After a C-Section: How to Heal and Recover

By Marisa Iallonardo
Reviewed by Elizabeth Eden, M.D.
May 17, 2022

Cesarean sections occur in about 32% of deliveries in the United States, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. If you’ve had this type of delivery, there are a number of things to keep in mind, from incision care to pain management. Here’s a closer look at some of the most common things to expect and smart ways to ease your recovery after a C-section.

What Happens After a C-Section: Short Term

Typically, a C-section recovery involves a two- or three-day stay in the hospital after delivery, says Erin L. Fairbrother, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn and co-director of the General OB-GYN Division at the Vanderbilt Center for Women’s Health, in Nashville, Tennessee. At the beginning of this time you will urinate through a catheter, which will likely remain in place for around 24 hours. You can also expect:

An Incision

There are two different types of C-section incisions: A horizontal incision (called a low transverse incision) is more common by far. A vertical incision is less common but sometimes is used and can make recovery longer, says Estela DiFranco Field, a certified nurse-midwife and associate medical director for the Duke University Hospital Birthing Center, in Durham, North Carolina.

The stitches used on the incision are usually dissolvable, says Heather Figueroa, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn with Loma Linda University Health, in California. In some cases, such as in a repeat C-section, the provider may use staples, which have to be removed. Dressings vary, too, and may include Steri-Strips or skin glue.

“It is important to know what you have and when it needs to come off,” Figueroa says. Ask your doctor or nurses for more information.

Pain Medication

“After a C-section, pain is typically controlled with a combination of ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and a narcotic, usually oxycodone,” says DiFranco Field. These are often alternated to help keep pain levels low and enable you to do basic activities like breastfeeding and getting up to use the restroom, she explains. Narcotics are usually given for about a week.

An important thing to know: The first 24 hours after a C-section can feel like what DiFranco Field calls a “honeymoon” period, because it can take time for the anesthesia (for instance, spinal anesthesia) to wear off before you feel pain.

“Usually the next day [is] where people really feel the effects, especially if they’ve gone through labor,” she explains. “A C-section without labor is usually easier to recover from than a C-section after labor, which makes sense—your body has just [figuratively] run a marathon, and then you have surgery.”

Certain Restrictions

Experts recommend not lifting anything heavier than your baby, especially in those first two weeks after your C-section, to allow for healing. Then, you can usually slowly increase your activity level over the next six to eight weeks, Figueroa says.

She says light housework is fine, but that you should skip activities that require more exertion, like vacuuming or moving furniture. You also want to avoid putting anything in the vagina during the recovery process, like inserting a tampon or engaging in sexual intercourse.

Driving will also be restricted for about two weeks. Michael Beninati, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn and assistant professor of maternal-fetal medicine and surgical critical care at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, explains that people who’ve had C-sections can usually resume driving once they’re off narcotics and are able to jump into the air and land without pain.

“If you’re in too much pain to jump up and down, then you’re probably in too much pain to stomp on the breaks,” he says, “and you need to be able to stomp on the breaks while you’re driving, just in case.”


Postpartum bleeding, a discharge known as lochia, happens as the uterus contracts to return to its previous size and heals, says DiFranco Field, who also explains that the discharge can change color over a few weeks, going from bright red to a white or clear color.

What to Watch for After a C-Section

“Once home, women can expect an additional six to eight weeks of recovery time during the postpartum period,” says Fairbrother. As you recover, watch for concerning signs, particularly regarding your incision. “Soreness and numbness around the incision is common,” Fairbrother says. But any of the following symptoms could be a sign of a possible wound infection:

  • Fever
  • Chills
  • Redness
  • Drainage from the incision
  • Worsening pain

Other signs of potentially worrisome postpartum issues:

  • Excessively heavy vaginal bleeding
  • Severe pain
  • Persistent headaches
  • Shortness of breath

If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms or have any concerns about your health, contact your healthcare provider right away.

Using the Bathroom

Once your catheter comes out, it’s normal to have some stinging when you urinate, but if the pain lasts longer than a day or you have a fever, talk to your provider, Figueroa says. And although your bowel movements will likely return within a few days, Fairbrother says that “increasing nausea or vomiting or inability to eat or drink could signal a postoperative bowel issue.”

Mental Health Issues

Your mental health is equally important. “Society has created this stigma around C-section deliveries being easier than vaginal delivery,” says Victoria H., a mom from Long Island, New York, who had envisioned a vaginal birth but found herself feeling like “less of a mom for having a C-section.”

“I cried a lot in the beginning, mourning the birth process I would never have,” Victoria says.

“It is normal to feel emotional and have periods of crying or feeling overwhelmed during the postpartum period,” Fairbrother says. “However, if these feelings become persistent, or are worsening or interfering with your ability to sleep, eat, or care for yourself or your newborn, you should contact your physician. Any thoughts of self-harm or hurting the baby should also be immediately reported.”

In an emergency, call 911 right away. You can also contact the National Crisis Text Line by texting “HOME” to 741741.

If it’s not an emergency but you need emotional support, you can contact Postpartum Support International at 800-944-4773.

Victoria says it wasn’t long before she found ways to help herself recover emotionally. “Breastfeeding really helped strengthen my resolve both mentally and physically,” she says. “Another important thing was keeping active.”

7 Ways to Help Your Recovery After a C-Section

Although recovering after a C-section can feel daunting, especially at first, you will slowly start to feel better. Here are some ways to help:

1. Learn About Your Incision

“I see a lot of fear around incision care because moms don’t want to hurt it. Also, it can be physically hard for moms with curves to see the wound,” says Figueroa.

Her advice: Before leaving the hospital, look at the incision with your provider. “Use a hand mirror or have a significant other or involved loved one look at it with you, so you know what normal looks like,” she says. “Ask questions about the bruising or redness you might see—know what to look out for.”

2. Practice Self-Care

Make sure to keep the wound clean and dry to foster healing and avoid infection, says Beninati. He recommends simply standing in the shower and letting water run over it. (You can use a little soap around the area, but rinsing with water is also enough, he says.)

Pat it dry with a towel—and skip baths altogether, Fairbrother adds. Drinking lots of water and eating healthily also aids wound healing, she says.

3. Start Moving in the Hospital

Walking will help to move air through your lungs to prevent pneumonia, which can be a complication of surgery. It can also help to prevent blood clots, which pregnant and postpartum people are at an increased risk for.

Moving also helps your intestines return to their pre-surgery functioning, says DiFranco Field. You also want to encourage your bowels to move waste as they should. Your doctor may also prescribe a stool softener, which can help with the constipating side effects of narcotics, Figueroa says.

4. Continue Moving at Home

You should avoid strenuous exercise, but keeping up with easy movements, like walking, is helpful, experts say.

“After my second C-section, going on short walks, starting in the first week home, helped tremendously,” Victoria says. “At first, I made it only about 100 feet (from my front door to the corner), but slowly, throughout my maternity leave, I kept up the routine and was eventually walking upwards of an hour and a half while my daughter napped in the stroller, making me feel both stronger and more capable.”

Victoria says that staying active was important to her. “I went on walks with my infant and kept up with housework and light cooking because it hurt too much to sit,” she says. “I just took it one day at a time—I made sure to stay hydrated and really rest, even for a short time.”

5. Don’t Overdo It

Although movement is recommended, resting and going slow is key. DiFranco Field recommends avoiding stairs for the first week—and if you can’t, limit the frequency of going up and down them to avoid tension on your incision.

A step stool by the bed can also make it easier to get in and out. “This is not a ‘no pain, no gain’ situation—if it hurts, don’t do it,” Figueroa says.

6. Dress Accordingly

“Have clothes ready that won’t rub on the lower abdomen,” advises Figueroa. High-waisted underwear, including the mesh ones you get from the hospital, are usually more comfortable, as are loose-fitting clothing, like dresses. Also opt for slip-on shoes to avoid bending down.”

7. Enlist Support

Having help is important no matter what type of delivery you have, but after a C-section, when movement is tough and driving restricted, it’s critical.

“I remember feeling like myself early post-cesarean,” Figueroa says of her own postpartum experience. “I wanted to go to the grocery store. I’m so glad my mother was with me, because [the] cart was half full and I hit a wall.” The fatigue and soreness can set in without warning, and when this happened to Figueroa, she was able to sit in the car while her mother finished up.

The help you enlist could be from a partner, friend, or family member, or from someone you hire, like a postpartum doula or baby nurse—or any combination of those. You’ll likely find that having their support is essential for caring for yourself and your baby while you’re recovering after the C-section.

“Just be kind to yourself—having a baby in itself is an amazing thing,” Victoria says. “You will find your groove.”

You May Also Like: