A Cesarean section (often called a C-section) is a surgical procedure to deliver a baby. The baby is taken out through the mother's abdomen. Most cesarean births result in healthy babies and mothers. But c-section is major surgery and carries risks. Healing also takes longer than with vaginal birth.
Most healthy pregnant women with no risk factors for problems during labor or delivery have their babies vaginally. Still, the cesarean birth rate in the United States has risen greatly in recent decades. Today, nearly 1 in 3 women have babies by c-section in the United States.
What are the reasons for having a C-section?
Your doctor might recommend a C-section if he or she thinks it is safer for you or your baby than vaginal birth. Some C-sections are planned. But most C-sections are done when unexpected problems happen during delivery. Even so, there are risks of delivering by c-section. Limited studies show that the benefits of having a c-section may outweigh the risks when:
- the mother is carrying more than one baby (twins, triplets, etc.)
- he mother has health problems including HIV infection, herpes infection, and heart disease
- the mother has dangerously high blood pressure
- the mother has problems with the shape of her pelvis
- there are problems with the placenta
- there are problems with the umbilical cord
- there are problems with the position of the baby, such as breech
- the baby shows signs of distress, such as a slowed heart rate
- the mother has had a previous C-section
What happens during a C-section?
Most C-sections are unplanned. So, learning about C-sections is important for all women who are pregnant. Whether a C-section is planned or comes up during labor, it can be a positive birth experience for many women. The overview that follows will help you to know what to expect during a nonemergency c-section and what questions to ask.
Cesarean delivery takes about 45 to 60 minutes. It takes place in an operating room. So if you were in a labor and delivery room, you will be moved to an operating room. Often, the mood of the operating room is unhurried and relaxed. A doctor will give you medicine through an epidural or spinal block, which will block the feeling of pain in part of your body but allow you to stay awake and alert. The spinal block works right away and completely numbs your body from the chest down. The epidural takes away pain, but you might be aware of some tugging or pushing. Medicine that makes you fall asleep and lose all awareness is usually only used in emergency situations. Your abdomen will be cleaned and prepped. You will have an IV for fluids and medicines. A nurse will insert a catheter to drain urine from your bladder. This is to protect the bladder from harm during surgery. Your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing also will be monitored. Questions to ask:
- Can I have a support person with me during the operation?
- What are my options for blocking pain?
- Can I have music played during the surgery?
- Will I be able to watch the surgery if I want?
The doctor will make 2 incisions. The first is about 6 inches long and goes through the skin, fat, and muscle. Most incisions are made side to side and low on the abdomen, called a bikini incision. Next, the doctor will make an incision to open the uterus. The opening is made just wide enough for the baby to fit through. One doctor will use a hand to support the baby while another doctor pushes the uterus to help push that baby out. Fluid will be suctioned out of your baby's mouth and nose. The doctor will hold up your baby for you to see. Once your baby is delivered, the umbilical cord is cut, and the placenta is removed. Then, the doctor cleans and stitches up the uterus and abdomen. The repair takes up most of the surgery time.
Questions to ask:
- Can my partner cut the umbilical cord?
- What happens to my baby right after delivery?
- Can I hold and touch my baby during the surgery repair?
- When is it okay for me to try to breastfeed?
- When can my partner take pictures or video?
You will be moved to a recovery room and monitored for a few hours. You might feel shaky, nauseated, and very sleepy. Later, you will be brought to a hospital room. When you and your baby are ready, you can hold, snuggle, and nurse your baby. Many people will be excited to see you. But don't accept too many visitors. Use your time in the hospital, usually about 4 days, to rest and bond with your baby. C-section is major surgery, and recovery takes about 6 weeks (not counting the fatigue of new motherhood). In the weeks ahead, you will need to focus on healing, getting as much rest as possible, and bonding with your baby — nothing else. Be careful about taking on too much and accept help as needed.
Questions to ask:
- Can my baby be brought to me in the recovery room?
- What are the best positions for me to breastfeed?
Can I have a vaginal birth after C-section (VBAC)?
Some women who have delivered previous babies by C-section would like to have their next baby vaginally. This is called vaginal delivery after C-section or VBAC. There are many reasons why some women want a VBAC. Some want to avoid the risks and long recovery of surgery. Others want to experience vaginal delivery. Of women who try VBAC, 60 percent to 80 percent are able to deliver vaginally.
But VBAC isn't the right choice for everyone. Some women have health or pregnancy complications that make VBAC unsafe. For other women, the risks of C-section are more acceptable than the risks of VBAC. Still, others don't live near a hospital where VBAC is possible.
Your doctor can tell you if you are a good candidate for VBAC. VBAC might be an option for you if:
- You had 1 previous planned c-section done with a low, horizontal incision ("bikini" incision)
- You have no other uterine scars (aside from the prior c-section) or problems
- You have no known problems with your pelvis
- A doctor will be present during all of labor and delivery and can perform an emergency c-section if needed
- A surgical team is immediately available in case an emergency c-section is needed.
Your doctor can explain the risks of both repeat cesarean delivery and VBAC. With VBAC, the most serious danger is the chance that the C-section scar on the uterus will open up during labor and delivery. This is called uterine rupture. While very rare, uterine rupture is very dangerous for the mother and baby. Less than 1 percent of VBACs lead to uterine rupture. But doctors cannot predict if uterine rupture is likely to occur in a woman. This risk, albeit very small, is unacceptable to some women.
The percent of VBACs is dropping in the United States for many reasons. Some doctors, hospitals, and patients have concerns about the safety of VBAC. Some hospitals and doctors are unwilling to do VBACs because of fear of lawsuits and insurance or staffing expenses. Many doctors, however, question if this trend is in the best interest of women's health.
Choosing to try a VBAC is complex. If you are interested in a VBAC, talk to your doctor and read up on the subject. Only you and your doctor can decide what is best for you. VBACs and planned c-sections both have their benefits and risks. Learn the pros and cons and be aware of possible problems before you make your choice.