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Cesarean section

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

A cesarean section, also known as a C-section, is an operation where your baby is delivered through a cut in your tummy and womb. It’s a major operation, so is only carried out when necessary and safe for you and your baby by your specialist doctor (obstetrician). About 1 in 3 babies in the US are delivered in this way.

Why you might have a cesarean section?

If the doctor thinks it may be too risky for you to have a natural birth, a cesarean may be planned in advance as an elective procedure. It may also be done as an emergency - this is usually decided during labor if a vaginal birth puts you or your baby at immediate risk.

An elective procedure is usually done from the 39th week and may be planned for if:

  • You have complications such as pregnancy-related high blood pressure or a low-lying placenta (placenta previa).
  • You have pre-existing conditions such as genital infections or untreated HIV.
  • Your baby is in the incorrect position (breech) and has not been able to be turned around.

An emergency C-section may occur if:

  • Your labor is moving slower than planned, it is not progressing or there is significant vaginal bleeding.
  • Your baby is not getting enough oxygen or nutrients and they appear distressed.

What are the risks of a C-section?

C-sections are generally a very safe procedure but as with any surgery, they do carry a certain amount of risk.

These risks can be both immediate and delayed. Immediate complications include excessive bleeding, damage to any organs nearby like the kidneys or bladder, and damage to the baby when the womb is opened. Delayed complications can be infection, delayed healing of the wound, or blood clots. A cesarean can also result in temporary breathing difficulties in your baby. 

Can I ask for a C-section?

You can certainly request to have a cesarean for non-medical reasons, but some hospitals have strict policies to only allow cesarean sections for medical reasons, so it’s worth doing thorough research beforehand. Your midwife or doctor will talk you through your options, concerns, and worries and weigh up the risks and benefits of how you will deliver your baby.

What happens during and after a C-section?

Cesareans are carried out under anesthesia, a procedure that will make you numb to pain and paralyze your muscles so that the doctors can operate. This is usually done under a spinal or epidural anesthetic, where you won’t be put to sleep but will still be numb from the back/hip downwards. 

A 4-8 inch cut is made along your tummy below your bikini line. You won’t be able to see what is happening as you will be separated by a screen but may feel some pulling and tugging. Normally, the whole procedure lasts around 40 to 50 minutes. Your birthing partner will be allowed to be in the operating room with you and as soon as both you and baby are safe, you will both be given your baby to hold.

After a C-section, you may be required to stay in the hospital for a few days. It's not unusual to feel some pain in the area for a few days afterward. Most health professionals advise you to abstain from heavy lifting and strenuous exercise or driving for 6 weeks until you have had your postnatal check and your team are confident that you are healing well. 

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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