What To Expect From An Emergency C-Section?

By Sofie Jacobs

While it’s difficult to plan for childbirth (you never know exactly how your labour is going to be until you’re in the midst of it), most women don’t tend to plan for an emergency C-section. Essentially, an emergency C-section refers to an unplanned caesarean that isn’t in the diary. It is a major operation and is only carried out when there are complications with either the way the labour is progressing or with the baby in some way. In this article I’ll be explaining what happens during an emergency C-section so that you can know more about what to expect in this scenario.

Luckily, statistically it’s much more likely that you will have a successful vaginal birth. Caesareans account for about 25 per cent of deliveries, and emergency Caesareans account for around 15 per cent of births.

What is an emergency C-section?

The word emergency certainly conjures the idea of a state of alarm, but in most scenarios an emergency caesarean is a choice that is calmly discussed with you around an hour before the operation takes place.

There are three different types of caesareans:

1. Elective C-section

This refers to a completely elected and fully planned caesarean.

2. Emergency C-section

This is an unplanned procedure where there’s a need to deliver the baby soon, but there’s no immediate threat to life.

3. Crash C-section

This is a very rare emergency procedure where there’s an immediate threat to life and the medical team will aim to deliver your baby within 30 minutes of taking the decision to operate

An emergency C-section is very like any other C-section, except that the decision to take the operation is made in a more urgent environment and in response to the way in which your labour is progressing. That said, an emergency C-section is often carried out in a calm manner, although many women can find it distressing to suddenly have to face an operation and find themselves transported to theatre.

Why are emergency caesareans carried out?

There are multiple reasons why the decision might be made to deliver your baby via an emergency C-section, but essentially, a delivery of this kind should be seen as a treatment in response to a medical problem.

Reasons can include:

1. labour is not progressing well

2. your baby is getting overly tired

3. the mother is over tired

4. an induction has failed

5. fetal malposition


Recovering from an emergency C-section

Recovery from an emergency C-section can be challenging and I’d always advise any woman who has just been through one to take things very slowly in those first few days and weeks – although this is always a case of ‘easier said than done’. Of course, when there is a newborn to look after, it’s very hard to relax in any way, but making sure people around you are giving you support with things like cooking, cleaning and laundry, can make a big difference to your recovery.

It can be doubly challenging to recover if you have been in labour for a long time and have then had to face an emergency C-section. In this scenario, you’ll need to recover both from the labour and from the major abdominal surgery.

Often you will need to stay in hospital for a few extra days following an emergency C-section and you’ll also be given pain-killers to help soothe the discomfort of the incision. Normally you’ll have a catheter inserted into your bladder for the first 12 hours following the operation and once this has been removed, you’ll be encouraged to get up and move around gently.

You may find that you’re not able to move as quickly, and you should avoid carrying anything other than your baby for the first couple of weeks.  It’s often recommended to avoid driving, exercise and sex for the first six weeks as well.

Healing at home is very much a case of managing any pain and discomfort and keeping your wound clean. Be sure to follow the advice given to you by your surgeon to care for your scar correctly and should you have any concerns about your wound, it’s sensible to seek medical advice as soon as possible.

Emotional recovery

There is also a lot of emotional recovery from an emergency C-section as in certain circumstances it can feel very disorientating to suddenly be facing surgery, particularly if there have been high risks to the mother or baby. Often mums can feel robbed of the birth experience that they wanted and in severe cases can experience post-traumatic stress or flashbacks.

Having an emergency C-section can lead some mothers to feel disconnected from both their body and their baby or even feel unable to form an immediate bond with their baby for the first few days or so. Low mood and negative feelings are all a reaction a stressful and unexpected birth situation. Such emotions are all completely normal. It can really help to discuss how you feel, and experience with a midwife, doctor, counsellor or health visitor who can provide support and encouragement, or why not find a friendly online community of mums to share your experiences with too?

It will take time to process your feelings and to establish your relationship with your baby. A traumatic or difficult birth experience can be a rude arrival to motherhood, which in itself is a time of very steep learning. Keep in mind that you’re going through a huge period of change, recovery and adjustment and never punish yourself for what you’re feeling.

It’s important that you arrange a post partum debrief with a midwife following your birth, so that you can better understand why the intervention had to happen. This can really help with the mental healing process too. It’s worth doing this a few weeks or months afterwards, so you have had time to recover physically.

Feeding after an emergency C-section

It’s well known that when you deliver your baby via a C-section, that your milk can sometimes take a little longer to come in, so it’s helpful to keep an open mind to your feeding options in those very early days. Make sure you get extra support from a midwife or breast feeding consultant so you can decide on the best feeding plan for you and your baby (and remember that plans can always be adjusted).. I often say to new mothers, that with feeding, you have to give it time and patience and remember that while breast milk is the most natural option, it’s not the only option.

Affects on partner of an emergency C-section
While it’s the mum that goes through the full spectrum of emotions and challenges presented by an emergency C-section, often partners can feel traumatised by the experience too. They can often feel side-lined and on the periphery of the action, and will often feel useless and unable to help you in your hour of need. Make sure you and your partner are able to both talk through your birth experience afterwards, and if you are going to a post partum debriefing, it can be beneficial for your partner to attend as well.

You may find it useful to read our article on How To Move On From A Traumatic Birth  or to find out more information about how to prepare for whatever type of birth you have.

For regular expert and peer support in navigating pregnancy, early parenthood and work, join our online prenatal course, HATCH™ now!

photo credit: Albany J. Alvarez

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