With the media and fans breathing down Jessica Simpson’s neck to give birth and calling this the “longest pregnancy ever,” I can’t help but feel bad for her new little girl, who was probably busy putting the finishing touches on herself while the world waited for her arrival. It all makes me wonder, why are we in such a rush to get babies out?
Jessica Simpson isn’t the first woman who’s been harassed about her baby’s due date. It’s a sentiment I started noticing with my last pregnancy. People around me seemed to be impatiently drumming their fingers long before I was due, making well-meaning but anxiety-provoking comments like, “ Woah, any day now. You’re ready to pop!” and “You’re still pregnant?”
This, with four weeks to go. Granted, I did look like I was smuggling a small beach ball, but I was perfectly happy being pregnant and enjoying the last days of my life in a family of three. I felt as though to everyone else, however, I was somehow behind schedule, taking too much time to gestate the little pumpkin I was carrying.
Even my OB was keen to nudge me along. At one of my last check-ups, after measuring my baby and detecting “nice chubby cheeks” by ultrasound, she estimated her birth weight at nine pounds, said hopefully I’d go soon, and started talking induction plans. My due date was still two weeks away.
“When it’s medically required, inducing is a benefit to infant health. But it comes with risks.”
Was my case special? In the last decades, the rate of labor induction has risen significantly in this country, with some doctors offering it up as a standard option. In the CDC’s research, they have found that the rate of induction for both medical and elective cases has more than doubled since 2005. Furthermore, one study in a 2010 issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology found that in a population of nearly 8,000 first-time moms, 44 percent were induced, and of those inductions, 40 percent were elective.
Of course when it’s medically required, inducing is a benefit to infant health. But it comes with risks: The same study found that when labor was induced, women were more than twice as likely to have a C-section than were those with spontaneous labor. When inducing labor early, a woman’s cervix may not be physically ready for delivery, thus increasing the likelihood of a C-section. According to the Mayo Clinic, inducing labor also ups other medical risks, such as infection, a low infant heart rate, umbilical cord problems, and serious bleeding after delivery due to possible shifts of the umbilical cord or the inability of the uterine muscles to properly contract. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists officially recommends against elective induction, especially before 39 weeks.
So what’s the rush? Our impatience with the end of pregnancy may have something to do with a misconception about what, exactly, babies are doing in the womb at that time. You sometimes hear people say that near-term fetuses are done cooking — that they’re just adding weight at the end. But that’s probably not true; brain development keeps a lightning pace through the end of gestation and beyond, and each day can make a difference for organs like the lungs. In fact, although we don’t know exactly what causes labor to begin, the cascade of chemical events that leads to it may be triggered by the fetus itself. In other words, maybe the baby knows best when she’s ready to greet the world.
Perhaps pregnant women and their doctors would be less anxious to induce if the conversation surrounding the end of a pregnancy was changed. Wouldn’t pregnant mamas be better off with a “due period” of two or three weeks instead of one date, to save us from the feeling of being behind schedule? Even I started to get antsy as my day came and went, wondering if by some freak of nature I might be the first woman in history to never actually give birth. But I find myself looking forward to the next stage a lot as a parent — to the end of the newborn period, to the rolling, sitting, talking. It goes by so quickly, though, that I try to keep reminding myself the best place is usually in the moment.
With my first baby, I was induced five days after my due date when his amniotic fluid was getting low. A few years later, with my second child, we let her be and — after two hours of labor, three pushes, and with round apple cheeks — she arrived four days “late.” In other words, perfectly on time. — Heather Turgeon
Heather Turgeon is a psychotherapist and science writer. She authors the weekly “science of kids” column for Babble and is a regular contributor to Strollerderby. Follow the science of kids to keep up with the latest research in child development and parenting.