Pregnant woman on her way to surgery room

What Happens During a Cesarean Birth?

A cesarean birth (c-section) is the delivery of a baby through an incision in the mother’s abdomen. Over 30 percent of babies born in the US are delivered by cesarean, and the number is nearly as high in the UK. Cesarean birth is the most common procedure done in the operating room. While there is sometimes a medical need for a cesarean birth, keep in mind it is major abdominal surgery.

Elective c-sections are pre-planned for various medical reasons including breech presentation, some uterine abnormalities, chronic medical conditions, and a big baby. Some women may choose cesarean birth due to trauma from a previous birth experience.

Emergency cesareans are not planned in advance, and are usually carried out because the mother and/or baby is thought to be at serious risk. If the doctors are concerned about the survival of mother or baby, the c-section will be carried out rapidly. In other instances, there may be a less severe concern for mother or baby, and then a c-section will occur in a less hurried fashion.

Before the procedure
The doctor will explain why he or she feels this procedure is necessary, and you will be asked to sign a consent form. Your birth partner should be allowed into the operating room with you for the birth, although in a rapid emergency situation, this may not be possible.

General anesthetic is rarely used for c-sections. You are most likely to require an epidural or spinal for pain relief. These allow you to stay awake during the birth, but numb your lower half to prevent you feeling the procedure.

Once your anesthesia has been administered, a catheter will be inserted into your urethra, and an IV will be started. If necessary, the top section of your pubic hair may be shaved to allow for the incision.

Once in the operating room, you’ll be asked to drink an antacid medication. This is given as a precautionary measure in case you later require general anesthetic. Antibiotics will be administered through your IV.

The surgery
It’s now time for the surgery. You may be given some extra anesthetic at this point, and a small blue screen will be erected to prevent you from seeing the surgery. Your birth partner should be with you by this point, sitting next to you to offer reassurance. You shouldn’t feel any pain during the procedure, but you may feel pressure or tugging as the operation is performed.

Your tummy will be cleaned using an antiseptic solution, and then a 10 cm (4 inch) horizontal incision will be made across your bikini line. In a small number of c-sections, a vertical cut will be made instead. Your bladder will be pushed down, and the doctor will make an incision into your uterus. If your waters haven’t yet broken, this will be done now. Then the doctor will reach in and deliver your baby. The cord will be cut, and then you should be able to meet your baby.

At this point, you will be given a shot to help deliver the placenta. If your baby is well, you and your partner should be able to enjoy skin to skin contact for the remainder of the surgery. Your uterus will be closed using dissolvable stitches, and then each layer of tummy muscle will be stitched back together. Stitches or staples will be used to close the incision site, and these will need to be removed up to a week later.

You should expect to stay in hospital for a few days. Remember, a cesarean birth is major surgery so it may take you a couple of months to fully recover.

Do you enjoy this App? Good news! You can now also download our new Baby App for iPhone / iPad or Android. Click Baby+ iOS or Baby+ Android to install the App, and prepare for the arrival of your little one(s).

Written by Fiona, proud owner of a toddler, @fiona_peacock

This information is not intended to replace the advice of a trained medical doctor. Health & Parenting Ltd disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information, which is provided to you on a general information basis only and not as a substitute for personalized medical advice. All contents copyright © Health & Parenting Ltd 2017. All rights reserved.

Fiona PeacockWhat Happens During a Cesarean Birth?

Comments 16

  1. Oginni Ruth Oyebimpe

    I once had a c- is section for my first baby because of fybroid that has just developed.now am 35 weeks pregnant with my second baby, though I would like to have virginal birth but if d doctors insist on having another c-section due to the safety of baby and I, I wouldn’t mind. All I know is that God will take perfect control and my baby and I will be alive in Jesus name. Amen

  2. Ama

    I am 35+1 with no 2. May have to have c section as have large fibroid on bladder area said may not be enough room for baby to come through. Got my 4th scan booked in at 36 weeks 3days so have to wait to see what the scan shows. As I high risk under consultant care . Baby lying across me as well . First baby I had 2013 was normal delivery low risk so was in birthing pool. Don’t want a c section I am scared of op and recovery not having best of pregnancy been in hospital 3 times already . My toddler has issues behind the scene and not been able to do things with him upsets me . Vaginal birth much quicker recovery .

  3. Cristina garcia

    (To Alex) I don’t understand this “electing” a c-section so spread in the US. The doctor should always decide when to perform surgery, not a patient without medical knowledge. Surgery always has risks and its use should always be restricted to when it is absolutely necessary, not discretionary to each patients wishes. All this said with the intention of protecting your health and that of your baby, not of interfering with your personal freedom.

  4. Pingback: What is Placenta Previa? - Health & Parenting

  5. Jessica

    First baby was a emergency c section at 32 weeks Cuz I had preeclampsia and started having seizures and they almost lost both of us. I’m 35 weeks now and I’m having another c section was going to try vbac but don’t get to seeing that my c section scar is puffing out really bad. I didn’t have problems with first one so hopefully this c section will be just as easy.

  6. Michelle

    We have made a couple of changes to the blog post. Thanks for brining that to our attention.

  7. Alex

    I don’t feel it is appropriate for the author to give her opinion in the sentence ‘Unless you have a medical need for a cesarean birth, you should try to avoid this major surgery.’ This is opinion and advice which comes across as her own bias and, in a piece like this, I would expect a more balanced and open approach. Something like ‘A c-section is major surgery so you should be clear on what is involved’.

    Many people have c-sections at the end of challenging labours as a last resort. Many others choose to have a c-section for their own personal reasons, which can include trauma from previous labours or indeed purely personal preference. In these scenarios, like any other, it is the right of the woman to choose this.

    Sentences like the one I have picked out are patronising and also perpetuate the notion that voluntarily choosing a c-section is the wrong thing to do. Advice in forums like this should be that women gather all of the information they can and make their own informed decision.

  8. Michelle Foy

    I had to have an emergency c-section due to prolapsed cord. This was a true emergency and the babies life was in terrible danger. Had this not happened I would not have elected to have a csection.

    I’m 35 weeks now and they have said I can have an elected c section. Having had a baby each way (sunroof and boot we call it) I have opted for a VBAC. The recovery time for a c- section is so long. I didn’t feel right for about 4 months after it but I did everything I could to save my babies life.

    I’m in a fortunate position where this is my 3rd baby so I have more ‘knowledge’ about what will and could happen but I hope I’m given the choices if things start to go ‘wrong” as they have with previous pregnancies.

  9. Lorena

    I’m just about 36 weeks with my 4th baby. I had 3 c-sections previously so needless to say this one will be another c-section. My first baby was breech so that is why I had to deliver him via c-section. My 2nd was head down and I could have had a VBAC but I was rushed by my OB and my ex-husband (husband at the time) so I had a c-section. So after that I’m married to c-sections. I’m a little nervous for this one being my 4th but I had no complications before and barely any adhesions so that’s good. This is my last baby, just counting down the days. Also 2 of mine were born at 36 weeks and one at 34 weeks so we’ll see when this little ones decides to come!

  10. Ashlyn

    Im 32 weeks, first baby and am planned in to have a c-section at 39 weeks. I am 4’11” and was so determined to have normal delivery to prove to all the doubters I could. Unfortunate for me at 22 weeks the doctors found a large ovarian cyst (13cm) which was causing threat to baby and had to be removed along with my ovary. Baby is doing great despite this! I had a vertical incision which has just about healed despite my ever growing tummy. Taking all things into account: my height, this recent surgery and the fact I had a hip replacement two years ago my consultant has told me a vaginal birth would be too great a risk for me and baby. I know it makes sense and I wouldn’t be selfish enough to not follow their advice but I can’t help but feel disappointed. I hate that it’s labelled ‘elective’ because people assume an elective c-section is always opted for. Still, I’m so excited to be a mummy and meet my little girl/boy! Xx

  11. Rosie Collins

    I had to have a c section with my first baby due to preeclampsia, she was born at 29 weeks and of course she was tiny. I felt like I recovered pretty fast from that c section, was able to manage pain with ibuprofen only and over all it was a pretty easy experience except for having my baby in the NICU for nearly 12 weeks but that’s another story. This time it looks like I will carry my baby full term as I’m currently 35 weeks, I’m wondering if the recovery on the c section will be as easy this time, will I get a bigger incision since baby is a lot bigger this time?

  12. Fleur

    The term ’emergency c-section’ is very misused. It simply means the c-section wasn’t planned beforehand. Most of the time it’s used when doctors/midwives think labour is taking a long time, even when everything else is fine. The vast majority of ’emergency’ c-sections happen right before the doctor’s shift is over. I guess that speaķs for itself. Also the fact they should explain and ask the mother for consent is misleading. Most mothers in labour are too focussed on what’s happening with their body that they won’t be able to properly process what’s being said to them. If ’emergengy’ gets thrown into the conversation, it’s very easy for a mother to automatically assume her baby is in danger and agree with the procedure. Only a very small minority (10% I believe) of all ’emergency c-sections’ are done because there is a serious risk for mother and/or baby.

  13. Erica

    ive had spinal taps my whole kid life
    im 35weeks and 1day and i have the c section but i refuse im adamant i dont want an epidural at all. i hope everything goes smooth and yea i was in awful pain nut i pushed my baby out. i pray i can do it again

  14. Jess

    I’m currently at week 35, and my baby is already measuring on the large side. Going into this, and after pre-natal classes, I was really interested in vaginal birth. However, at this point, my number one priority is getting this baby safely out of me. My priorities went out the door as soon as it became about safety.

  15. Dominique

    Thanks to my mom who experienced 2 emerg c sections after 18 & 24 hours of labour I seem to be absolutely terrified of the thought of having one myself. This only became clear to me the extent of my fear after watching an educational video about them in my prenatal class. Thanks to the instructor & my husband talking to me about where this fear started from it became clear it is only the projected fear from my mom repeatedly telling me the stories over & over throughout my life.
    I’m not afraid of seeing sx’s actually take place and find things easier to cope with when I understand them on a factual lvl so every week I dedicate a couple hrs to reading up positive factual information on the procedure and watching videos of the sx. it is actually helping me overcome my fear! I’m happy to say in another week or two if this ends up having to be the only option I won’t have a melt down about it anymore,but accept & understand it is simply the safest way to ensure my baby and I are okay and healthy in the end. It’s just another way of giving birth. Not the end of the world.

  16. Diana Perales

    I’m only 5 weeks pregnant and the thought of C-section frightens me. I unfortunatley have a really bad herniated lumbar disc on my L5-S1 (last disc on spine) which makes me wonder if I will be able to have a natural birth. When it goes out or is in pain its very painful, uncomfortable, and frustrating bc I can barely move let alone use the bathroom. Has anyone gone through or is going through something similar or even know someone, I just want to know what my chances are of having a C section because of this.