April is Caesarean Awareness Month and with 1-in-5 babies now being delivered by caesarean and three c-sections between us (Hannah has had two, I’ve had one) we wanted to share the tips and tricks we used to make the recovery period a little easier. It’s important to remember that a c-section is major abdominal surgery that takes a huge toll on mothers both physically and emotionally. Just as every c-section experience is different, every recovery will be too. Take yours day by day and be kind to yourself.
We’re starting with the obvious one. Easier said than done if your newborn is yet to grasp the concept of sleep or you’ve got other kids at home, but rest is essential for the healing process. As eye-roll-inducing as the old ‘sleep when the baby sleeps’ cliché is, try as much as you can to get some shut-eye. Or at least some time spent horizontal enjoying those delicious newborn cuddles.
Ask For Help
Whether it’s baby number one or baby number five, those early newborn days and weeks are exhausting. It takes a village and all that, so let partners, friends, family members and neighbours take a load off, whether that’s by watching the baby while you take a shower or dropping off a lasagne on the doorstep so you don’t have to think about dinner. Reach out – everyone wants to help.
Like, really breathe. Pregnancy – especially the third trimester – compresses your diaphragm and lungs, making it harder to take a proper inhale and exhale. Diaphragmatic breathing is a key part of postnatal recovery, and always my starting point with new mum PT clients. Allowing you to connect with your deep core and pelvic floor (more on that later), it also stimulates your parasympathetic nervous system (aka rest and digest mode), which is essential for those early days when it all just feels very overwhelming. Here’s how to do it:
- Sit comfortably, and place one hand on your chest and one on your belly.
- Imagine your diaphragm muscle moving up and down as you breathe.
- When you inhale, allow your belly to expand – you should feel your ribs expanding at the front, back and sides – as your lungs fill with air, and your diaphragm moves down to accommodate your full lungs.
- When you exhale, feel your belly contract as your diaphragm moves upward.
Support Your Scar
Laughing, sneezing and coughing can be seriously painful post-c-section – I vividly remember begging my dad to stop making me laugh in hospital as I could hardly bear it. Holding a towel, blanket or cushion over your scar and applying gentle pressure can help. When it comes to sleeping, pillows are your friend. Popping one under your knees if you sleep on your back or under your tummy if you sleep on your side can help prevent any uncomfortable dragging on the scar.
Don’t Put Off a Poo
Thanks to the anaesthetic used during surgery and the post-op pain meds, c-section constipation is real. Because the last thing you need is added pain from trapped wind, try and keep as mobile as you can within your pain limits, sip peppermint tea and pack in fibre-rich foods like fruit, veg and whole grains. And when you need to go, GO.
Avoid Lifting Anything (Too) Heavy
This is a tricky one if you have another child at home – especially a young one who still wants or needs to be carried – but general advice states not to lift anything heavier than your baby for the first six weeks. Get help with things like car seats as much as you can and stick to online food shops for a while. If you absolutely need to lift something on the heavy side, use your breath to help you by exhaling on the effort (the lift) to avoid creating too much intra-abdominal pressure.
Reconnect With Your Pelvic Floor
It’s a common misconception that your pelvic floor escapes unscathed if you give birth via c-section, but that’s not true. Sorry! You’ve still spent 9 months carrying a baby, which puts huge pressure on these vital muscles, and if you laboured before your operation, that will have had an impact too. Women’s health physio Clare Bourne says you can start pelvic floor engagement as soon as your catheter is out and you’ve done your first wee. I highly recommend the Squeezy app for daily reminders and a how-to guide.
I know I just said rest, but mobilisation is another really important part of the healing process, helping to manage swelling, how your scar tissue lays down and manage pain. If you have your baby in the morning, Clare suggests trying a short walk that afternoon. When it comes to longer walks, it’s a case of baby steps (pun intended). “For the first week or so pottering around the house is often enough,’ says Clare, ‘if you want to venture out aim for a short lap around the block. Remember, if you are taking painkillers and anti-inflammatories they might mask some symptoms. Try not to wait until you feel better and head out for a longer walk though because often you may feel more pain later. Slow and steady really does win the race.”
Try Some Home Life Hacks
Little adjustments to your daily movements can make a big difference when you’re recovering from a c-section. Get out of bed by rolling onto your side and pushing yourself up with your arms like you might have done during pregnancy. Walking up the stairs can be painful, so keep everything you need – wipes, changing mat, nappies etc – close by to avoid too many trips. When you do walk up stairs, use a handrail if you have one and take it nice and slow.
Massage Your Scar
Chances are your midwife, obstetrician or healthcare team won’t tell you about this one. C-section scar massage is something I only found out about after seeing a women’s health physio post-birth and now tell all my c-section PT clients to look into. If the thought of even touching your scar, let alone massaging it, makes you shudder, I hear you but trust me, it’s worth it and doesn’t feel so icky once you’ve done it a few times. “Scar massage can help with sensation, reconnection, swelling around the scar and might improve the appearance of overhang,” says Clare, who has recorded a brilliant video for Nessa Organics’ Insta showing you how to to get started. “It is important to say that sometimes touching a scar can bring up emotions or bring back memories and flashbacks, especially if it was an emergency caesarean and a traumatic experience for you. If this happens please do reach out for help.”
Here, Clare makes the case for massaging your scar:
- Sensation & numbness: nerves are damaged during surgery leaving numbness. Touching the skin and scar, including using different textures can help sensation return.
- Manage swelling: sometimes you find there is a pocket of swelling above the scar. Gentle massage of this area can help.
- Reduce muscle restriction: scars restrict connective tissue which can then restrict surrounding muscles. So improving the mobility of the scar and surrounding connective tissue helps muscle function, including diastasis recti (abdominal separation) rehab.
- Reduce tugging: it is normal to feel tugging and tightness in the scar but massage helps this feeling.
- Help overhang: when a scar is tight it can increase the look of overhang, massage won’t necessarily remove this, but it can help to reduce the appearance.
- Reconnect with your body: lots of women I meet don’t like the idea of touching their scar, especially after emergency surgery, so massaging can help you to reconnect with your body.
Process Your Emotions
Whether it was elective or emergency, traumatic or fairly straightforward, there can be a lot of emotion caught up in the c-section experience, especially if it wasn’t the birth you had hoped for. For a long time after my caesarean, I would caveat my birth story with “I know I didn’t really give birth but…”, therefore invalidating my experience and making myself feel worse.
That’s the issue with using the term “natural birth” to describe a vaginal delivery – it makes a c-section feel the opposite of that and can make mothers who delivered via caesarean feel like they somehow failed. You absolutely did not fail, and every birth is valid. If you’re feeling affected by your c-section experience, try writing your birth story in a journal – my friend bought me this gorgeous one – speaking to friends, family or a professional or asking your healthcare team about booking in for a birth reflections chat.