Approximately one in three babies in Australia are born via caesarian section. Whether planned or emergency, an overwhelming number of women give birth this way, and yet many of us have no idea what it feels like or what the experience entails.
While the rate of caesarian births has steadily increased in the last few decades, the current zeitgeist seems focused on the idea of a c-section being the ‘easy way out’ of labour and childbirth. If you didn’t birth a baby from your vagina – did you really give birth at all?
Of course, surgical births are anything but ‘easy’. Having major abdominal surgery brings with it a unique set of risks, and an extended recovery period. The decision to deliver via c-section is often based on signs that indicate a vaginal birth will be risky to the health of the mother or baby – signs like the baby being in a breech position, being very large, or not moving down the birth canal. The priority then, is far more about ensuring a safe and positive birth experience than anything else.
As someone who’s never given birth, I cannot fathom that there is an ‘easy’ way to get a real, human baby out of your body and into the world. So I asked five women to share what it really feels like to have a c-section, and their stories were astounding:
“It feels like nothing I’ve ever felt before – like stomach muscles are missing from where they should be.” – Amelia*
“I had an emergency c-section about three weeks ago. The process was daunting, especially preparing for a natural birth and getting to 9.5 cm dilated and the doctor telling you an emergency c-section was needed.
“I don’t think you get time to think about fear with an emergency c-section. Everything happens so quickly. All I remember thinking was that I hoped everything was OK with my baby. You don’t tend to think about yourself at that point. I didn’t think about myself until about five days after the birth when it hit me that my surgery was life threatening and I nearly died in front of my son and fiancé.
Listen: Rebecca Judd speaks about the big differences between the process of a c-section and a natural birth, having experienced both. Post continues after audio.
“The pain is sh*t. It’s hard to explain. It feels like nothing I’ve ever felt before (to be fair it was my first surgery). It feels like stomach muscles are missing from where they should be… so every time you get to lift yourself up, instead of using your ‘abs’, you have to use your arms to get yourself up.
“It’s frustrating because it’s an everyday movement that isn’t as easy as it should be. It becomes restrictive.
“Going to the bathroom is bloody horrible. You feel like everything is going to burst open and it’s scary. They don’t tell us much about after the pregnancy. And what to expect… if anything goes wrong. And that’s hard.
“With recovery time I’m not 100% sure because my uterus pretty much gave up and I started bleeding out about three hours after the c-section… so I needed further surgery.”
“Afterwards it’s a sharp pain that feels like you are tearing your skin.” – Fiona*
“My waters broke 3am and I went straight to hospital. I started labouring around 5am and was given drugs to induce the labour faster. I was quite comfortable and the pain was bearable, then the contractions started getting closer together.
“I was being monitored constantly and you feel like you are not in control of your own body. I was dilating and contracting all day.
“At 5pm the midwifes rushed into my delivery suite. They had been monitoring the baby on their screens. They simply said we have spoken to your obstetrician and he is going to meet us downstairs for a c-section. They told me the baby’s heart rate has dropped and we need to do this now. Within the next two minutes or so it was chaos – there were about six people in my room all doing things, drawing blood, asking my name and date of birth, sliding me onto another bed, topping up my pain relief. I went into shock. I was shaking. And asking questions.
“My mother and husband who were with me were asked to follow and were getting dressed in scrubs. I was quickly taken downstairs into theatre where I was asked again my name and date of birth by just about everyone who was there (10-12 people). It was like a movie set, with bright lights.
“My doctor met me and calmed me down and finally explained that the baby needed to be delivered urgently as it most likely has the cord around its neck and was quite far in the birth canal.
“I was not prepared for a c-section any more, as my baby had been breech and I had a c-section booked for the week earlier. This was cancelled as the baby had turned and was now engaged. I was preparing to do this naturally. These plans had changed, and I did not have any choice.
Listen to the full episode of Hello Bump: The Pointy End, all about the big event, below. Post continues after.
“I was then moved to another bed and undressed. They started prepping me giving my the spinal block and rubbing ice on my body to see if I could feel anything. I was still shaking and couldn’t stop. My husband had to hold my head still. Everything was so rushed I had no time to prepare – from lying in delivery suite to an operating theatre in a matter of minutes.
“The surgeons then went into action and were looking at my belly and drew a couple of lines and were discussing the best location for the incision. Then they started, and were taking about where they would be going on holidays for Christmas, which actually relaxed me… it made me more comfortable… I don’t know why but it just did.
“It felt like I was on the table for hours but it was only a couple of minutes. I felt a lot of pulling and tugging but I couldn’t feel any pain – only a lot of movement and my body being stretched. Then I heard a loud cry and my baby was lifted and the screen dropped. It was a boy!
“They then brought him over to me. Again I was in shock. I couldn’t believe my baby was here. They told me everything went well, and the cord was wrapped around his neck. I was overwhelmed and was crying.
"I was there around two hours then they cleaned me up and wheeled me to my room. I was not in any pain, but I couldn't feel my body or move. The anaesthetic started to wear off during the night and they were giving me pain relief. The nurses came in all through the night to check on me and tried to get me up and walking at 6am (12 hours after surgery). I couldn't as my feet were still a bit numb, but when they came back at 9:30am and I got out of bed (slowly) with no pain and had a shower. This was the best shower of my life.
"That afternoon I started to feel the pain - it's a sharp pain that feels like you are tearing your skin. I couldn't twist at all. Forget about laughing, coughing, sneezing, blowing your nose, for the first week. It's just not worth it. Now after two weeks I am feeling good. I can do the stairs, get out of bed easily. The incision is still very tender but a bearable pain. Over all the experience was uncomfortable, but not horrendous."
"I felt like the scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz." - Anna*
"My first baby was five weeks premature, so for me, I actually went into labour and started the process of having a baby the natural way. After 36 gruelling hours of intense pain, pushing and an epidural that eventually wore off, the midwife discovered the baby was posterior (face up) and the decision was made to give me an emergency c-section. Within an hour, I was rushed up to surgery and given a spinal block.
"From the spinal block to the incision, it was really quick (about 20 mins). The post-baby aftermath was what took the longest. There was a lot of tugging and pulling sensations. (I imagined it was what the scarecrow from Wizard of Oz felt like when he was getting his straw stuffed back in...)
"My husband told me afterwards that he couldn't help but take a sneak peek and saw the inside of my belly... which he instantly regretted.
"As I had a spinal block, I couldn't feel or move from the waist down for at least 10 hours. Then I was in recovery for around an hour or two before being transferred up to the maternity ward.
"It's extremely painful for the first 24 hours, but the multiple drugs working in unison definitely helped! It was hard to walk and stand for a few days, and my first couple of showers were assisted by hubby."
"It does feel like someone is sawing at your belly." - Sarah*
"My c-section was considered emergency because I was already in labour. It didn't feel urgent, but anything in labour is called emergency. Once we decided on the c-section, it was about a 40 minute wait for theatre and doctors.
"My partner was with me the whole time. I was wheeled into a room like the size of your GP, that's where all the prep is done so needles, testing and questions. There were maybe three people, the anaesthetist and two nurses.
"Then you have to hunch over a pillow so they can put a needle (the anaesthetic) in your spine. It's a spin out but at that stage you don't care. They talk you through it. I have no idea how long we were in that room... maybe 15 minutes. I had two more contractions that I could feel and then it literally feels like you wet yourself. There's a warm sensation all down your legs as it kicks in. Then like most anaesthetic you can feel sensations but really nothing - they test it with ice cubes on your legs.
"Then you get wheeled from that room into theatre which were linked in my case. That was terrifying. It's like a door opens and there are bright lights and a team of about eight people in scrubs ignoring you as they prep.
"The c-section took 10-15 minutes and you feel sensations. It does feel like someone is sawing at your belly, but no pain. The tugging is odd. Because of my baby's position there was some pushing on the belly and some rough work which is rare and I think affected me after (just with healing - it was very rough to get him out). About 15 minutes later he was out.
"I didn't see a thing as there was a curtain below the boobs. My partner tried once but it was a bit rough to watch. He still got to do umbilical cord, and I got time with my baby while they stitched me up.
"The stitching surprised me the most. It took nearly an hour which I wasn't expecting. I guess you just want your baby so it feels even longer. And it's 3am... but it takes an hour to fix up five layers that they cut through. FIVE LAYERS.
"In terms of side effects, I got the shakes during the c-section which happens for no reason, and I got the itches after the meds were wearing off so I couldn't rest. I also had really sore teeth from clenching. Again, just a random side effect.
"Also, you have a catheter due to surgery and the first pee once they take that out is stupid hard. I have no idea why, but it's like you forget how to pee.
"I almost passed out standing up the first time, but I guess that was fatigue too. The midwife warned me and she helped with the first shower.
"My recovery was pretty standard. I probably hunched, protecting the scar for longer than I needed to, but no medical issues or side effects."
"I had private, elective caesars, so it was quite relaxed." - Carla*
"After arriving at the hospital and signing in/filling out paperwork, we sat in the waiting room. I had private, elective caesars, so it was all quite relaxed. They were only six days before my due date each time, and I didn’t go into labour. I distinctly remember watching The Today Show in the waiting room both times.
"Once you’re called through, you get changed into a hospital gown, weighed, and given a pre-op relaxant pill - which, by the way, made me a comedian!
"A midwife checked on us, and made sure I was “prepared” (basically, that I had shaved myself far enough down - on the first occasion I hadn’t, and was treated to a dry shave. I didn’t make that mistake the second time.)
"After a bit of waiting around, you’re transported down to theatre, where the anaesthetist arrives and explains the process of administering the spinal. I had to sit on the edge of the bed and hunch over to expose my back - which is a feat with a beach ball belly.
"They washed my back and placed a sterile drape, before giving a local anaesthetic. This makes the spinal block far more pleasant - it really just felt like pressure. I had a spinal, which is just one injection into the epidural space, as opposed to an epidural where the catheter is left in to provide a continuous flow.
"After this, my legs went numb, which is a bizarre yet kind of cool feeling. I was then wheeled into the operating room, pretty much as the last lady was wheeled out with her newborn (it’s like a production line, but it makes it exciting when you hear a newborn crying as you wait, knowing it will be your turn next).
"A drip was placed, and a catheter - which you don’t feel because you’re already numb (strangely, my biggest fear going in was that the catheter would be inserted pre-spinal block) - and they check that you’re numb using an ice cube.
"I felt nervous, but my amazing obstetrician was very reassuring. I didn’t feel any of the cutting, and my OB didn’t even tell me she’d started. I felt some pressure, and some 'rummaging', and the anaesthetist was there to provide anti-nausea meds if needed throughout. My husband was there holding my hand the whole time.
"Then the baby was born. The great thing about a c-section is that there’s a paediatrician right there waiting - my first son had some breathing trouble, but was taken care of immediately. All being well, you’re given your newborn to cuddle while you’re stitched up and taken to recovery. I’d say the whole surgery is 20 - 30 mins."
These five stories have a number of common themes, including the strangeness of the numbness that comes from anaesthesia, the 'sawing' sensation during the surgery, the elation afterwards, and the often painful recovery.
What these women's words show is that every birth story is different. Every woman has a unique set of fears, anxieties and setbacks, as well as their own moments of pure joy and selflessness.
Ultimately, the way your child is brought into the world is not a test of motherhood. It's just the first miraculous step in one of the most special parts of our lives.
* Names have been changed for privacy.
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