When my son was born via cesarean delivery, commonly referred to as a C-section, I was completely unprepared for what recovery would look like.

To be fair, I had kind of ignored this part of my birthing class — I didn’t want a cesarean delivery, so I didn’t listen all that well during that part of the class. And when my doctor determined that I needed a cesarean delivery right away the morning I delivered my son, there wasn’t a whole lot of time for questions.

Instead, I learned what recovery looked like by actually living it.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though. About 31.8 percent of all babies born in the United States are cesarean deliveries, which means that your chances of delivering this way are pretty high.

That’s why it’s a good idea to learn about cesarean deliveries, whether it’s your first baby or your third — and we’re here to answer all your questions.

Language matters

This article draws extensively on interviews with professionals that focus on women in their personal practice and therefore use gendered language in their discussion. We want to take a moment to draw attention to the fact that people of a variety of sexes and genders can become pregnant and may need cesarean births.

Trans and gender nonconforming people should not experience large differences from cis women in the pain felt during or after a cesarean delivery, but if you have concerns, make sure to bring them up with your medical team.

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This is a tricky question to answer for two reasons.

First, not everyone experiences pain in the same way. And second, says Liesel Teen, a labor and delivery nurse and founder of Mommy Labor Nurse, “It’s kind of like comparing apples and oranges.”

“If you are talking about the moment the baby comes into the world, a vaginal birth is more painful — especially if you don’t have an epidural,” she says. “During a C-section, you are completely numb and will not have to go through the pain of labor and pushing out a baby.”

However, recovery from a cesarean delivery is generally more painful.

“[It] is a lot more painful, longer, and often more difficult than recovery from a vaginal birth because it is a major abdominal surgery,” Teen explains.

That said, some vaginal births are more traumatic and complicated, which can make recovery longer and more painful, too. As a result, it’s difficult to generalize, and both options will likely come with pain.

Generally, no, cesarean delivery should not hurt your baby. The risk to baby is usually less than the risk to the delivering parent during cesarean delivery.

However, complications can arise.

“[One risk] to be aware of is the possibility of being cut by the knife as the doctor is providing the space to remove the baby,” says Andrea Blindt, a fertility and pregnancy specialized nurse and holistic health practitioner.

“Your infant might be at greater risk for respiratory problems if delivered by C-section,” adds Teen. “When your baby is delivered by C-section, he or she does not get squeezed the same way they do when they are born vaginally, [and] one benefit to this squeeze is that it helps to move and push amniotic fluid off of baby’s lungs.”

This is why some babies develop breathing concerns or a wet cough after birth, which will require monitoring.

Other possible risks to your little one include:

  • missing out on beneficial bacteria in the vaginal canal
  • slower time bonding with parent because skin-to-skin contact might take longer
  • slower time learning to breastfeed or chestfeed

Are there other risks I should know about?

Cesarean deliveries are generally considered safe. But as with any surgery, it comes with risks.

According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), these risks include:

  • excessive blood loss
  • damage to surrounding organs, including the bowels and bladder
  • infection
  • blood clots in the legs, pelvic organs, or lungs
  • adverse reactions to anesthesia

There is also a slightly higher neonatal and maternal death rate, which is why ACOG does not recommend elective cesareans delivery.

If you are having a nonemergency or planned cesarean delivery, you will receive what’s called a spinal block. This means you’ll get an injection of anesthesia into your spine to numb you from the nipple line down.

This injection does not hurt, but, says Blindt, “You might notice a pinch when the needles go in and a burning, stinging sensation that should resolve quickly.”

Cesarean delivery is not painful. Because of the spinal block, you will be numb from your nipples down to your legs (you won’t be able to feel your legs or move them). This means you won’t feel the surgeon’s incision — or anything else. Think of it as some forced relaxation before you bring home the baby!

“You might feel pressure or a tugging sensation as the doctor is making room for your baby to exit, but pain should not be present,” says Blindt.

You may also feel shortness of breath when the doctor presses over the top of your uterus to deliver your baby. This can be uncomfortable but shouldn’t last more than a few seconds.

If you do feel pain at any time, be sure to let your anesthesiologist know.

Sometimes there is a spot that is harder to numb in your body, called a window or hot spot. If this happens, your doctor can adjust or modify the medication you’re receiving to make sure you’re fully numb.

In general, yes. It is major abdominal surgery and it will take you a while to heal.

“Pain following a C-section is typically the strongest the first few days and subsides as you continue to heal over the course of a few weeks,” says Blindt.

Your doctor will usually prescribe oral narcotics and anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen, to help control this pain.

“Anything that puts stress on your incision (and abdominal muscles) will cause discomfort,” says Teen. “Make sure to splint — [or] apply light pressure — to your incision if you need to cough, sneeze, or laugh. You can gently press your incision site with a pillow or towel to help lessen the pain.”

In addition, loose clothes, soft pants that sit higher on your waist, oversized shirts, nursing gowns, and maternity clothes will help you avoid any rubbing on your incision site.

Usually, the first week is the most painful and difficult.

“You are actively recovering, feeling quite sore, and dealing with a lot of discomfort — all with a newborn,” says Teen. “The good news is that with every passing week, you will start feeling more like yourself.”

You likely won’t need any pain medication after those first few weeks. And by 6 to 8 weeks, most people feel much better.

“Your overall health, mobility, and support system at home play a major role in easing the pain following C-section delivery,” says Blindt. “I recommend listening to your body, resting when you need to, and not overdoing it.”

“Allowing your body, the proper time and space to heal will help reduce complications in the future,” she says.

Sometimes your surgeon will use dissolvable sutures or stitches that dissolve on their own — meaning there’s no need for removal at all.

“Generally, the removal of stitches following a C-section is painless,” says Blindt. “Occasionally some women feel a slight tugging at the skin, a pinching sensation if the suture has healed into the skin or a light pressure.”

Usually, staples are used in recovery from a cesarean delivery. A doctor will need to remove them. You’ll receive local anesthesia when they do this, so you shouldn’t feel anything during the process.

After the removal, you might feel a little discomfort at the incision site, but that feeling should go away soon after.

Sometimes, people do feel pain when they pee following cesarean delivery. This can happen for a few reasons.

“During a C-section, doctors make an incision in the abdomen that is close to the bladder in order to remove the baby,” explains Blindt. “This can cause irritation to the bladder immediately after delivery that leads to pain or spasm, or later due to adhesions forming as you heal.”

You might also feel pain for a couple of days because a healthcare professional had placed a catheter in the urethra to drain urine during the surgery. Teen explains that “sometimes the catheter can irritate the lining of the urethra.”

It is important to monitor your pain in the days following cesarean delivery. And let your doctors know if you see discharge. In rare cases, pain could also be a sign of infection.

Yes — this is one of the most common side-effects and discomforts of cesarean delivery.

“The anesthesia used during a C-section can make your bowels slow down, causing air to get trapped in the stomach and intestines,” explains Teen. “This trapped air can cause some pretty intense gas pains.”

“Some moms report sharp, shooting pain in their stomach, but the gas pain can also extend into the chest and shoulders,” she continues. “It can take up to 1 week for the bowels to resume their normal function, and once they do the gas pain usually goes away.”

You can try one of several over-the-counter pain medications, like Tylenol or ibuprofen, to help.

“If you are able to walk, moving will help support the movement of gas in your body,” says Blindt. “Often during C-section, pain medication is administered, so it’s important to keep your bowels moving in order to prevent constipation.”

No, the cesarean delivery itself doesn’t cause more painful periods generally. However, your first period after the surgery might be heavier or more painful.

Some people do see changes in their periods or bodies following cesarean delivery.

“You might notice a heavier flow, clots, or increased abdominal pain,” says Blindt. “Hormone fluctuations, healing, and overall health play a role.”

If you experience more painful periods, let your doctor know because in rare cases — between 0.03 and 0.4 percent — some birthing parents develop endometriosis following cesarean delivery.

You might have some pain in your back where the epidural or spinal block was placed on your spine, but this should go away within a few days.

“This should subside quickly and has been said to feel like a bruised or tender spot,” says Blindt.

If you feel more chronic back pain, it likely isn’t the surgery causing the pain.

“The most common cause of back pain after a C-section, or a vaginal delivery for that matter, is due to the wear and tear the body takes while carrying a baby for 9 months,” explains Teen. “The musculoskeletal system goes through significant changes during pregnancy, which can cause postpartum back pain.”

Your back pain should start to improve within 12 weeks after delivering your baby, but if your pain lasts longer, it might be worth speaking with a doctor or a physical therapist.

Some people do feel pain or numbness (or both) at their C-section scar for months or even years after the surgery.

“The nerve endings at the incision site can be disrupted during surgery, which is the most common cause of numbness,” explains Teen, “[while] the most common cause of incision pain is due to adhesions and scar tissue buildup.”

It’s worth bringing up with your doctor, though, especially if it’s causing you concern or regular pain.

It’s difficult to say for certain because each delivery is unique. Plus, you may experience more or fewer complications the second time around.

However, some people do anecdotally report less pain after two or more cesarean deliveries.

“I believe the primary reason for this is that they know what to expect and are better prepared for recovery, therefore they perceive the pain as less,” says Teen.

“Yes, it is extremely normal to be nervous about the delivery itself, including the pain that you might feel during and after the procedure,” says Teen. “A C-section is a major abdominal surgery, pain is to be expected, but the unknown of what the pain will entail can be quite nerve-wracking.”

If you’re afraid, it can be helpful to talk about your feelings with someone you trust, whether that’s your partner, a friend or family member, a healthcare professional, or a therapist. Some people also benefit from joining a support group.

“You don’t need to suffer in silence, and often through understanding, many of those fears can be transformed, allowing you to have a more peaceful delivery and recovery process,” says Blindt.

If you would like to talk about your fears with a mental health professional or a support group, here are a few resources that can help connect you with the mental health support you need:

First, try to make sure you’ve packed everything you want to take to the hospital. This includes bringing some postpartum care products to help manage the vaginal bleeding that will follow your delivery.

It’s typical to feel nervous the night before your cesarean delivery, so you might find it helpful to do some self-care activities.

“I recommend having a nice dinner with your significant other or the person that will support you during your baby’s birth,” says Teen. “You will likely be asked to stop eating and drinking 8 hours before your surgery, and it might take you several days to resume a normal diet after your C-section, so having one last dinner with your favorite foods is always a good idea.”

You might also want to take a warm bath or shower.

“Most doctors will ask that you not use lotion or perfume,” says Blindt. “Nail polish might need to be removed depending on your medical practice.”

Most of all, try to get some sleep.

“I know it will be hard to sleep with the anticipation and excitement of meeting your new baby, but try to get into bed a little earlier than usual,” says Teen. “Playing some soft music or meditating before bed can also help you drift off to sleep easier.”

Cesarean delivery is a major abdominal surgery, so it’s typical to feel nervous or anxious about the pain and recovery.

“Remember your body is resilient, you are capable of safely delivering and recovering from a C-section delivery,” says Blindt.

And there is support there to help you prepare and recover if you need it.