What are the risks of C-sections?

Under specific health conditions and complications, delivery by C-section is a necessary medical procedure that helps to ensure the health of both mom and baby, but it’s also a major surgery, and it carries with it the risks and potential complications that go along with major surgeries. For one thing, C-sections do take longer to recover from than vaginal deliveries, and the recovery period includes careful wound care. There are also risks for children, in addition to the higher cost of C-sections relative to vaginal deliveries.

C-section complications for women

  • Wound infection: New moms who have had C-sections are given antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection, but infections still happen, and are more common following C-sections than vaginal deliveries. A wound infection may be found at the incision site or inside the uterus.
  • Infection of the uterine lining: This kind of infection can cause fever, vaginal discharge, and uterine pain.
  • Excessive bleeding: Women tend to lose more blood during C-sections than during vaginal births, and in rare cases, a blood transfusion may be needed.
  • Reaction to anesthesia: In any surgery, a negative reaction to anesthesia is possible. In some cases, common types of anesthesia used in C-sections can cause severe headaches in the days following surgery, especially when upright.
  • Blood clots: There is a risk of developing a blood clot after any kind of delivery, but it’s higher after a C-section. Blood clots most commonly form in the legs or pelvic area, and if they travel to the lungs (pulmonary embolism), they can be very dangerous. Healthcare providers take steps to decrease the risk of blood clots, including encouraging walking not long after delivery.
  • Surgical injury: In rare cases, surgical instruments used in C-sections can cause injuries, including bladder injuries, which may need to be corrected with more surgery. The chances of surgical injury are higher in women who have had multiple C-sections.
  • Increased chance of C-section in future pregnancy: Women who have had one C-section have an increased chance of another C-section in later births. This is partially cultural, since vaginal deliveries after C-sections – sometimes called VBACs – are seen as riskier, even in cases where, medically, they may be a viable choice, and partially practical, since women who have had C-sections are at an increased risk of uterine rupture.

C-sections complications for babies

  • Breathing problems: Babies born by C-section are more likely to develop transient tachypnea, which causes unusually fast breathing in the first few days after birth. Babies delivered by C-section before 39 weeks, or before their lungs have had time to develop, may also be at a higher risk for other breathing problems.
  • Surgical injuries: Nicks or small cuts to the baby during surgery are rare, and usually are very small and fast-healing, but they do occasionally occur.

When are C-sections needed?

Because C-sections are major surgical procedures that carry the risk of complications for both mothers and babies, it’s recommended that hospitals and healthcare providers only perform them in cases where they’re medically necessary. Medical reasons why a C-section might be scheduled include:

  • Many pregnancies of multiples
  • Problems with the baby’s position, the position of the placenta, or the position of the umbilical cord
  • The mother has had uterine surgery or a previous C-section (although in many cases, a vaginal delivery after a C-section may be a completely reasonable option)
  • The mother has a medical condition that might make a vaginal delivery risky
  • The baby has certain birth defects or conditions

C-sections that are not scheduled, but happen because of complications in a vaginal delivery, are called emergency C-sections.

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  • Larissa Hirsch. “Cesarean Sections.” Kids Health. The Nemours Foundation, February 2017. Retrieved September 28 2017. http://kidshealth.org/en/parents/c-sections.html#.
  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “C-section.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, August 4 2015. Retrieved September 28 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/tests-procedures/c-section/basics/risks/prc-20014571.
  • “Risks of a cesarean section.” NHS Choices. Gov.UK, July 1 2016. Retrieved September 28 2017. http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/Caesarean-section/Pages/Risks.aspx.
  • “When is a cesarean delivery necessary & what are the risks?” National Institute of Child Health and Human Development. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health. Retrieved September 28 2017. https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/obstetrics/conditioninfo/pages/risks.aspx. 
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