Cesarean Section: What to Expect & C-Section Prep Tips

Getting a C-Section: What to Expect & Prep Tips

Unsure about what to expect from a cesarean section? Even if you don't plan on having one, it can be good to know what the procedure entails and what recovery is like. If you have a scheduled C-section, these tips can help you be prepared for the big day!

In This Article

What is a cesarean section? | C-section prep tips: What to pack for a C-section | C-section recovery tips | C-section recovery: What to expect | C-section births are "real births"

A cesarean section (often shortened to "C-section") can sometimes feel like a scary prospect, especially if you don’t know what to expect. However, it’s important to remember that this procedure is relatively safe. It can sometimes be medically necessary for the health and safety of both mom and baby. There’s truth to the saying that "forewarned is forearmed," so it’s beneficial to learn a little bit about this surgery—even if your doctor is fairly certain you won't need one.

It's also a good idea to share this info with your partner and even family members, as knowing what this scenario typically looks like and what recovery entails can prepare them to support and care for you during and after birth.

What is a cesarean section?

A cesarean section is when the infant is delivered through an incision in the abdominal wall and uterus, rather than vaginally. C-sections are typically done for emergency medical reasons, for example if either the baby or mom-to-be are showing signs of undue distress during labor, or if the baby is breech (coming out legs or bottom first instead of head-first).

There are also medical reasons that a cesarean section might be scheduled ahead of time. Chronic health issues like diabetes or high blood pressure can lead your doctor to schedule a C-section. Other reasons your doctor might recommend a C-section include if there are multiple babies, or if the mom-to-be has had a C-section with a previous pregnancy.

Generally, though, doctors recommend vaginal birth for low-risk pregnancies. The World Health Organization concurs with global medical professionals that cesarean section rates should stay close to 10%, and only occur when they’re medically necessary and improve patient outcomes. When C-section rates climb above this (for example, in the US it's around 30%), mother and infant mortality rates tend to be negatively affected. Although it might be tempting to skip labor and vaginal delivery by scheduling a C-section out of preference, it really is best for both you and your baby to wait until your doctor has deemed a C-section medically necessary. Ultimately, your and your baby’s safety is the top concern!

Cesarean prep tips: What to pack for a C-section

If you know that you'll be having a cesarean section, there are a few extra things you might want to pack in your hospital bag. Beyond these cesarean-specific tips, refer to this birth packing checklist for overall hospital bag tips. The checklist also includes reminders for what your birth partner should pack for their comfort, which many people forget about or don’t consider.

Here's what to pack your C-section hospital bag:

  • First off, pack for staying a few days at the hospital, rather than the roughly two-day stay a vaginal birth would typically entail.
  • Pack comfortable, loose clothing that won't rub your C-section stitches.
    • This includes a nightgown, as you will have a catheter after the surgery, and you won't be able to wear pajama bottoms.
    • Make sure your post-partum underwear and pants, if you choose to wear them, are soft and come up to your waist so they won't rub your stitches. We won’t tell anyone if you choose to go commando, though.
    • Pack front button or loose tops to give you easy access for breastfeeding.
    • A good "leaving the hospital" outfit might be a maxi dress, especially if it's also designed for nursing, or a long, soft skirt. These won't press on your C-section stitches and will help hide the snazzy compression socks you'll be wearing.
  • Pack enough maternity pads, wet wipes and other post-partum kit items for a several-day stay.
  • Ask ahead of time about what might help relieve trapped gas. It might take several days after your surgery for your bowels to start working normally, and trapped gas can be uncomfortable. There might be some easy remedies like peppermint tea.
  • An often-forgotten tip: pack a long cell phone cord! Having your phone will keep you feeling connected, ensure you have enough battery to snap pictures for those first special moments with baby, and is a great distraction while you recover. Be sure to keep an eye on where you can and can’t use internet, as they’re not permitted near some sensitive medical devices. Generally, you can keep your phone on airplane mode in those locations though.
  • You can also pack some books or magazines to keep you entertained during your stay.

You won't be allowed to wear contacts, makeup or jewelry in the operating room, except for one plain ring, which staff will tape over (so if you don't want residue, maybe leave it at home). Many future mamas ask if they should shave or wax their bikini area before a C-section. It's up to you, and there’s no need to worry about what doctors and nurses think, because they won't judge you either way. However, some people find that the wound dressings are very sticky, so you might feel a little more comfortable removing or changing it if the hair is trimmed short or removed altogether. When all is said and done, it’s up to you and what makes you feel comfortable.

Your doctor will be able to fill you in on the surgery requirements (for example, you won't be able to eat or drink for several hours beforehand). Be sure to ask lots of questions about what to expect of the C-section and what the hospital's standard procedures are like. It may be good to bring a notepad to remember both your questions you want to ask, and the doctor’s answers.

C-section recovery tips

Cesareans have become so common that sometimes people treat them a little cavalierly. Make sure your partner and family, or whoever will be around you after you return home, understand that you are recovering from major surgery. No matter what kind of birth you have, you will need time to recover physically and emotionally, especially as you also adjust to caring for and feeding your newborn.

You will need to recuperate, so you should not plan to return to doing household chores for several weeks (that’s definitely one silver lining!) Make a plan for who can come help with these duties if your partner won't be available, as having a clean home provides peace of mind. Also spend time before baby arrives explaining to any older children that you won't be able to pick them up or play on the floor with them for a while, and that the newborn will take a lot of your attention for some time.

C-section recovery: What to expect

  • Pain: Be sure to take the pain medication your doctor prescribed on time. You will be able to heal more effectively if you have some relief from the pain.
    • Tip: Consider an abdominal binder to help support your core as it heals
    • Tip: Ice packs might help with the pain
  • Water retention: You'll receive a lot of IV fluids in the hospital so being puffy for a few days is completely normal.
  • Soreness or numbness: Both are typical around the incision wound.
  • Some swelling: Swelling around the wound is normal as it heals.
  • Hormonal mood swings: No matter how you give birth, your body will go through a lot of rapid changes, and these hormones can affect your mood. If you had an emergency C-section, you might have a lot of lingering feelings of fear and uncertainty, or you might be grieving the fact that you didn't get the birth experience you were hoping for. This is okay and these feelings are very common. It may be helpful to get support from understanding friends and loved ones, or journal to get these thoughts on paper. If the feelings won't let up, talk to your doctor about them at your follow up visit.

Another important reminder: be sure to watch out for signs of infection. If your wound has continued or increased redness and swelling after a few days, feels hot to the touch, is seeping, or if you feel fever/chills, call your doctor right away.

Although you shouldn't be driving or doing any heavy lifting, standing and walking around your house will help your body heal. Listen to your body and don't push yourself too far, but do take the recommended pain meds, as they will help you move with less discomfort.

C-section births are "real births"

Some insensitive people might say that only vaginal births are the "real deal." This is nonsense, and not just because a cesarean is no walk in the park. Birth is birth. Do your best to ignore those unsupportive people and focus on the amazing accomplishment that you brought a little baby into this world! Remember that both your body and mind need time to rest and recover from this kind of birth, just as it would from a vaginal birth.

If you know you're going to have a C-section, or if you had an unscheduled one already, consider looking for support groups online or in person. It can help to talk to other people with shared experiences. On top of connecting with other mamas (or future mamas), many women report that the more they learn about labor and delivery, the less anxiety and uncertainty they feel. To help prepare, many expecting mothers take hospital tours to get a lay of the land. And since support is paramount for all births, learning who should be with you on the big day can help put your mind at ease.