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If you have had a C-section and would like information about how a cesarean affects future deliveries, see the topic Vaginal Birth After Cesarean (VBAC).

What is a cesarean section?

A cesarean section is the delivery of a baby through a cut (incision) in the mother's belly and uterus. It is often called a C-section. In most cases, a woman can be awake during the birth and be with her newborn soon afterward. See a picture of a delivery by C-sectioncamera.gif.

If you are pregnant, chances are good that you will be able to deliver your baby through the birth canal (vaginal birth). But there are cases when a C-section is needed for the safety of the mother or baby. So even if you plan on a vaginal birth, it's a good idea to learn about C-section, in case the unexpected happens.

When is a C-section needed?

A C-section may be planned or unplanned. In most cases, doctors do cesarean sections because of problems that arise during labor. Reasons you might need an unplanned C-section include:

  • Labor is slow and hard or stops completely.
  • The baby shows signs of distress, such as a very fast or slow heart rate.
  • A problem with the placenta or umbilical cord puts the baby at risk.
  • The baby is too big to be delivered vaginally.

When doctors know about a problem ahead of time, they may schedule a C-section. Reasons you might have a planned C-section include:

  • The baby is not in a head-down position close to your due date.
  • You have a problem such as heart disease that could be made worse by the stress of labor.
  • You have an infection that you could pass to the baby during a vaginal birth.
  • You are carrying more than one baby (multiple pregnancy).
  • You had a C-section before, and you have the same problems this time or your doctor thinks labor might cause your scar to tear (uterine rupture).

In some cases, a woman who had a C-section in the past may be able to deliver her next baby through the birth canal. This is called vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC). If you have had a previous C-section, ask your doctor if VBAC might be an option this time.

In the past 40 years, the rate of cesarean deliveries has jumped from about 1 out of 20 births to about 1 out of 3 births.1 This trend has caused experts to worry that C-section is being done more often than it is needed. Because of the risks, experts feel that C-section should only be done for medical reasons.

What are the risks of C-section?

Most mothers and babies do well after C-section. But it is major surgery, so it carries more risk than a normal vaginal delivery. Some possible risks of C-section include:

  • Infection of the incision or the uterus.
  • Heavy blood loss.
  • Blood clots in the mother's legs or lungs.
  • Injury to the mother or baby.
  • Problems from the anesthesia, such as nausea, vomiting, and severe headache.
  • Breathing problems in the baby if it was delivered before its due date.

If she gets pregnant again, a woman with a C-section scar has a small risk of the scar tearing open during labor (uterine rupture). She also has a slightly higher risk of a problem with the placenta, such as placenta previa.

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: February 23, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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