Caesarean birth

A caesarean section is an operation to deliver your baby through a cut made in your abdomen (tummy) and womb. It's also known as a 'C-section'.

The cut is usually made across your tummy, just below your bikini line. The operation generally lasts around 45 minutes. It can take longer or be quicker.

Some caesarean births are planned. Others are emergency caesarean births, when complications happen during labour.

A spinal anaesthetic or epidural is used in most caesarean births. This means you're awake during the operation and you don't feel any pain.

Emergency caesarean birth

An emergency caesarean birth happens when something unexpected happens during labour. The decision to do this instead of a vaginal birth is made during pregnancy or during labour. This could be for your health or for the health of your baby.

The most common reasons for an emergency caesarean birth are:

  • labour isn't progressing
  • the baby needs to be born quickly

It can seem like things move very fast after this decision. There are some procedures to prepare you for a caesarean section, such as blood tests and forms to sign. There will be more urgency if your baby might not be getting enough oxygen.

Most caesarean births are done under spinal anaesthetic, which means you're awake during the operation.

If you were given an epidural before the decision was made to have a caesarean, the medication in it can be 'topped up'. This means you'll be awake for the birth of your baby.

A general anaesthetic may be needed in an emergency situation as this is quicker. If you have a general anaesthetic you'll be asleep for the operation.

Elective (planned) caesarean birth

An elective caesarean birth is a planned one. The decision is made earlier in your pregnancy than an emergency caesarean. You'll normally get a date for your elective caesarean birth.

Common reasons for an elective caesarean birth are:

  • you had 1 or more caesarean births before (a 'repeat' caesarean birth)
  • your baby remains in the breech position
  • your doctor thinks a vaginal birth might be too difficult – for example, because the baby is very big
  • complications have arisen – for example, the baby isn't growing well or the placenta is too low (placenta praevia)

There is more time to prepare you for the procedure. Elective caesarean births tend to feel less rushed and may be less stressful for mothers.

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Page last reviewed: 17 September 2018
Next review due: 17 September 2021