Babies can enter this world in one of two ways: Pregnant women can have either a vaginal birth or a surgical delivery by Caesarean section, but the ultimate goal of both delivery methods is to safely give birth to a healthy baby.
In some cases, C-sections are planned for medical reasons that make a vaginal birth too risky. A woman may know in advance that she will need a C-section and schedule it because she is expecting twins or other multiples, or because she may have a medical condition, such as diabetes or high blood pressure. A C-section may also be scheduled ahead of time because a woman has an infection that she could pass along to her baby during birth, such as HIV or genital herpes, or if she experiences problems with the placenta during her pregnancy.
A C-section may also be necessary in certain situations, such as delivering a very large baby in a mother with a small pelvis, or if the baby is not in a heads-down position and efforts to turn the baby into this position before birth have been unsuccessful.
Sometimes the decision by an obstetrician to perform a C-section is unplanned, and it is done for emergency reasons because the health of the mother, the baby, or both of them is in jeopardy. This may occur because of a problem during pregnancy or after a woman has gone into labor, such as if labor is happening too slowly or if the baby is not getting enough oxygen.
Some C-sections are considered elective, meaning they are requested by the mother for non-medical reasons before she goes into labor. A woman may choose to have a C-section if she wants to plan when she delivers or if she previously had a complicated vaginal delivery.
Although C-sections are generally considered safe and, in some situations life saving, they carry additional risks compared with a vaginal birth. They are a major surgery and involve opening up a pregnant woman’s abdomen and removing the baby from her uterus because a vaginal birth is considered too dangerous or too difficult.
Because C-sections in first-time mothers often lead to repeat C-sections in future pregnancies, a vaginal birth is generally the preferred method of delivery. It’s the way two in three babies in the United States are born.
In general, women say that giving birth vaginally feels like more of a natural experience, said Dr. Allison Bryant, a maternal fetal medicine specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston. Women may feel as if they are giving birth the way nature intended them to, she added.
Regardless of how they decide to give birth, “women should be as informed as possible about their childbirth options, so they can have a voice in the process, advocate for what they want and make the most informed choice,” Bryant said. Here is more information about the pros and cons of the two birthing methods.
Pros of vaginal birth for the mother
Going through labor and having a vaginal delivery is a long process that can be physically grueling and is hard work for the mother. But one of the benefits of having a vaginal birth is that it has a shorter hospital stay and recovery time compared with a C-section.
Although state laws vary, the typical length of a hospital stay for a woman following a vaginal delivery is between 24 and 48 hours. If a woman is feeling up to it, she may elect to leave the hospital sooner than the allowable time period permitted in her state, Bryant told Live Science.
Women who undergo vaginal births avoid having major surgery and its associated risks, such as severe bleeding, scarring, infections, reactions to anesthesia and more longer-lasting pain. And because a mother will be less woozy from surgery, she could hold her baby and may begin breastfeeding sooner after she delivers.
Cons of vaginal birth for the mother
During a vaginal delivery, there is a risk that the skin and tissues around the vagina can stretch and tear while the fetus moves through the birth canal. If stretching and tearing is severe, a woman may need stitches or this could cause weakness or injury to pelvic muscles that control her urine and bowel function.
Some studies have found that women who have delivered vaginally are more likely to have problems with bowel or urinary incontinence than women who have had C-sections. They may also be more prone to leak urine when they cough, sneeze or laugh.
After a vaginal delivery, a woman may also experience lingering pain in the perineum, the area between her vagina and anus.