In a vacuum-assisted delivery, a small suction cup is put on the baby’s scalp. During contractions the mother will be told to push and the doctor will the gently pull the suction. “This method is used alongside the mom’s efforts,” says Lee Schofield, a family doctor who delivers babies at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. Vacuum-assisted delivery is one of the less invasive procedures to assist delivery, compared to forceps or C-section.
Ideally, at the end of the active stage of your labour you will be encouraged to push, and your efforts will get the baby down the birth canal and safely into your arms. But things don’t always progress as they should. “This is usually because there is an issue with the delivery—either the baby’s head isn’t coming down, or the mother’s pubic bone is in the way,” says Schofield. Your doctor or midwife might also suggest a vacuum if there is a concern for the baby—like a drop in heart rate—or because the mom is exhausted and pushing isn’t as effective. “If you get stuck in labour there might be a higher risk of mortality to the baby,” says Schofield.
Most of the risks to the mom associated with vacuum deliveries are no different than those that occur with vaginal deliveries, though they are more likely when a vacuum is used. Vaginal tearing, sometimes including the wall of the anus, can occur, as can pelvic prolapse and urinary or anal incontinence.
There are risks to your baby as well. The baby’s head might have marks or even a little ‘conehead’ immediately afterwards, from where the suction cup was placed, but this will go away within a few weeks—the bones in a newborn’s head are still not fused. There can also be bleeding under the scalp from the pressure of the vacuum.
If the suction cup pops off the baby’s head, it will be reapplied a few times. But if the vacuum isn’t getting the baby out, then the doctor or midwife will likely suggest an alternative method, such as the mother moving into another position, or other assistance, like forceps or a Caesarean section.