Here we look at what vaginal birth means, the risks and benefits and how likely it is that you will have a vaginal birth.
What is a vaginal birth?
A vaginal birth is when a baby is born through the vagina.
Nearly 70% of women give birth vaginally (NHS Digital, 2021a), but it can happen in different ways.
For many women, labour begins spontaneously and continues at its own pace until the baby is born through the vagina. For others, labour is started by induction followed by a vaginal birth.
Some babies will be born vaginally but assisted by a doctor using forceps or ventouse. This is called ‘instrumental’ or ‘assisted’ birth.
Sometimes labour may progress towards having a vaginal birth but then moves to an unplanned or emergency caesarean birth for various reasons, which can include the safety of mother or baby.
Why may some women want a vaginal birth?
It’s important that you don’t feel pressurised to give birth a certain way and that you plan a birth that is right, safe and comfortable for you, although circumstances can and do change during labour. Women may want a vaginal birth for various reasons.
It can mean they have:
- More choice over where to give birth
- More choice about who is in the room with them during labour and birth
- A shorter recovery time and shorter stay in hospital (NICE, 2021; RCOG, 2022)
- Fewer complications in future pregnancies (RCOG, 2022; NICE, 2021)
- No chance of abdominal scar tissue (adhesions) which can cause internal pain and problems with operations later in life (RCOG, 2022)
- Lower chance of hysterectomy and injury to other internal organs (RCOG, 2022)
- Hormones released as part of labour which support breastfeeding (Hobbs et al, 2016)
- A higher chance of uninterrupted skin to skin contact after birth, which helps initiate breastfeeding (Moore et al, 2016)
Some women may plan a caesarean birth instead, for personal or medical reasons.
Are there any risks of having a vaginal birth?
Giving birth vaginally is generally very safe. However, there are a few risks of vaginal birth (one that doesn’t involve forceps or ventouse), that you should be aware of.
It is likely that you will have a graze or tear around the vagina. These tears are usually minor and heal naturally, or with a few stitches, over the following weeks (RCOG, n.d.a).
If vaginal birth needs some help, then an assisted birth with ventouse or forceps birth may be offered. In this case, research shows, the risk of tearing increases (RCOG, n.d.b; RCOG, n.d.c).
For some women, there is also a very small chance that they might have problems with urinary, or more rarely, faecal incontinence, which means not being able to control your bladder or your bowels. This is more likely if you are already having continence issues during late pregnancy. The chance increases when birth is assisted with forceps or ventouse (Hatem et al, 2007; Johannessen et al, 2018).
How likely is it that I will have a vaginal birth?
Here is some information about how women gave birth in 2020-2021:
- Almost half (47%) had spontaneous onset of labour
- Around 3 in 10 (34%) had their labour induced
- Over half (54%) had a vaginal birth with no forceps or ventouse
- Around 1 in 7 (13%) had a birth with forceps or ventouse
- Around 1 in 6 (15%) had an unplanned caesarean birth
(NHS Digital, 2021b)
This page was last reviewed in September 2022.
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NHS Digital (2021a) NHS maternity statistics, 2020-2021. HES maternity statistics tables. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/nhs-maternity-statistics/2020-21. [Accessed 7 Sep 22]
NHS Digital (2021b) NHS maternity statistics, 2020-2021. Summary reports. Available at: https://digital.nhs.uk/data-and-information/publications/statistical/nhs-maternity-statistics/2020-21. [Accessed 7 Sep 22]
Hatem M., Pasquier C., Fraser W., Lepire, E. (2007) Factors Associated With Postpartum Urinary/Anal Incontinence in Primiparous Women in Quebec. Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology Canada. 29(3): 232-239. https://doi.org/10.1016/S1701-2163(16)32402-1
Hobbs A, Mannion C, McDonald S, Brockway M, Tough S. (2016) The impact of caesarean section on breastfeeding initiation, duration and difficulties in the first four months postpartum. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 16:90. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-016-0876-1 Johannessen, H. H., Signe, N. S., Ragnhild Sørum Falk, Stordahl, A., Wibe, A., & Mørkved, S. (2018). Prevalence and predictors of double incontinence 1 year after first delivery. International Urogynecology Journal, 29(10), 1529-1535. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00192-018-3577-7
Moore E, Bergman N, Anderson G, Medley N. (2016) Early skin-to-skin contact for mums and their healthy newborn infants’. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. (11):CD003519. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1002/14651858.CD003519.pub4
NICE (2021a) Caesarean birth [NG192]: Tools and resources A: Benefits and risks of vaginal and caesarean birth. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng192/resources [Accessed 6 Sep 22]
RCOG (2022) Considering a caesarean birth patient information leaflet. https://www.rcog.org.uk/for-the-public/browse-all-patient-information-leaflets/considering-a-caesarean-birth-patient-information-leaflet/ [Accessed 6 Sep 22]
RCOG (n.d.a) Perineal tears during childbirth. https://www.rcog.org.uk/for-the-public/perineal-tears-and-episiotomies-in-childbirth/perineal-tears-during-childbirth/ [Accessed 6 Sep 22]
RCOG (n.d.b) Episiotomy. https://www.rcog.org.uk/for-the-public/perineal-tears-and-episiotomies-in-childbirth/episiotomy/ [Accessed 6 Sep 22]
RCOG (n.d.c) Information for you: an assisted vaginal birth (ventouse or forceps). https://www.rcog.org.uk/for-the-public/browse-all-patient-information-leaflets/assisted-vaginal-birth-ventouse-or-forceps/ [Accessed 6 Sep 22]