Divider/Brand Symbol

Birth Trauma and C-sections – Managing your emotional and physical pains after a traumatic birth

For many mums, a C-section was completely unexpected. They spent the majority of their pregnancy speaking to their midwife about a vaginal birth (while C-sections are usually mentioned, they are rarely covered in great detail).

Then, when it occurred, the emergency C-section came as a huge shock.

A mother cradling her baby against her breast after a C-section delivery

The urgency of the operation, as well as its invasive nature, leaves many women feeling terrified and completely unprepared. As a result, for many women, a C-section can cause a huge amount of fall-out, both emotionally and physically.

So, to help new mums navigate these challenges, seek support in the right places, and understand their feelings following the birth, we’ve created this guide to birth trauma after a C-section.

What is birth trauma and why is it so common for C-section mums?

Birth trauma is a term that covers all of the emotional and physical fallout that a mum can experience after a C-section. Birth trauma can be experienced by all mums, regardless of how their babies entered the world, but it is particularly common for C-section mums.

This is because the surgical procedure is both highly invasive, can be very stressful (particularly if this was a necessary C-section, undertaken as an emergency), and has a slow recovery period, with pain often lasting for a year.

Alongside the physical pain, which is traumatic in itself, C-sections can also cause intense emotional trauma.

Listen: Conversations about Birth Experiences: Healing Trauma and Gaining Control

What are the common feelings and emotions after a C-section?

In terms of the physical symptoms that women will feel after a C-section, pain, numbness and strange sensations around the area of their incision, are all very common. In addition to these symptoms, C-sections have also been known to cause back pain and pelvic pain (particularly when having sex).

In the majority of cases, pain in the area of the C-section will last for around 3-6 months. However, for some women, the pain can last for 12 months or longer.

Learn more: Managing Back Pain after a C-Section: Tips and Relief

An emotional and tired mother lying in bed with her crying baby

In addition to the physical pain after a C-section, many mums experience complex and long-lasting emotional trauma.

The BBC recently published an article entitled Post-natal PTSD: 'I relived childbirth over and over again'. In it, they shared the stories of a mum who was experiencing post-natal PTSD after a C-section.

In the interview, Anna Simpson, said that "There was an anaesthetist trying to put a cannula in my hand so I felt like it was being attacked, it felt very frightening, I was very scared.

"I was going through the birth over and over again, it was exhausting and really painful.

"It was physically draining, all that on top of having to look after a new baby was really difficult."

When an emergency C-section is required, the context in which this decision was made will have been highly emotional and intensely stressful. While medical staff are trained to respond to periods of emergency with detachment and calmness, the public are not.

Learn more: A Weird Mix of an Elective-Emergency C-section: A Mum and Dad’s Tale

For mums, they will be in labour (which is already stressful enough) amidst this scene of emergency, stress and medical complications, all while feeling powerless and uninformed. As you can imagine, emergency C-sections often result in a high level of emotional trauma, in addition to the physical recovery period.

Common signs of birth trauma, experienced by C-section mums, include:

What can mums do to limit this challenge?

Firstly, in order to avoid finding yourself in a situation that is completely unknown, mums may want to educate themselves about the basics of C-sections before the birth. This way, if a C-section does arise, then they will know what to expect. In these situations, this bit of extra knowledge will be a huge source of comfort.

Any mum will be able to tell you that, sometimes, birth plans simply don’t work out the way you expect them to. So, it’s always best to have a Plan B and Plan C in place, and to keep yourself informed about all of these options.

If you are reading this and you have just had a C-section, then please know you are not alone. Recovering from birth trauma after a C-section is a huge challenge, and it is perfectly natural to find this period frightening, distressing, or down-heartening.

So, this is the time to take care of yourself. Give yourself the time, support, self-care and understanding that you’d want to give another mum in your position. And don’t hesitate to reach out for help if you need it. Remember that your wellbeing matters just as much as that of your baby.

To help you understand the steps to C-section recovery, we’ll start by providing some guidance to physical healing after a C-section.

Learn more: C-Section Recovery Guide

Aiding physical recovery after a C-section

The best way to manage this pain, and encourage a speedy recovery, is to:

Take pain relief medication

Particularly after the first few days, your body could be in a lot of pain. Pain relief medication (for the short-term) will help you to feel more comfortable and happy in your day-to-day life.

And so, while it’s not a permanent solution, follow your doctor’s advice about the recommended dosage and types of pain relief medication for your recovery period.

Remember, it's crucial to adhere strictly to your doctor's recommended dosage, especially when it comes to opioids, as exceeding the prescribed amount may not only jeopardize your recovery but also put you at risk of potential opioid withdrawal symptoms. Stay committed to the prescribed regimen for a smoother and safer path to healing.

Get plenty of rest

Although this might sound very idealistic, we highly recommend that you schedule in some rest time. Even if it’s just one short nap a day, this will do wonders for your recovery.

A woman sitting on a couch, enjoying a cup of tea and relaxing

Sleep is the time when your body goes into recovery mode, and so it is essential for deep physical recovery, such as that after a C-section.

In the immediate period after childbirth, many mums put the needs of their newborn way above their own. But remember that this is major abdominal surgery, so make sure that you take good care of yourself. And whatever you do to help you heal, there’s absolutely no need to feel guilty about it.

Be kind and patient with yourself, take the time that you need to recover, reach out for help if you need it, and give your own wellbeing a higher spot on your priority list.

Massage your C-section scar

By working with your nurse or physiotherapist, you can learn a gentle but effective massage, which you can apply to your scar during the day.

This is a great way to aid the healing of the area, and promote a quick, complete recovery.

Learn more: Understanding C-Section Overhang: Causes, Solutions, and Support

Move gently and carefully

You’ll find that it will take some time before your full range of movement is restored.

At first some movements, particularly those that involve your abdominals or stomach muscles, will be very painful or straight-up impossible. So, try to adapt your movements to limit the pain and pressure felt in those areas.

For example, whenever you are standing from a chair, use your hand to apply pressure on the affected area, and so give it extra support.

Another example is when you get out of bed, try to log roll your way out. This will minimise the amount of pressure placed on the scar and surrounding tissue.

Alternatively, if you find these movements particularly difficult, then you might want to invest in postnatal recovery bands. These are designed to support the areas affected by the C-section, by applying consistent compression to the areas. Alongside improving your comfort, these garments can also increase blood flow to these areas, and so assist with healing.

A woman holding a baby in her arms while wearing a postpartum belly band

To find more detail about the expected recovery period after a C-section, have a read of our week-by-week guide to C-section recovery.

If exercise is important to you, then you’ll probably be itching to get back to your usual fitness routine. However, it’s vital that you return to fitness slowly and gently, in incremental stages. You should also modify any activities that you find challenging, to create gentle alternatives (don’t worry, you’ll quickly build your body back up again, but don’t rush things).

When you’re ready, gentle exercise is a great way to boost endorphins and support your recovery, both physical and emotional.

Alleviating emotional pain after a C-section

Remember that, as with any birth, it is certainly not unusual for the emotional recovery period to take some time.

Many mums find it very difficult to process all of the turbulent emotions that they are experiencing.

A mother sitting on a bed going through emotional pain

There are many reasons why these feelings of distress and anxiety are often particularly pronounced in a C-section.

Firstly, if the birth was an emergency C-section, then the mum will not have had any time to prepare for the operation and its after-effects. As a result, the mum may have spent the birth feeling overwhelmed, frightened, and without any idea of what was going on. This can be deeply traumatic and take the mum a long time to recover from.

This emotional pain after a C-section could also be rooted in feelings of shame and guilt. Many mums are afraid to speak up and seek help after their C-section. This is largely due to warped self-critical beliefs that their body has ‘failed’ their birth.

As a result, these mums find it far more difficult to ask for help, or to feel like they deserve it (which is absolutely not true). Then, as you can imagine, this quickly contributes to a cycle of birth trauma and postpartum depression.

We all need to help normalise C-sections, and encourage healthy conversations about this type of birth. Despite vaginal birth being the preferred method of a big group, for some, it can be a caesarean. Maybe they want it. Maybe they need it. Maybe it is life-saving. After all, it is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.

So, if you find yourself in this position after your C-section, know that it is normal, and you’re certainly not the first to be feeling this way. You deserve help, and your support network is always there to help you through the recovery period, however long it takes.

There are ways that you can try and reduce these difficult emotions, either by yourself or with the help of someone you trust. These include:

  • Going to parent and baby groups, to chat to other parents and hear about their experiences
  • Using online support groups or advice forums (These include the Birth Trauma Association, the charity Mind and the Pandas Foundation)
  • Make sure you are getting lots of physical contact with your newborn
  • Using the ‘birth reflection’ service, if it's provided by your maternity unit
  • Ask Lola&Lykke maternity experts completely free of charge. This is a safe and non-judgemental space for you to talk about all things pregnancy and postpartum, powered by our team of women’s health experts.

Equally, you may find that you don’t experience any negative emotions after a C-section. This is just as normal a response, and it is absolutely nothing to worry about.

Learn more: I’m feeling sad (or anxious, or overwhelmed) what should I do?

Where can I reach out for help?

If you ever feel distressed or upset, don’t be afraid to connect with your support network. Speak to friends, family, or anyone else that you think can help you at this time.

Or, if you would prefer to speak to a professional you can try arranging a support session with your midwife or health visitor, speaking to a GP, or asking Lola&Lykke experts.

If you’re feeling burdened by physical pain, then you should arrange an appointment with your GP, or enlist the services of a specialist women’s health physiotherapist.

Help is always here, and you never have to feel like you’re alone in this - there are always people that you can reach out to for help.

And don’t forget, it will get better.