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Decreasing C-section Rates

1 Contact Hour
This peer reviewed course is applicable for the following professions:
Advanced Registered Nurse Practitioner (ARNP), Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS), Licensed Practical Nurse (LPN), Licensed Vocational Nurses (LVN), Midwife (MW), Nursing Student, Registered Nurse (RN)
This course will be updated or discontinued on or before Thursday, January 13, 2022

Participants will understand what interventions can help to decrease the c-section rates.


After completing this continuing education course, the participant will be able to:

  1. Identify why it is important to decrease the c-section rate.
  2. List 3 reasons why a c-section is justified.
  3. Identify reasons for the rising c-section rates in the United States.
  4. List 3 interventions that may decrease the c-section rate.
  5. Identify 3 ways that an RN can provide labor support.
CEUFast Inc. did not endorse any product, or receive any commercial support or sponsorship for this course. The Planning Committee and Authors do not have any conflict of interest.

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To earn of certificate of completion you have one of two options:
  1. Take test and pass with a score of at least 80%
  2. Reflect on practice impact by completing self-reflection, self-assessment and course evaluation.
    (NOTE: Some approval agencies and organizations require you to take a test and self reflection is NOT an option.)
Author:    Kelly LaMonica (DNP(c), MSN, RNC-OB, EFM)

The Problem

Maternal morbidity and mortality are still on the rise in the United States. Severe maternal morbidity has risen over 200% in the United States from 1993 to 2014.1 There are some known reasons for this increase: increases in maternal age, pre-pregnancy obesity, preexisting chronic medical conditions, and cesarean delivery.2 Cesarean sections (c-sections) are one probable cause of maternal morbidity and these rates have drastically increased in the United States. The other variables of morbidity and mortality, such as age, obesity, and preexisting medical conditions, are difficult, if not impossible, to change. In order to improve maternal outcomes, the cesarean section rate must be decreased.

Process Improvement

Through the years, the cesarean section rate has continued to climb. Primary cesarean rates account for 50% of the overall increased rate. There are a few causes for this increased rate. More of the reasons for primary c-sections are for non-reassuring fetal status and arrest of dilation, than more objective indications such as, malpresentation, maternal-fetal, and obstetric conditions, as seen in a woman who has delivered a baby vaginally before a c-section.3 Malpresentation, maternal-fetal, and obstetric reasons cannot be argued. Some conditions require c-sections, such as a woman with active herpes, a placental abruption, a woman with cardiac disease, a cord prolapse, a fetus with certain birth defects, or a breech or transverse baby. Non-reassuring fetal heart rate is a reason for a cesarean if it is truly non-reassuring. Concerns of medical malpractice have led to quicker decisions for c-sections. Labor dystocia is one reason for c-section that needs to be improved. Labor dystocia is a generic term used to describe labor that is not following a “normal” curve. The original labor curve was published by Friedman in the 1950s. It was not until the 1990s that this labor curve was questioned. Obstetricians and midwives have not completely moved their practice to this new labor curve. Not all patients, especially with changes in patient demographics, such as age, weight, and co-morbidities fall into a curve. Labor arrest is another term that can be used to describe labor that is not effective. A woman having her first baby is no longer considered to be in labor until she is at least 6cm dilated. Therefore, the arrest of labor cannot be diagnosed prior to 6cm. The arrest of descent is defined as a woman who is fully dilated (10cm) and pushing, but the head is not descending to deliver. 

Literature Review

Karacam, Walsh, & Bugg conducted a systematic review of labor dystocia.4 The findings were that low-risk nulliparous women appear to labor for longer, possibly related to higher BMI and larger babies; epidural anesthesia may enable women to tolerate labor longer, and that labor progress is variable from woman to woman. This makes the diagnosis of labor dystocia difficult to make and vague. One study showed that the number of cesareans performed for the arrest of descent over time remained stable, but the number performed for the arrest of dilation increased each year.3 This means that more providers are letting the woman labor longer and reach 10 cm, or fully dilated, but then performing a c-section because the baby has not descended, or “come down the pelvis” to deliver. One study showed that delayed admission until the onset of active labor, continuous supportive care, avoiding epidural analgesia, supporting adequate hydration, use of upright positions, and less use of amniotomy and oxytocin during labor all have some biologic plausibility for facilitating vaginal birth via support for physiological labor.5 Another study showed that preventing the first cesarean is complex and requires teamwork among the physicians, midwives, nurses, and then patient. Low intervention management of labor can encourage labor progress.6


Obstetricians and midwives work all hours of the day. Sometimes they want to get home, and this may influence their decision on doing a cesarean section. The electronic fetal heart tracing may be questionable. Even with the improvement in the fetal heart after interventions, the obstetrician may continue to worry about the tracing. If the nurse caring for that patient keeps questioning the doctor, that doctor may also be more likely to perform a cesarean because they start to worry more. Another reason for a c-section could be that a doctor may have been sued because of a bad outcome, leading them to perform a c-section quicker because they worry more. There are many reasons why doctors and midwives may decide on a c-section. It is always easy to see why they should not have done the c-section when reviewing the case, but that does not look at the big picture of what the doctor and midwife are dealing with at the time of the c-section. 

There are many reasons for cesarean sections. Changes in patient demographics, such as age and co-morbidities, are reasons that doctors, nurses, and midwives cannot change. There are many variables that can be changed. Labor support and low interventions have both been proven to lower the rate. Nurses can give more labor support. Labor dystocia is one area that needs to be addressed. Women today cannot have their labor compared with women of the 1950s who were younger, lighter, and possibly healthier. Most importantly, teamwork and communication are the best ways to decrease the c-section rate. Doctors, midwives, and nurses all need to discuss each patient and come up with the best plan of care. 

Proposed Solutions

Hospital-level policies may be a powerful tool for reducing medically unnecessary c-sections. Performance improvement committees can review all primary c-sections performed and require the doctor to present the case. This may discourage doctors from performing unnecessary c-sections. Identifying individual physician c-section rates at a department meeting is another means of discouraging it. It is vital to demonstrate the importance of lowering the c-section rate to all providers. 

Non-reassuring fetal heart rate cannot always be fixed, but it is important for all doctors, midwives, and nurses to be adequately educated on fetal heart monitoring, speak the same language, and perform interventions when indicated. It is acceptable for obstetricians to consult with other obstetricians when looking at a questionable fetal heart tracing.

The first step to overcoming labor dystocia would be educating the patients about labor and letting them labor longer at home. Midwives are much more likely to have their patients stay home longer. If the patient insists on coming to the office or hospital and she is contracting but is not at least 5cm dilated for a nulliparous woman, she should be discharged home. A checklist with labor dystocia guidelines has been shown in one study to be helpful at making the diagnosis.7 Women need to be allowed to labor longer if the fetal heart tracing is fine. A woman who is less than 6cm should not receive a c-section for the arrest of labor because she is not technically “in labor”.8 These women also need to have adequate contractions with oxytocin if needed before they should be considered as the arrest of labor. A woman giving birth to her first baby who is pushing and not making progress should not be diagnosed as failure to descend until she has pushed at least 3 hours (and possibly 4 hours if she has an epidural).6

Women who are at low risk do not need continuous fetal monitoring. Using intermittent fetal monitoring is acceptable, and even preferred, giving the woman more freedom to move. Telemetry fetal monitoring is another intervention that can be used for women who need continuous fetal monitoring. These monitors allow women the freedom to move around while being monitored without being connected by wires. Many small interventions can have an impact, but the providers must alter their practices. 

Women who have had c-sections may be able to have a vaginal birth. Most women who have had one c-section and did not have a classical uterine incision are candidates for a trial of labor after a c-section. Even women who have had two c-sections without a classical uterine incision may be candidates.9

Labor Support

Nurses in labor and delivery have the autonomy to care for women in labor by increasing the patients’ activity level, repositioning the patient, providing natural pain relief methods, and trying to decrease medical interventions.10 Labor support must become part of the unit culture for it to become the norm of that unit. Promoting physiologic birth (which means normal labor and birth) requires a combination of practices including continual support, position changes and movement, water therapy, birthing balls, peanut balls, and emotional support. Intermittent fetal monitoring can also help promote vaginal birth.11 

During labor, a nurse has many options available to support the woman. There are numerous interventions that can be used to help a woman cope with labor and pain, such as movement, heat, a shower or jacuzzi, and aromatherapy. It is important that hospitals have guidelines that allow low-risk women to have intermittent fetal monitoring, so the woman is free to move. If the woman is high-risk, or on Pitocin, it is helpful if hospitals have wireless fetal monitoring, but if unavailable, a birthing ball or rocker at the bedside can still allow for movement while using fetal monitoring. Massage may also help. Nurses can learn how to provide therapeutic massage for their patients. If the RN cannot perform massage, he or she can teach a support person how to perform the massage that will help the woman. One of the most important aspects of labor support to help the woman is being present at the bedside. Nurses should be at the bedside, providing care and support, listening to their patients, and even documenting. is a website managed by the American College of Nurse-Midwives that can help all L&D nurses. This website has toolkits, articles, links to other resources, and patient and nurse education for support during labor.12 There is still a need for a more concise education plan for nurses to provide labor support. The resources that are available are scarce, and some are expensive. Educating nurses on labor support skills needs to become part of all nursing education.


The rising c-section rate is a concern for all women of child-bearing age in the United States. There are many causes of c-sections. There is no single solution to fix the problem. Nurses, doctors, and midwives all need to be speaking the same language and following the latest evidence-based practice, which includes allowing the woman to labor longer and provide labor support. Nurses can perform the role of labor support when appropriately trained. Low interventions can also help to decrease c-section rates. One low intervention is performing intermittent fetal heart monitoring instead of continuous monitoring. Implementing evidence-based practices into all aspects of labor and delivery should also decrease the rate.

Case Study

JS, a 24-year old G1P0, 40 weeks gestation, was admitted to the hospital on 11/2 at 0800. She was 3cm dilated. The provider admitted her because it was her due date, and she was tired. 12 hours later (8 pm), she was 4 cm dilated, and the provider started Pitocin and ordered an epidural for pain relief. The patient received the epidural and then had to stay in bed. She slept through the night, so the RN left her alone. The next morning (11/3) at 8 am, the patient was still 4cm, and the provider decided to perform a c-section for labor dystocia.

  1. Was this an appropriate c-section?
  2. What else should have been done by the RN for this patient?
  3. What risks are there to this patient?

This c-section was not appropriate at this time. JS was not yet in active labor at 4cm. She could have been sent home until she was in active labor. Or if she really wanted to stay, she should have been encouraged to walk, move, get in the shower, and try other techniques to manage pain. Once she got the epidural, the RN should have continued to move the patient and use a peanut ball. This patient has all of the risks of someone who had a c-section. She is only 24 and this is her first baby. Now she has uterine scarring which could cause future complications.

Select one of the following methods to complete this course.

Take TestPass an exam testing your knowledge of the course material.
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  1. Severe Maternal Morbidity in the United States | Pregnancy. Accessed December 1, 2019. Visit Source.
  2. Queenan JT. Protocols for High-Risk Pregnancies: an Evidence-Based Approach. Wiley-Blackwell; 2015.
  3. Barber EL, Lundsberg LS, Belanger K, Pettker CM, Funai EF, Illuzzi JL. Indications Contributing to the Increasing Cesarean Delivery Rate. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2011;118(1):29-38. doi:10.1097/aog.0b013e31821e5f65.
  4. Karaçam Z, Walsh D, Bugg GJ. Evolving understanding and treatment of labour dystocia. European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology. 2014;182:123-127. doi:10.1016/j.ejogrb.2014.09.011.
  5. King TL. Preventing Primary Cesarean Sections: Intrapartum Care. Seminars in Perinatology. 2012;36(5):357-364. doi:10.1053/j.semperi.2012.04.020.
  6. Cox KJ, King TL. Preventing Primary Cesarean Births. Clinical Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2015;58(2):282-293. doi:10.1097/grf.0000000000000108.
  7. Crosland A, Wu E, Oakes M, et al. 354: Effects of a labor dystocia checklist: Safely raising the bar with contemporary guidelines. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. 2018;218(1). doi:10.1016/j.ajog.2017.10.290.
  8. Obstetric Care Consensus No. 1. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2014;123(3):693-711. doi:10.1097/01.aog.0000444441.04111.1d.
  9. Practice Bulletin No. 184: Vaginal Birth After Cesarean Delivery. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 2017;130(5). doi:10.1097/00006250-201711000-00051.
  10. Barrett SJ, Stark MA. Factors Associated With Labor Support Behaviors of Nurses. Journal of Perinatal Education. 2010;19(1):12-18. doi:10.1624/105812410x481528.
  11. Adams ED, Stark MA, Low LK. A Nurse’s Guide to Supporting Physiologic Birth. Nursing for Womens Health. 2016;20(1):76-86. doi:10.1016/j.nwh.2015.12.009.
  12. Tools to Optimize Outcomes of Labor Safely. BirthTools.Visit Source. Accessed March 23, 2020.