Having a baby is a major milestone in life. While it can be exciting, it can also take a toll on your body. Compared to a vaginal delivery, if you’ve had a cesarean delivery (C-section), you need to take extra precautions and give yourself even more time to recover from childbirth.
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C-sections account for 31.7% of all deliveries in the U.S. As with any major surgery, it takes time for your body to heal. So what can you do? And what should you not do?
Ob/Gyn Erin Higgins, MD, explains what your recovery will look like and what to expect.
How long does it take to recover from a C-section?
It takes about six weeks to recover from a C-section, but each person’s timeline will be different. An incision — typically a horizontal cut made in your lower abdomen — can take weeks to heal.
During that time, it’s recommended that you avoid lifting anything heavier than your baby. Don’t have sex or participate in rigorous exercise either.
Your doctor may recommend a C-section if:
- You’ve had one in the past.
- If your baby is in distress or in a breech position.
- The labor is not progressing.
- If you’re giving birth to multiple children at once.
While most individuals recover in about six weeks, it’s important to remember each person’s journey is different. Here’s what to expect.
Most people will spend two to four days in the hospital after a C-section.
During this time, the hospital staff will help with pain management, ensure you’re eating and drinking enough and help you move around. This is all in addition to bonding with your newborn, which can include attempting to breastfeed.
Once you return home, it’s important to take it easy and avoid lifting, twisting or any movements that can put pressure on the incision. “Those muscles are pretty weak because of the incision,” says Dr. Higgins. “It can be uncomfortable.”
Make sure you keep your incision clean and dry. To manage pain at home, Dr. Higgins recommends taking acetaminophen or ibuprofen on a regular schedule. An abdominal binder, a wide compression belt that goes around your stomach, can also be used to offer additional support and avoid putting stress on sutures.
It is also normal to have vaginal bleeding after a C-section, though it’s typically not as heavy as after a vaginal delivery. “It can last up to four to six weeks postpartum,” says Dr. Higgins. “Generally, the first few days are the heaviest with the passing of blood clots up to the size of a golf ball.” Contact your doctor if you’re soaking one pad per hour or passing large clots.
Having a support system around you is key during your recovery. Dr. Higgins suggests having your partner, family members or friends help with tasks like planning and making meals, doing laundry and even helping to care for your baby.
And do get up and move around, which can help avoid blood clots. “It’s recommended that you get up and walk around,” says Dr. Higgins. “We don’t want someone lying in bed for two weeks.”
Weeks 2 through 5
Your first postpartum visit should happen during the second week. At that time, your doctor will inspect the incision site and check that your recovery is progressing along.
Dr. Higgins says you should reach out to your physician earlier if you experience the following:
- Excessive pain.
- Infection at the incision site.
- Abnormal discharge.
- Heavy bleeding.
- Chest pain.
- Shortness of breath.
- Pain or swelling in your legs.
Over the next several weeks, you might also experience “baby blues,” caused by short-term fluctuations in hormones that can affect your mood. This is normal, says Dr. Higgins. But if you experience feelings like being depressed or feeling hopeless, talk to your doctor about postpartum depression and what it means.
“If those feelings start disrupting your life and cause problems bonding with your baby, your doctor can offer some treatment options,” says Dr. Higgins. Options can range from medication, therapy or even support groups for new parents.
At this point, you should have your final postpartum appointment with your doctor. Remember that everybody heals and recovers at different rates so it’s important to talk to your doctor about how you feel — and it’s OK if you need more time.
“Physical recovery from a C-section puts a lot of stress on the body,” says Dr. Higgins. “Resting and allowing your body to heal is very important.”
If your pain has decreased and the incision is properly healing, you may be given the green light to resume normal daily life.
“When a person has fully recovered, we view it as their graduation day,” says Dr. Higgins. “Sex, exercise — I recommend that they start those things slowly and gradually increase activity.”
Tips to recovery
Having a newborn and recovering from surgery doesn’t leave a lot of time for self-care. But it’s crucial you take time to take care of yourself. Here are a few tips on what to do.
- Get plenty of rest. Your body needs to heal, so don’t push yourself to return to your normal activities too soon.
- Avoid lifting heavy objects. You shouldn’t lift anything heavier than your baby.
- Talk a walk. Skip the heart-pounding exercise like running or lifting weights, but walking will help your body heal.
- Remember to eat. It can be overwhelming those first few weeks with a newborn but it’s important to make sure you’re eating a healthy diet — for you and your baby.
- Monitor your pain. Use a heating pad to provide relief and follow any directions from your doctor when it comes to pain medication.