What's The Difference Between A Scheduled C-Section & An Emergency C-Section? OB-GYNs Weigh In

Ad failed to load

There are two types of C-sections in this world — the emergency kind, and the kind you schedule weeks and sometimes months in advance. Any emergency during labor is stressful and frightening, and women will inevitably experience the two procedures differently. But what should mothers know about these surgeries in advance? What's the difference between a scheduled C-section and an emergency C-section in terms of recovery time, pain control, and the procedure itself?

Daniel Roshan, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist at Rosh Maternal Fetal Medicine, explains the biggest distinction: in scheduled C-sections, patients know what they're getting when they enter the hospital, usually early in the morning. Emergency C-sections, on the other hand, are just that — life-threatening emergencies for which modern hospitals are, luckily, extremely well equipped. "An elective C-section is usually done if a patient has had a prior C-section or surgery that doesn’t allow them to go through labor," Roshan explains. Other conditions — placenta previa is one — might also require a scheduled birth. Most cesareans are set for 39 weeks.

Ad failed to load

Mary O’Toole, M.D., an OB-GYN at Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, explains you'll be asked not to eat or drink before a scheduled C-section to reduce your risk of aspirating stomach contents, which can lead to pneumonia. Not eating is especially important for pregnant women because they digest food more slowly, according to Dr. Cherie Richey of Columbus Women's Care. Staff will start a IV, and may remove lower pubic hair with clippers, explains O'Toole. Next, you'll speak with an anesthesiologist, who will administer an epidural. You'll also receive a catheter, which remains in the bladder for 24 hours, and wraps around your calves to promote circulation during the procedure. It's calm, orderly, and routine.

"The patient is checked for good anesthesia before surgery is started and repeatedly told you may feel touching and pressure, but no pain," O'Toole explains. All in all, the scheduled surgery takes 45 to 60 minutes to complete.

In an emergency, the entire hospital comes to life. Anesthesia and the neonatology unit are called right away, as is an assistant surgeon. "It all happens very quickly," O'Toole explains. "The patient will receive more medication in her epidural or she may she may have to be put to sleep." While no one wants an emergency cesarean, it's still an OB-GYN's "best tool when it comes to circumstances like breech delivery and fetal distress," notes O'Toole.

Ad failed to load

Being awake is preferable because women can protect their airways if they're sick, and of course, they're able to see their baby immediately after, according to Richey. However, in an emergency, there simply might not be time to start an epidural if you don't have one already. As for the procedure itself, Richey tells Romper that because comsetic issues aren't a priority in a crisis, you're more likely to receive a vertical incision, rather than an "bikini" incision. Amazingly, OBGYNs can often get the baby out within one or two minutes, according to Roshan.

Doctors know that an unplanned C-section can make for an emotional journey for birthing women. "There can be fear, mistrust, and anxiety over the unexpected," Kenneth James, MD, OB-GYN, of MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center, tells Romper. "This is where birthing classes prove invaluable. Just knowing that this is a possibility makes the transition easier and acceptable."

Because an emergency C-section is possible for anyone, it's very important to know and trust your healthcare provider, who will be there for you when the going gets tough. "Holding a patient's hand and being kind is the best anti-anxiety medicine out there," notes Richey.

Ad failed to load

What about recovery? Patients receiving an emergency C-section have often been in labor long before surgery. "That can make it harder to recover than if they just came in for an elective C-section," according to Roshan.

Justine Roth, MS, RD, of Justine Roth Nutrition in New York, describes her emergency C-section as "defeating and upsetting," in an interview with Romper. She remembers the pain she felt before surgery as being terribly frightening. "We pushed for three hours and I just couldn’t get her out," she explains. "She was right there but couldn’t get through my pelvis." The doctor let her keep trying, but eventually, they decided a C-section was the safest route.

Ad failed to load

Afterwards, Roth didn't anticipate the sadness she'd feel. "I had a vision of how things were going to go, and when they didn’t go that way I didn’t know how to feel. But I let it go because she was here, and healthy."

For Roth's next birth, she sought out a VBAC — vaginal birth after cesarean —but was told it wasn't safe in her case. She hated having her surgery date on the calendar in advance, because it felt somehow unnatural. "Births are supposed to unexpected, exciting," she says.

In the end, it was still pretty exciting — Roth didn't make it to the calendar date. At her final doctor's visit, she was 6 centimeters dilated, so she headed to the hospital early. "This time it was all very calm. Chatted with the anesthesiologist (who was a new mom back at work after six weeks) until the doctors said, 'Hello, we are ready.'" She reports feeling some heavy pressure, and then her baby was greeting the world with a cry.

Ad failed to load

If you come to the hospital expecting to have a vaginal birth, a C-section is a serious deviation from the plan. But as O'Toole notes, obstetrics is unpredictable, so it's best to be ready for anything. Understanding the differences between an emergency and scheduled C-section in advance might help you to feel more prepared, however your baby ends up being born.

Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:

Ad failed to load

Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

15 Baby Names With Unique Nicknames, So Your Family Has Options

I love a good diminutive name, also known as a nickname. I believe I’m partial to them because of my own name, Abigale, but I go by Abi. And since they’re both uniquely spelled, everyone thinks my name is pronounced Ah-bee for some reason — but even …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

The Entire Family Can Enjoy These Movies & Shows Coming To Netflix In June

It's just one of those sad facts of life: every month, shows and movies vanish from Netflix, their varied excitements no longer at your fingertips. But luckily the streaming service is always prepared to fill that content void with lots of new things…
By Megan Walsh

The Reason Why Babies Smile At You Will Seriously Make You Smile

Whether you're currently the recipient of your own baby's sweet smiles or you just seem to be a magnet for baby grins in general, you might find yourself wondering why babies are always smiling at you. Sure, you could be a 'smile whisperer' but scien…
By Kate Miller

8 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say That, Yes, You Are Their Favorite

For a baby to show a preference for a specific person is not only normal, but an essential part of their development. Babies need to form strong attachments to their caregivers for their emotional, social, and physical wellbeing. Usually, but not alw…
By Kimmie Fink

10 Reasons Why I Won't Apologize For Giving My Toddler A Pacifier

My first child had no interest in a pacifier. I tried a couple times to get him to take one, but he always spat them out and gave me an incredulous, judgmental look. But my second? It was love at first suckle. And after a while, the incredulous, judg…
By Jamie Kenney

Being A Dog Parent Prepared Me For Having A Baby, Really

I’ve always wanted kids; I was never as sure about raising a puppy. Then I spent six months living with someone who brought home an eight-week-old golden retriever puppy, and I see no way to make it out of that experience claiming not to love dogs. I…
By Heather Caplan

20 Of The Most Popular Unisex Names Of All Time, That You'll Be Hearing More Of For Sure

You might think of unisex names as a fairly recent trend, but the truth is these versatile monikers have been commonly used throughout history (well, some more commonly than others). That's why the team over at recently compiled a list of t…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

How To Have A Date Night With No Babysitter, Because It's Easier Than You Think

After having children, many couples feel that their love lives immediately go out the window, but it's so important to make your romantic life a priority so both you and your partner can be the best versions of yourselves you can be. As we all know, …
By Abi Berwager Schreier

9 Ways Baby No. 3 Made My Family Feel Complete

My husband and I decided to have another baby right after we got married and, well, we had no idea what we were getting into. I got pregnant right away, endured a high-risk pregnancy, and, before I knew it, my third baby had arrived. Together, we emb…
By Steph Montgomery

8 Stereotypes About New Dads That Are *Totally* True

Much like new mothers, new fathers have a lot on their plate. Parenting can be scary and complex, especially at first and regardless of your gender. People want to do right by their kids, after all. And since all new parents are a hot mess, dads are …
By Priscilla Blossom

8 Differences Between Being Pregnant In Your 20s Vs 30s, According To Science

Whether you're planning a pregnancy, or just thinking about your future family, it's typical to think about things like child-spacing, how many kids you want, and when to start trying to conceive. When making your pro/con list, you might also conside…
By Steph Montgomery

16 Moms Share Remedies For Their Most Intense Chocolate Cravings During Pregnancy

For better or worse, pregnancy is usually synonymous with odd cravings. Sure, there are the stereotypical combos like pickles and ice cream that plague gestating women the world over, but there are other mind-boggling combinations, too, including but…
By Candace Ganger

Putting Sunscreen On Your Kid Doesn't Have To Be A Fight — Here's How To Do It

I am almost translucent, so me and sunscreen are basically besties at this point. Even though my children are beautifully deep brown thanks to my husband's genetics, I still slather them like biscuits being buttered because I refuse to take risks wit…
By Cat Bowen

19 Moms Share The Way They Cured Their Pregnancy Comfort Food Cravings

I was obnoxiously sick during the first trimester with, "lucky" for me, both of my pregnancies. For the first three months I lived on saltines, lemonade, and fresh bread. Once I was able to eat, however, all I wanted was savory and sweet comfort food…
By Dina Leygerman

I Used To Judge Formula-Feeding Moms — Until I Became One

The other patrons in the hip Brooklyn restaurant probably couldn’t care less what I was feeding my baby, but I’ll always remember the shame I felt as I quickly mixed up his bottle of formula in front of them. I admitted to my childless friend that I …
By Katherine Martinelli

7 White Lies It’s Necessary To Tell To Keep Your Relationship Healthy

Telling lots of lies typically isn't associated with a healthy, strong, lasting relationship, and that's still certainly true, but not all lies are exactly the same. Though you've probably heard from someone at least once or twice that the lie they t…
By Lauren Schumacker

The Skinny Jeans That Saved Me Postpartum

Accepting my post-pregnancy body is hands-down one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It’s something that I still work on every single day. During my first pregnancy, I was 20 years old, so I managed to bounce back quickly. In fact, I dropp…
By Allison Cooper

7 Ways Your Baby Is Trying To Say They Feel Safe

In those first weeks of new motherhood, it can feel like you need an interpreter for your newborn. With their limited means of communication, figuring out what message your baby is trying to get across to you can be a challenge. With time, however, y…
By Kimmie Fink

Here's Why Dogs Are Obsessed With Babies' Poop, According To Science

Most family dogs seem to understand babies, and they're more than happy to make friends with the newest member of the pack. It's adorable... for the most part and until you go to change your little one's diaper. Suddenly, you're wondering why dogs ar…
By Lindsay E. Mack

6 Signs You're Meant To Have A Big Age Gap Between Kids

There's a five year age difference between my two children, to the day. Their age gap wasn't planned but, for a variety of reasons, works well for our family. And since I was so focused on having a second baby, I totally overlooked the signs that wou…
By Candace Ganger

My Dog Knew I Was Pregnant Before My Family Did

Growing up, I was 100 percent sure I'd be a mom one day. To a dog, that is. My baby plans came later. And once my husband and I were sure we wanted both a dog and a baby, we'd add to our joint dog-and-baby name list over Sunday brunch or on date nigh…
By Melissa Mills