What you need to know about c-section

Most women have their babies through vaginal birth. But some women can’t have their babies this way. They may have problems with their pregnancy or during labor. When this happens, a woman may need to have her baby by cesarean birth (also called c-section). A c-section is surgery in which your baby is born through a cut that your doctor makes in your belly and uterus.

You and your health care provider may plan for a c-section because of medical reasons that make vaginal birth unsafe. Or you may need to have an emergency (unplanned) c-section because of a problem that happens during pregnancy. If you’re planning to schedule a c-section, talk to your provider about waiting until at least 39 weeks of pregnancy. This gives your baby the time he needs to grow and develop before birth.

If your pregnancy is healthy and you don’t have any medical reasons to have a c-section, it’s best to have your baby through vaginal birth.

What are the risks of having a c-section?

A c-section is major surgery, so it may have more complications than a vaginal birth. These include: 

  • Infection in the incision (cut), uterus (womb) or other pelvic organs, including the vagina and bladder
  • Increased bleeding that requires a blood transfusion. A blood transfusion is when you have new blood put into your body.
  • Problems with your bladder or bowel
  • Blood clots in your legs, pelvic organs or lungs
  • Reaction to certain medicines, including anesthesia you get during surgery. Anesthesia is medicine that makes you numb so you can’t feel pain.
  • Problems in future pregnancies. Once you have a c-section, you may be more likely in future pregnancies to have a c-section. The more c-sections you have, the more likely you are to have problems in future pregnancies, including problems with the placenta. The placenta grows in your uterus and supplies the baby with food and oxygen through the umbilical cord. Some women who’ve had a c-section may be able to have a vaginal birth after c-section (also called VBAC). VBAC isn’t safe for all women, though. If your pregnancy is health and you’re planning to have more children later, it’s best to have your baby through vaginal birth unless there are medical reasons to have a c-section. 
  • Trouble breastfeeding. Women who have c-sections may be less likely to breastfeed than women who have vaginal births. Talk to your provider about what you can do to start breastfeeding as soon as you can.
  • Death. Although this is rare, a woman is more likely to die during a c-section than during vaginal birth.

A c-section also can cause problems for your baby:

  • Birth before 39 weeks. Babies need at least 39 weeks in the womb to grow and develop before they’re born. If you have your c-section too early, your baby may be born too early. This can cause health problems for your baby at birth and later in life.
  • Breathing problems and other health problems
  • Reaction to the anesthesia that causes your baby to be inactive or sluggish

What happens during a c-section?

Anesthesia: Most likely you can have regional anesthesia (called an epidural or spinal) that let’s you stay awake for your baby’s birth. This means you’re numb from below your breasts all the way down to your toes. If you have an emergency c-section, you may need general anesthesia. General anesthesia makes you go to sleep during surgery.

Before surgery:

  1. The nurse washes and, perhaps, shaves your belly so the area is clean for surgery.
  2. You get a catheter (tube) in your bladder to drain urine.
  3. You get an IV (needle) in you hand or arm to give you fluids and anesthesia.

During surgery:

  1. When you’re numb, the doctor makes the first cut in your belly. If your c-section is planned, it most likely will be a bikini cut. It goes across your belly, just above your pubic bone.
  2. The doctor makes the next cut in the uterus. A horizontal (across) cut is best because it doesn't bleed too much and heals well. Sometimes, the doctor has to make a vertical (up and down) cut, though, because of the baby’s position. 
  3. The doctor opens the amniotic sac and takes out the baby. You may feel some tugging, pulling and pressure.
  4. The doctor cuts the umbilical cord and removes the placenta.
  5. The doctor closes the incisions with stitches or staples.

What’s recovery like after a c-section?

It usually takes longer to recover from a c-section than vaginal birth. You can expect to stay 3 to 4 days in the hospital after a c-section. Full recovery usually takes 4 to 6 weeks. 

Here’s what you can do to feel better faster:

  • Talk to your health care provider about pain medicine. She can recommend one that won’t hurt the baby while you’re breastfeeding.
  • If your provider says it’s OK, get out of bed and walk around within 24 hours after surgery. This can help you have a bowel movement and prevent blood clots. Make sure a nurse or another adult is there to help you the first few times you get out of bed.
  • Tell your provider if you have a fever or pain in your incision. These could be signs of infection.
  • To prevent infection, don’t have sex or put anything (including tampons) in your vagina for a few weeks after your c-section. Ask your health care provider when it’s safe to do these things again.
  • Take it easy. Avoid hard activities, like lifting heavy things, for a few weeks. Try to sleep when your baby does.

How can you get ready for a c-section?

Here’s what you can do to prepare for your c-section:

  • Learn as much as you can about c-sections. Ask your provider about what to expect and about different kinds of anesthesia. Talk to friends and family members who have had a c-section. 
  • Get help at home. Ask friends or family to be there after your baby’s born to help take care of the baby, other children and household tasks.
  • Find out if your partner can be with you in the operating room.
  • If you think you want to watch your baby’s birth, tell your provider and the nurses at the hospital.
  • Tell your provider and the nurses that you want to hold the baby right after birth. This should be OK unless your baby needs medical attention. You can breastfeed right after birth, too.

What if you feel badly about needing to have a c-section?

Some women who have a c-section may feel disappointed that they didn't have a vaginal birth. Their partners may feel this way, too. If you feel disappointed, angry or depressed after having a c-section, here’s what you can do:

  • Remember that having a healthy baby is more important than how the baby is born.
  • Ask your provider to explain why you needed a c-section. This can help you understand why it was best for you and your baby.
  • Remember that you can’t control everything. Sometimes unexpected events make a c-section the safest choice.
  • Don’t worry if you get emotional after your baby’s birth. Some of your feelings may be caused by hormonal changes that many women experience after having a baby.
  • Share your feelings with your partner, family, friends or provider.
  • If you have feelings of sadness or anger that don’t go away after 2 weeks, tell your provider.

Last reviewed June 2013

Most common questions

Can I schedule my c-section?

Yes. But more and more c-sections are being scheduled early for non-medical reasons.
Experts are learning that this can cause problems for both mom and baby. If you know you're having a c-section, wait until at least 39 weeks of pregnancy. This helps you make sure your baby has all the time she needs to grow before she's born. You may not have a choice about when to have your baby. If there are problems with your pregnancy or your baby's health, you may need to have your c-section earlier. But if you have a choice and you're planning to schedule your c-section, wait until at least 39 weeks.

What are some reasons to have a c-section?

You may need a c-section if there are medical problems that put you or your baby in danger. For example, you may need a c-section if your baby is too big to pass through the birth canal, or if the baby is in a breech position (feet first) or a transverse position (shoulder first). The best position for your baby is head first. You may need a c-section if your labor is really slow or if the baby's heart rate slows during labor. Other reasons for a c-section include having problems with the placenta or with the umbilical cord, having an infection that you can pass to your baby during birth, and being pregnant with twins or more. If you've had a c-section in a previous pregnancy, you may need to have one in your next pregnancy. If your pregnancy is healthy and there's no medical reason to have a c-section, it's best to plan for a vaginal birth and wait for labor to start on its own. Ask your provider if there are reasons why you may need to have a c-section.

What kind of anesthesia should I get during a c-section?

Most likely you'll have regional anesthesia so you can stay awake for your baby's birth. This kind of anesthesia numbs you from below your breasts all the way down to your toes. If you have an emergency c-section, you may need general anesthesia. General anesthesia makes you go to sleep during the surgery.

©2013 March of Dimes Foundation. The March of Dimes is a non-profit organization recognized as tax-exempt under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3).