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Emergency C-Section: Reasons, What Happens, & How to Recover

by Vannessa Rhoades 19 Sep 2023
Emergency C-Section: Reasons, What Happens, & How to Recover

Congratulations on your pregnancy! This joyful period comes with numerous changes and preparations for your baby's arrival and the future. While it's natural to feel anxious about your birth plan, it's important to remember that sometimes unforeseen circumstances can lead to changes. Whether you plan for a vaginal birth or a scheduled cesarean delivery, it's reassuring to know that an emergency C-section is always available if it becomes the safest option for you and your baby. Though almost 32 percent of births in the United States are C-sections, the likelihood of needing an emergency one is relatively low since these are only performed when absolutely necessary. Rest assured, you and your baby will be in the hands of experts who will prioritize your well-being.

What Is an Emergency C-Section?

An emergency C-section is a rapidly performed procedure prompted by immediate concerns for the well-being of the mother and/or baby. It's important to note that an emergency C-section can happen regardless of whether the patient initially planned for a scheduled or unplanned C-section. These situations are often referred to as medical C-sections, as they are performed for health-related reasons. 

Emergency C-section is different from a scheduled or unplanned C-section. A scheduled C-section is a planned delivery method chosen by you and your doctor based on safety considerations, often due to previous C-sections. The surgery date is scheduled around your estimated delivery date, well in advance. An unplanned C-section occurs when you initially planned for a vaginal birth, but your doctor later determines that a C-section is the safest option for you and your baby. This decision can be made weeks, days, or even hours before delivery. While there's no immediate emergency with an unplanned C-section, the change in plans aims to ensure the safest birth for both you and your baby.

Emergency C-Section: Reasons, What Happens, & How to Recover

What Happens During an Emergency C-Section?

One main difference between a scheduled C-section and an emergency C-section lies in the preparation and anesthesia. In a scheduled C-section, local or regional anesthesia is commonly used, allowing the person to remain awake while being pain-free during the procedure. However, in an emergency C-section, the timing and situation can impact the options for anesthesia. While a spinal injection may be feasible, depending on circumstances and hospital policies, there might be instances where general anesthesia is used to ensure a quicker surgery, although the person won't be conscious during the procedure.

Another difference is the type of incision made during the surgery. In non-emergency C-sections, a horizontal (bikini) incision is typical. This is usually used even in emergency C-sections when the person is at full term. However, in certain emergency situations where the baby requires immediate attention, a vertical incision on the uterus might be chosen to reach the baby faster. This type of incision may be necessary in cases of preterm birth, previous surgical adhesions, or the presence of fibroids obstructing the uterus, but it will depend on the specific circumstances and health needs of the mother and baby, as well as the surgeon's expertise.

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What Are Some Emergency C-Section Reasons?

The reasons for emergency C-section are distinct from those of a scheduled C-section. An emergency C-section occurs when the baby is not cooperating with the planned delivery or decides to come earlier than expected. It can also be necessary if there are health concerns for either you or the baby, making waiting for progress unsafe. In such situations, there is often little that you or your doctor can do to prevent the need for an emergency C-section. Here are some common reasons why it might happen: 

Prolonged labor

Prolonged labor is the most common reason for an emergency C-section. Approximately 8 percent of pregnant women who are about to give birth have prolonged labor. Prolonged labor may be the result of ineffective contractions, failure to dilate, or another factor stalling the process (such as your baby’s head not being able to fit through the birth canal).

Fetal positioning

If your baby is positioned bottom first (breech), feet first, or sideways across your abdomen (transverse), vaginal delivery may not be possible. If you’re little one can’t be manipulated into a different position, an emergency C-section may be necessary.

Unexpected health issues

An emergency C-section may be advised if the mother develops a health condition or infection during labor that could harm the baby. For instance, if there's an active herpes infection or another vaginal infection, it could pose risks to the baby. Similarly, elevated blood pressure or heart rate may make pushing unsafe. In cases of sudden heart or brain health problems, an emergency C-section might be necessary to ensure the safety of both the mother and the baby.


Even with all efforts and interventions, pushing during labor might not lead to progress. Despite trying various methods, such as vacuum-assisted delivery, the situation may remain unchanged. Prolonged pushing can leave you exhausted, and your health may start to show signs of distress. Additionally, the fetal monitor may indicate worrisome variations in your baby's heart rate. In such circumstances, your doctor may make the difficult decision that continuing with current efforts is no longer safe for both you and your baby.

Umbilical cord or placenta issues

If the umbilical cord becomes compressed, tangled, or comes out before the baby, it poses significant risks. A rare but serious complication called a prolapsed umbilical cord occurs when the cord slips into the birth canal ahead of the baby. In such cases, there's a danger of the cord being squeezed during the baby's passage, potentially cutting off the baby's blood supply. Additionally, if the umbilical cord gets kinked or tangled, it could lead to a reduced oxygen supply for the baby. In these situations, quick action with an emergency C-section may be crucial to ensure the baby's well-being.

Like the umbilical cord, the placenta can also cause delivery complications. Placental abruption occurs when part or all of the placenta separates from the lining of the womb. In such cases, the baby is deprived of essential nutrients and oxygen while inside the womb, necessitating an emergency C-section to ensure the baby's health and safety.

Torn womb

Though extremely uncommon, the intense pressure during childbirth can sometimes lead to a tear or rupture of the womb. The risk of this happening is higher for those who have had a previous C-section. If a tear or uterine rupture occurs, an emergency C-section becomes necessary to address the situation.

How Long Does an Emergency C-Section Take?

The ideal timeframe between the decision to proceed with the emergency C-section and delivery is within 30 minutes, although it can take up to 75 minutes. This major surgical operation involves a team of healthcare professionals and extensive coordination. In such cases, doctors and nurses must prepare more quickly than usual.

Emergency C-Section: Reasons, What Happens, & How to Recover

What is Emergency C-Section Recovery Like?

After any type of C-section, it's essential to allow yourself ample time to rest and recover, similar to other major surgeries. This may involve bed rest and avoiding activities like climbing stairs or lifting heavy objects for a while to avoid putting undue pressure on the incision site and promote proper healing. Depending on soreness, you might have limitations on holding your baby for extended periods.

Taking care of the incision area is crucial, requiring regular bandage changes and follow-up visits with your doctor to check for signs of infection. To prevent infection, you may also receive a course of antibiotics. If you need pain medication for comfort, it might temporarily hinder breastfeeding until it's safe to do so. Always consult your doctor about the appropriate timing for breastfeeding while taking pain medications.

One significant difference with an emergency C-section is that it is performed unexpectedly, leaving you potentially emotionally and mentally unprepared for the procedure. This could lead to feelings of distress or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). If you find it challenging to cope with your birth experience or suspect postpartum depression, it's essential to talk to your doctor about your feelings and seek support if needed.

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The Bottom Line

An emergency C-section may be necessary if your doctor determines it is the best way to ensure a healthy delivery for you and your baby. Various factors can lead to this decision, and it's beyond your or your doctor's control. While it might deviate from your initial birth plan, remember that the number one priority is the well-being and safety of both you and your baby.


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