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Cesarean Section: Your Questions Answered

What to expect if you’re having a C-section.

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A cesarean section, commonly called a C-section, is a surgical procedure to deliver a baby. The baby is delivered through an incision in the abdomen and uterus rather than through the vagina.

A C-section is major surgery. Doctors may recommend having a C-section when it’s medically safer than a vaginal delivery for you, your baby or both.

You may need a C-section if:

  • Your labor is ineffective for a vaginal delivery.
  • You're having more than one baby.
  • There are problems with the placenta. This is the organ that nourishes your baby in the womb.
  • You have HIV, herpes or another infection and want to lower the risk of giving it to the baby by avoiding a vaginal delivery.
  • The baby is too large to pass safely through the birth canal. Or the baby may be entering shoulders first (tranverse) or buttocks and feet first (breech).
  • You have a serious medical condition like diabetes or high blood pressure that could endanger you or your baby during a vaginal delivery.
  • You have umbilical cord prolapse. The umbilical cord drops into the vagina where it could be squeezed or flattened during delivery cutting off oxygen to the baby.
  • Your baby’s heart slows or shows other signs of distress from labor.
  • You’ve had a previous C-section. Many women can have a vaginal birth after having a C-section, but there is an increased risk of uterine rupture.

What are the risks of a C-section?

C-sections are generally safe, but the risk of complications is greater than with a vaginal delivery.

Possible problems include:

  • Infection of the uterus, bladder, other pelvic organs or the incision site
  • Injuries to the bladder or bowel
  • An adverse reaction to anesthesia

Sometimes a C-section is performed as an emergency surgery if problems have developed during vaginal delivery. It is usually done as quickly as possible.

How is a C-section done?

To prepare, you will have an intravenous line placed in your arm or hand for you to receive fluids and medication during surgery. A catheter will be inserted to drain your bladder that will help prevent injury during surgery. The actual cesarean surgery usually lasts about an hour or less.

If this is a non-emergency C-section, you will most likely be awake during the birth, but pain-free with the use of a spinal or epidural anesthetic. Your baby will be delivered during the first part of surgery by an incision that will be made in your abdomen. It may be low and horizontal. This is called a “bikini-line” incision. Or the incision may be low and vertical, below your belly button.

During the second part of surgery, your placenta will be removed through the same incisions. Both incisions are then closed.

What can I expect to feel like after a C-section delivery?

Most women spend two to four days in the hospital after a C-section. You will be able to hold and nurse your baby during this time. It may take you several weeks to fully heal. You may have soreness and pain in your abdomen and at the incision site. As with a vaginal delivery, you may have some cramping from the uterus, especially if you nurse. You may have vaginal discharge that can last four to six weeks.

Call your doctor if you experience heavy bleeding, if you have a fever or if your pain worsens. He or she may also give you a list of other symptoms to look out for and recommendations of when to seek emergency evaluation.

Can I request a C-section?

Though all births are risky, vaginal birth is usually the safer option for you and your baby when a C-section is not medically needed. Scheduled C-sections are usually done at week 39 of pregnancy or later to help ensure that the baby’s lungs are fully developed. Because it can be hard to determine the exact date of conception, being even a week off can affect your baby’s health. Talk to your doctor to decide if a C-section is right for you and your baby, and when it would be safely done.

By Susan G. Warner, Contributing Writer

American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. FAQ 006-Cesarean birth. Accessed: July 13, 2016.
UpToDate. Patient information: C-section (cesarean birth) (beyond the basics). Accessed: July 13, 2016.
March of Dimes. Pregnancy. C-section. C-section by request. Accessed: July 13, 2016.

Last Updated: July 14, 2016