6 Ways to Prepare for a C-Section
Perhaps you’re already planning to give birth by cesarean section. Or maybe you have a high-risk pregnancy and your doctor has talked to you about the possibility of a C-section birth. Maybe you just want to be ready for anything. (And that’s a good idea: In 2020, 32% of all births in the United States were delivered by C-section, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)
Whatever your reason, here’s the information you’ll need to feel as mentally and physically prepared as possible for a C-section birth.
Ask Your Doctor All Your Questions
A cesarean section is a surgical procedure in which a baby is delivered not through the birth canal, but through an incision in the abdomen.
If you know you’re having a C-section, be sure to have a thorough one-on-one discussion about the delivery with your doctor. G. Thomas Ruiz, M.D., board-certified ob-gyn lead at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, says he likes his patients to see him before delivery to review the procedure and discuss pain management expectations. During that time, Ruiz encourages all patients to ask lots of questions—the doctor is there to answer them, he says.
Discuss Any Special Considerations
Tell your doctor whether you have a heart condition or whether you’ve had spinal surgery or other back procedures, says Lindsey M. Davis, M.D., a board-certified ob-gyn with ChristianaCare in Wilmington, Delaware. Since you’re at higher risk for complications, you might need to have additional pre-op tests.
Also be sure to talk to your doctor about any medications you’re taking. You may be asked to take a break from them for a few days before the surgery.
Prep for Surgery
Eating and drinking: C-section patients are usually advised not to eat or drink (including chewing gum) for eight hours prior to surgery.
Showering and washing: You can shower the night before, Davis says. You can likely wash with your regular soap, or your doctor may give you a special soap or wipes to use.
Don’t shave or wax 24 hours before the C-section, advises Sara Twogood, M.D., a board-certified obstetrician in Los Angeles and co-founder of the healthcare company Female Health Education. (Also avoid applying any hair removal products to the surgical area after surgery until cleared by your doctor. This can increase the risk of infection and prevent healing.)
Care for Yourself Mentally and Emotionally
“When you have a cesarean birth, you are preparing yourself for surgery as well as for the momentous transition to becoming a parent,” says Jessie Everts, Ph.D., a perinatal mental health therapist, Twill clinical liaison, and author of the book Brave New Mom.
“You might have different thoughts and emotions about each part that are all valid, important, and need to be cared for and supported. You are likely to have mixed emotions like excitement about meeting your baby, as well as fear about the procedures beforehand, and stress about the recovery afterward,” adds Everts.
Although you may not be able to control some of the circumstances of the cesarean delivery, you can focus on preparing yourself with intention and on anticipating the needs you’ll have so that you can relax as much as possible, Everts says.
She suggests several things you can do to feel more prepared:
- Manage anxiety or stress. Deep breathing, relaxation, and visualization techniques can be effective to help calm anxious thoughts about the surgery and giving birth.
- Connect with your support people. Let them know how they can help you before and after your C-section.
- Plan for self-care. You’ll pack your hospital bag with essentials, but also add items that are likely to make you feel more at ease. This could include a soothing music playlist, books or videos, snacks, and comfortable clothing.
Understand the Risks of a C-Section
The most common complications of a C-section are infection and bleeding, according to Ruiz. Hemorrhaging is also a risk. It’s possible that areas outside the uterus, like the bowel or bladder, could be damaged (though this is less likely, especially if it’s your first C-section).
For people who have had a C-section delivery before, there’s an increased chance in subsequent pregnancy that there could be an issue with the placenta, where it implants over the cervix (called placenta previa) or over a previous uterine scar (called a placenta accreta).
Blood clots in the legs and other body parts are also something to be aware of. “Pregnancy is the condition with the highest risk of blood clots,” Davis says. “And surgery is an event that can increase that risk even more.”
Because of the potential for risks, the doctors will monitor you closely during and after the cesarean birth.
Know About Postpartum Care
To prepare for your C-section, it helps to know what to expect immediately after surgery and in the days and weeks to follow.
In the Hospital
After your baby is delivered, you may be given intravenous pain medication or other narcotics for pain relief, Ruiz says. You typically don’t get out of bed for the first eight to 12 hours after surgery.
After about 24 hours, you can transition to oral pain medicine (like acetaminophen and ibuprofen). You’ll likely be encouraged to get up and walk around.
An abdominal binder (a compression belt that goes around your abdomen) can take some stress out of moving, Ruiz says. A warm pack across the abdomen or lower back can also help soothe pain, says Davis, adding that it can be helpful to take a stool softener and gas medication to help move your bowels and prevent gas buildup.
The average hospital stay after a C-section is three nights. You can spend that time in your hospital gown if that's most comfortable. If you opt to wear your own clothing, be sure it’s loose-fitting and comfortable. “You don’t want to place a lot of pressure on the incision,” Davis says. You may also want to bring a breastfeeding pillow to help support and hold the baby, she adds.
Recovering at Home
Everybody is different, but it typically takes about six to eight weeks to heal from a C-section. Plan to have someone help you out at home, since you’ll need to avoid lifting anything heavier than your baby for at least two weeks, Ruiz says. He adds that you shouldn’t lift anything more than 10 to 15 pounds for six to eight weeks. That’s because increasing abdominal pressure can slow down the healing process.
It’s common to experience fatigue and some pain. C-section birthing parents typically experience soreness and tenderness in the abdominal area in particular for the first few weeks, says Erin Carroll-Manning, a newborn care specialist, parent educator, and founder of Gentle Giraffes, in Boston, which offers newborn care and family services.
Rest when you can. Avoid exerting yourself or straining your midsection, and try to keep everything in reach when caring for your baby. Some types of movement, like walking, can be healing, so try to get outside for a stroll.
Ideally, you don’t want to drive for the first two weeks. “If you’re in a car driving and you need to brake suddenly, incision pain may keep you from doing that effectively,” explains Ruiz. He adds that it’s also important to be off all narcotic pain medication before you start driving.
Fuel your body with healthy, nutrient-dense foods (including fiber to prevent constipation) and hydrate with plenty of water. “Whenever you eat a healthy diet, you’ll heal better,” Ruiz says. And a nutritious diet can help restore energy, too.
Depending on your doctor’s advice, you may wear a bandage over the incision for one to two days. Once the bandage has been removed, Davis suggests cleaning the area by letting warm, soapy water run over it and then patting the area dry. “This can help decrease the risk of infection,” she says.
It's also important not to submerge the incision for six weeks after the C-section, Davis says—that means no tub baths or swimming. However, she says, showering is allowed.
Watch your incision for signs of infection. Call your doctor if you have heavy bleeding, worsening pain or discomfort, fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, leaking discharge from the wound area, or swelling or redness.
Once the incision is healed, you may decide to begin treatment to reduce the scar’s size and appearance. Ruiz suggests starting to use Mederma cream six weeks after your C-section. You can also try vitamin E, Carroll-Manning says.
Remember: Reach Out If You Need Help
If you’re concerned or find yourself struggling, call your doctor. You can also visit Postpartum Support International for postpartum mental health resources.
If your incision (or anything else) is making chest/breastfeeding your baby challenging, get help from a lactation consultant. They can help get you comfortably positioned with your incision, Ruiz says.
Most importantly of all, be prepared to take things slow. As Manning says, “One may feel like they have lots of energy, but they need to be mindful that their body is recovering and take it easy.”
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