A caesarean section (C-section) is an elective or emergency operation used to help babies be born.
About 1 in 3 deliveries are completed this way.
Elective caesarean section
If you know beforehand you’ll be having a caesarean section, it’s called an elective operation. Your appointment will probably be before the date your baby's due, so you don’t go into labour.
Around 16 in 100 births are by planned caesarean.
Why you'd need an elective caesarean
You may need an elective caesarean section if:
- you have a very low-lying placenta which covers your cervix (placenta praevia) and blocks your baby’s way out
- you’re having twins, triplets or more - often twins are born vaginally, but if you’re having triplets or more you’ll almost certainly need one
- you have other health issues, which means a caesarean section is safer for you
- your baby is in a position which makes vaginal birth more difficult or impossible, such as if they’re breech
If your obstetrician thinks it may be the best option for you and your baby, you can talk about it and decide together.
Emergency caesarean section
You may go into labour and expect to give birth vaginally, then find you need a caesarean section. This is called an emergency caesarean section, although often it isn’t as dramatic or last-minute as the name suggests.
Around 17 in 100 births are by emergency caesarean.
Why you'd need an emergency caesarean
You may need an emergency caesarean section if:
- your baby’s head is too big for your pelvis, or in the wrong position
- your labour doesn’t move on, your contractions are weak, and your cervix hasn’t opened enough
- your baby has fetal distress, and labour hasn’t gone far enough for you to have a forceps or ventouse delivery safely
- you develop a serious illness, such as heart disease or very high blood pressure
- for some other reason your baby needs to be born quickly, for example because of placental abruption
The obstetrician will make a:
- 10 to 15cm cut at the bottom of your abdomen, just at the top of your pubic hairline, which is big enough to deliver your baby through
- a cut through your womb to reach your baby, usually after a delay of one minute
You'll be given a regional or general anaesthetic.
Delivering your baby
You may feel some tugging when your baby's lifted out – sometimes this is done by hand and sometimes with a pair of forceps.
Your baby will:
- have their umbilical cord clamped and cut
- be quickly checked over and if everything is well they’ll be passed to you or your partner, so you can hold them and have skin-to-skin contact.
The placenta and membranes are delivered next then the cut in your womb and abdomen are closed with stitches.
It normally takes about 10 minutes to deliver your baby, and 30 to 40 minutes to complete the stitches.
After the procedure
After having a caesarean section, you’ll:
- be given painkillers to reduce any discomfort
- be encouraged to get out of bed and move around as soon as possible
- have a thin, flexible tube called a catheter in your bladder for the first 12 hours to drain away urine
- have a dressing covering your wound for at least 24 hours
You can eat and drink as soon as you feel hungry or thirsty.
How long you’ll be in hospital after the operation varies, but for some women it’s 48 hours or less.
If you’ve had a general anaesthetic your baby’s father or your partner might be able to do skin-to-skin contact straight away until you're awake.
Skin-to-skin contact with you can be possible in the operating theatre. However, your partner may not be allowed in the theatre if you're having a general anaesthetic.
More about looking after your baby in the first few days
Translations and alternative formats of this information are available from Public Health Scotland.