Abstract Objective To determine how long it takes from the decision to achieve delivery by non-elective caesarean section (DDI), the influence on this interval, and the impact on neonatal condition at birth. Design Twelve months prospective data collection on all non-elective caesarean sections. Methods Prospective collection of data relating to all caesarean sections in 1996 in a major teaching hospital obstetric unit was conducted, without the knowledge of the other clinicians providing clinical care. Details of the indication for section, the day and time of the decision and the interval till delivery were recorded as well as the seniority of the surgeon, and condition of the baby at birth. Results The mean time from decision-to-delivery for 100 emergency intrapartum caesarean sections was 42.9 minutes for fetal distress and 71.1 minutes for 230 without fetal distress ( P < 0.0001). For 22 ‘crash’ sections the mean time from decision-to-delivery was 27.4 minutes; for 13 urgent antepartum deliveries for fetal reasons it was 124.7 minutes and for 21 with maternal reasons it was 97.4 minutes. The seniority of the surgeon managing the patient did not appear to influence the interval, nor did the time of day or day of the week when the delivery occurred. Intrapartum sections were quicker the more advanced the labour, and general anaesthesia was associated with shorter intervals than regional anaesthesia for emergency caesarean section for fetal distress ( P < 0.001). Babies born within one hour of the decision tended to be more acidaemic than those born later, irrespective of the indication for delivery. Babies tended to be in better condition when a time from decision-to-delivery was not recorded than those for whom the information had been recorded. Conclusion Fewer than 40% intrapartum deliveries by caesarean section for fetal distress were achieved within 30 minutes of the decision, despite that being the unit standard. There was, however, no evidence to indicate that overall an interval up to 120 minutes was detrimental to the neonate unless the delivery was a ‘crash’ caesarean section. These data thus do not provide evidence to sustain the recommendation of a standard of 30 minutes for intrapartum delivery by caesarean section.