‘Wait, I Have To Get A C-Section?’ What To Do When Your Vaginal Birth Plan Changes
Words: Donyae Coles
An unexpected C-section can be upsetting, but you can still have a great birth experience.
This piece is part of our Empowered Birth series, highlighting ways Black women can have birth experiences that leave them and their families feeling safe and respected. Click here for more stories.
There was no reason for me to expect anything but a vaginal birth with my third child.
The first two had gone without any issues and my doctor said that my son would be the same.
They were wrong. When I got to the hospital, I was informed that he was breech, sitting at at an odd angle, and, at 8.7 lb., too big to come out upside down.
In a matter of minutes I went from “routine vaginal delivery” to “we’re medically advising a C-section.”
I’m not alone. Many women go through cesarean sections to deliver their babies. According to the CDC, about 32% of all deliveries in the U.S. are C-sections, which is no small number.
Although some of them are planned, due to unforeseen complications, many women find themselves in a situation like mine.
My doctors did give me the option to try and labor vaginally, but after assessing the risks to the baby, I decided that it would be best to have a C-section. While I personally don’t have any lingering anger or sadness from the procedure, many women experience trauma through this process. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
Let’s put out some facts here.
The rate of C-sections in American hospitals is high. The numbers are about one in three, and of those Black women have the most. (A variety of reasons for this has been given, including health—our tendency to have higher instances of obesity, hypertension, fibroids, and other issues—and race-based discrepancies in treatment.)
Many C-sections are performed for non-emergency reasons, Nataki Bhatti, a Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania-based radical birth worker and advocate points out. With that in mind, it’s important for women to understand why they are being advised to receive one so they can make their own choices about the procedure. Nataki advises having a doula to ensure that there is someone there to support the mother as she advocates for herself with medical staff.
One of the reasons that I had a nontraumatic outcome is because my doctors spoke with me at length about the procedure. I had the time and space to ask my questions and get answers. Part of this was because my baby was not in distress (he was just stubborn). But even if he had been, your medical staff should be able to explain to you what is happening to YOUR body in all but the most dire cases where seconds count.
This is something that Nataki feels is missing from many of these experiences. The mother can sometimes be treated as if she’s just a vessel.
“Make sure they are respecting the mother and baby as one biological unit. Mother and baby as one, in utero and out,” she says.
She also tells expecting mothers to really understand what a C-section is. It’s an abdominal surgery. And although it is fairly routine, your body is going through a major process that it will need to heal from.
If you’re upset about this change to your birth plan, Awa, a birth and postpartum doula based in Nashville, suggests following everything else you set before you knew you were having a C-section.
“Stick to everything else in the plan,” she says. “Skin-to-skin once it's safe for you, no bath, making sure vernix is rubbed in not wiped off, and breastfeeding as soon as possible.” (Vernix is the white, sort of waxy coating on newborns when they come out of the womb. Rubbing it in helps provide them with some protection from pathogens and moisturizes the skin.)
If part of your birth plan included breastfeeding, you can still do so after a C-section, right there in the OR! You can’t move very much due to the anesthesia, so you’ll need to have help from the medical staff or your partner, but it is possible and safe. This is something that should be discussed with the staff prior to the operation and they should be reminded after the baby is delivered that you requested this. Make sure your partner or doula can advocate for you if you wish to pursue this.
Education and advocacy can help you through the procedure, but the major part happens afterwards, during your healing. Recovery after having a C-section is different from a vaginal birth. It takes longer—6 weeks or more—and it may make it more difficult for you to care for your babies.
During this time of recovery, support is important! Having people who are willing to help around the house, with other children, or just with the baby will go a long way. Keeping the baby close so that mom doesn’t have to move to far, especially in the first few days home, will allow her to bond even though she is limited in her movements. Bending and some breastfeeding positions may be difficult so utilizing a football hold in nursing as well as using supports, such as a Boppy pillow, may help.
The most important thing (and the hardest!) is to rest during the recovery period. Your body needs food and sleep to fully heal from what it has gone through.
Having to go through a C-section doesn’t mean that your body has failed or that your birthing experience was any less than a vaginal one. Although the shock of changing your vaginal birth plan can be upsetting, by asking questions, sticking to the rest of your plan, and receiving ample support from your birth support network, your birth can be just as powerful and fulfilling, even if it isn’t exactly how you planned it.
Donyae Coles is a healing justice writer. She has been published on Splinter News, Vox, and Wear Your Voice. You can follow her work @okokno on Twitter.