Bright lights, strange-sounding medical machinery, scrubbed and masked doctors, and the fast pace of a sterile operating room tend to make even the calmest parents-to-be a little nervous, which is what happens when you add the phrase “Cesarean section” to the birthing scenario. But C-sections aren’t always as scary as they sound, especially if you know what to expect.
Samantha Marris remembers the difference in her personal experiences delivering her two sons, both via Cesarean. “With my first, I underwent an emergency C-section,” she recalls. “That was honestly a horrible time, because I didn’t know what was going on.” But with Marris’ second son, “Things went great! I had the ability to plan my delivery date, which was exciting. And armed with a schedule, I felt really calm and ready for the birth.”
Gaining a basic understanding of the procedures that will occur before, during, and after surgery can help you alleviate any undue stress surrounding your baby’s birth. Here is a step-by-step outline of what to expect from and how to prepare for your own Cesarean birth experience.
Packing for Your Hospital Stay
While most women stay in the hospital for one to two days after a vaginal delivery, those who deliver by C-section usually stay for three to five days, and occasionally longer. Be sure to pack a bag with enough comfortable clothes for your hospital stay (pack shirts and tops that have zip or buttoned fronts if you plan to try breastfeeding). Look for soft clothes with loose elastic or adjustable waistbands, warm socks, and even a couple of zippered sweatshirts or cardigan sweaters for those cool hospital rooms. Also include toiletries such as toothpaste and toothbrush, lotion, brush, makeup, and soap.
After a C-section, chances are you’ll feel exhausted, sore, and emotional. A nice-smelling bath soap, your favorite lip gloss, brand new slippers, or extra special hand cream can provide just the pick-me-up you may need while recovering from your surgery.
Preparing for Surgery
Though hospital procedures may vary, there are general steps that most will follow when it comes to preoperative procedures. Before your operation day, you’ll probably have lab work, including blood and urine tests, to check for diabetes and other medical issues. You’ll meet with an anesthetist to discuss your options for anesthesia. You’ll also be reminded to refrain from eating or drinking for eight to 12 hours before your surgery.
Checking into the Hospital
Once you’ve arrived at the hospital, you’ll check in and be shown to your room, where you’ll change into a hospital gown. After you’ve undergone a physical assessment (which includes checking vital signs and reviewing your medical history), you’ll be started on an IV. Your abdomen will be shaved down to the pubic hair and you may be administered an enema. A nurse and an anesthetist will visit with you to review your birth plans, and you will sign a number of consent forms.
When the time comes, a nurse will bring you and your partner to the birthing room. Your partner may or may not be allowed to sit at your side during your operation (this varies from hospital to hospital). If you are able to have your partner present, he will be given hospital scrubs to wear during your surgery. During the operation, it is likely that your partner will be prohibited from videotaping, although still photos may be allowed.
After an anesthetic is administered, you will lie down on an operating table and a catheter will be inserted to drain urine during your C-section and until you can attend to your own bathroom needs. Your doctor or attending nurse will then set up a curtain above your chest to separate you from your surgical team (giving you both some privacy during your operation). Your arms may be secured to keep you from accidentally reaching into the sterile surgical area.
If you have chosen regional anesthesia, the method generally preferred by doctors and hospitals, you’ll be awake during the operation. You won’t feel pain, but if you’ve had an epidural, you will probably feel pressure and pulling throughout the procedure. You should be able to talk to your partner and your doctor during the procedure.
After giving birth, you’ll be allowed to see your baby before your doctor takes her to be tested, measured, and weighed. Your partner may be able to go with your newborn at this time while your surgical team finishes caring for you. For many new moms, this alone time can be hard; be sure to speak with your doctor or attending nurse to see if you can have another support person visit with you at this time, of if your spouse can return to the surgery room while your doctor closes your incision.
The Recovery Room
Soon, your anesthesia will begin to wear off and you’ll start to feel sensation returning to your toes. Women are usually moved from the surgery room to a recovery room (not yet your hospital room) at this time so a nurse can tend to you as your anesthesia wears off. As the effects of the anesthesia wane, you may begin to start feeling discomfort around your incision. Medication can be administered to manage this pain, so don’t be afraid to ask your nurse for information on pain-relief options. Generally, once you can wiggle your toes, a nurse will allow your spouse to visit with you and may allow you to hold and/or nurse your newborn.
For many years, mothers have complained that they were unable to breastfeed immediately after delivering via C-section. In years past, newborns were sometimes given bottles before being introduced to the breast, which left mothers feeling they were denied that first bonding moment. (Once the baby is out of her alert phase, she may become uninterested in nursing, which makes getting started that much more difficult.)
Today, many hospitals accommodate the requests of new mothers to nurse as soon as possible (often once moved to the recovery room). Talking to your healthcare provider and learning the hospital’s standard procedures will enable you to bond with your baby as soon as possible. Additionally, don’t be afraid to ask your nurse for help in finding the optimal position for nursing after a C-section.
Guests on Your Baby’s Birthday
Sometimes women become groggy and nauseated after a Cesarean operation, often due to effects of the anesthesia, so it may be a good idea to limit visitors on the day of your procedure. Instead, plan on having guests come to see you and the baby on day two or later to give yourself the time you need to begin recovering from the surgery.
Within 24 hours of the delivery, your catheter and IV will be removed and you’ll be helped out of bed so you can walk and move around. This is vital to get your circulation going and decrease your risk of blood clots. Though it will be difficult initially, standing and walking will actually help you to heal more rapidly. Depending on your rate of recovery, your nurse may also allow you to take a shower (with a “chaperone”) once you are able to move around and if your incision is healing properly.
You may find yourself hungry once you start moving around again, but the hospital will likely have you on a bland diet with easy-to-digest foods in the beginning of your recovery. As you begin eating solid foods, go slowly and don’t be surprised if you have some gas. Your nurse will likely even ask you if you have passed gas during your stay, a sign that your intestines are functioning well.
Expect the Unexpected
Though the ability to plan your baby’s birthday is a bonus, remember that there’s always room for a surprise. Jules Olson was shocked when she felt labor pains two days before her scheduled Cesarean. “My husband and I had planned for our daughter Rebecca to be delivered on February 7,” she laughs, “but she had other plans.” Jules delivered her daughter in an emergency operation, and although she knew what to expect, there were some glitches in their birth plan. Jules’ regular OB-GYN was out of town, and her husband wasn’t allowed to accompany her through the procedure as planned. Still, she says that she felt prepared for the operation and was able to enjoy her daughter’s birth.
It’s not uncommon for women who deliver via Cesarean to feel guilty about the procedure, even those with planned operations. Lisa Gables remembers the overwhelming sadness that she felt when people asked if she had delivered naturally. “I don’t know if it was postpartum depression, or if it was the operation, but I had such a hard time with the Cesarean,” she admits. “The funny thing is, I was initially looking forward to the procedure, because I knew I wouldn’t have to go through a long ordeal like friends of mine did with their labors. But afterward, I felt like a total failure for not being able to have my baby ‘the normal way.’”
There’s no cure or magical advice for these feelings; with time, they tend to abate, and most women lose those pangs of guilt. “The thing I’m most proud of now is that my baby is healthy,” says Lisa. “That takes precedence over the way she was born!”
Though planned Cesareans aren’t foolproof, it can be reassuring to know that, for the most part, you have the ability to prepare for one of the most exciting events in your life. Armed with knowledge, many mothers find that delivering via C-section is less stressful than they expected. With a good birth plan and open communication between your doctor and your birthing team, you’ll be able to fully enjoy the birth of your child.