6 Things You Should Know About Having a C-Section

Surgical deliveries account for over one-third of all births in the US.

Updated on September 18, 2023

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If you’re pregnant or considering becoming pregnant, no matter what plans you have for delivery, it’s important to learn the facts about cesarean delivery, commonly known as C-sections: According to the latest statistics, around 32 percent of all births in the United States are C-sections, for a variety of reasons ranging from the parent’s personal preference to the position of the fetus, to saving the life of both parent and baby.

We spoke with Reut Bardach, MD, an OBGYN with Medical City of Trinity in Trinity, Florida, to find out what you need to know about this procedure, in which the baby is delivered from the uterus via an incision in the abdomen:

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You'll (most likely) be awake through the whole procedure

If you have a C-section, you will probably be awake and alert during the procedure—though each case is different. Most often, the body is numbed below the waist using regional anesthesia, such as an epidural, spinal block or both.

A spinal block is a one-time injection of a narcotic, such as fentanyl, or anesthetic into the spinal fluid. An epidural is also administered in the pregnant person’s back, but it's done using a catheter that remains in place, so more anesthetic can be given as needed. Although you shouldn’t feel any pain once you’ve been given the anesthetic, you may feel some pressure.

In the case of an emergency C-section, it may be necessary for the doctor to administer general anesthesia, which brings on a sleep-like state so you won’t feel the pain.

Once anesthesia—local or general—is administered, your surgeon will make an incision on the lower part of your abdomen, through which the baby will be delivered.

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Sometimes, C-sections are safer than vaginal deliveries

Though there are times when a patient and doctor will schedule a C-section out of personal preference, C-sections are typically performed when a vaginal birth is deemed high-risk. These scenarios may include:

  • The fetus is in a breech position, or feet first
  • The pregnant person has had previous C-sections
  • Twins, triplets, or more are expected

The pregnant person has diabetes, preeclampsia, HIV or an active case of genital herpes.

Complications during an attempted vaginal delivery can also lead to an emergency C-section. According to Dr. Bardach, "Common reasons for an unplanned cesarean section include excessive bleeding during vaginal delivery, cord [entanglement] or placental abruption."

C-sections may also be performed if labor does not progress or the fetus’s heartrate is slow, a sign of distress.

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There are some risks to C-sections

Most obstetricians perform hundreds or thousands of these surgeries, making them routine. But like any major surgery, C-sections do come with some risks.   "Although it definitely poses some risk of complication, most surgeons are very comfortable and confident performing C-sections, so they generally run smoothly," Bardach says.

"The first risk in an abdominal surgery, and especially in C-sections, is bleeding," Bardach says. "By the mere fact that we're using scalpels, there's going to be some blood loss involved."

There are some other risks to the pregnant person, including infection, damage to surrounding organs and blood clots. Although unlikely, it's possible for the baby to sustain surgery-related injuries, such as small cuts. Babies born via C-section are also at an increased risk of developing a breathing issue known as transient tachypnea, in which the baby experiences rapid breathing in the days following delivery.

But in general, cesarean deliveries pose a very low risk to parent and child. "My personal philosophy is that having a vaginal delivery is safer," Bardach says. "Our bodies are designed to have babies vaginally, but both options have their own benefits."

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The Type of Scar Will Depend on Your Surgery

As with any surgery that involves incisions,  a C-section will leave you with a scar, though the placement depends on many factors, such as the position of the fetus. The most common type of incision is done horizontally, just above the pubic hairline, in an area often covered by a swimsuit or underwear. In some cases, mainly when a large incision is needed or the baby must be removed quickly, the surgeon may make a vertical incision just below the belly button. A vertical incision can also be made higher up, particularly if the fetus is lying sideways in the uterus. Whether the first incision is vertical or horizontal, a second incision is then made in the uterine wall, and the baby is delivered through these two openings. If you’ve had a C-section in the past, that will also help your surgeon determine where to make the new incision.

Regardless of the position of the incision, it is usually around 4-6 inches long, big enough for the baby’s head and body to squeeze through.

Your medical team will give you instructions for how to care for the incision after surgery, and the amount of scarring can depend on many things, including genetics. Over time, the scar will fade and become smaller. If it bothers you, there are several treatment options to help minimize the appearance, including creams, injections and laser therapy.

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"Once a C-section, always a C-section" isn't always true

Just because you’ve had a C-section for one delivery does not mean you are destined to have all future children via surgical birth. According to the most recent data, more than 13 percent of people who have had a C-section were able to have a successful vaginal birth after cesarean delivery (known as a VBAC) with at least one future pregnancy. If you’re interested in attempting a VBAC, discuss the risks with your doctor—your chance of success depend upon the reasons you had the C-section in the first place and if there were any complications. It may also depend on the type of incision you had—those with a prior vertical incision are more likely to need a second cesarean. C-sections increase the risk for placental complications, which might lead to an additional procedure.

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You'll need help during recovery

Recovering from a C-section takes time and rest—it is, after all, major abdominal surgery. "Postoperatively a lot of people need assistance, and having supportive family and friends is a huge benefit," Bardach says.

It generally takes longer to recover from a C-section than a vaginal delivery, and you will likely stay in the hospital one or two days longer. For days, and even weeks, after the procedure, you might feel tired, sore near the incision, constipated or gassy, and you may struggle to get out of bed or lift your baby.

To help with healing, you should rest when possible, drink plenty of fluids, avoid sex until your doctor gives you the okay (usually at your six-week checkup), and take medication to manage pain when needed. Walking may also relieve discomfort and help prevent blood clots, but it's important not to tire yourself out. Using a pillow to support your abdomen when you sneeze, cough or laugh may also be helpful to relieve abdominal pressure. Most people are back to their typical activities between six and eight weeks after delivery.

There are no restrictions on breastfeeding, and you can begin as soon as you feel up to it. If you’re uncomfortable breastfeeding because of your incision, feel pain while nursing, or have issues with milk supply, ask a nurse, doula, or lactation consultant to help you find solutions. But remember that taking care of yourself is crucial at this time, and if you decide that breastfeeding isn’t right for you as you recover, supplementing or bottle feeding are perfectly healthy options.

Slideshow sources open slideshow sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Method of Delivery. Last reviewed June 8, 2023.
American Academy of Dermatology Association. Keloid Scares: Overview. Last updated August 30, 2022.
Mayo Clinic. Uterine incisions used during C-sections. Accessed September 18, 2023.
Osterman MJK. Recent Trends in Vaginal Birth After Cesarean Delivery: United States, 2016-2018. NCHS Data Brief. 2020 Mar;(359):1-8.

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