If you're planning a Cesarean delivery or you want to be prepared in case you need to have a C-section, you might have questions about the recovery process. How much discomfort will you experience? How long will it take for your incision to heal? What breast-feeding positions might work best for you? Understand how to take care of yourself and your baby during C-section recovery.
Treat your C-section incision with care
It takes about four to six weeks for a C-section incision to heal. During the C-section recovery process, discomfort and fatigue are common. To promote healing:
- Take it easy. Rest when possible. Try to keep everything that you and your baby might need within reach. For the first couple of weeks, avoid lifting anything heavier than your baby.
- Support your abdomen. Use good posture when you stand and walk. Hold your abdomen near the incision during sudden movements, such as coughing, sneezing or laughing.
- Take medication as needed. Your health care provider might recommend ibuprofen, acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or other medications to relieve pain. Most pain relief medications are safe for breast-feeding women.
- Drink plenty of fluids. Drinking lots of fluids can help replace those lost during delivery and breast-feeding, as well as help prevent constipation. Remember to empty your bladder frequently to reduce the risk of urinary tract infections.
Look for signs of infection
Check your C-section incision for signs of infection. Contact your health care provider if:
- The incision is red, swollen or leaking discharge
- You have a fever higher than 100.4 F (38 C)
- You experience increasing pain around your incision
Experiment with breast-feeding positions
You can begin breast-feeding almost immediately after the C-section. To minimize discomfort, place a pillow over the incision while holding your baby. Breast-feeding positions that work well during C-section recovery include:
- Football hold. Hold your baby at your side, with your elbow bent. With your open hand, support your baby's head and face him or her toward your breast. Your baby's back will rest on your forearm. It might help to support your breast in a C-shaped hold with your other hand. For comfort, put a pillow on your lap and use a chair with broad, low arms.
- Side-lying hold. Lie on your side and face your baby toward your breast, supporting him or her with one hand. With the other hand, grasp your breast and touch your nipple to your baby's lips. Once your baby latches on, use one arm to support your own head and the other to help support the baby.
If you're having trouble breast-feeding during your C-section recovery or afterward, contact a lactation consultant for help.
Manage other postpartum signs and symptoms
While you're recovering from your C-section, remember that you're also recovering from pregnancy. Here's what to expect:
- Vaginal discharge (lochia). Expect a bright red, heavy flow of blood for the first few days after the C-section. It might contain a few small clots. The discharge will gradually taper off, becoming more watery and changing from pink or brown to yellow or white. To reduce the risk of infection, use sanitary napkins rather than tampons. Contact your health care provider if your bleeding soaks a sanitary pad each hour for two hours, you pass a clot larger than a golf ball, the discharge has a foul odor, or you have a fever of 100.4 F (38 C) or higher.
- Contractions. You might feel contractions, sometimes called afterpains, during the first few days after the C-section. These contractions — which often resemble menstrual cramps — help prevent excessive bleeding by compressing the blood vessels in the uterus. Your health care provider might recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever if necessary. Contact your health care provider if you have a fever or if your abdomen is tender to the touch. This could indicate a uterine infection.
- Sore breasts. Several days after the C-section, your breasts might become firm, swollen and tender. This is known as engorgement. To ease discomfort, nurse your baby, use a breast pump to express milk, or apply cold washcloths or ice packs to your breasts. Over-the-counter pain relievers might help, too. If you're not breast-feeding your baby, wear a firm, supportive bra — such as a sports bra. Compressing your breasts will help stop milk production. Don't pump or rub your breasts, which will cause your breasts to produce more milk.
- Leaking milk. If your breasts leak between feedings, wear nursing pads inside your bra to help keep your shirt dry. Change pads after each feeding and whenever they get wet.
- Hair loss and skin changes. During pregnancy, elevated hormone levels increase hair growth and put normal hair loss on hold. The result is often an extra-lush head of hair. After delivery, however, hair growth decreases and your body begins to shed the excess hair all at once. Hair loss typically stops within six months. At the same time, stretch marks typically fade from red to silver. Skin darkening that can occur during pregnancy, such as dark patches on your face (chloasma), will also slowly fade.
- Mood changes. Childbirth can trigger mood swings, irritability, sadness and anxiety. Many new moms experience mild depression, sometimes called the baby blues. The baby blues typically subside within a week or two. In the meantime, take good care of yourself. Ask your partner, loved ones or friends for help and support. If your depression deepens or you feel hopeless and sad most of the time, contact your health care provider.
- Postpartum depression. If you experience severe mood swings, loss of appetite, overwhelming fatigue and lack of joy in life shortly after childbirth, you might have postpartum depression. Contact your health care provider if you think you might be depressed, especially if your signs and symptoms don't fade on their own, you have trouble caring for your baby or completing daily tasks, or you have thoughts of harming yourself or your baby.
- Weight loss. After your C-section, you'll probably feel out of shape. You might even look like you're still pregnant. Don't worry. This is normal. Most women lose more than 10 pounds during birth, including the weight of the baby, placenta and amniotic fluid. During your C-section recovery, you'll drop additional weight as your body gets rid of excess fluids. After that, a healthy diet and regular exercise can help you gradually return to your pre-pregnancy weight.
The postpartum checkup
About six weeks after delivery, your health care provider will check your abdomen, vagina, cervix and uterus to make sure you're healing well. In some cases, your health care provider might ask you to schedule the checkup earlier so that he or she can check your C-section incision. Your health care provider might do a breast exam and check your weight and blood pressure, too. Consider using this checkup as an opportunity to talk about birth control, breast-feeding and how you're adjusting to life with a new baby.
Also, be sure to discuss any questions or concerns you might have about your physical or emotional health. Your health care provider will likely be able to provide you with some advice and assurance as you adjust to life with your newborn.