You’ve probably heard that every 1 in 3 births in the United States is a C-section.
Significant efforts are being made in most births to avoid surgery, but a C-section is still the safest option in some scenarios.
You should prepare and hope for a vaginal birth, as they usually come with less risk and are easier to heal from, but it’s important to know about Cesareans in case you need one.
At 35 weeks pregnant, I found out my baby was breech.
Related reading: My Breech Birth Story
These days, it’s much less risky to deliver breech babies via C-section, so I was headed for surgery if my baby didn’t turn (spoiler alert: she didn’t).
I’d been in denial that I could ever need a C-section, because I was so focused on having a natural birth. I’d spent my pregnancy preparing for and researching everything but cesareans, so being forced to consider what my delivery would probably look like was hard to get used to.
I reluctantly educated myself on C-sections over the last 3 weeks of my pregnancy, but no head knowledge can quite compare to the actual experience.
Here are 10 things I wish I’d known about C-sections before going into labor. Hopefully they leave you a little better prepared if you need a C-section!
#1: Walking helps recovery
Walking is one the biggest things you can do to aid your recovery.
I only learned this as a by-product of going back and forth to the NICU (from one of the farthest postpartum rooms)!
I hated feeling so dependent on a wheelchair, so I’d walk as far as I could before giving in and letting someone wheel me the rest of the way. By the end, I could walk to and from the NICU by myself, and all that walking did wonders for my recovery!
So start walking as soon as they get you back on your feet for the first time, even if you’re just shuffling across your room, hunched over like a little old lady. You can make small goals to gradually increase how much you walk as you work back up to a normal activity level.
Don’t go too crazy, of course. Listen to your medical team and your loved ones, especially if you tend to push yourself too hard. But aim for a good balance between pushing yourself and not overdoing it.
It seems so counterintuitive though, right? If you don’t believe me, watch below to see it confirmed by an OB-GYN who’s had four C-sections herself.
#2: Your medical team is more sympathetic and accommodating than you realize
People sometimes make it out like doctors and nurses are eager to cut you open and get it over with. But the truth is that most don’t treat your health flippantly, and they’re trying hard to use C-sections only when they’re truly needed.
They know surgery is a big deal, that it probably wasn’t how you wanted to meet your baby. They feel for you, and they’ll most likely do all they can to help you have a special experience.
Many hospitals will let you bring a phone or camera into the OR and allow someone snap a few pictures for you. Some are even able to accommodate skin-to-skin, and measures like these are becoming more common.
So before the surgery, have a conversation. Ask questions. Share what you’d hoped to do as part of your original birth plan and ask if any of it is still possible.
Even if you start out delivering vaginally and end up needing a C-section, unless it’s a true emergency, there may still be some time to ask questions and see if any of your hopes can be honored.
But they won’t know unless you ask.
#3: Your partner can’t be there for a spinal block, and the numbing shot really is the worst part
If you started vaginally and went to C-section, they’ll probably use your epidural, if you had one, to administer the anesthesia.
If you don’t have anesthesia until you get to the OR, you’ll probably be given a spinal block, which is a one-time shot that starts working almost immediately.
While your partner may be allowed to support you for an epidural, they’ll probably have to wait outside for your spinal block. If you’re relying on your partner for emotional support, mentally prepare to be without them.
You may have heard the numbing shot is the worst part of a spinal, and I agree with that. I was told it would feel like a bee sting. I was ready for a quick pain like a finger prick, but the shot lasted several seconds. This made me squirm, and I was terrified I’d damage myself.
So anticipate a bee sting sensation that lasts a good few seconds. After that, it’s a piece of cake.
#4: You might feel like you can’t breathe during the surgery
I’d heard this before, but I hadn’t heard an explanation for why, or how to deal with it. I asked the anesthesiologist about it when he briefed us before the C-section.
He explained that the anesthesia can affect the area where the bottom of your lungs are and block the sensation there. It’s not that you can’t breathe—it’s just that if you take a deep breath, you won’t be able to feel it. Your body will continue breathing, but the way it feels to you may not reflect that.
The best way to cope with that feeling is to anticipate and actively deal with it before it arises by taking normal breaths.
Your nerves will be racing, your heart will be beating faster, and your breathing will be up because you’ll be nervous. If you try to keep calm by taking a deep breath, you may panic because of how it feels and then totally lose control of your breathing.
So, right from the start, just as intentionally as if you were breathing through contractions, focus on and control your breathing, keeping it at as normal a level as possible.
#5: It’ll hurt to laugh, cough, and sneeze for a few days
I can’t believe I’d never heard this before.
Laughing, coughing, sneezing, lying down, and straightening up all make your incision hurt.
For the first few days postpartum, I had to intentionally refrain from laughter entirely, especially after a spell of uncontrollable laughing with my husband left me in tears from the pain (the kind of laughing where the teacher tells you to stop laughing and then you can’t stop).
But what to do if you need to cough, or—heaven forbid—sneeze?
There’s a trick!
Push a pillow against your incision. It sounds counter-productive to apply pressure on such a tender area, but it works, and I learned it directly from my nurse. It’s also great for dealing with pain from going to the bathroom.
The incision will make it painful to lie on your side, so be committed to sleeping exclusively on your back for a few days or a week or two.
You might also find it painful to straighten up when you’re standing. When you stand up, don’t try to straighten right away; gradually and slowly rise to a normal posture.
#6: It’s possible to avoid opioids
One thing you might be concerned about in the midst of an ongoing opioid crisis is having to take prescription painkillers for surgery. Everyone’s pain management level is different, but if you want to try and avoid opioids, it’s entirely possible.
You can take a regimen of ibuprofen and acetaminophen alternating every few hours and use only that to manage the pain. You probably won’t experience a total removal of pain, so you’ll need to cope with some of it mentally and physically, but it can probably bring it to a level that enables you to function.
If it doesn’t work for you, you always have the safety net of stronger medications to fall back on, and your medical team will help you take them safely.
But rest assured that if you hope to avoid opioids, they are not inevitable.
#7: You’ll probably swell up after your C-section
Thought you were done with swollen ankles because you were done being pregnant? Think again!
As part of your surgery, you’ll be given IV fluids. These, along with the crazy cocktail of hormones ravaging your body, can make you swell up, especially in your feet.
As part of taking good care of yourself in your healing process, balance resting with your feet up and walking, both of which will help bring the swelling down.
#8: Ask about your incisions
Did you know that they don’t just make one incision for a C-section? There’s the one you can see on your skin, but there’s also one inside, on your uterus!
If you want to attempt a future VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean), you’ll have to meet certain criteria to be a good candidate, including having had only horizontal incisions.
Horizontal cuts will almost always be what you end up with, but some situations may require your doctor to go vertical. It’s even possible to end up with a horizontal incision on the outside and a vertical one on the inside (though this isn’t common, as far as I can tell).
Your OB-GYN can absolutely manage your next pregnancy if you don’t get ahold of this information, so don’t worry too much if you forget. But for my own peace of mind, I wish I’d known and asked about the incisions right after my C-section so I could pocket the information away for later.
#9: You might have long-term scar tissue pain from your C-section
I don’t think this one is discussed nearly enough. Having a C-section can leave you with scar tissue pain in your pelvis, and it can last a long while.
A lot of C-section moms say it fades and disappears over time. I even know someone who suspected she was pregnant again 4 years later because it flared back up. It can be an ongoing battle months after delivery when you think you ought to be feeling normal again.
If it doesn’t go away, if it’s bad, or if you just want to get rid of it, ask your OB-GYN about prescribing physical therapy. It’ll hurt, but a physical therapist can work it out through massaging the tissue.
#10: Having a C-section will probably come with emotional baggage
Facing a surgery for delivery drums up a lot of complicated emotions to process. Talk to your support team about how you’re feeling, and seek support and advice from another C-section mom. You can and should discuss your thoughts and fears with your OB-GYN.
It’s okay to feel disappointed. It’s okay to feel like you’re missing out. It’s okay to feel scared.
It’s also okay to feel conflicted—angry about missing out on something while simultaneously grateful for the option to have a baby this way.
It’s even okay to feel like you did not give birth.
It might be controversial to say that. But it needs to be said.
Because that’s how I feel.
We are allowed to have our own feelings about our births.
People are generally very supportive of C-section mamas and all our bodies went through to produce a child. They’re absolutely right when they say that we did not have the “easy way out.” We were sliced open under the risks of anesthesia and infection and various other dangers and potential outcomes in order to get our babies out as safely as possible.
We need to be reminded that we gave these babies life, and we are mamas, no matter what.
But I am not alone in feeling like someone else birthed my baby out of me and that I didn’t actually give birth.
Having said that, here’s another important truth: my feeling this way about my own delivery does not negate another C-section mama’s feeling that she did give birth. Each delivery is unique. Every mom is unique. There’s room enough for all of us to have our own feelings of how our children entered the world.
Whatever you end up feeling, let yourself work through it.
Allow yourself the breathing room necessary to process your own perceptions about your C-section. Let yourself feel, whether it’s joy or grief or a garbled mix of many things.
If your birth story is traumatic for you, consider setting up a few short-term visits with a counselor, or talk with another mom in your life who’s been through something similar.
If you explore your options and find you have no one to talk to, visit my contact page; I’d be happy to chat with you.
May your delivery be filled with joy as you meet your child
I hope this information fills in some gaps about C-sections and leaves you better prepared for go-time. I hope it brings you peace by having a little more idea of what to expect.
Is there anything else you wish you’d known about C-sections before you had one? Comment down below and tell us.
Blessings on your birth, mama, however it happens!