Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on August 12, 2022
4 min read

A C-section is a way of delivering a baby by surgery that opens up the mother’s abdomen and uterus. It’s also known as a cesarean birth.

Though many women are certain ahead of time that they’ll have a C-section for different reasons, you may plan to have a vaginal birth only to find that your plan has to change.

During labor or delivery, your doctor might decide that you need to have a C-section right away. This can be a sudden change if your health or your baby’s health takes a turn for the worse and it’s too risky for you to have a vaginal birth.

Even if you don’t think you’ll have a C-section, it’s smart to learn what one involves, just in case you need one. About 30% of all babies in the U.S. are born via C-section, so they’re fairly common.

C-sections are safe for mothers and babies. But it is major surgery, so you shouldn’t take it lightly.

There are several different types:

Planned C-section

If you know in advance that your baby will be born via C-section, you’ll know the date and likely won’t even go into labor. Before the procedure, you’ll get an IV so that you can receive medicine and fluids. You’ll also have a catheter (a thin tube) put into place to keep your bladder empty during the surgery.

Most women who have planned C-sections get local anesthesia, either an epidural or a spinal block. This will numb you from the waist down, so you won’t feel any pain. This type of anesthesia lets you still be awake and aware of what’s going on. Your doctor may offer you general anesthesia, which will put you to sleep, but it’s unlikely for most planned C-sections.

The doctor will place a screen across your waist, so you won’t be able to see the surgery as it happens. They’ll make one cut in your belly, then another one in your uterus. You won’t feel them because of the anesthesia.

But you may feel the doctors pushing or pulling on your middle section as they work to remove your baby from your uterus. You may feel nothing, or it may feel like pressure, but it shouldn’t hurt.

You should be able to hear and see your baby once they are born. The doctor should let you hold them right after the C-section is finished. If you’re planning to breastfeed, you may also be able to try feeding your baby. But not every new mom gets to hold their baby right after a C-section.

Sometimes, babies that are born by C-section have  trouble breathing and need help from doctors. If this is the case, you should be able to hold your baby after a doctor decides that they're healthy and stable.

After your baby is born, your doctor will remove your placenta and stitch you up. The entire procedure should take only about 45 minutes to an hour.

Emergency C-section

During an emergency C-section, a few things will be different, including the speed and urgency of the surgery. The doctor can deliver your baby about 2 minutes after they make the incision in your uterus. (During a planned C-section, this may take 10 or 15 minutes.)

The speed may be necessary: If your baby is having trouble breathing or their heartbeat isn’t steady, doctors want to get them out of your uterus quickly and into the hospital, where they can get crucial medical help to get them stable.

If you have an emergency C-section, your anesthesiologist may be able to quickly give you medicine through your epidural to make you numb, so you still may be able to be awake during the procedure. If not, you may get general anesthesia and sleep through the entire surgery. You won’t feel pain or pressure, see or hear your baby being born, or be able to hold your baby right after birth. But when the anesthesia wears off, you should be able to see, hold, and feed your baby.

You may plan to have a C-section because of certain health issues with you or your baby:

  • If you’ve already had a C-section, you may not be able to deliver your next baby vaginally.
  • Mothers can give some infections, like HIV and active herpes, to the baby during a vaginal delivery.
  • If you have certain conditions, like diabetes or high blood pressure, a C-section may be safer.
  • The placenta may be blocking your cervix.
  • Multiple births may make a C-section necessary.
  • Your baby may be too large or in the wrong position for vaginal delivery.
  • Your baby may have birth defects that make a C-section safer.
  • You may start out delivering vaginally but switch to a C-section if there are problems.
  • Your labor may stop progressing.
  • The doctor may notice signs of distress in your baby, like an irregular heartbeat.
  • The umbilical cord may get wrapped around the baby, or enter the birth canal before the baby does.
  • The placenta may separate from the uterus.

A C-section is a common procedure. But as with any surgery, there is a chance something could go wrong. Risks of a C-section include:

  • Infection
  • Heavy bleeding
  • Blood clots
  • Reaction to anesthesia
  • Damage to organs like the bladder or intestines
  • Injury to the baby

Having a C-section can damage your uterus and make it more likely you’ll have problems with future pregnancies. But many women go on to have healthy pregnancies and safe vaginal deliveries after a C-section.