Around 1 in 5 births in the UK happen via caesarean section (also known as a C-section). Despite this, you may find that you don’t know much about the process and how it’s different to vaginal birth. If you’re due to have a caesarean section or want to support someone who is, we’ve compiled a guide to help you understand C-sections.
What is a C-section?
A C-section is different from vaginal birth. Instead of being born through the birth canal, the baby is delivered through a cut in the person’s stomach. It’s common to plan for a C-section (this is called an elective C-section). However, emergency caesareans are sometimes necessary if your labour is stalled (your cervix isn’t dilating enough), your baby is in an abnormal position, or your umbilical cord has slipped down and is blocking your cervix.
Since a caesarean is a form of surgery, it always takes place in the hospital, even if you planned for a home birth. You can book a planned caesarean in advance so you know exactly when your baby is coming. If you need an emergency caesarean, the hospital staff will ensure you’re in the right place and have what you need for the procedure.
It can be worth trying some activities to encourage optimal fetal positioning during pregnancy so that you’re less likely to need an emergency caesarean when you give birth.
Are there any risks to having a C-section?
There are both benefits and risks to having a C-section. You’ll be put through an assessment during pregnancy to see if you need to have a caesarean - this will usually be around the 39 week mark.
Although the procedure doesn’t take as long as vaginal birth, recovery time after a C-section takes much longer. You’re at risk of tearing your stitches, especially if you try to lift heavy objects.
Any surgery comes with the risk of infection or serious bleeding. There’s also a greater risk of babies developing temporary breathing problems when they’re born via a caesarean, and they’re more likely to need neonatal care than babies born vaginally.
If you’ve had a previous caesarean, you’re more likely to have C-sections for any further children. Despite the potential risks, a C-section is sometimes the safest option for giving birth, so it’s important to weigh the pros and cons before having your baby.
How do I prepare for a C-section?
A week before your C-section takes place, you’ll attend a pre-operative appointment. You may need to do a blood test, and you may be given medication (such as antibiotics) to take leading up to the C-Section. You can also ask any questions about the operation, and your doctor or midwife can walk you through it.
When you arrive at the hospital for your C-section, you’ll change into a hospital gown. Your doctor will insert a catheter into your bladder to empty it whilst you’re under anaesthetic. Parts of your pubic hair may be trimmed if necessary. You’ll need to make sure that you don’t eat or drink anything a few hours before your C-section.
If you know you’re having a caesarean, it can be worth including this in your birth plan.
What will happen during my C-section?
Before your C-section begins, your doctor will provide you with an anaesthetic so that you won’t feel any pain. The most common form of pain relief for C-sections is a spinal anaesthetic, which means you’ll be awake whilst your baby is delivered; you just won’t be able to feel your lower body. However, if you’re at risk for blood clots, you may be given a general anaesthetic instead, which means you’ll be unconscious for the birth.
You’ll take your place on an operating table. A screen will be put up around your middle so that you won’t be able to see what’s happening. A 10cm to 20cm incision will be made just below your underwear line, and your doctor will deliver the baby through this cut. You’ll be stitched up afterwards with dissolvable stitches.
Once your baby is born, a midwife will take your baby away to be dried and warmed. They’ll also check that there aren’t any complications. After this, you can hold your baby and have your first skin to skin contact. The whole procedure generally takes less than an hour, so it’s faster than a vaginal delivery.
How long will it take to recover from my C-section?
Every person who undergoes a C-section will have a different recovery time, although it usually takes around 6 weeks for your incision to heal properly.
Whilst you’re recovering, it’s recommended that you don’t lift anything heavier than your baby, as you can risk tearing your stitches. You should also do your best to drink lots of fluids and rest as much as possible. Resting may be difficult when you have a newborn to look after, but don’t be afraid to ask for help from your partner, friends, or family whilst you recover.
Although you should rest, it’s worth thinking about ways to keep fit after giving birth to keep up your energy levels and make sure you’re still staying healthy.
Some hospitals give you the option of joining an Enhanced Recovery Programme (ERP), where they guide you through recovery to get you back on your feet as soon as possible. This varies from hospital to hospital, so it’s worth checking what your hospital can do for you.
Whilst you heal, you can expect a C-section scar to form. Some C-section scars will fade over time until they’re barely noticeable, and they’re usually small. If your incision hasn’t healed within 6 weeks, you should seek guidance from your doctor.
Why is there a stigma around C-sections?
Even though 1 in 5 babies are born via caesarean birth, there’s still a stigma around it for being ‘unnatural’. However, it’s important to remember that many C-sections happen to reduce the risk of the baby or the parent getting injured. Sometimes it’s the only option for the health and care of your baby.
Some people also choose to have C-sections for non-medical reasons. They understand the risks, but they’d prefer not to go through vaginal delivery. Ultimately, whatever way someone decides to give birth is up to them, and it doesn’t invalidate them being a parent.
Final thoughts from Kami
C-sections can seem scary when you don’t know much about what happens during the procedure. Paired with the stigma around caesareans, you might be worried that this isn’t the right way to give birth. However, you’ll be in safe hands when undergoing a C-section. Whether you planned it or you need an emergency caesarean at the last minute, doctors and midwives are there to help you and ensure you and your baby are healthy in the end.