C-section recovery

A postpartum survival guide for women wondering what the healing process is really like.

Karen Penfield 0 Premium content image

Photo: Kidstock/Getty Images

When I was pregnant with my daughter, I was a naively optimistic first-time mom, really into preparing for childbirth. I took prenatal yoga and infant CPR, attended natural birthing workshops and hospital birth classes, and read piles of books. Even though I knew that one in four births in Canada are Caesareans, I only skimmed through the scary chapters about labour complications.

So I was unprepared when — despite all my planning — my labour ended with an emergency C-section. At home, I had herbal sitz baths and an inflatable rubber pillow ready to go, but nothing I needed to recover from major surgery. Before I left the hospital, the obstetrician gave me the standard (but impractical) advice to get lots of rest and to avoid lifting anything heavier than 10 pounds for at least two months. Here are the top things I wish he’d told me instead.

Take your pain meds

No seriously, take them — even if you’re breastfeeding. Whether through early-onset mommy martyrdom or sleep-deprivation-induced forgetfulness, many women stop taking their pain medication too soon. Jana Miller of Guelph, Ont., tried giving her meds up when she got home from the hospital. “I thought I would be OK; I’m pretty tough. But then it just hit me like a truck,” she says. Stay ahead of the pain (which can inhibit milk production), and ease off the drugs gradually as you start to feel better.

Stock up on granny panties

With C-sections, the area around your incision will be painful for at least a couple of weeks after the birth, and some women feel aching, pulling, itching or numbness for several months (and, sometimes, even years). Replace anything low-rise with high-waisted granny panties or wide-band maternity briefs. Some hospitals will provide special postpartum underwear, which look like mesh shorts with a big maxi-pad. Stretchy pants with thick supportive waistbands may work better than low-rise yoga pants or drawstring PJs.

Be nice to your abs

During a C-section, the surgeon cuts through the skin and fascia layers (connective tissue between skin and muscles) to reach the uterus. Even though abdominal muscles are not cut, avoid straining those muscles, especially in the first few months. (Try holding a pillow to your tummy if you think you’re going to sneeze, cough or laugh.) Mei-Ling Noonan-Mah, a Winnipeg physiotherapist who has had two C-sections herself, recommends using chairs with sturdy armrests, which are easier to push out of. And if getting out of bed is difficult, consider renting a bedrail from a medical supply store so you can use your arms to push yourself up. And just because your neighbour started jogging three weeks after her C-section doesn’t mean you should, too. “Each body has a different rhythm of recovery,” says Vyta Senikas, an Ottawa OB/GYN. “Whether or not you were in labour, any excessive bleeding, infection or other surgical complications, as well as your health before the birth, will all influence how long it takes to feel back to normal.” Wait six weeks to two months before starting any core work.

Know that vaginal pain is normal

Some women find that sex is painful after birth, even if they had a C-section. This is most likely due to cervical cramping and changes in cervical mucous related to breastfeeding and hormonal fluctuations. Using a personal lubricant can help.

Don’t be a hero

You just had surgery — you can’t do it all on your own. “Asking for help doesn’t make you any less of a mother,” says Simone Vigod, a psychiatrist at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto.

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