Introduction 

A caesarean section is an operation to deliver a baby. It involves making a cut in the front wall of a woman’s tummy (abdomen) and womb.

The operation can be:

  • planned (elective) procedure, when a medical need for the operation becomes apparent during pregnancy
  • an emergency procedure, when circumstances before or during labour call for delivery of the baby by unplanned caesarean

A caesarean section is usually carried out under epidural or spinal anaesthetic, where the lower part of your body is numbed. It usually takes 40-50 minutes, but can be performed quicker in an emergency. Some caesarean sections are performed under general anaesthetic.

Read more about how a caesarean section is carried out.

When a caesarean might be needed

A caesarean section is usually carried out when a normal vaginal birth could put you or your unborn baby at risk  for example, because:

  • your labour doesn't progress naturally
  • you have placenta praevia (where the placenta is low lying in the womb and covering part of the womb's entrance)
  • you have had two or more previous caesarean sections
  • your baby is in the breech (bottom first) position

Read more about when a caesarean section is necessary.

Pregnant women are not immediately entitled to a caesarean section if they do not have any physical or mental need for it. If you ask for the operation, you will be asked why you're requesting it and you'll be given information about the risks and benefits. You should be allowed to have a caesarean if, after discussion and support, you still want to have the operation.

A caesarean section is major surgery, and many women opt for a vaginal birth after learning more about what the surgery involves.

New guidelines

In 2011, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines on caesarean sections. This aimed to avoid unnecessary operations. 

NICE made a few new recommendations:

  • Some women who are HIV positive and women who have had a previous birth by caesarean section should be offered the option of a vaginal birth.
  • Women should be given antibiotics before (rather than after) surgery to prevent infection.
  • If a woman requests a caesarean section because she's anxious about childbirth, she should be referred to a healthcare professional with expertise in providing mental health support. She should be offered a planned caesarean if, after discussion and support, she still feels a vaginal birth is not an acceptable option.

Read the NICE guidelines on caesarean section.

Risks

Like any surgery, a caesarean section carries a certain amount of risk, such as the wound becoming infected or the baby developing breathing difficulties.

Read more about the risks of a caesarean section.

Recovery

It takes longer to recover from a caesarean section than it does from a vaginal birth. You will usually need to spend three to four days in hospital after surgery, compared to one or two days after a vaginal birth.

Read more about recovering from a caesarean section.

Caesarean

Learn about the importance of discussing a caesarean with your consultant before choosing to have one, the recovery period, and turning the birth into a positive experience. A video by Stockport NHS Foundation Trust.

Media last reviewed: 30/09/2014

Next review due: 30/09/2016

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Page last reviewed: 17/07/2014

Next review due: 17/07/2016