What the First 6 Weeks After a C-Section Are Really Like

No one understands having a C-section quite like another mama who's been through it herself. C-section moms have walked (hunched over, 12 hours after surgery!) in the same shoes. They've experienced the pain, struggles, and surprises that come with recovering from surgery while caring for a newborn. And they know it can be a long journey that is as much mental as it is physical. Here's what you can expect in the weeks after your baby arrives via C-section, from medical professionals and a mom (me!) who's been through it three times.

Week One
Burst | Nicole De Khors

Week One

The first few days after surgery are some of the toughest. According to Dr. Cheryl Levitt, professor of family medicine at McMaster University, the "early days are most likely to cause postpartum surgical-related symptoms such as dizziness when standing up, urinary discomfort from the catheter, constipation, painful incision, and spiking a fever that might indicate infection of the wound."

Luckily, you'll be in the hospital under constant monitoring for a few days while you get used to your wound and come to terms with the recovery ahead, which starts shortly after you're wheeled out of the operating room.

About 12 to 24 hours postop, you can expect to be sitting up or even walking, and once your catheter is removed, you'll have no choice but to! It's a scary thing to attempt when you aren't sure if your abs (or "abs" in their current state) will actually support you. But, they do — even if you are hunched over like a gargoyle and need to lie back down immediately after. You'll never be more thankful for the IV narcotics.

In addition to pain and swelling around your incision and feeling all the emotions (you did just have a baby, after all), your entire body is tired. As in, even a four-foot walk to the bathroom wipes you out. Take it easy and take advantage of the help while you have it, because after three or four nights, you'll be heading home.

This is also around the time that your body is moving into a new phase of healing called proliferation, which is a "key step during wound healing," according to the Journal of Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences. Meaning, your body is working hard to create new tissue and restore the network of blood vessels that were severed during surgery, so let it do its thing!

Of course, resting is easier said than done, especially when you're back at home and no longer have nurses on call or an adjustable hospital bed. Dr. Levitt suggests trying to "get help and support at home for the first few weeks" and having all your "baby-change items in an easily accessible place" so you don't have to move around more than necessary. I set up all my necessities in a basket on my bedside table to avoid the uncomfortable and often painful task of sitting up and getting out of bed as much as possible.

Week Two
Unsplash | Josh Blanton

Week Two

Once you've been home for a few days, you might be a little antsy to get out of the house or feel pressure to get back into the swing of things with your other children, pets, or housework. But Dr. Levitt warns against overexerting yourself: "You need to avoid doing heavy housework (e.g. vacuuming, laundry, cleaning floors), lifting children other than your baby (and even then, do it carefully), or exert[ing] yourself too much by climbing stairs repeatedly." It's all about promoting wound healing, and pushing yourself too hard could result in infection or prolonged recovery time.

So if you didn't get enough fresh air from visiting the doctor for your two-week incision check or taking your baby to the pediatrician, try venturing out to your front yard or maybe just moving from your bed to the couch. Even a small change of scenery will help distract you from the fact that, if you're like me, you have Neosporin on your nipples, a swollen stomach, and faded Sharpie markings still outlining your incision.

Emotionally, you'll probably be hitting some walls as your hormones adjust. And if you're breastfeeding, you might be dealing with latching issues, engorgement, and nipple pain. But don't worry — you'll only remember the highlights (i.e. adorable newborn!), as those miracle hormones do their work to help you forget the rough parts later down the road.

Week Three
Unsplash | Aditya Romansa

Week Three

Your incision will still be tender, and walking long distances might force you back onto the couch at the end of the day, but you'll be surprised at how good you feel and how able you are just weeks after a serious operation.

Depending on your pain levels, you'll probably only need small amounts of Ibuprofen (if anything) to be comfortable, which means that the narcotics fog has finally worn off. Having a clearer head can help you see the light at the end of the recovery tunnel now that you're halfway to the six-week mark, but again (are you noticing a theme here?), you don't want to overdo it.

"If you don't rest and recover during the first six weeks, you might have a longer recovery — more chance of wound infection, weeping, or even opening," says Dr. Levitt. Plus, heavy lifting (and most likely driving) is still off limits. "Heavy lifting causes the abdominal muscles to contract hard to hold in the intestine and other organs . . . [and] may cause the sutures to tear a bit . . . [and] also undermine the granulation tissue healing process. The incision could open."

All these precautions are crucial to your physical recovery but can weigh on you mentally as well. For me, physically feeling better but still being limited was a frustrating mind game that required constant reminders from family, friends, my doctor, and my midwife to slow down. This is why it's key to have support in place not only to help with everyday tasks, but also to guide you through the roller coaster that is the recovery process.

Week Four
Pexels | Oleksandr Pidvalnyi

Week Four

If you're lucky, you'll be cleared by your doctor to start driving again (freedom!), but you still want to avoid lugging around that heavy car seat. Instead, keep the infant carrier in the car and take your baby in and out, rather than carrying both together.

But just because you can leave the house without a chaperone doesn't mean you should be fully back into the swing of things. Use your recovery as an excuse to have someone continue doing your laundry for a few more weeks — lifting a basket of clothes and even bending over repeatedly will aggravate your wound just as you've entered yet another phase of healing.

The remodeling phase can start as early as 21 days after surgery and continue on for months — and is more important than ever if you're worried about what your scar will look like. According to the Journal of Korean Medical Science, "The remodeling phase is the most responsible for . . . variations in scar qualities. A healing incisional wound can become an unsightly scar during this period." So, when you're itching to feel like a "normal" person again, let your vanity give you yet another reason to rest.

Week Five
Burst | Christian Mackie

Week Five

You are this close to your six-week postpartum doctor appointment, which many moms look to as the end point in their recovery. But with a C-section, you're not on your last lap yet. You still shouldn't be lifting heavy objects, could continue to be restricted from driving (depending on your doctor's recommendation), and could pay for increased activity with soreness at the end of the day.

Dr. Levitt's advice? "Take it easy. That's the best way to get back into the swing of things." She reminds us that "most mothers are generally exhausted just looking after the newborn," never mind healing from major abdominal surgery.

So, even though you can do certain things, you should still be sitting down more than you normally would and relinquishing control of your household, pets, or older children to helpful family and friends . . . and accepting any and all food offers.

Week Six
Pexels | Daria Shevtsova

Week Six

Physically, you'll probably be feeling better than you have since before you gave birth. Hooray! Your doctor will most likely give you the all clear for sexual intercourse (LOL), resuming normal activities like lifting older children and doing housework (yay?), exercise (ha!), and driving, if you haven't been behind the wheel already.

But — surprise! — your body will continue healing far beyond the standard six-week recovery timeline. Don't be shocked if you have tenderness around your incision or if certain movements cause strange sensations in your abdomen for months to come. You might also be working through complicated emotions about the birth itself for a while. The most important thing is, as it was during the first few days, to take it easy — on yourself and your body.