Medically reviewed on May 17, 2018
A vacuum extraction is a procedure sometimes done during the course of vaginal childbirth.
During vacuum extraction, a health care provider applies the vacuum — a soft or rigid cup with a handle and a vacuum pump — to the baby's head to help guide the baby out of the birth canal. This is typically done during a contraction while the mother pushes.
Your health care provider might recommend vacuum extraction during the second stage of labor — when you're pushing — if labor isn't progressing or if the baby's health depends on an immediate delivery.
Vacuum extraction poses a risk of injury for both mother and baby. If vacuum extraction fails, a cesarean delivery (C-section) might be needed.
Why it's done
A vacuum extraction might be considered if your labor meets certain criteria — your cervix is fully dilated, your membranes have ruptured and your baby has descended into the birth canal headfirst, but you're not able to push the baby out. A vacuum extraction is only appropriate in a birthing center or hospital where a C-section can be done, if needed.
Your health care provider might recommend vacuum extraction if:
- You're pushing, but labor isn't progressing. If you've never given birth before, labor is considered stalled if you've pushed for a period of two to three hours but haven't made any progress. If you've given birth before, labor might be considered stalled if you've pushed for a period of one to two hours without any progress.
- Your baby's heartbeat suggests a problem. If your health care provider is concerned about changes in your baby's heartbeat and an immediate delivery is necessary, he or she might recommend vacuum extraction.
- You have a health concern. If you have certain medical conditions — such as narrowing of the heart's aortic valve (aortic valve stenosis) — your health care provider might limit the amount of time you push.
Keep in mind that whenever vacuum extraction is recommended, a C-section is typically also an option.
Your health care provider might caution against vacuum extraction if:
- You're less than 34 weeks pregnant
- Your baby has previously had blood taken from his or her scalp (fetal scalp sampling)
- Your baby has a condition that affects the strength of his or her bones, such as osteogenesis imperfecta, or a bleeding disorder, such as hemophilia
- Your baby's head hasn't yet moved past the midpoint of the birth canal
- The position of your baby's head isn't known
- Your baby's shoulders, arms, buttocks or feet are leading the way through the birth canal
- Your baby might not be able to fit through your pelvis due to his or her size or the size of your pelvis
A vacuum extraction poses a risk of injury for both mother and baby.
Possible risks to you include:
- Pain in the perineum — the tissue between your vagina and your anus — after delivery
- Lower genital tract tears and wounds
- Short-term difficulty urinating or emptying the bladder
- Short-term or long-term urinary or fecal incontinence (involuntary urination or defecation)
- Anemia — a condition in which you don't have enough healthy red blood cells to carry adequate oxygen to your tissues — due to blood loss during delivery
- Weakening of the muscles and ligaments supporting your pelvic organs, causing pelvic organs to drop lower in the pelvis (pelvic organ prolapse)
While most of these risks are also associated with vaginal deliveries in general, they're more likely with a vacuum extraction.
If your health care provider does an episiotomy — an incision in the tissue between your vagina and your anus that can help ease the delivery of your baby — you're also at risk of postpartum bleeding and infection.
Possible risks to your baby include:
- Scalp wounds
- A higher risk of getting the baby’s shoulder stuck after the head has been delivered, which could lead to an injury to the network of nerves that sends signals from the spine to the shoulder, arm and hand (brachial plexus), or a collarbone fracture
- Skull fracture
- Bleeding within the skull
Serious infant injuries after a vacuum extraction are rare.
How you prepare
Before your health care provider considers a vacuum extraction, he or she might try other ways to encourage labor to progress. For example, he or she might adjust your anesthesia to encourage more effective pushing. To stimulate stronger contractions, another option might be intravenous medication — typically a synthetic version of the hormone oxytocin (Pitocin).
If vacuum extraction seems to be the best option, your health care provider will explain the risks and benefits of the procedure and ask for your consent. You might also ask about alternatives, usually C-section.
If you haven't already been given a regional anesthetic, your health care provider might give you an epidural or a spinal anesthetic unless the vacuum delivery is being done for an emergent reason (such as a drop in the baby's heartrate). A member of your medical team will place a catheter in your bladder to empty it of urine. Your health care provider might also make an incision in the tissue between your vagina and your anus (episiotomy) to help ease the delivery of your baby.
What you can expect
During the procedure
During a vacuum extraction, you'll lie on your back with your legs spread apart. You might be asked to grip handles on each side of the delivery table to brace yourself while pushing.
Your health care provider will insert the vacuum cup into your vagina, place the cup against the baby's head and check to make sure no vaginal tissues are trapped between the cup and the baby's head. Then your health care provider will use the vacuum pump to create suction.
During the next contraction, your health care provider will rapidly increase the vacuum suction pressure, grasp the cup's handle and try to guide the baby through the birth canal while you push. Between contractions, your health care provider might maintain or reduce the suction pressure.
After your baby's head is delivered, your health care provider will release the suction and remove the cup.
Vacuum extractions aren't always successful. If your health care provider isn't able to achieve suction, he or she might use forceps — an instrument shaped like a pair of large spoons or salad tongs — to help guide the baby out of the birth canal, or opt for a C-section.
If your health care provider achieves suction with the vacuum and the cup accidentally detaches two to three times, or the baby doesn't move when the vacuum is used, a C-section is likely the best option.
After the procedure
After delivery, your health care provider will examine you for any injuries that might have been caused by the vacuum. Any tears or incisions will be repaired.
Your baby will also be monitored for signs of complications that can be caused by a vacuum extraction.
When you go home
If you had an episiotomy or vaginal tear during delivery, the wound might hurt for a few weeks. Extensive tears might take longer to heal.
In the meantime, you can help promote healing:
- Soothe the wound. Apply an ice pack to the affected area, or place a chilled witch hazel pad between a sanitary napkin and the wound. You can find witch hazel pads in most pharmacies.
- Take the sting out of urination. Pour warm water over your vulva as you're urinating, and rinse yourself with a squeeze bottle afterward.
- Prevent pain and stretching during bowel movements. Press a clean pad firmly against the wound when passing a bowel movement.
- Sit down carefully. Tighten your buttocks as you lower yourself to a seated position. Sit on a pillow or padded ring rather than a hard surface.
- Consider complementary treatments. Some research suggests that lavender might help relieve pain after a tear or episiotomy. If your health care provider approves, add a few drops of lavender essential oil to your bath water or apply the oil directly to the affected area.
While you're healing, expect the discomfort to progressively improve. Contact your health care provider if the pain gets worse, you develop a fever or you notice a pus-like discharge.
Pregnancy and delivery stretch the connective tissue at the base of the bladder and can cause nerve and muscle damage to the bladder or urethra. You might leak urine when you cough, strain or laugh. Fortunately, this problem usually improves within three months. In the meantime, wear sanitary pads and do Kegel exercises to help tone your pelvic floor muscles.
To do Kegels, tighten your pelvic muscles as if you're stopping your stream of urine. Try it for five seconds at a time, four or five times in a row. Work up to keeping the muscles contracted for 10 seconds at a time, relaxing for 10 seconds between contractions. Aim for at least three sets of 10 repetitions a day.
If fear of pain leaves you avoiding bowel movements, take steps to keep your stools soft and regular. Eat foods high in fiber — including fruits, vegetables and whole grains — and drink plenty of water. It's also helpful to remain as physically active as possible. Ask your health care provider about a stool softener or fiber laxative if needed.
If you're unable to control your bowel movements (fecal incontinence), frequent Kegel exercises might help. If you have persistent trouble controlling bowel movements, consult your health care provider.