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 or if it's requested by the mother in advance
  • 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.

NICE guidelines

In 2011, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) published guidelines on caesarean sections. This aimed to give appropriate research-based advice to women and their families.

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 to help address her anxiety.
  • If a woman requests a caesarean section, a planned caesarean should be offered if a vaginal birth is still not an acceptable option after discussions and offers of support.
  • If the obstetrician does not wish to carry out a planned caesarean, a referral should be made to an obstetrician who is willing to perform the procedure. 

Read the NICE guidelines on caesarean section.


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.


In most cases itakes 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.


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: 12/05/2016

Next review due: 12/05/2018

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Page last reviewed: 17/07/2014

Next review due: 17/07/2016