If you have your baby by a planned or emergency caesarean section, your recovery will be different, and generally take longer, compared to a vaginal birth.
Giving birth and the days that follow are daunting for any new mother. After a c-section birth, you’ll be recovering from abdominal surgery as well as looking after your new baby, so it’s important that you get the right pain relief and support both when you’re in hospital and during your first weeks at home.
How long does it take to recover?
Every woman is different, and how long it will take to recover from a caesarean section will depend on your own health and circumstances. While you’ll probably find that you’re in a lot less pain after a week or two, it may take many weeks, and in some cases months, for you to get back to normal activities like driving or exercise.
Some factors that may affect how quickly you recover are:
- If it’s your first or second c-section: When you have a second caesarean, the scar from your first section is opened up. The healing afterwards can be a bit more painful because of the scar tissue that’s there from the first time around.
- If you have a planned c-section: With an emergency caesarean, you have been through labour, possibly for days and with interventions. The c-section itself may also have been performed faster and under more stress than a planned section. All of this can mean it takes longer for you to feel better afterwards.
How long do I have to stay in hospital?
The average time on the postnatal ward is around three to four days, but you may be able to go home after about 48 hours as long as you’re feeling ok and your baby is feeding and doing well.
Make sure you’re as prepared as possible for your hospital stay with our c-section hospital bag checklist.
Pain relief after a c-section
Immediately after your c-section birth, hospital staff will help you out with the pain relief you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for more or a different kind of pain relief if you find you’re in a lot of discomfort – everyone’s experience of pain is different.
After a couple of days, most women find that they cope well with just over-the-counter pain relief. It can be a good idea to stock up on paracetamol and ibuprofen before the birth so you have it ready at home.
Previously, many women were prescribed co-codamol for the pain, but this is no longer recommended because in rare cases if can cause breathing issues for your baby if you’re breastfeeding.
“As soon as I was allowed to after the c-section I sort of shuffled round, it was really hard to walk but I managed to have a shower.” Read Sheila’s story
How long does the pain last?
A c-section is a major abdominal surgery and pain around your wound can last for several weeks, and in some cases months, as your body heals.
12 hours after your section, your catheter will be removed and you can start to move around. You may find this very painful at first, but the sooner you’re able to be active, the faster you’re likely to recover.
“The worst part about the c-section was the first walk to the bathroom. If you can get past that, you’re getting there.”
After the first week or two, you’ll probably find the pain a lot less acute and you may not need to use pain relief any more. However, it’s normal to experience some discomfort and tenderness for weeks or months, especially if you overstrain yourself or if your scar accidentally gets knocked or kicked by your baby.
If you’re experiencing more severe pain, or it lasts for longer than you think is normal, it can be a good idea to see your GP who can check that your wound is healing as expected and refer you for an investigation to rule out any internal issues.
Looking after your c-section wound
After surgery, your wound will be covered with a dressing which can be removed after 24 hours. Try to wear loose, comfortable clothes and cotton underwear to let the wound heal, and gently clean and dry the wound daily.
If you have stitches that need to be removed (many hospitals use dissolvable stitches instead), the midwife can do this when visiting you at home a few days after the birth. The midwife can also check that the wound is healing correctly and that there are no signs of infection.
At your six-week postnatal check-up, your GP will also check that your wound has healed as expected.
Your c-section scar
After your wound has healed, you’ll be left with a red scar on your stomach which will fade in time. In most cases, the scar will be low down on your stomach, under your bikini line.
Although you shouldn’t feel any pain from the scar in the future, it’s normal to lose some sensation around the scar area after a c-section.
Bleeding after a c-section
Just as after a vaginal delivery, you’ll experience afterpains and vaginal bleeding (lochia) following a c-section birth as your womb contracts back to its normal state. Use maternity pads, rather than tampons or a menstrual cup, to minimise the risk of infection.
Breastfeeding after a c-section
You can breastfeed straight away after your c-section – some women even start breastfeeding in the operating theatre. The drugs used when you have your section are all safe for breastfeeding.
As soon as you feel able to, ask your midwife to show you how to latch your baby to the breast. You’ll still have an IV port and a catheter and be unable to move your legs due to the anaesthetic, so your first breastfeed may feel quite unnatural. Don’t worry, it will get better and easier, for both you and your baby, soon.
After the anaesthetic wears off, you may find it painful to have your baby on top of you when breastfeeding. A lot of women find it easier to breastfeed lying on their sides or holding their baby under their arm (‘rugby hold’) as that doesn’t put any pressure on the wound.
Don’t be afraid to ask the midwives on the ward for help if you want to be shown different breastfeeding positions or feel you need help to get breastfeeding established.
You can find out how supportive of breastfeeding the hospital where you’re planning to give birth is by checking their ‘Baby Friendly’ status. Just search for your local hospital and have a look under the Breastfeeding accreditation.
“Having a c-section didn’t make establishing breastfeeding any more difficult for me. I had skin-to-skin contact straight away in theatre and my daughter latched on immediately. A breastfeeding pillow came in really handy on the postnatal ward.” Read Amanda’s story
Getting back to normal after a c-section
While you can carry your baby and do light activities as soon as you feel up to it after your caesarean, it’s recommended you avoid strenuous activity for six weeks following the operation, to give your body the chance to recover.
Driving after a c-section
You won’t be able to drive for a few weeks after your c-section, so take that into account when planning how you’ll get home from hospital after birth and if you need to get around in the early days. It’s also important to check with your car insurer to find out how soon you’ll be covered before you get behind the wheel.
Lifting (anything other than your baby)
It’s a good idea to stay away from heavy lifting for the first few weeks. This can be easier said than done, especially if you have an older child at home, so accept offers of help where possible. After the first month, if you experience pain during or after lifting something, take it as your body’s signal to slow down for a bit longer.
Exercise after a c-section
You’re fine to start going for short walks as soon as you feel able to, but it’s recommended that you wait at least 12 weeks before you start any more vigorous exercise to make sure you’re not putting too much strain on your scar. Even if you feel fine, you’re still healing on the inside.
“Take time to recover! I forced myself to do too much too soon after my c section, totally ignoring the fact that I had just had major abdominal surgery.”
As well as leaving a physical scar, birth can also have a deep psychological impact. Many women develop birth trauma, or even post-traumatic stress disorder, after their baby is born. This is especially common after a distressing birth experience – for example, if you felt that your or your baby’s safety was at risk at any point during the birth.
Read our page on birth trauma and other mental health problems after birth for further advice. You can also find information and support through these organisations:
- The Birth Trauma Association has peer support groups for people affected by birth trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
- Make Birth Better has a map of NHS and private practitioners who work with women and their partners after a difficult birth.
- PANDAS has a helpline and peer support groups for parents with antenatal and postnatal depression.
Giving birth after a c-section
Having had a c-section doesn’t mean you have to have a caesarean birth again if you have another baby. Vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC) is possible for about two thirds of women who try, but this rate varies depending on circumstances.
Our Birth Choice tool can show you the rates of vaginal birth after caesarean at your local units. Your doctor will also be able to help you understand your options based on your individual circumstances.
The main risk with having a VBAC is your uterus rupturing. Because of this, your midwife or consultant may advise you that it would be best for you to have your next baby on the labour ward where you can have continuous monitoring and quick access to medical help should you need it.
However, how high your risk of a uterine rupture depends on your own circumstances, so it’s worth having a talk with your midwife or doctor if you feel that you want to consider other maternity options when you have your next baby.
If you feel that you would prefer not to attempt a vaginal birth, most consultants give consent for an elective caesarean if you had a c-section the last time you gave birth.
If you’re pregnant and find you’re having problems getting your obstetrician to let you plan an elective c-section, read our page on how to negotiate your care for advice on who you can turn to.
More from Which?
- Thinking about requesting a c-section? We guide you through the pros and cons of having a c-section and explain how to arrange the birth you want.
- C-section hospital bag: Use our checklist to make sure you’re as prepared as possible for your planned c-section.
- Our top ten birth statistics can help you with decisions which will make it more likely that you get the birth you’re hoping for.