Cesarian birth Q & A: What’s a C section really like?

What will a C section operation feel like? Smell like? Does it really take 5 minutes? Will the baby be shocked? Now I know the answers to all my cesarean questions

Operating theatre 2014

Operating theatre. Laura Eades 2014

What does an operating theatre look like?

Two things shocked me about being in an operating theatre.

  1. It was very small. The size of a large bathroom. I guess smaller is easier to keep a small room sterile.
  2. It’s like being a car in the mechanic’s. Totally unaesthetic. It’s a workshop. Flourescent lights on the ceiling, a place to lie (not a bed exactly). The ‘curtain’ people had talked about being between me and my abdomen was actually a crackly but functional green plastic tarpaulin pegged up over my head – you probably wouldn’t have taken it on a camping trip. I was still expecting something more like the curtains to a tiny puppet theatre, because I’m an overimaginative idiot.

How long will it take to give birth by cesarean?

The surgery itself was only about five minutes long from incision to birth, and then another quarter of an hour or so to be sewn up. Call it half an hour in total for the actual op. The whole thing, from hospital arrival to being on a ward, took a couple of hours, but most of the time was setting up the spinal injection (the local anaesthetic) etc.

(If you’ve ever had a natural delivery (I did with my first daughter), and you’re gearing up for a C section, then you might be glad this time to know when it’ll finish! )

Who will be in the room during my C section?

There were about ten people.

I knew to expect a lot of people, but when I went into the operating theatre, I was surprised at the activity level! All of those people were madly busy, like ants in a nest. It was as if I was a bomb they needed to defuse very quickly. Only the anaesthetist and my midwife spoke to me much. I had met the obstetrician and the other person doing the surgery on previous occasions.

What does a spinal injection/local anaesthetic feel like?

The anaesthetist told me what was happening at each stage: “Now you’ll feel us stick a plastic sheet to your back”. She put the needle into my spine, which pricked sharply and I breathed deeply. I felt a powerful a fizzle of electricity straight to my right foot which took me by surprise! (I was told she had tickled a nerve somewhere).

My friend said she experienced the sensation of numbness from the chest downwards “like being sat on by a very fat man”.

I tried to breathe deeply and experience the whole thing as fully as I could. I tried to Mindfully enter into all the sensations of the operation! I’m glad I did. Having a spinal made it possible to be lucid and still experience it, but without any (sharp) sensations you’d call pain. I mean, this was my daughter’s birth: I didn’t want to miss it. Even the uncomfortable feelings.

Later, I was told morphine is routinely added to the spinal injection, so it would be more accurate to say I was Mindfully high: able to talk clearly; tuned in; but experiencing things with an enthusiastic intensity. I kept saying to my husband “Whoa! this is really full on!!”.

What does having a cesarian smell like?

It smelled strongly of alcohol (and I could hear it being sprayed). It was like the smell of permanent pens. Board-markers.

What can you hear when you’re having a C section?

I recognised the voices of the team because I’d met them before, even though some of them hadn’t come and said ‘Hi’ to me that day. I don’t remember them speaking to each other at all during the procedure, they must have done it all by sight: thankfully nobody said “pass the saw please Miriam” or “hold this intestine out the way” or anything like that.

The sound that I was told was the cry of my newborn baby was like a whizzy ‘wheee’ sound.

Ha! I had asked earlier if we could play our own CD (our Dutch friend told me in Holland you can have a ‘soft’ C-section with dimmed lighting and Marvin Gaye playing). Germany is rather more pragmatic. Our midwife, who I love, told us: “If you wanna listen to music you’d better go to a concert”.

What will I be able to see during my cesarian?

During the operation, when I was lain down in position, I could only see the tarp, the lights, and the anaesthetist who put her face near enough that I could see her. If I turned my head to look over my shoulder, I could see Chris, when he was there.

I had asked previously if Chris was allowed to peek over the tarp! (I thought he might be curious). I was told it was better he didn’t, since if he fainted that would be problematic, and he wasn’t a medical professional so wouldn’t be used to seeing blood and guts.

What will the C section operation feel like? Will it be painful?

The operating theatre was cold (literally). I was given a warm towel.

I’d thought a lot beforehand, with disbelief and wonderment, about what it might be like to have my abdomen opened and penetrated by a stranger’s hand. A hand! That was going to go inside and then manually pull out various things from inside me! Well, a baby and a placenta (hopefully nothing else).

Having spoken to friends since the C section, I think it’s possible my anaesthetic wasn’t as comprehensively numbing as for other patients. It was still OK. So for me, the operation was moderately, dully painful. In a bearable/absorbable way. Like having a hand inside me as if I were a glove puppet, but the hand kept punching or thumping my back. The intensity of the combined feelings took my breath away.

There was tweaking when they made the incision, pinching feelings, and lots of shaking, like being bruised during turbulence. Plus the catheter, plus the arm pump – I confess I’ve never had an orgy but in the sense of having all-the-sensations-at-once way, this was a kind of orgy of discomfort. Mixed with the excitement of birth of course.

What are they actually doing during the cesarean operation? 

Do you like to visualise what’s happening to you? Want to marvel at the miracle of medical science? Here’s a description of the actual surgical actions during the cesarean. It’s good because it’s written by someone (presumably an obstetrician?) who actually does the procedure! It’s pretty amazing to visualise all the layers of you.

When they open you up, there’s a combination of incisions and ‘manually separating/pulling apart/tearing’ of different tissues – hence the shaking sensations.

What are the advantages of having a C section?

Well, I didn’t really choose it: It was a necessity for the safe arrival of my baby. So, having a healthy baby is a real plus! No fear for the baby’s wellbeing, no panic.

Psychological preparation. As much as you can be prepared for an unknown experience!

Practical preparation: I had a date (it was like getting ready for Christmas!). I could plan for extra help at home, and also tell my nearly-three-year-old daughter exactly when the baby was coming.

The experiential highlights were:

  • Relaxing with my husband, with music on, in a room of our own before the op. It was really peaceful and a shared moment full of acceptance, comfort, intimacy, and promise.
  • Goofing around with my husband’s cameraphone in gowns and green shower caps before the op. Our slightly giddy, celebratory mood.
  • The blood-smeared baby being brought round. This was a great, visceral reality: she was here! And her bloodiness validated the pain I’d felt, and verified that real surgery was actually happening behind that tarp!
  • The surgery. The full-on sensations. Does that sound weird that the painful part was a highlight? Well, I wanted to have a birth experience, not a non-experience.

What are the downsides of a cesarean section?

  • The recovery – but it hasn’t been as bad as I’d imagined by any stretch, fortunately. I think this can really vary person to person. I’ve had a lot of support and domestic help.
  • You have to be away from home for a few days. Depending on staff to help you sit up and lie down isn’t so great. Nor is sitting on a catheter. The nurses and physiotherapists in the hospital were (mostly) understanding. I was super lucky: German hospital is nice and the wards uncrowded.
  • When the morphine wore off, my skin itched like crazy for 24 hours.
  • Having to explain to my toddling daughter that my health is still a bit delicate. She expects me to be able to pick her up…
  • Having to wait before I can exercise. Having to remind myself to take it slow. Taking tons of painkillers. I really want to be out in the fresh air and in the world again, but I don’t want to risk any relapse.

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Have a birth experience you wanna share? Or other surgery?? Click on the pale grey dot with a plus sign under the blogpost to open the comment thread. It would be great to hear from you.

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