C-Section: Procedure & Recovery
A baby is delivered by C-section through an incision in the mother's abdomen.
Credit: Francois Etienne du Plessis | Shutterstock

A C-section, or Caesarean section (also spelled Cesarean section), is a type of surgery used to deliver a baby. The baby is surgically removed through an incision in the mother's abdomen and then a second incision in the uterus. 

Nearly one in three pregnant women in the United States gave birth by Caesarean section in 2015, according to the most recent birth statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But in the early 1990s, about one in five pregnant women delivered a baby this way. 

These increased rates of Caesarean deliveries have been linked with a variety of different factors from rising rates of obesity and diabetes to multiple births and increased maternal age. 

Other reasons for high C-section rates include the use of epidurals and techniques that induce labor, which may cause complications that could result in the need to perform a surgical delivery. 

Although Caesarean births can be life saving for both mother and baby, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has expressed concern that C-section deliveries might be overused, and they have recommended ways to reduce the national rate

These new guidelines call for allowing most women with low-risk pregnancies to spend more time in the first-stage of labor, as well as encouraging women to avoid excessive weight gain during pregnancy (a larger baby may be harder to safely pass through a woman's pelvis.)

The key to reducing high C-section rates in the United States is preventing unnecessary first C-sections, said Dr. Allison Bryant, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

These days, the majority of women who have delivered their first baby by C-section will wind up having a repeat C-section somewhere down the road, she said.

A woman who has already had a C-section for a previous birth has a 90 percent chance of giving birth by C-section again, according to a report from the CDC. 

However, studies have found that women who have had C-sections and attempt to deliver their next children vaginally, which researchers call a VBAC (vaginal birth after Caesarean), may have a relatively low rate of complications afterward, such as needing blood transfusions or unplanned hysterectomies, compared with women who scheduled a C-section. 

It's important to understand why one-third of American babies are being delivered by Caesarean, Bryant said. We need to figure out which babies really need to be delivered by C-section to protect their health and which of these surgeries may be unnecessary, she explained. 

One way to possibly reduce C-section rates in this country is to educate women about the benefits of vaginal delivery, Bryant said.

The following information will explain what is involved in a C-section, and how a woman may feel before, during and after this surgery. 

To prepare for the operation, an IV will be placed in a woman's arm or hand to give her the fluids and medications she'll need during surgery. Her abdomen will be washed and her pubic hair may be clipped or trimmed. 

A catheter (tube) is placed into a woman's bladder to remove urine, and it will remain there for a day after the surgery. 

Women are usually given regional anesthesia, either an epidural block or a spinal block, which both numb the lower half of her body but will allow the mother to be awake when her baby is born. This tends to be safer than general anesthesia, where a woman would be totally asleep during the delivery, Bryant said.

The obstetrician will use a knife to make a horizontal incision in the skin and the abdominal wall, usually along the bikini line, meaning that it's low enough down on the pelvis that it would be covered up by underwear or a bikini bottom, Bryant said. Some women may get a vertical, or up-and-down cut, she said. 

After the abdomen is opened, an incision is made in the uterus. Typically, a side-to-side (horizontal) cut is made, which ruptures the amniotic sac surrounding the baby, Bryant said. Once this protective membrane is ruptured, the baby is removed from the uterus, the umbilical cord is cut, and the placenta is removed. The baby is examined then given back to the mother for skin-to-skin contact, Bryant said. 

Bryant explained that the cut made to a woman's uterine wall is an important one because the way this uterine scar heals can affect her ability to have a vaginal birth in the future. 

Once the delivery and afterbirth are completed, the cuts made to the mother's uterus are repaired with stitches, which will eventually dissolve under the skin. The abdominal skin is closed with stitches or with staples, which will be removed before a woman leaves the hospital. 

A woman typically spends 60 to 120 minutes in the operating room for a C-section, depending upon whether any complications arise during the delivery, Bryant said. 

After the surgery, a woman will be taken to the hospital's maternity ward to recover. 

After a C-section, a woman may spend between 2 to 4 days in the hospital, but it may take her up to 6 weeks to feel more like herself again, Bryant said.

Her abdomen will feel sore from the surgery and the skin and nerves in this area will need time to heal. Women will be given pain medications to take the edge off any post-surgical pain, and most women use these medications for about 2 weeks afterward, Bryant said.

A woman may also experience bleeding for about 4 to 6 weeks after a surgical birth. She is also advised to not have sex for a few weeks after her C-section and to also avoid strenuous activities, such as lifting heavy objects. 

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