Learn how you'll feel after a c-section. Find out what medications you'll receive, what recovery will be like once you leave the hospital, and what you can do to help the healing process after your surgery.
After a c-section birth, you'll probably feel both euphoric about and overwhelmed by the new person in your arms, just like any new mother. But you'll also be recovering from major abdominal surgery while dealing with typical postpartum issues such as engorged breasts, mood swings, and vaginal discharge.
C-section patients typically stay in the hospital for two to four days before going home. But your recovery will be measured in weeks, not days. You'll be able to do some things quickly, like breastfeeding and walking. Other activities, like moderate exercise, may not be possible for up to eight weeks after the surgery.
Here's what to expect in the hours, days, and weeks after your c-section.
C-section recovery timeline: From surgery to leaving the hospital
Right after surgery: You may feel groggy and possibly nauseated. Nausea can last up to 48 hours, but your healthcare provider can give you medication to minimize the discomfort. Many moms also feel itchy all over, particularly those who received narcotics in their epidural or spinal. If this happens to you, let your provider know so you can get medication to relieve the itchiness.
If you plan to breastfeed, you can start in the recovery room right after surgery. You may even be able to breastfeed immediately after your baby's delivered and before you get to the recovery room. Ask to see a lactation consultant to show you breastfeeding positions that won't put pressure on your incision (such as the side-lying position or the football hold). If the hospital doesn't have a lactation consultant, ask for the nurse who's an expert.
First few hours: Your nurse should come by every few hours at first to check on you and help you. She'll take your vital signs, feel your belly to make sure your uterus is firm, and assess the amount of vaginal bleeding.
Like any woman who just delivered a baby, you'll have a vaginal discharge called lochia, which consists of blood, bacteria, and sloughed-off tissue from the lining of your uterus. For the first few days, this discharge will be bright red.
Within 6 to 8 hours: Depending on your situation, you may be able to drink fluids – and start eating a light diet, if you feel like it. In some cases, though, your doctor may recommend waiting longer before eating.
Within 12 hours: If everything's okay, your nurse will remove your IV and urinary catheter soon after surgery. Your nurse will also instruct you on how to cough or do deep breathing exercises to expand your lungs and clear them of any accumulated fluid, which is particularly important if you've had general anesthesia. This will reduce the risk of pneumonia.
Next day: You will be encouraged to get out of bed at least a couple of times on the day after – or even the day of – surgery to walk. (Do not, however, attempt to get up by yourself. The nurse should be at your side the first few times.) In the meantime, get the blood going in your legs by wiggling your feet, rotating your ankles, and moving and stretching your legs.
Just walking to the bathroom may seem impossible at first, but moving around is important for your recovery. It will help your circulation and make it much less likely that you'll develop blood clots. What's more, it will make your bowels less sluggish, which will help you feel a whole lot more comfortable a lot sooner.
You may feel numbness and soreness at the incision site, and the scar will be slightly raised, puffy, and darker than your natural skin tone. Your doctor will come by daily to see how you're doing and check that the wound is healing properly.
First two days: You might have some constipation, gas pain, and bloating during the first two days. Gas tends to build up because the intestines are sluggish after surgery. Getting up and moving around will help your digestive system get going again.
You'll be encouraged to walk each day. Try to take your walks a short time after you've taken pain medication, when you're likely to feel more comfortable.
It's also important to get to the bathroom to urinate regularly. A full bladder makes it harder for the uterus to stay contracted and increases pressure on the wound.
Days two through four: You'll likely be able to leave the hospital. Your length of stay will depend on the reason you had a c-section and how quickly your body heals.
Medications for c-section recovery and pain relief
You'll likely be given several different medications after your c-section surgery to ease pain and help with healing. Don't be shy about asking your nurse for more medication if you're feeling uncomfortable. You don't need to suffer in silence, and the longer you wait to ask for the medication you need, the harder it will be to control the pain.
Here are some common medications you might receive:
Narcotic pain relief: If you get an epidural, spinal, or general anesthesia for your c-section, your anesthesiologist may add morphine or another narcotic, which can provide excellent postpartum pain relief for up to 24 hours without the grogginess that comes from systemic narcotics. Following surgery, you may also receive pain medication through an IV.
Stool softener: You'll be given a stool softener to counteract the constipating effect of the narcotic.
Simethicone: If you get gas and are in great discomfort, the nurse may give you some over-the-counter medication that contains simethicone. This substance allows gas bubbles to come together more easily, making the gas easier to expel. Simethicone is safe to take while breastfeeding. Alternatively, you might also receive antacids.
Vaccine: Before you leave the hospital, you'll get any necessary vaccines that you haven't had (such as rubella, Tdap, chicken pox, and a flu shot). And your provider will check in with you (if she hasn't already) to make sure you have a plan for birth control.
C-section recovery after leaving the hospital
Expect to need help – and lots of it – once you get home. If nobody offers, ask for support from your partner, parents, in-laws, and friends. If you're worried that you may not have enough support, hire paid help if you can afford it. In addition to help with other children, household chores, your own meals, and so forth, you need to be able to rest. Remember, you're recovering from surgery.
Here's what to expect once you get home:
Pain relief: You'll likely be given prescriptions for more painkillers and a stool softener before you leave the hospital. You may need prescription painkillers for up to a week after surgery, gradually transitioning to over-the-counter pain relievers. (If you're breastfeeding, talk to your provider about safe pain relief medications.) Drink plenty of fluids to help you avoid constipation from the medication.
You may also find that a heating pad or an ice pack helps relieve pain.
C-section healing: Anything that puts pressure on the abdominal area will probably be painful at first, but you'll feel a bit better day by day. Be sure to use your hands or a pillow to support your incision when you cough, sneeze, or laugh. Your incision will likely feel noticeably better after several days, though it may continue to be tender for several weeks. You may even feel numbness or occasional pain around the incision for several months.
Wound care: Your doctor will give you specific directions for taking care of your incision.
You'll need to clean the incision area gently with mild soap and water. Doing so in the shower is often the easiest way. Make sure to keep the incision dry after washing it.
If you have metal staples, your doctor will remove them after about a week. However, you're more likely to have absorbable stitches that don't need to be removed.
Bleeding: Your vaginal bleeding and discharge should be diminishing, though it may last up to six weeks. It should gradually turn from bright red to pink and then to yellow-white.
Breastfeeding: Nursing can be challenging in the days after a c-section because of pain from the healing incision. If you need help, consider seeking advice from a lactation consultant so you can troubleshoot breastfeeding problems, and don't end up with sore nipples
Walking: While it's essential to get plenty of rest once you're home, you also need to get up and walk around regularly. Walking promotes healing and helps prevent complications such as blood clots. Of course, you shouldn't overdo it. Start slowly and increase your activity gradually. Since you're recovering from major abdominal surgery, your belly will feel sore for some time.
Exercise: In six to eight weeks, you'll be able to start exercising moderately – but wait until your caregiver gives you the go-ahead. However, you should start walking pretty much right away.
Housework: Take it easy and avoid heavy household work or lifting anything heavier than your baby for eight weeks. Keep in mind that some movements that don't usually seem strenuous, such as vacuuming, might now be difficult. Listen to your body and stop if something feels uncomfortable.
Sex: You won't be able to resume sexual intercourse for at least six weeks. If your provider didn't talk to you about contraception while you were recovering in the hospital, at your six-week postpartum visit be sure to discuss what method will work best for you now. You may be able to resume using the birth control you used in the past, or you may have to make some changes.
Tampons: To prevent infection, don't place anything in your vagina for a few weeks after the birth. At your six-week postpartum checkup, ask your provider whether it's okay to start using tampons.
Driving: If you're taking pain medication, check with your caregiver about the safety of driving (it's not safe to drive if you're taking opioids or other sedatives). Also don't drive if you experience pain from the motions of driving (turning to check your blind spot, stepping on the break pedal, steering, and so forth). Ask your doctor for guidelines.
Going back to work: When you can return to work will depend in part on what you do for work and how well you are recovering. Typically, it takes six to eight weeks or more for moms post-surgery to be ready. If you have maternity leave, take full advantage of it. Give yourself time to physically and emotionally heal. Always check with your doctor about your timeline.
Taking a bath: To prevent infection, don't submerge yourself in water (in the bathtub, a hot tub, or swimming pool, for example) until you have the go-ahead from your caregiver, usually in about six weeks.
Emotional recovery after a c-section
Moms have a wide range of emotions after a c-section, so it's hard to predict how you'll feel.
Some common emotions you might experience include:
Disappointment: You might feel disappointed if you had your heart set on a vaginal birth, or if you went through the work of labor but still ended up needing a c-section.
Relief: You might not care about how you gave birth if you had complications and were worried about your baby's well-being. Some women who end up in surgery after a long, drawn-out labor feel a sense of relief.
Like you cheated: Some moms feel cheated out of a vaginal delivery, especially if they took childbirth classes and fantasized about the "ideal birth." Others feel as if they're somehow less of a woman because they needed a c-section. It might help to know that many women find their baby's birth, whether vaginal or c-section, very different from what they expected. If you have nagging doubts about whether the surgery was really necessary, talk to your provider about it and ask him to review the decision with you.
Sadness: Postpartum blues are common, whether you had a c-section or a vaginal birth, generally beginning a few days after delivery and lasting for a few days. If the feelings don't go away on their own in the first few weeks, or you find that you're feeling worse rather than better, be sure to call your caregiver and tell him your symptoms. You may be suffering from postpartum depression, a more serious problem that requires treatment.
Frustration: You may feel like it's taking a long time to recover. Remember that just healing from surgery takes a significant amount of time and energy. Add to that all the postpartum changes your body is going through – along with your new round-the-clock parenting responsibilities – and you're bound to be in less-than-top condition for a while. Try to cut yourself some slack and be patient. In time, you'll be feeling better and enjoying life with your new baby.
No matter how you're feeling, it might be helpful to talk about it. Join BabyCenter's C-Section Mama's Club to chat with other moms who have had cesareans, or reach out to local moms via a hospital, school, church, or other networking support group. And ask your caregiver for advice about professional care if you think that might be useful.
What will my c-section scar look like?
At first, the scar will be slightly raised, puffy, and darker than the rest of your skin, but it'll start to shrink significantly within six weeks of surgery.
A c-section incision is only 4 to 6 inches long and about 1/8 inch wide. As the incision site continues to heal, your scar will more closely match your skin color and will narrow to about 1/16 inch wide. It might be itchy while it's healing.
C-section scars are usually very low on the abdomen. A low-lying horizontal scar will eventually be hidden by your pubic hair, probably way below the waistband of your underwear or bikini bottom.
C-section home remedies for faster healing
Eat well: Ideally, you've got good, nutritious food stockpiled in your fridge and freezer. But if not, ask for help with meal prep and food shopping. Put lots of quick, easy, nutritious snacks on the list, and also include plenty of fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to keep you healthy and prevent constipation. Also drink plenty of water and other liquids, which will help ease constipation too and get you feeling your best. Continue to take your prenatal vitamin to help fill in any nutritional gaps.
Walk: This will help you heal and prevent blood clots and constipation. Walking is an important part of the c-section recovery process.
Massage: You'll need to wait until you're completely healed – about six to eight weeks – before getting an abdominal massage. But a foot, hand, head, arm, and back massage can help relieve stress, soreness, and tension.
Some caregivers also recommend something called scar massage, which is thought to help prevent adhesions in the tissues around the incision.
Abdominal binder: Some studies suggest wearing a tummy wrap, formally called an abdominal binder, to help reduce pain following a c-section. These binders are available at drugstores and online. Talk with your provider or hospital staff if you have questions about how to use them.
When to call the doctor
You'll usually see your doctor for an incision check one to two weeks after leaving the hospital, and you'll have a complete checkup in four to six weeks after delivery to make sure that you are healing well physically and emotionally, and to answer questions you might have about infant care and birth control. In the meantime, call your caregiver if you have signs of an infection, including:
- Warmth, redness, swelling, or oozing at the incision site
- Worsening pain or sudden onset of pain
- Any fever (even if your incision looks fine)
- Foul smelling vaginal discharge
- Pain or burning when urinating, the urge to pee frequently when not a lot comes out, or urine that is dark and scanty or bloody
Also call your provider immediately if you have:
- Menstrual-type bleeding past the first four days after delivery, or bleeding that comes back after slowing
- Heavy bleeding at any time, or bleeding with clots and cramping (if you soak two pads an hour for two hours straight, your bleeding is considered heavy)
- Severe or persistent pain or tenderness and warmth in one area of your leg, or one leg that is more swollen than the other
- Pain in one or both breasts
- Trouble breathing or chest pain
- Severe headache
- Thoughts of hurting yourself or your baby, or if you feel incapable of caring for your newborn
For more information on warning signs of a medical problem in the weeks after delivery, see our article on when to call your practitioner.