though, is that just because a woman isn’t feeling pain, that doesn’t mean her body doesn’t need the rest that pain would slow her down enough to take. Women on pain relievers after C-sections still need to take it easy, even if they’re feeling basically fine – their bodies need the time to catch up.

You might be wondering if it’s safe to be taking certain pain relievers while breastfeeding after a C-section. An official statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics says that while certain pain relievers are unsafe, there are many that don’t show up in breastmilk in clinically significant amounts and thus, are safe for a mom to take while she is breastfeeding. Since there are some that aren’t safe though, it’s up to the physician to determine which ones a breastfeeding mother should take while she recovers from a C-section. 

You should talk to your healthcare provider if you have any questions about pain relief after C-section.

Breastfeeding after a C-section

In general, there’s no reason that moms who have had C-sections and want to breastfeed should have to wait much, or even any longer to get started than moms who have vaginal deliveries. Health issues with either mom or baby can create a delay, but after uncomplicated C-sections, new moms can start breastfeeding soon after, and can get a head-start with skin-to-skin contact with the baby while they’re still in the operating room.

That said, moms who have just had C-sections will need to try holding their babies in positions specifically designed for C-section recovery. The two main ones are the football hold, where the baby lies along mom’s forearm, head resting in her hand, or lying beside her in bed. Lactation consultants in the hospital can be great resources to help find the right position.

Pregnancy recovery

Women recovering from C-sections aren’t just recovering from surgery, they’re also recovering from months and months of pregnancy. Some of the changes to the body after pregnancy that are perfectly normal and healthy, but can feel worrying without a little warning, include:

  • Vaginal discharge: For up to 6 to 8 weeks, starting as bleeding then turning pinkish, yellowish, or whitish (called lochia, use heavy pads, but no tampons)
  • Contractions: They can feel a bit like menstrual pains, but just mean that the uterus is compressing blood vessels to limit bleeding.
  • Sore breasts or breast engorgement: Breastfeeding moms can experience engorgement if they’re producing more than their babies need, and moms who are not breastfeeding will probably experience some engorgement until their milk dries up. In either case, cold compresses can help, and breastfeeding moms can also pump for relief.
  • Hair and skin changes: Pregnancy hormones can cause changes to hair and skin, and the sudden lack of those hormones can do the same thing. This is perfectly natural, though it can feel a little scary when “perfectly normal” means losing a lot of hair as the unusually thick, rich hair that sometimes grows in during pregnancy disappears.
  • Baby blues: New moms can feel an unexpected drop in mood, which is a perfectly normal response to the physical, hormonal, and emotional upheavals in their lives. If this “baby blues” is more intense or lasts longer, it could also be a case of postpartum depression. A healthcare provider can help tell the difference between PPD and baby blues, and can help new moms settle on a course of treatment if one is needed. If you end up feeling a drop in mood that’s unexpectedly intense, it can be a good idea to check in with a healthcare provider about it, whether or not you think it could be PPD, just to make sure.

New moms who have just given birth generally see their healthcare provider again for a checkup 6 weeks later, though after a C-section, providers sometimes schedule checkups a little earlier, to check on the incision site. In the meantime, if you have questions about recovery, you can reach out to your healthcare provider.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “C-section recovery: What to expect.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, March 20 2015. Web.
  • “Going home after a C-section.” MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine, November 19 2014. Web.
  • “Cesarean Section: Recovering After Surgery.” March of Dimes. March of Dimes. Web.
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