A vaginal birth is delivering a baby through the vaginal canal. In most parts of the world, the majority of babies are born via vaginal births. Many women have the option of having a vaginal birth in a number of different settings. Sometimes medical interventions may be to assist with the birth, however, by definition, a vaginal birth does not involve surgery.
During pregnancy, the baby develops inside a woman’s uterus. The bottom of the uterus, called the cervix, normally stays fairly tightly closed, helping to hold the baby in. At the end of the pregnancy, when the baby is ready to be born, the woman’s body starts to produces hormones that soften the cervix and allow it to open. When true labor begins, more hormones cause the uterus to contract and the cervix to open quickly, preparing the body to deliver the baby. Once the cervix opens to about 4 inches (10 centimeters), the baby is usually ready to be pushed out of the uterus, through the cervix and vagina in a vaginal birth.
Many women who plan to have a vaginal birth may be able to choose where they want to deliver the baby. Options often include at home, in a birthing center or in a hospital. Women who plan natural births, where the baby is delivered via vaginal birth without the use of pain medication, usually have the most options on where to deliver the baby. For women who are at higher risk for complication or who plan to use pain medication, however, health-care providers generally recommend a hospital birth.
Interventions are not required for many vaginal births, but they may be needed in some cases. For example, if the baby needs to be born before the body starts producing childbirth hormones, interventions can be used to promote labor. These may include breaking the amniotic sac or administering a synthetic hormone to induce labor, and can help start the contractions and cervical opening needed to have a successful vaginal birth. Other interventions may include pain medication, to help reduce the discomfort of contractions, and the use of forceps or a special vacuum to help pull the baby out of the vaginal canal if needed.
Delivering a baby using any or all interventions up to surgery is still considered a vaginal birth. In some cases, however, a woman may not be able to deliver her baby this way. When this happens, health-care providers usually make an incision in the abdomen and uterus so they can pull the baby out with their hands. This type of birth is known as a cesarean or C-section, and is the only alternative to a vaginal birth.