Since 1965, when national C-section rates were first measured, the number of C-sections in the U.S. steadily climbed, peaking in 2009 at 32.9 percent after increasing every year since 1996. However, recent C-section rates declined for four straight years starting in 2012, with 2016 showing the all-time lowest (31.9 percent) C-section rates — down from 32 percent in 2015.
Although the rates are still declining, they're still well above the national target set by the Department of Health and Human Services: 23.9 percent. That said, it's almost certain someone you know (or maybe you) will have a cesarean delivery — the total number of cesarean deliveries in 2016 was 1,258,581, after all.
Of course, as with any other part of the birthing process, C-sections can come with complications and difficulties — and plenty of women have had negative C-section experiences. However, plenty of others have said that they loved the experience. Many hospitals are even implementing new C-section protocols — such as gentle C-section, which promotes more skin-to-skin contact — to make the transition after birth easier on both the mother and the baby.
One thing’s for sure: The C-section debate isn’t going to quiet down anytime soon, and until then, women will still be getting C-sections every day. So, what’s a mom to do when she gets home with a new baby and a big wound that needs to heal? That’s where most new mothers find themselves between a surgical rock and a hard place. It’s during these challenging first few days (and weeks) that it’s critical to focus on C-section recovery to make sure the surgical incision heals completely. If you're in the same boat, here's how to deal.
Recovering from surgery as a new mom while getting used to a new baby is no time for humility. On the contrary: It's the perfect time to run up a white flag, rest a little more in bed and finally let other members of your family do something for you.
The first step, says Marjorie Nass, cofounder and chief wellness officer at Ready Set Recover, is to "acknowledge you've not only had a baby — you've also had surgery, and your body needs time to recover." She also offers advice for making help happen. "When people ask what they can do to help, thank them. Be specific by making a list of what you'll need, and share it with those who've offered to help. People love to assist new mothers, and in many ways, when you allow others to help you, you're actually helping them."
As the old saying goes, change comes from within, and C-section recovery also starts from the inside. Eating nourishing foods is the best thing you can do for your body after having a baby — and could even make recovery easier following a major surgery. Dr. Carolyn Dean, health, nutrition and prenatal and postnatal care expert, recommends a nutrient-rich diet for C-section moms that is high in magnesium. Dean explains that over 75 percent of women do not get their recommended daily allowance of this important mineral, which has anti-stress properties and can aid in the digestion of proteins, carbohydrates and fats while supporting recovery and more restful sleep. Dean says eating more magnesium-rich foods, like leafy greens, nuts, seeds and avocado, and taking a magnesium supplement can help.
Draion “Dr. Drai” Burch, an OB-GYN who specializes in women's health and transgender health, advises to start slow and work up to this healthier diet, especially following surgery. "Take it easy on the food — start with ice chips, then liquid diet and then regular food," he says.
Attending to your C-section scar may not be the first thing on your mind right after having a baby, but Dr. Jill Waibel, scar expert and owner of the Miami Dermatology and Laser Institute, says that paying attention to this delicate area immediately post-operation can help to improve scar appearance and skin recovery. "One tip to reduce scarring immediately after surgery is to start with compressions, such as wearing Spanx or Steri-Strips, which will prevent worsening of the scar formation," says Waibel. "Verify with your OB-GYN that this will not interfere with anything or cause further medical concerns. It is also important to keep the area covered to avoid infection. Excellent post-operative care after surgery is critical and will help prevent severe hypertrophic scar formation."
Once your doc has given you the go-ahead to start moving after surgery, staying active is key to supporting your recovering body. Dean advises waiting for any medications to wear off so you can feel your body before you start walking regularly, building up your strength and distance gradually. She cautions, "Don't do any lifting, including the baby, if at all possible."
Dr. Drai agrees that heavy lifting, bending at the waist and lifting above the head are totally off-limits during recovery. He also recommends starting slow. "Try to get out of the bed the first night after your C-section. Once the urinary catheter comes out, you're free to walk, so stretch your legs!"
If you can’t lift your own baby after a C-section, then what can you do? For those mamas looking for C-section-specific recovery exercises to get them back on their feet faster, Colleen Flaherty, certified strength and conditioning specialist at the Baby Bump Academy, knows just the trick.
"The first thing women can do as soon as they get home is bracing," she says. "This means pulling the belly button into the spine for five seconds and [then] relaxing. Bracing can be performed as much as possible wherever, standing, [lying] or sitting. When you brace properly, you continue to breathe normally and even feel it tighten in the lower back."
It may be your natural urge to pop up in bed when you hear your new baby squawking in the night, but try to resist if you can. "Women should avoid sitting up — in bed, off the ground — at all costs, as the internal pressure it too great on the incision," says Flaherty. "Instead, roll to one side, and push yourself upright with your arms. When sneezing or laughing, make sure to brace [explained above] to keep the core safe. The last thing is to squat properly instead of bending over all the time. Bending over puts a crazy amount of pressure on the lower back, which wraps around to the front, which is weak from the incision."
If the stress starts to get the best of you and you feel like you’re totally mucking it up as a mom (and as a surgical patient), take a beat and take a few deep breaths. Nass recommends practicing deep-belly breathing each day to relax both you and your baby during feedings. "Be kind to yourself," she urges.
It helps to remember that C-section recovery can take time. Dr. Drai estimates typical recovery at six to eight weeks, while Flaherty believes it may take up to a year before a woman feels herself again. Although, Flaherty says performing the right exercises (and taking care of yourself) can be a big help to speed the recovery process along.
A version of this article was originally published in June 2009.
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