When I hear women debate whether it’s better to have a vaginal birth or a Cesarean section, I’m able to offer a rare perspective: I experienced both—in the same delivery.
I popped out my first twin, Toby, the old-fashioned way. But my second little guy, Ian, was delivered by emergency C-section after his umbilical cord dropped down before he did, potentially compromising his oxygen supply.
Needless to say, I’m grateful to have had that C-section; but in the absence of an emergency situation like mine, I’d choose a vaginal delivery any day.
It’s true, as comedian Carol Burnett said, that “giving birth is like taking your lower lip and forcing it over your head.” But if you ask me, it sure beats staples in your belly, a catheter in your bladder, intense gas pains, a longer hospital stay and recovery, and double the risk that you’ll land back in the hospital with an infection. If you’re having a repeat C-section (you’ll probably need to if your first delivery was via Cesarean) or if your baby is being delivered before 39 weeks, the chance that your baby will have to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) also doubles.
Once a rarity reserved for obstetric emergencies, C-sections have become commonplace, now accounting for nearly 32 percent of all U.S. deliveries (up from 20.7 percent in 1996). As a result, giving birth surgically is often perceived as easier and safer than labor and vaginal delivery, even for low-risk pregnancies. But in most cases, it’s not. “For mothers who don’t have a risk condition, a Cesarean is actually less safe for mom and baby than a vaginal birth,” says childbirth researcher Eugene Declercq, Ph.D., assistant dean for doctoral education at the Boston University School of Public Health.
The Myth of Superior Safety
To be sure, C-sections are safer now than in decades past. This is largely because of improved surgical techniques and better antibiotics to protect against post-operative infection, and because regional (local) rather than general anesthesia can usually be used. Yet compared to women who deliver vaginally, those who deliver by planned Cesarean are 2.3 times more likely to be re-hospitalized within 30 days (19.2 out of 1,000 women for Csections, compared with 7.5 for vaginal births).
The risk of death is extremely low for babies who are delivered via planned Cesarean to lowrisk mothers with no labor complications—about 0.75 deaths per 1,000 live births. Yet according to a 2008 study of more than 8 million U.S. births over a three-year period, this rate is 69 percent higher than the neo natal death rate for planned vaginal deliveries.
A much more common concern is respiratory distress. Newborns delivered via Cesarean before 39 weeks gestation (about one-third of all scheduled C-sections) and babies delivered via repeat Cesarean are twice as likely to be admitted to the NICU for breathing problems. C-section babies also have higher rates of childhood asthma. “Being pushed through the birth canal squeezes fluid from their lungs, so babies delivered vaginally tend to have fewer respiratory issues,” explains OB-GYN Bonnie Wise, M.D., an associate professor at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago.
The Risks of Repeat C-Sections
Perhaps the best reason to avoid a nonessential C-section for your first baby is so you aren’t forced to have a second—or third—surgery. The potential risks associated with pregnancy after a C-section and with repeat Cesareans are serious.
For example, uterine scarring from a previous C-section leads to a much higher risk of placenta previa (when the placenta partially or entirely covers the cervix) and placenta accreta (when the placenta burrows into the uterine muscle rather than simply attaching to the lining). Both conditions can trigger lifethreatening hemorrhage in the mother, either during labor or after giving birth.
These and other risks increase substantially with each successive C-section, no small concern given that the adage “once a Cesarean, always a Cesarean” is still a reality in the United States today. Some 91 percent of moms who delivered via C-section the first time end up having a Cesarean again rather than a VBAC (vaginal birth after Cesarean). “I think we’ve minimized how advantageous it is for mothers and families to have an initial vaginal birth,” says John M. Thorp, Jr., M.D., a professor of OB-GYN at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Medicine.
“It used to be that C-sections were done to save the life of the mother or baby. But the standards for doing them are being lowered, and malpractice has a lot to do with it,” says Maureen Corry, M.P.H., executive director of Childbirth Connection, a nonprofit childbirth advocacy organization.
Many doctors agree. “The threat of a lawsuit is in the front of my mind,” says Miami obstetrician Randy Fink, M.D. “If something goes wrong with a vaginal birth, the first question you’re going to be asked is: ‘Why didn’t you do a C-section?’ ” Our litigious environment, he says, means that “some women have C-sections that may be a quick jump to the knife.”