Natural C-section Recovery
I was in disbelief when I found myself being wheeled on a stretcher into the OR for an unplanned c-section. After 2 days of going in and out of prodromal labor, 20 hours of intervention-free natural labor including over 12 hours of active pushing, it was determined that my baby and I needed help. And I was exhausted!
I am grateful for my OB, midwives, doula and husband.
I'm guessing you're here because you're recovering from a similar experience. Here are some ways that I used natural medicine to support myself through a c-section recovery.*
1) Be patient with yourself. The recovery happens in layers; first physical, then emotional and finally spiritual healing. Rushing the process could prolong the healing phase or lead to an incomplete recovery.
2) Supporting your physical body in the hospital:
- Eat fiber, lots of it! When I was in recovery, I ensured that every meal I ate (from the hospital menu) included lots of steamed veggies, greens and fruit. During major abdominal surgery, the anesthesia paralyzes your abdominal muscles from moving. It can take time for you gastrointestinal system to "wake up" and get moving again. If you're on pain killers such as opioids, you're also at risk for constipation due to the drug side effect. Due to the self-hypnosis I learned for my painless labor, I was able to manage the post-surgical pain by avoiding opioids and relying on ibuprofen. Eating plenty of vegetables will help ensure you have enough fiber and magnesium to support a healthy bowel movement.
- Drink water. Major surgery means losing a lot of blood. You'll need to make sure you stay hydrated for your milk supply to come in and to ensure that your stool doesn't harden. Until you have your first bowel movement, you'll be at risk for impaction, which is hardening of the stool. Impaction can lead to bowel obstruction, which is a medical emergency. Bowel movements after c-sections are painful, so it's helpful to do everything you can to soften them.
- Get moving. As soon as you can. Try and get out of bed and move to the best of your ability. I'll never forget the first day I got out of bed after the c-section. From being able to hike up mountains and balance on one foot while pulling shoes on at 40 weeks pregnant I went to being unable to lift my leg out of bed without crying in pain. Every few hours I would walk slowly. It started with 30 second increments that slowly built up to walking around 20 minutes at a time. Gentle movement will help get your bowels moving and support healthy scar tissue formation.
- Use Depends adult diapers. The waistband is very elastic and soft so it will not aggravate your incision site. I had packed these in my bag just in case I had tearing or an unexpected c-section. Even with a c-section you will still bleed for weeks on end and the Depends were a lifesaver for me as they minimized mess and were very comfortable.
- Learn the side-lying position for breastfeeding. I didn't learn position until after I recovered from the c-section. It is a position that is helpful because otherwise you'll be waking up and painfully pulling yourself into a sitting position multiple times during the night in order to breastfeed.
3) Supporting your physical body at home:
- Continue to eat well. For me, I was on a strict anti-inflammatory diet because I wanted to heal quickly. This meant that I ate only fresh steamed vegetables, drank green smoothies, ate good quality meat and fish and avoided sugar. Anti-inflammatory diets that rely heavily on vegetables are micronutrient dense. Nutrients such as vitamin C, zinc, vitamin A and protein are helpful for wound recovery. Sugar can have inflammatory effects and delay recovery.
- Continue to move (within limits). I ensured not to overextend myself by doing too much because I didn't want to cause my stitches to rupture. I was patient with the recovery process, which took around 7-8 weeks. When I felt I could, I started doing c-section specific exercise including the c-section series from BabyWeight TV and walking my dog for 20 minutes twice a day.
- Continue to use depends diapers (see above).
- Compression. I bought a compression band to help support healing. I also found that it felt more comfortable to move around, which would help to support healing. Inbetween episodes of grief from the c-section I often found myself laughing, A LOT! The compression helped me laugh while minimizing the pain from the suture site. I used the Bellefit post-partum girdle until I felt fully recovered.
4) Supporting your emotional body in the hospital:
- Cry it out. It didn't really hit me until the second day at the hospital, once I got over the initial shock. Nobody anticipates an unplanned c-section. I waddled to the bathroom and cried and cried and cried. Then I came out of the bathroom to find a nurse smiling and asking how I was recovering in a cheery voice. I'm sure it wasn't the first time she had a patient respond with uncontrollable sobbing. But, I allowed myself to cry because it's a healthy way to express grief. Our bodies also release the stress hormone cortisol through our tears. Crying causes the release of feel good endorphins. It also was a signal to my spouse and family, who understood that I needed additional emotional support from them during this time.
- Talk it out. You may find yourself struggling with the birth experience and feelings guilt, being inadequate and unworthy. These are shared experiences for many women with c-sections. They are also very common post-partum thoughts to have as a woman's body adjusts to changes in hormones. If you're struggling with these feelings, talk them through with your midwife, doula, or birth-partner or someone you know who also had a c-section. I texted my friends who had c-sections and they provided so much emotional support and wisdom for me in those first few weeks. The universal message from all of them seemed to be, "It will hurt, you will replay everything that happened and struggle for weeks. But suddenly, one day, you'll look at your baby and realize that it doesn't matter how they came into the world. You just won't care anymore because of all the love you feel for your baby." And that day came at around 8 weeks for me.
5) Supporting your emotional body at home:
- Put away things that remind you of the birth. When I got home, the house was a mess. We left home in a rush because my water broke and there was meconium. Until I cleared the mess, I was constantly reminded of our rushing to the hospital. Then there were subtle things, the candles I lit while I was relaxing through contractions for two days were put away. The numerous birth books I read, my maternity clothes, everything that caused me to relive the birth experience was put away. The flashbacks will come week after week, but at some point they will fade away and you'll stop reliving the past.
- Write it out. I was reading Daring Greatly by Brene Brown. In her book, she wrote about the power of journaling, specifically, journaling for 20 minutes a day about traumatic experiences. I set my timer and journaled faithfully for 20 minutes a day. What came out of it was so much growth and transformation as I realized that my c-section had become one of the most healing experiences of my life. I now celebrate my c-section and c-section scar (I'll save that for another blog post).
- Recap. I recapped my experience with my birth partner and doula multiple times. I learned things from both about the heroism I displayed in the unending hours of my birthing time. I also learned about the numerous interventions that were performed towards the end. My midwife took time to reflect her experience of my birth at my 6 week visit. All of these recaps helped me understand that my birth happened the way it was meant to. I also felt extremely grateful to be in a country with access to such good obstetric care.
6) Supporting your spiritual body. If you are not a spiritually minded person then gloss over this section. If you are, then you may be like me and find it healing to discover meaning in those painfully raw experiences of your life. I used yoga to support my spiritual body. Some people use meditation, tai chi, prayer. Whatever it is that speaks to you, make time for it during your recovery. It was through supporting my spiritual body that I was able to integrate the experience into my body, mind, spirit and life and feel whole again.
7) Natural supplements for c-section recovery. (Note: Run all of these by your healthcare provider before incorporating it into your routine.)
- Homeopathic support. I packed homeopathic arnica and hypericum in my birth bag just in case I wound up with tearing, bruising or a c-section. I started this homeopathic regimen the morning after the c-section.
- Probiotics. I began taking probiotics day 1. During major surgery intravenous antibiotics are administered to prevent any life-threatening infections of your abdominal cavity that may occur after surgery. Probiotics help support healthy immune and gastrointestinal function. I wanted to make sure that my belly way full of good bacteria since that bacteria would make its way to the breastmilk and into my baby's gut.
- Prenatal Vitamin. My prenatal was AMAZING. Prior to surgery I shocked my medical team with how healthy my iron levels were. They weren't used to seeing women with such good iron levels and I believe it was due to my faithfully taking this good quality prenatal. Women lose a lot of iron during birth and surgery so I continued taking my prenatal during my recovery to ensure that I had not only the iron I needed to make more blood cells but also the zinc, vitamin C, and B vitamins I'd need to generate more blood and heal.
- Fish oil. Fish oil is incredible natural anti-inflammatory. I was taking ibuprofen to reduce inflammation the first few days and eventually switched to taking high dose fish oil to help reduce inflammation and pain.
- Vitamin E. There is research demonstrating the wound healing properties of vitamin E. There is also research showing that intra-abdominal application of vitamin E can prevent the formation of adhesions in rat models. Adhesions are what can cause people to experience discomfort at the incision site months to years after the surgery. They also can complicate recovery from c-sections and future c-section procedures. While there is no research on oral administration of vitamin E after c-sections, I felt comfortable supplementing with it.
* Please consult with your healthcare provider before implementing any of these into your wellness routine.