Babies delivered by caesarean section, are not born vaginally but lifted out of the uterus through a surgical procedure. The surgery is usually performed when a vaginal birth would put the mother’s or the baby’s health at risk (although there’s some controversy about the way that risk is assessed).
The caesarean operation is often performed under an epidural anaesthetic (or spinal block), so that the mother is conscious for the birth of her child but does not feel the pain of the surgery; however in some cases, the anaesthetist may decide to use a general anaesthetic.
These days, the operation is considered extremely safe, with a very low mortality rate.
However, a caesarean birth is still not as safe as a vaginal birth, it does involve a longer and more traumatic recovery time and it is associated with complications for both mother and baby, so it is not usually performed without good reason.
Caesarean section can be scheduled before labour commences (this is called an ‘elective’ caesarean) or may be unplanned until a complication occurs part-way through labour and an ‘emergency’ caesarean is decided upon.
A caesarean section is recommended when vaginal delivery might pose a risk to the mother or baby. Ultrasound scans and other tests during pregnancy can reveal a raft of reasons for a planned caesarean delivery; some of these include:
During labour, if things are not progressing normally and complications have occurred, your doctor may decide to perform an unscheduled Caesarean section to reduce the risk to the mother or baby. Reasons for caesarean delivery include:
Before the operation, the area of your abdomen where the incision will be made (usually around the bikini line) will be shaved and swabbed to improve access and prevent cross-infection from the countless bacteria that live on your skin. You’ll be given an anaesthetic (either an epidural or a general anaesthetic.) A canular is usually placed in your arm with a saline drip, to maintain your fluid levels (which usually stys in for around 24 hours), and a catheter inserted into your urethra to drain your bladder (this one stays in about for around eight hours). Preparations for surgery may all happen in seconds if it’s a critical emergency.
You will usually be in the operating theatre for up to an hour. Unless you are rushed into surgery very quickly, your partner is usually encouraged to stay with you for the birth (but will have to be gowned and scrubbed.)
The surgeon makes a cut (usually a horizontal cut, through the abdomen into the lower section of the uterus, across the bikini line). The baby is lifted head-first through the incision, often with the assistance of forceps, and amniotic fluid removed from baby’s nose and mouth before the baby’s body is lifted free.
Delivering the baby is quite fast and happens in the first five to ten minutes. Then, the placenta is removed and an injection of oxytocin administered, to contract the uterus and reduce blood loss. Most of the operating time will be spent stitching and/or stapling the uterus and various layers of abdominal tissue, muscle and skin.
Babies delivered by caesarean section usually have smooth, round heads compared to vaginally-born babies, who can be a bit squished-looking at first. But without the pressure of the birth canal to help empty fluid from the lungs, many caesarean babies have excess mucous and fluid in their lungs and need to be suctioned to help them start breathing. However there are usually no long-term problems.
The staff will bring your baby to you for a cuddle as soon as possible, or your partner may hold the baby until you are able.
Following the operation, a tube is often inserted to drain fluid from the wound. You will usually be encouraged to get up and walk within eight to twelve hours to help you recover faster and to prevent blood clots.
You’ll still experience very heavy vaginal bleeding for some weeks following a caesearean, as with a vaginal birth, as the uterus sheds the build-up of blood cells that has protected the baby throughout pregnancy.
Most hospitals suggest you stay four to five days following a caesarean birth, although stays are often shorter if there are no complications.
Recovering from a caesarean operation will take longer than a vaginal birth, with most doctors recommending that you take breastfeeding-safe pain relief for at least a few days after the operation and avoid heavy lifting or even driving for the next six weeks or so, with full recovery taking an average of twelve weeks.
Looking after a new baby (with the sleeplessness and lifting involved) can be very draining after a caesarean operation, so it’s worthwhile trying to arrange live-in support from your partner or friend or relative for a few weeks.
By Fran Molloy – journalist and mum of 4