As a mom who has experienced both a vaginal delivery and a C-section delivery, I like to think I have the right to comment on what those experiences are like (IMHO, there’s nothing worse than a mom who tells you not to do something she’s never done herself). And for what it’s worth, both births were tough — in very different ways. My son was born after a lengthy induced labor. I had nitrous oxide, and it was excruciatingly painful. The recovery was fairly straightforward apart from the fact that I had to go back into the hospital six months later for a “repair job” (yep, they hadn’t stitched me back together properly. And 10 years later, I still squirm when I think about that).
None of this put me off going through it all again, though, and when my son was 2 years old, my daughter was born. This time, it was a C-section. I had her in my arms less than half an hour after they made the first cut. The recovery was harder, as you’d expect after major abdominal surgery. (Naturally, it would have been easier if I hadn’t had a toddler to look after too). But I took good care of myself, and I was driving again after six weeks — and back in my running shoes before my daughter was 6 months old.
To me, all that mattered was that my babies were healthy. So I was a little taken aback by some people’s attitudes toward C-section births. It was almost as if they felt sorry for me, that I’d missed out on a “real” birth experience because my baby came out of my belly and not through my vagina.
If you’re pregnant, it’s important to cast aside the myths and misconceptions about C-sections and know the truth — and not just because the C-section rate in the United States is quite high. (According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31.9 percent of all U.S. deliveries are by C-section.)
A C-section might be performed for many reasons, Dr. Lisa Valle, OB-GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells SheKnows. Common reasons include carrying multiple babies, breech presentation, fetal heart rate abnormalities during labor and lack of progression of labor, either due to lack of further dilation or movement of the baby’s head despite an effort to push for several hours. A person may choose to decline a trial of labor after a history of prior C-section and may also elect to have a C-section for another reason.
A person’s “obstetrician or midwife should have an extensive discussion regarding the risks of a C-section versus the risks of labor and vaginal delivery so that they can make a fully informed decision,” said Valle, adding that the “physician or midwife should also inquire about the reasonings for an elective C-section and address [those] concerns directly.”
The main risks of a C-section, Valle explains, are to the person who’s pregnant: blood clots, hemorrhaging, an adverse reaction to the anesthesia, infection, surgical injury to the bladder or intestines, inflammation of the uterus, bleeding and amniotic fluid embolism (where amniotic fluid or fetal material enters the bloodstream of the person giving birth). The risks to the baby are far fewer, the most common being the likelihood of developing breathing issues (particularly if the C-section is performed before 39 weeks) because labor helps remove fluid from the baby’s lungs.
Whether you have a planned C-section or an emergency one (performed after labor has begun), the procedure is the same. “An IV is placed, intravenous fluids are administered and the anesthesiologist will discuss anesthesia options with the patient,” says Valle. She adds that most patients “receive a spinal anesthetic during a C-section so they are alert and awake but [do] not feel pain.”
Keep in mind that a C-section is a relatively short procedure, usually lasting no more than 45 minutes. “After the baby is born and determined to be stable, the hospital might allow skin-to-skin time between [the delivering parent] and baby while the obstetrician is completing the surgery,” says Valle. Both are then sent to the recovery room where they’ll both be carefully monitored for complications for a few hours. Then they’ll be moved to the postpartum room, where the person who had the C-section “will typically spend four to five days recovering before going home.” (On the other hand, a person is typically sent home 24 to 48 hours after a vaginal delivery assuming there are no complications.)
For most people, the recovery is the main difference between a C-section delivery and a vaginal delivery. “A C-section recovery typically requires more pain control via a combination of narcotics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories,” explains Valle, who also says the patient will initially “need assistance with walking and going to the restroom.” Valle also says that if they experience nausea, they “might be restricted to a clear liquid diet until it resolves. A vaginal delivery recovery is typically much faster, with no problems walking or eating regular food.”
I was prepared for my C-section delivery, but I was still surprised by a couple of things that happened after it. Even though I didn’t deliver vaginally, I still bled for several days. This is a combination of mucus, tissue and blood shed after birth as your womb replaces its lining and entirely unrelated to the surgery. It took a few days for me to have a bowel movement (and it wasn’t pleasant when it finally happened).
Everyone’s birth experience is different, but for me, much of what I’d been told or had read about C-sections wasn’t my reality. Breastfeeding after a C-section was no harder than it was after a vaginal delivery, although it can be because it may be uncomfortable to have your baby lay near your incision. And it certainly didn’t take me longer to bond with my C-section baby than it had with the baby I delivered vaginally.
Here’s the truth: A C-section delivery comes with more risks and a longer recovery time. It’s important to discuss these at length with your doctor or midwife so you have all the facts. But don’t stress if you end up having a C-section; giving birth deserves a badge of honor, no matter how it happened.