Vaginal Birth vs. C-Section: Pros & Cons

delivery, vaginal, c-section, cesarean
Expectant parents should talk to their healthcare professional about a birthing plan that takes all risks and benefits into account.
Credit: Tyler Olson | Shutterstock

The process of birth is a beautiful and natural occurrence, and there are options for the birthing process.  A woman can have either a vaginal birth or a Cesarean section, and can discuss these options with her doctor or medical provider. But what are the pros and cons to these very different birthing processes? Before you make a decision, get acquainted with these types of birth and what they might mean for you and your baby. Understand that there are a number of risks associated with both types of birth, and there are no universally correct answers. Birth is a different experience for each woman.

Vaginal birth

The most natural birth process, vaginal births are usually the go-to birth process of choice for expectant mothers. Though many mothers are now opting for elective C-sections, the vaginal birth is still the birth of choice, with roughly three in four moms delivering this way, according to the CDC.

Pros of vaginal birth

With vaginal birth, women can expect a shorter hospital stay and quicker recovery time, as vaginal birth is less surgically intensive and doesn't scar. Any subsequent births are less likely to require a C-section as well as being quicker and shorter. Vaginal births are also less risky for the mother, as less interference from the hospital staff means a lower chance of an emergency scenario for the mother. According to the American Pregnancy Association, the mortality risk for mothers is much lower in vaginal births.

For the baby, there are a number of benefits. Because they are able to come when they are ready, as the body begins the process naturally, the baby is more likely to be finished maturing and developing. Passing through the vaginal opening also expels the amniotic fluid in the baby's lungs. The baby also picks up protective bacteria that they ingest, helping them form more balanced immune systems as the bacteria colonizes in their intestines.

Cons of vaginal birth

Because vaginal births are more dependent on the mother's body, there isn't really a way to schedule the labor and delivery. The mother may feel more stress and anxiety as the uncertainty of labor looms. Vaginal birth also increases the risk of incontinence for the mother, as well as sexual problems in the first few months after the birth. For the baby, risk of birth trauma increases, due to the passage through the birth canal and the possible need for forceps.

Cesarean section

A C-section occurs when the baby is delivered via an incision through the abdominal wall and uterus, instead of passing through the vagina naturally. The CDC reported that more than 1 in 4 women are likely to have a C-section, making the procedure increasingly popular. According to the National Institutes of Health, the rate of C-sections has increased nearly 50 percent since 1996 in the United States. Because it is a major surgical procedure, the risks can be higher than a vaginal birth. However, there are a number of benefits as well.

C-section benefits

The ability to schedule a C-section can give the mother peace of mind, as she knows exactly when she will be giving birth. She is less likely to suffer from incontinence, and will not suffer the same sexual problems that woman who give vaginal birth suffer from in the first few months after birth. The baby is less likely to suffer birth trauma that can happen with forceps or vacuum extraction.

Cons of a C-section

Because C-sections do not occur when the baby is ready to come, there is the possibility of pre-term delivery if the mother's due date has been calculated incorrectly. As a surgical procedure, there is a risk of damage to the mother's organs, as well as increased blood loss and complications from anesthesia. The mother is also more susceptible to infection and blood clots. There is a slightly higher mortality rate for the mother and twice the risk of infant mortality.

After the surgery, the mother might suffer from decreased bowel function. Because she needs to recover from the surgery, there is a longer hospital stay and recovery period. This can lead to complications with breastfeeding, and take a mental toll on the mother, increasing the chance of postpartum depression. The scar tissue can also present problems in future pregnancies, increasing the chance of complications.

What's the right choice?

Because birth is a deeply personal experience that varies from person to person, you need to choose the process that best fits you. Talk it over with your healthcare professional and come up with a birthing plan that takes all risks and benefits into account.

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