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Inducing Labor Early Carries Small Risks That Add Up

Researchers are trying to figure out how to keep moms and doctors from choosing to induce labor early for non-medical reasons. It’s an all-to-popular practice, they say, for doctors to electively induce a woman in the 37th or 38th week, even though the accepted wisdom is that it’s needlessly risky to jumpstart the process before week 39.

A baby is considered “full term” at 37 weeks, and many babies born at this point are perfectly healthy. But there is a greater chance of complications (like breathing problems) and a higher likelihood that the woman will deliver via C-section when babies are given a nudge to come into the world this early.

It’s not just a health risk, says the report in the American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology. There are economic reasons to keep babies in the womb longer.

Inducing labor early ups the chance not only of C-sections for mom, but neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) for baby. Currently 10 to 15 percent of births start by elective early induction, and by curbing the practice before the 39th week, the researchers say half a million babies would avoid the NICU, and as a country we would save $1 billion annually. Over a two year period, using several hospitals as testing grounds, they found that the most effective method was to outright ban the practice of elective early inductions.

The report is talking about inductions done for convenience, not health—and I have to say I’ve heard stories like these from fellow moms.  The day is approaching, you’ve got family in town, you’re feeling huge and uncomfortable, maybe your doctor is going on vacation next week?

My friend told me that in her 38th week her OBGYN did the procedure of “stripping the membranes,” in which he purposefully poked around in her cervix to urge labor along.  She ended up having a C-section because her water broke but contractions didn’t come on strong enough. Everyone was healthy and happy in the end, but she said later that she wished she had just waited.

Maybe we get tripped up by the “40 week” timeline of pregnancy—it’s a little misleading.  A birth isn’t considered “post-term” until 42 weeks, but when we get to 39, everyone around us seems to be drumming their fingers waiting. But babies have their own plans for when they’re ready to come into the world.

Image: Flickr/jcgoforth

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