Vaginal birth vs c-section birth: Which is right for you?

At some point in your pregnancy, the realization will hit you… Sh*t. You need to actually GIVE BIRTH. Like, not just grow this human inside you for nine months, but also release it out into the world somehow.

You’ll either do this via vaginal birth or c-section, and understanding the differences between the two can help you prepare both physically and mentally for your birth and delivery. This article will walk you through what’s involved, what recovery is like and how to decide what type of birth will be best for you and your baby.

Vaginal birth: Everything you need to know

This is what you tend to see in the movies (you know – woman in crisp, white hospital gown screaming on a bed while people yell “PUSH!”). It can come on spontaneously, or it can be medically induced. Either way, expect heavy involvement from your vagina during birth – it’s your baby’s entryway to this big, wide world.

Vaginal birth can last anywhere from a few hours to a few days. But as intense as that sounds it’s not all hardcore pushing. The labor will go down in three stages:

  1. Early and active labor – This is when contractions start and your baby moves into the birth canal ready for action. It’s the longest stage of the labor, and you may decide to ask for pain meds or ride it out using natural methods.
  1. Birth of your baby – This is when you start pushing. It might require a few minutes of work, or a couple of hours. If your baby is stubbornly staying put your doctor may suggest methods for helping with delivery, such as forceps or a vacuum.
  2. Delivery of the placenta – You may be oblivious to this part of the birth, because you’ll probably have your sweet new babe in your arms! It could take five minutes to an hour to deliver the placenta and get you started on recovery.

Why would you have a vaginal birth?

Women have been birthing vaginally since the dawn of time. If you want to avoid medical intervention and experience childbirth in its rawest, most natural form, then a vaginal birth may be for you.

In saying that, a c-section may be safer in some cases. It’s best to discuss your options with your medical team before making the call.

Your vagina: before and after birth

So how the f*ck is a baby meant to fit through your vagina? You’re not the first woman to question this – but trust us, it happens. Which begs the question: what does a vagina look like after birth? 

Your vagina, after giving birth, may look and feel a bit looser. In some cases your perineum (the skin between the vagina and anus) might tear or be cut by doctors in a procedure called an episiotomy. More than 85% of women experience some form of vagina tear during birth, and you may need vaginal stitches after birth to repair any damage.

You’ll probably experience soreness in your vagina after birth, along with dryness, and possible pain during sex for the first few months. But all in all, vaginas are pretty hardy and heal up fairly well.

What’s vaginal birth recovery like?

Recovering from a vaginal birth can be variable, depending on what went down. In the days after birth you’ll experience bleeding and soreness, which will slowly fade over time. At around six to eight weeks after a vaginal birth your uterus is typically back to its normal size and you’re ready for sex and physical activity again. However, some women may need longer than this.

Vaginal stitches can take seven to ten days to dissolve, and a tear or episiotomy may take six weeks or longer to heal. Longer-term, you might experience incontinence and require physio work to strengthen your pelvic floor.

C-section birth: Everything you need to know

What to expect from c-section birth

A cesarean section (or c-section) is a surgical procedure performed in theatre. You’ll be kitted out in all the proper surgery kit and kaboodle (including a very sexy hairnet), and your doctors will make a c-section incision in your tummy and uterus to deliver your baby. This cut will usually result in a c-section scar – a beautiful reminder of what you’ve been through to safely birth your baby!

You’ll generally be given anesthetic so you won’t feel pain, but you’re often awake for the procedure, ready to have your baby placed on your chest for skin-to-skin contact if it’s safe to do so.

The golden question: How long does a c-section take? While the birthing part is much faster than a vaginal delivery, taking about 30–60 minutes, keep in mind that the c-section recovery time is typically longer.

Why would you have a c-section?

C-section births, whether planned or unplanned, are often performed to mitigate risks. Your care team may recommend having a c-section from the get-go if there are complications with your pregnancy. If this happens it’s important to do your research, ask lots of questions, understand the risks, and talk it out with your partner.

Common reasons for having a planned c-section include having multiple babies (i.e. twins), if your baby is in the wrong position, if you have pre-existing health conditions, or if your placenta is covering part of the cervix.

Common reasons for an unplanned c-section include a slowly progressing labor, slow fetal heart rate, fetal distress, or poor positioning.

With 31.7% of babies in the US delivered by c-section, it’s a safe, everyday procedure in most hospitals. Of course, if you’ve attempted a vaginal birth and been advised to have an emergency c-section, it’s hard not to freak out. Opting for a c-section is sometimes simply the safest way to deliver your baby – go with it and prep for this possibility ahead of time.

Your body, post-c-section 

How long after c-section can you have sex?

Your doctor will advise on when you can have sex after a c-section delivery, but six weeks is pretty standard.

When can I start bending after c-section?

Anything that puts strain on your wound should be avoided for four to six weeks after having a c-section. Steer clear of deep bending, picking heavy things up or stretching.

When can I take a bath after c-section?

Avoid bathing or swimming after your birth until your doctor says it’s safe (usually around three weeks).

How long do you bleed after c-section?

It’s normal to bleed from the vagina after a c-section birth, but it should ease up gradually and go away by six weeks postpartum.

How many c-sections can you have?

You may choose to attempt a vaginal birth after c-section (VBAC) for a future pregnancy, which is successful in about 70% of cases. Multiple c-sections are possible too, however risks and complications increase with each. There’s no evidence to suggest the exact number of c-sections you can safely have.

What’s c-section recovery like?

Women typically spend more time in hospital after a c-section compared to vaginal births.

Because you’re dealing with a substantial wound, there’s a chance of c-section infection if the cut isn’t treated correctly. Your wound may take six to ten weeks to heal completely, and it’s important to take it easy during this time. 

PLEASE ask for plenty of help while you recover!

What type of birth is right for me?

In short: whatever’s safest for you and your baby. 

We believe that all forms of birth are ‘natural’ and beautiful – vaginal births and c-sections too. But the way you feel about your birth experience is important as well. You should feel safe and supported, and able to advocate for what you want.

Remember, birth rarely happens exactly to plan. It’s important to research, listen to positive birth stories and create a birth plan in advance. But it’s equally important to stay open to whatever may come.

Important: This article doesn’t replace medical advice. Talk in detail with your doctor about your pregnancy and any concerns you have about delivery. 

Read next: How do you know when you’re in labor?

Mayo Clinic, Stages of labor and birth: Baby, it’s time!, February 2020.

NHS, Vagina changes after childbirth, October 2018.

Healthline, Your Guide to Postpartum Recovery, July 2018.

Raising Children Network, Your planned caesarean birth

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Births – Method of Delivery

Mayo Clinic, C-section

National Library of Medicine, Perineal care

Raising Children Network, Recovery after caesarean: first six weeks 

Mayo Clinic, Repeat C-sections: Is there a limit?

Raising Children Network, Vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC)

MedLine Plus, Going home after a C-section

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