Whether undergoing a planned or emergency c-section many women have questions about what actually happens to their bodies during a cesarean section and what recovery and return to exercise looks like after. We are here to help!
Did you know 1 in 3 births is a cesarean section delivery? The choice for a c-section may be based on the health of mom and baby, baby’s position in the womb (such as breech), multiple babies or a previous c-section delivery.
Before we talk exercise and recovery, let’s clear up what a cesarean section is, what happens to your body and what recovery will look like.
What happens during a C-section?
A cesarean section, or c-section, is a surgical procedure used to deliver a baby. The baby is delivered via the abdomen from the uterus (womb).
A horizontal incision is made on the lower belly to move through the skin, fat and connective tissue. At the level of the muscle, the surgeon uses their finger to create a space between the rectus abdominus (or “sixpack” muscles) and move them out of the way of the uterus. That’s right, the muscles of the abdominal aren’t actually cut but pushed out of the way! From there an incision is made to enter the uterus to reach the baby.
Once the baby is delivered the placenta follows next. From there the uterus is stitched up followed by the connective tissue and finally closure of the skin.
The entire process takes between 30-45 minutes.
This video is a great visualization of what happens during the procedure.
How long does it take to recover from a C-section?
Healing after c-section will vary from person to person and even from one delivery to the next. In total recovery takes between six and eight weeks. Though you may start to feel better around the four week mark. Because a c-section is a major abdominal surgery, take care to stick to your surgeon’s guidelines regarding lifting and activity.
Your hospital stay will be between 2-4 days as your medical team monitors yourself and baby after surgery. This is when it’s important to be up and gently walking around even though it will feel quite sore at your incision.
What can I do after a c-section?
After a cesarean section you will be given post-operative restrictions from your surgeon outlining the do’s and don’ts. Your restrictions are based on not pulling at your incision site or straining your tummy muscles (abdominals).
Here are the do’s:
- Walking within the first 24 hours of your procedure. While uncomfortable at first, walking is a great way to lower the risk of post-op complications such as blood clots and jump start normal bodily functions (like getting the bowels moving).
- Ask for help, especially in the first 2 weeks when you’ll be feeling the most uncomfortable. Having your partner, parent or other member of your support system bring baby to you will make this phase of recovery easier.
On to the don’ts. This list may feel restrictive at times, but remember it is with your optimal healing in mind.
- No lifting more than the weight of your baby for the first 3-4 weeks.
- No driving for 3-6 weeks
- No high impact or running for 6 weeks. More on this later!
- No baths or swimming for 6 weeks or until you’re incision has healed over (may have to wait for your first follow-up on this one)
- Light housework for the first 6 weeks (no vacuuming)
- No intercourse or use of tampons for 6 weeks
Ways a partner can be supportive during your recovery:
- Bring baby to you
- Walk with baby, push the stroller, do the lifting
- Drive home slowly
- Set up your space at home
- Take baby so you can exercise. More on that later!
- Emotional support – remember that recovery from an abdominal surgery is challenging and there will be moments of frustration
How long before I can exercise after a c-section?
Most people are cleared for exercise at 6-8 weeks after delivery by their obstetrician provided there have been no complications. While you may be feeling more like yourself around week four remember to stick to your post-op guidelines. This is to ensure proper healing.
So what can you do?
Walking after c-section is encouraged and should be your go to for the first few weeks. You’ll start to notice day to day movement getting easier and less discomfort lifting baby or moving around.
Once you’ve been cleared for exercise, check in with a pelvic floor physiotherapist for an assessment of your pelvic floor muscles, abdominal wall and c-section scar. A pelvic physio can get you started with an exercise program specific to your goals.
I want to return to HIIT classes, running or CrossFit. When can I get going?
Our recommendation is to wait for 12 weeks from delivery to start high impact training. Remember that even with regular physical activity throughout your pregnancy, a series of modifications would have been used the last few months . To return to high impact, you have to retrain your body’s tolerance to strength training and cardiovascular fitness. You won’t be running, jumping or lifting at the same level as when you were at your peak fitness or crushing personal bests.
6 Week C-Section Recovery Guide
We’ve put together a 6-week C-Section recovery guideline to help you return to exercise. The guideline is broken down into three sections covering your for weeks 0-2, weeks 2-4 and weeks 4-6. Each section is fitted with goals and detailed movement descriptions.
Considerations: Please listen to your body throughout each and every stage of recovery. Move at your own pace based on how you’re feeling and what your body is asking for in that moment. If you prefer the earlier movements, keep with them and know that the guideline offers suggestions on where you can be, not where you have to be. Every person’s journey through c-section recovery is different. Stay true to what works for you! Should a movement feel uncomfortable, step away and come back to it at a different time. Always ensure you are following your post-op guidelines.
We’ve created this guideline knowing that most women have their follow-up appointment between 6-8 weeks postpartum. When you’re ready to progress further, reach out to our pelvic physiotherapy team for a postpartum assessment!
Download your week by week exercise guideline here.
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