What is a C-section?
In most births, the baby exits the uterus through the birth canal after a period of labor. The uterus contracts repeatedly to push the baby out through the vagina. Labor can begin naturally, or your doctors may decide to start labor using medications to induce it.
A Cesarean section (C-section) is a surgical method of delivering a baby. There are some instances when complications make vaginal birth risky for the parent or the baby. Doing a surgical delivery can reduce these risks.
How does a C-section work?
Before a C-section, doctors make sure to use some type of anesthesia so you don't feel the surgery. In general, they use a nerve blocking procedure such as an epidural, so you're numb from the chest down. You can be awake for the procedure.
Once anesthesia is complete, your doctor will make an incision in the abdomen and open the uterus. They carefully deliver the baby and placenta from the uterus. While delivery room nurses take care of your new baby, your doctors will close the incision to complete the operation.
Who needs a C-section?
Every pregnancy, labor, and delivery is unique. At any time in the process, you and your doctor may realize that a vaginal delivery comes with too many risks to you and your baby. In that case, your doctor will perform a C-section. Some of the reasons for a planned C-section include:
- Breech positioning
- Size of the fetus
- Placenta problems
- Underlying health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, HIV infection, or an outbreak of genital herpes
- Twins or higher-order multiples
- Previous C-section
In some cases, you may already be in labor before you and your doctor realizes that you need a C-section. If there are problems with labor, your doctor can order a C-section immediately to save you and your baby. Some reasons for an emergency C-section include:
- Abnormal fetal heart rate. If your baby's heart rate gets too fast or too slow during labor, your baby may be in trouble. When that happens, your doctor will want to deliver the baby as quickly as possible via C-section.
- Abnormal positioning of the fetus during birth. If the baby isn't engaged in the proper position in the birth canal, it can make it difficult or impossible to deliver safely. Babies who are positioned face up instead of face down or whose heads aren't against the cervix can stop progressing into the birth canal. A C-section may be the only option for delivery.
- Problems with labor. If your cervix doesn't dilate enough during labor or contractions don't continue, you will need a C-section to deliver your baby.
If you had an unexpected C-section, you might have mixed emotions about it. Many people are surprised or disappointed when a birth doesn't go as planned. If you feel sad or confused about your C-section, speak with your doctor. They can help you find resources to support you as you recover emotionally.
Physical recovery from a C-section takes time. You will stay in the hospital for several days after delivery. Your doctor and the nurses caring for you will wean you off any nerve blocks, such as an epidural. They will help you get up for the first time so that you can start moving and using the restroom on your own.
You will be allowed to hold and feed your baby immediately after delivery. A C-section should not interfere with any plans to breastfeed. If the hospital permits you to have your baby in your room, you will be able to do so.
Once you and your baby go home, you will have to limit some activities, including:
- Carrying any object heavier than your baby
- Having sex
When you're home, you can take pain medication according to your doctor's instructions. You can start to resume normal activities about 6 weeks after your C-section. During that time, you will need to keep your incision site clean. Follow your doctor's instructions about caring for it.
There is always a risk of infection after surgery. Call your doctor right away if you notice any of the following symptoms:
- Severe pain around your incision
- Swelling, pain, or redness around your incision
- Pus or foul-smelling discharge from your incision
- Leaking urine
- Pain when urinating
- Heavy vaginal bleeding
- Difficulty breathing
- Swelling or pain in your lower leg
If you have questions about C-sections, talk to your doctor. They will be able to address your concerns.
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American Pregnancy Association: "Cesarean After Care."
Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Cesarean Section."
Mayo Clinic: "C-section recovery: What to expect."
National Health Service: "Recovery-Caesarean section."