A vacuum delivery, also known as a vacuum extraction, is a medical procedure that is sometimes done during vaginal childbirth. The doctor places a soft cup with a handle and vacuum pump to the baby’s head to help guide them down the birth canal. A vacuum delivery is typically done while the mother pushes during childbirth.
When is Vacuum Delivery Necessary?
During childbirth, the mother naturally tries to push their baby out through the vagina. In certain circumstances, your doctor may recommend the use of a vacuum delivery to help the process along.
The most common circumstances where a vacuum delivery is completed include:
Labor isn’t progressing. You’re pushing, but your labor isn’t progressing as expected. After a certain timeframe, your doctor may recommend using a vacuum to assist.
Your baby’s heartbeat. If your baby's heartbeat is irregular or your doctor suspects an issue, they may recommend a vacuum-assisted delivery.
You have a health concern. In these cases, your doctor may recommend a vacuum-assisted delivery. If you have certain medical conditions (especially heart conditions), your doctor may allow you to push but only for a limited amount of time.
If you’re less than 34 weeks pregnant, or in other circumstances, your doctor may advise against having a vacuum delivery. For instance, a vacuum-assisted delivery is not recommended if:
- Your baby has a medical condition that may affect their bone strength
- Your baby’s head hasn’t moved past the birth canal’s midpoint
- The position of your baby’s head is unknown
- Your baby’s shoulders, arms, buttocks, or feet are coming first down the birth canal
- Your baby, if they’re a certain size, might not be able to fit through your pelvis
Risks of a Vacuum Delivery
A vacuum delivery poses risks for both you and your baby. Potential risks for you may include:
Pain in the area between your anus and vagina after delivery. This small area of tissue is very sensitive and often becomes stretched during childbirth. It’s not uncommon to have pain, but it usually gets better over time.
Vaginal tearing. During childbirth, sometimes the vagina tears. While this can be painful, the doctor can treat it with dissolvable stitches.
Short-term problems with urination. Especially after a vacuum-assisted delivery, you may experience trouble emptying your bladder fully or urinating.
Involuntary bowel movements. After vacuum-assisted delivery, you may have involuntary bowel movements and may also urinate involuntarily as well. These challenges are most often temporary.
Potential risks for your baby may include:
Wounds on their scalp. As a result of vacuum-assisted deliveries, the baby may have swelling on their scalp, giving a cone-shaped appearance. Typically the swelling goes down after a few days.
Skull fracture. The suction of the vacuum used to help during childbirth may fracture your baby’s head, but this is rare.
Bleeding inside the skull. This is a formation of blood under the skin that forms when a vein in your baby’s head has been injured. This can happen as a result of vacuum-assisted deliveries.
With vacuum delivery, there is also an increased risk of your baby’s shoulder getting stuck after the head has been delivered.
What to Expect During Vacuum Delivery
If your doctor feels you need a vacuum-assisted delivery, they will talk to you about your options, risks, and benefits of the procedure. They will also ask for your consent. After you consent, the doctor will provide you with medicine to help block the pain. This may be an epidural (pain medicine injected into the space around your spinal cord) or numbing medicine placed on the vagina.
As you lay on your back with your legs open, the doctor will place the plastic cup on your baby's head, and during the next contraction, you will be asked to push. During this same time, your doctor or midwife will use the vacuum, creating suction to help gently pull your baby. Once the doctor or midwife can see the baby's head, they will release the vacuum, and they will ask you to push your baby the rest of the way out.
In some cases, a vacuum delivery does not work, and your doctor will perform a c-section. A c-section is a medical surgery where your doctor cuts through your belly and uterus and gently removes your baby. This procedure can help protect the health of you and your baby, and in some cases, is safer than a vaginal birth.
What to Expect After Vacuum Delivery
Your doctor will examine your vagina and birth canal for any injuries that may have occurred during childbirth while using the vacuum. Any tears or injuries will be repaired. Your baby will also be examined to ensure they experienced no injuries during the vacuum delivery.
If you experienced a tear during childbirth, it’s normal to have some pain. Usually, the discomfort lasts only a few weeks and gradually gets better over time. If you’re not healing as expected, or are experiencing a fever or other signs of infection, contact your doctor right away.