The number of Irish babies born by Caesarean section has increased almost five-fold since the early 1980s and by half since 2000, according to a study published in The Lancet.
The rise in C-section births is in line with trends globally, where the number of babies born through this intervention almost doubled between 2000 and 2015.
C-sections accounted for 30.1 per cent of all births in Ireland in 2015, and 21 per cent of births globally in the same year, according to the study.
While C-sections can be a life-saving intervention for women and newborns due to labour complications, they are associated with other complications. The study suggests the average C-section rate should lie in the 10-15 per cent range, as this is the estimated proportion of births medically requiring intervention when complications occur.
Worldwide, the C-section rate is above 40 per cent in 15 developing countries, led by the Dominican Republic at 58.1 per cent. Two-thirds of the recent rise in rates is due to more births taking place in hospitals and one-third to a greater frequency of intervention in health facilities.
As well as improving mother and child survival rates when complications occur in labour, C-sections can lower the risk of incontinence and prolapse.
However, recovery is more complicated for the mother, and there is some evidence babies born by C-section can be at greater risk of allergies and asthma due to their differing medical and bacterial exposure during birth.
“Given the increasing use of C-section, particularly in cases that are not medically required, there is a crucial need to understand the health effects on women and children. Greater understanding of this is important to help inform decision-making by families, physicians and policy-makers.
"C-section is a type of major surgery, which carries risks that require careful consideration. The growing use of C-sections for non-medical purposes could be introducing avoidable complications, and we advocate that C-section should only be used when it is medically required," said Prof Jane Sandall, King's College London.
In an accompanying position paper on the C-section “epidemic”, the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics (FIGO) said the medical profession alone could not reverse current trends and joint action was needed with governments, health insurers and women’s groups.
The Lancet, in an editorial, said efforts to reduce Caesareans must strongly respect women's rights to choose the circumstances of birth.