Why Would I Need to Have an Emergency C-Section?

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on November 11, 2022
2 min read

When you’re pregnant, delivering a healthy baby is most likely your biggest concern. And perhaps your birth plan includes a vaginal delivery. However, some situations may make a cesarean section the best option. 

Sometimes a C-section is the only option because your doctor can quickly deliver your baby through incisions in your abdomen and uterus -- in a just a few minutes if necessary.

Often, C-sections are scheduled in advance for several reasons, such as if you’re expecting multiples. But sometimes they become essential lifesaving procedures during emergencies.

If you need an emergency C-section, your doctor has decided that you or your baby are in dire stress and immediate delivery is the only option. Possible reasons for an emergency cesarean include:

  • Fetal or maternal distress
  • Prolapsed umbilical cord (the umbilical cord drops through your cervix into your vagina ahead of your baby)
  • Maternal hemorrhage
  • Placenta abruption (the placenta peels away from the wall of your uterus)
  • Uterine rupture (your uterus tears along a previous C-section scar)

There is a difference between an unscheduled C-section and an emergency C-section, although people often use the terms interchangeably. Unplanned cesareans are still considered urgent, but typically mother and baby aren’t in life-threatening situations. Common causes for an urgent, unplanned C-section could include:

  • Labor isn't progressing.
  • Contractions are too weak.
  • Baby isn’t tolerating labor.
  • Baby is sideways or breech when labor begins.

During an emergency C-section, time is of the essence. The goal is to get your baby out as fast as possible because your life or your baby’s life could be in danger. The time from the beginning of surgery to delivery can be as short as 1 minute.

If you had an epidural while you attempted vaginal delivery, your anesthesiologist may have time to give you enough medicine through your epidural so you’ll be able to be awake during the C-section. If you didn’t have an epidural, then your doctor may have to give you general anesthesia (meaning you won’t be awake) and you’ll meet your baby when you wake up.

Nonemergency C-sections, like one being performed because labor hasn’t progressed normally, usually begin within 30 to 60 minutes of your doctor making the decision. You'll probably get to be awake for this C-section and meet your baby immediately. You’ll get a spinal anesthetic, an epidural, or a combination of the two, called a combined spinal-epidural anesthesia (CSE), so you won’t feel any pain.

Emergency cesareans carry different risks compared with scheduled cesareans, including increased chances of severe hemorrhage, complications from rapidly administered anesthesia, and accidental injury to you or your baby.