What You Need to Know About Giving Birth by Cesarean Section

Whether your C-section is planned or unexpected, here's what you need to know to have a smooth surgery and speedy recovery.

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No matter what type of birth you’re planning (and hoping) for, you shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a Cesarean section. While the C-section delivery rate recently declined for the first time in 14 years—from 32.9 percent in 2009 to 32.8 percent in 2010—the number of women delivering via C-section in the United states is still approaching 1 in 3, and about 61 percent of those are first-time surgeries, mainly C-sections performed when problems arise during labor.

Unexpected or not, there’s no reason a C-section has to be a totally negative experience, says Dana Sullivan, a three-time C-section veteran and co-author of The Essential C-Section Guide (Broadway Books). Knowing how to prepare for and “personalize” a C-section can make the surgery less traumatic and help speed recovery.

Start preparing now
Whether you want to avoid a Cesarean or make the surgery as uncomplicated as possible if you do need one, pay attention to your weight early on. Researchers at Seattle’s Swedish Medical Center found that women who were overweight when they got pregnant were twice as likely as lean women to have C-sections.

Obese women had three times the risk. “They have more surgical complications as well—from anesthesia and with healing,” says perinatologist and study co-author Tanya Sorensen, M.D. Other research has shown that overweight women labor longer (which can lead to a C-section) and have lower success rates when attempting a vaginal birth after delivery (VBAC).

When you’re packing your hospital bag, adding a few extra items can improve your stay in case you have a C-section. Some women pack cranberry juice, which is believed to reduce the risk of a post-catheterization urinary tract infection; others bring chewing gum or molasses to hasten notoriously balky post-surgery bowel function.

At home, prepare a comfortable nest for yourself and your newborn, with diapering supplies, snacks and water, a breastfeeding pillow and your phone all within easy reach. Wearing a postpartum support belt can help reduce strain on your abdominal muscles, as can moving to the edge of the bed or chair and using your hands to push yourself up. If you live in a two-story house, keep essentials on both floors to minimize stair climbing, and don’t drive for at least two weeks after your surgery.

Ask for what you want
Knowing in advance what to request from hospital staff can help minimize the emotionally upsetting aspects of having a C-section. Many women worry that the surgery will require them to be separated from their newborns. Yet unless the baby or mother needs immediate medical treatment, most hospitals will accommodate parents’ expressed wishes for early bonding opportunities, says OB-GYN Bruce Flamm, M.D., a partner physician at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center in Riverside, Calif.

For instance, a screen blocks off the sterile surgical area during a Cesarean. “A lot of times, if you ask, the doctor will either drop that screen a bit or hold the baby up over it so you can see him as soon as he comes out,” Flamm explains.

After the birth, ask if your partner can hold the baby while you are being stitched up, if the baby can accompany you to the recovery room and if you can breastfeed immediately.

Hopefully, if you do end up having a Cesarean, you’ll be able to look back on your surgery as part of the wonderful—albeit unpredictable—experience of giving birth. “After a C-section, a lot of women feel really let down,” says Sullivan, who admits to feeling disappointed after her first Cesarean. accept your feelings, she advises, but keep them in perspective: “There isn’t one perfect way to have a baby.”

Tips for a better recovery
If there is one piece of advice consistently given by women who’ve had a C-section, it’s this: Take all the pain medication your doctor recommends, and take it on schedule—don’t wait until you start hurting or the pain becomes unbearable.

If you’re free of pain, you’ll get more rest and exercise: Walking as soon as one day after your C-section can help prevent blood clots, speed bowel recovery and boost your comfort level.

Eating healing foods can also help. Lisa Kimmel, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., sports nutritionist at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., recommends protein sources, such as lean meats, eggs, nuts, beans and legumes and low-fat dairy products, as well as specific nutrients, including zinc (found in seafood, meats and whole grains), vitamin C (citrus fruits, strawberries, red bell peppers) and vitamin A (carrots, sweet potatoes, mangoes).

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