Giving birth by caesarean section: elective and emergency c-sections
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A caesarean section, also known as 'c section', is an operation to deliver a baby by making a surgical cut your abdomen and womb.
Birth by caesarean section is increasingly common. In some parts of the UK, as many as 30% of babies are born by caesarean section, so it helps to know in advance what it involves.
There are two types of caesarean section.
- Caesareans planned in advance, usually for medical reasons. These are known as ‘elective’ or 'planned' caesareans.
- Caesareans carried out at short notice, usually during labour. These are known as ‘emergency’ caesareans.
A caesarean might be recommended at any point in pregnancy and labour.
There are a number of different reasons why a caesarean might be necessary or recommended. Read more in our article Reasons for caesarean birth.
Although a caesarean birth is generally considered to be a safe operation, and most mums and their babies recover well, it is still a major operation and there is an impact on both you and your baby.
- You are at risk of haemorrhage (severe bleeding), wound infection, or small blood clots (thrombosis).
- Your physical recovery is likely to take longer than if you had had a vaginal birth.
- You will have a scar on your uterus where the incision was made, which may affect future pregnancies, labour and birth, and could be a consideration with any later gynaecological surgery.
- For babies, there’s a higher chance of having breathing difficulties that continue for a while after the birth. This is because vaginal birth helps a baby to breathe once she is born, as labour prepares the baby’s lungs for breathing. Babies born by caesarean - particularly elective - do not go through this and may be more likely to need to be taken to the neonatal baby unit after birth.
If you have the option to wait, there is evidence that the risk of breathing difficulties is reduced if the caesarean happens after 39 weeks of pregnancy.
For some women the suggestion of a caesarean section, or the decision to carry out the operation, will come as a welcome relief. If you’ve been given good information about why it’s needed, it can feel like the right option for both you and your baby.
For other women, the prospect of a c-section can be disappointing or distressing. If you have not been given enough information, or are not convinced of the need, then you may feel that you have no option but to agree, despite your misgivings. Under these circumstances a caesarean birth can be a traumatic experience.
If you do not feel you have been given sufficient information, or you do not understand your circumstances as well as you would like to, do ask for more information. You have a right to a second opinion, and if there is time (for example, if it is being planned in advance) you can seek further information from elsewhere such as caesarean support organisations or the Internet. Read more about decision-making and c-section delivery in our article Reasons for caesarean birth.
A vaginal birth after a previous c-section is usually referred to as a VBAC (pronounced ‘vee back’). Most women who chose to plan a VBAC have a successful vaginal delivery. Read our article on VBAC for more information.
NCT's helpline offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700. We also offer antenatal courses which are a great way to find out more about labour and life with a new baby.
NHS Choices offers a section on c-sections.
NICE offers evidence-based information on c-section.
The site www.caesarean.org.uk offers research-based information and support on all aspects of c-sections and vaginal delivery following a c-section.