Even though well over one million women have cesarean sections each year in America, research shows that new moms are often left unprepared for their recovery. In fact, a 2019 study in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth notes that, overall, new moms want more information on what constitutes a “normal” c-section recovery, including infection prevention advice. Plus, another report—this one in The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing—found that women felt unprepared for the intensity and duration of the post-cesarean pain they experienced.

This, plain and simple, is not good. These important discussions need to happen between parents-to-be (or a new parent) and their providers…and parents should feel informed and empowered going into those conversations. To help, we’ve rounded up everything you need to know about c-section recovery—plus, tips to make it easier.

In the Hospital: What to Expect After a C-section

No matter if your c-section was planned or an emergency, the bottom line is this: You just had major abdominal surgery! The horizontal incision just below your bikini line will measure roughly about 10 to 20 centimeters. (This is the most common incision.) The entire procedure usually takes about 45 minutes, and you’ll likely stay in the hospital for two to three days afterward.

Here’s what to expect once you deliver your baby:

  • You may feel groggy right after surgery.

  • If your epidural contained narcotics, you may feel itchy.

  • You may experience gas pains and/or have trouble taking deep breaths.

  • Your epidural or catheter may be left in for up to 24 hours after your c-section.

  • Post-epidural numbness can limit your movement for a while.

  • You’ll experience contractions after delivery that may be painful. (Your uterus is shrinking to its normal size.)

  • Your abdomen will be painful but will improve over the next two days.

  • The area around your incision may be sore, numb, or both.

  • Nausea may last for the first day or so.

  • Most likely, you’ll be able to eat something light eight hours after your c-section.

  • Getting out of bed may be challenging but doing so at least once or twice a day at first can help decrease your chance of blood clots, help you move your bowels, and speed recovery. (Make sure someone helps you.)

  • Your sutures or staples will likely be taken out around the second day.

  • It’s not uncommon to feel sadness or an emotional letdown after delivery.

At Home: What to Expect After a C-section

After two to three days in the hospital, it’s time to go home. Congrats! Just don’t jump the gun. A full c-section recovery can take between four and six weeks…but everyone’s timeline is different! So, in addition to caring for your newborn, you’re going to have to take care of yourself—and get others to help, too!

Here’s what to expect when healing from a c-section:

  • You’ll experience vaginal bleeding for up to six weeks. (First, you’ll pass blood clots up to the size of a golf ball, but then it will wind down to a yellowish discharge.)

  • Your incision will be slightly puffy and raised.

  • If your incision is bandaged, change the dressing once a day, or more often if it gets dirty or wet.

  • Tenderness at the incision will likely last for three weeks or more.

  • Your healthcare provider will need to check your incision in four to six weeks. 

C-Section Recovery Tip #1: Stop doing chores!

Research shows that new moms are routinely advised to take it easy—and avoid lifting anything heavy—after a c-section…and the advice is almost always ignored, especially by those who have older children at home. As hard as it might be for new parents to slow down during this hectic time, rest is a must for a speedy c-section recovery. So, when doctors say don’t lift anything heavier than your baby for the first six to eight weeks…don’t! When you’re told to avoid heavy house cleaning or any activity that makes you breathe hard or strain your muscles… listen! If you're advised to avoid driving for a couple of weeks…enjoy being the passenger!

Easier said than done, we know. For help with your c-section recovery, you can…

  • Hire a postpartum doula.

  • Enlist friends and family to pitch in with specific tasks.

  • Go over your doctor’s recovery advice with your partner, so they know how important their help is.

  • Consider a meal delivery service.

  • Look into sending laundry out.

C-Section Recovery Tip #2: Treat your incision with care.

Check your incision daily. If all is healing well, the edges of your incision will meet neatly. There may be some redness and even a small amount of blood or clear fluid the first few days after your c-section, but that’s to be expected. To help your scar heal…

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water for 20 seconds before you touch your incision.

  • Change your bandage once a day and more often if it gets wet or dirty.

  • With a clean washcloth, gently clean your incision with mild soap and warm water daily. Rinse and pat dry using a clean cloth. Do not share soap or washcloths—and don’t soak in the tub.

  • Don’t use hydrogen peroxide or rubbing alcohol.

  • Refrain from applying any lotions, powders, or oils to your c-section incision or area around it.

  • If you’ve got Steri-Strips on your incision—don't take them off. They should fall off in about a week. But if they don’t, ask your doc about removing them.

  • Wear loose cotton clothing that doesn’t press against your c-section scar.

It’s important to know the signs that your wound may be infected, especially since a fever won’t always be present with infection. Your c-section scar may be infected if the incision…

  • Is firm or hot

  • Is red and swollen

  • Has red streaks around it

  • Is oozing blood or pus

  • Smells bad

  • Begins to open.

C-Section Recovery Tip #3: Walk and wear these.

Gentle walking after a c-section is a great way to increase strength and stamina, help keep your bowels moving (constipation is a common after effect of c-sections), and promote good circulation, which helps prevent blood clots. According to research in the journal Chest, new moms are four times more likely to suffer a blood clot after a c-section compared to those who’ve had a vaginal birth. (If you’re 35 or older, have any sort of lung or heart condition, have diabetes, if you smoke or you’re overweight, your blood clot risk is further elevated.) You can start with a simple 5-minutes stroll around the house. Beyond regular short walks, consider wearing compression stockings that help keep blood moving in your legs to stave off dangerous blood clots. 

If you experience any of the following arm, leg, or lung blood clot signs, reach out to your healthcare provider ASAP:

  • Swelling in any of your extremities

  • Pain or tenderness not caused by injury

  • Skin that’s warm to the touch

  • Skin that’s red or discolored

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Chest pain that gets worse with a deep breath or cough

  • Coughing up blood

  • Unusually fast or irregular heartbeat

PS: Do not rush into your pre-baby, pre-pregnancy activities. Give or take, you should be able to do most of your regular activities in roughly four to eight weeks.

C-Section Recovery Tip #4: Get some sleep.

Newborn sleep schedules are…erratic! So, the old “sleep when the baby sleeps” advice is not entirely helpful—or realistic. But here’s the thing: Even modest sleep disruption can delay wound healing, making getting your ZZZs even more important. (Plus, sleep deprivation is a major postpartum depression trigger.) The best ways to snag some sleep when you’ve got a newborn are…

  • Ask for help. Have friends, family, your partner, and/or a postpartum doula care for your little one while you rest.

  • Get comfy. You know how you only should put a baby on their back to sleep? Same holds true for new parents recovering from a c-section! Sleeping on your back will place the least amount of pressure on your incision site. At the same time, elevating your legs can up the comfort factor, too.

  • Learn the 5 S’s for soothing babies. Womb-like sensations like swaddling, shushing (aka white noise), sucking, and swinging (aka rocking) help activate your baby’s inborn calming reflect, which is their “on switch” for sleep. That’s why thousands of Happiest Baby educators teach the 5 S’s in hospitals and parenting clinics across America and in many other nations.

  • Consider SNOO. Happiest Baby’s award-winning smart bassinet utilizes three out of the 5 S’s to help babies sleep: All-night rocking, continuous white noise, and a safe swaddle that keeps little ones safely on the back all sleep long.

C-Section Recovery Tip #5: Ease your ouch.

Whether you have a vaginal delivery or cesarean, birth hurts! So, pain management is key. Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen (Tylenol, Motrin) are usually the go-to first step for pain relief because very little of the medicine passes through breastmilk. Some new parents alternate between two pain relievers every three hours. (Talk to your healthcare team to narrow down your best approach.) Still others temporarily use a low-dose, mild opioid, such as oxycodone in addition to OTC pain relievers if warranted.

To further help alleviate c-section incision pain, try:

  • Using a heating pad on your belly.

  • Wearing a wide compression belt (aka an abdominal binder) that wraps around your tummy can offer additional support and keeps undue stress off your c-section incision.

  • If nursing, choose a breastfeeding position that puts less pressure on your incision, such as the underarm, football hold and lying on your side with pillows under your head, behind your back, and behind or between your knees. 

C-Section Recovery Tip #6: Embrace the log roll.

Getting out of bed post c-section can be a struggle. To help, instead of sitting upright, make like a log and roll out of bed. First, gently roll to your side, bending your knees. Using your arms, carefully (and slowly!) push your body into a sitting position, keeping your abdomen relaxed as you make the move. Once you are fully upright, wait a beat, and then stand. (Turn the directions around, and it’s how you can easily lay down, too!)

C-Section Recovery Tip #7: Adapt your surroundings.

If you know ahead of time that you’ll be having a c-section, get your home set up to support your needs before you give birth. If, however, it’s an emergency or unexpected c-section, enlist friends or loved ones to get your home ready for your recovery. Some key things to keep in mind:

  • Many healthcare providers will ask that you try your darndest to avoid using the stairs. To cut down on your up-and-down, keep most of the things you need close by.

  • Set up a few diaper changing areas in key spots of your home so you don’t have to go far to get the job done.

  • Keep a basket or tote nearby that’s full of useful items you turn to often, like healthy snacks, pain meds, and your phone.

  • Keep your baby near you at night so you don’t have to get up.

  • Since getting up and down from bed can be a challenge post c-section, consider bringing your SNOO bassinet down to your level with SNOO Low Legs. These keep the bassinet—and your baby—10 inches above the floor and closer to you, making late night feeds much easier.

C-Section Recovery Tip #8: Keep a pillow close.

No joke: The sudden movement involved with laughing can hurt after a c-section! What helps: Supporting your abdomen near the incision with a pillow when you laugh. This trick also works wonders when you sneeze or cough—and when you get up and sit down.

C-Section Recovery Tip #9: Gently get those bowels moving.

Adding to the postpartum fun: Constipation is not only common during pregnancy, it’s common after delivery, too. In fact, research shows that 52% of new moms experience postpartum constipation—and those who’ve had a c-section have a 10% higher chance of constipation as compared to their vaginal delivery counterparts. While your healthcare provider likely sent you home with a stool softener just in case, there are other things you can do to get things moving. For example…

  • Drink tons of water. Shoot for eight to 10 glasses a day—and even more if you’re breastfeeding. To help get you there, keep a big, insulated water bottle at your side.

  • Up your fiber. Snack on lots of digestion-improving soluble fiber foods like apples, beans, blueberries, chia seeds, nuts, and oatmeal. Balance out those eats with food that contain insoluble fiber, which softens stool, such as almonds, brown rice, leafy greens, legumes, pears, quinoa, and whole wheat bread. Of course, many foods contain both types of fiber, like prunes.

  • Move around. As noted above, daily walks can get bowels moving, too.

 

More postpartum help this way:

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REFERENCES

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC): Births – Method of Delivery
  • Women’s perspectives on caesarean section recovery, infection and the PREPS trial: a qualitative pilot study, BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, July 2019
  • A Meta-Synthesis of Women's Experiences of Cesarean Birth, The American Journal of Maternal/Child Nursing, January/February 2013
  • The National Health Service (NHS): Recovery – Caesarean section
  • Cleveland Clinic: C-section
  • MedlinePlus: After a C-section – in the hospital
  • Mount Sinai: Going home after a C-section
  • Recovery after caesarean birth: a qualitative study of women’s accounts in Victoria, Australia, BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, August 2010
  • Kaiser Permanente: Cesarean Birth Incision Care
  • Risks of Venous Thromboembolism After Cesarean Sections: A Meta-Analysis, Chest, September 2016
  • Stop the Clot: Spread The Word
  • Weill Cornell Medicine: What Every Woman Should Know About Pregnancy and Pulmonary Embolisms
  • Impact of sleep restriction on local immune response and skin barrier restoration with and without “multinutrient” nutrition intervention, Journal of Applied Physiology, January 2018
  • Cleveland Clinic: How Doctors Are Treating C-section Pain — Without Opioids
  • The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): Postpartum Pain Management
  • La Leche League International: Breastfeeding After Cesarean Birth
  • International Cesarean Network: Recovering From A Cesarean: Tips on Healing
  • Pregnancy, puerperium and perinatal constipation – an observational hybrid survey on pregnant and postpartum women and their age-matched non-pregnant controls, BJOG: an International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, October 2020
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: Nursing Your Baby? What You Eat and Drink Matters
  • Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health: The Nutrition Source: Fiber

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Disclaimer: The information on our site is NOT medical advice for any specific person or condition. It is only meant as general information. If you have any medical questions and concerns about your child or yourself, please contact your health provider.