It's a c-section!

A panicked mother's guide to the almighty cesarean


There are a few options as far as anesthesia for a cesarean. Your doctor will discuss the options with you and probably make a recommendation. I spoke with Tiffany Gwartney, an Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner, who provided me with a brief description of the advantages and disadvantages of each.

General Anesthesia

According to Gwartney, general anesthesia is inhaled through a mask, similar to laughing gas. This type of anesthesia is only administered in an emergency situation because the mother is completely unconscious for the birth. General anesthesia also often causes adverse effects when waking such as nausea, vomiting and itching.


illustration of the area of the spine where an epidural is injected
Image courtesy of MedlinePlus

Anesthesia via spinal epidural is very commonly used, particularly if an epidural has already been placed for natural labor prior to complications. According to Gwartney, to receive a spinal epidural, the mother curl into the fetal position and a needle is introduced into the spine. The needle is then withdrawn and a catheter is left in its place to administer continuous pain and sedation medications. An epidural is generally preferred to general anesthesia because the mother can be awake and engaged in the entire birth process. Unfortunately, there are side effects including uncomfortable positioning during spinal needle placement, inadequate or too much pain control, bleeding and spinal headache.

Spinal Block

Due to the potential risks of spinal epidurals, spinal blocks have become a commonly used anesthesia. According to Gwartney, a spinal block is placed is essentially the same way as a spinal epidural, however, a spinal block is an injection of anesthesia into the spine with complete removal of the needle prior to the procedure. It provides many of the same benefits of the spinal epidural but is more comfortable than an epidural.

I had a spinal block for my cesarean, the thought of which was horrifying at the time. I still actively look away when getting my blood drawn, and previously joked with my husband that I was more afraid of the IV than the entire childbirth process. This anxiety was only compounded by the fact that even though my husband was allowed in for the entire surgical procedure, he could not be in the room when they placed the spinal block. As with the rest of the process, it was much worse in theory than reality. I know people say it without meaning it, but I honestly barely felt it. I made the mistake of not looking at the needle, so I was bracing for something like this:

a comically large needle
Image courtesy of Alex Peck

When in reality, the needle used to administer a spinal block looks like this. And unless those are the hands of a giant, you really don’t have much to worry about.

close-up on hands of anesthesiologist placing a spinal block
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons