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Women spend more time in labor now: But why?

Kathleen Blanchard's picture
Women are taking longer to deliver, finds a new study.

A new report shows pregnant women spend more time before delivering their babies compared to 50 years ago. Researchers are asking why delivery times are longer now than in the past.

Investigators at Intermountain Healthcare and the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City conducted a study, comparing deliveries in the early 1960s to collected data from the early 2000s.

They discovered the first stage of labor – when the cervix dilates – is 2.6 times longer for mothers delivering for the first time, compared to in the 1960’s, and 2 hours longer for moms who had given birth previously.

Babies are also arriving 5 days sooner than in the 1960’s and they weigh more. Women’s body mass index is also higher and women giving birth are older than in the 60’s. Women studied between 2002 and 2008 had an average body mass index (BMI) of 24.9 pre-pregnancy. Overweight is a BMI of 25 or more. Obesity is considered a high risk for pregnancy.

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Older moms generally take longer to give birth than younger women. Katherine Laughon, M.D., of the Epidemiology Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) said in a press release, "But when we take maternal age into account, it doesn't completely explain the difference in labor times.”

Episiotomy, forceps more common in the past

The authors think there could be several reasons women’s labor times are longer now. Years ago, episiotomy -an incision in the vaginal area to widen the birth passage – was more common. Delivering babies with the help of forceps was also more prevalent.

The study that looked at 40,000 deliveries between 1959 and 1966 and nearly 100,000 deliveries that took place in 2002 through 2008, also found Caesarean sections are four times higher than they were 50 years ago. Doctors today are more likely to intervene surgically or with drugs to speed delivery if labor fails to progress, explained Laughon in a press release regarding the study. The authors concluded it might be time to re-evaluate interventions that interfere with a woman’s labor and delivery.

American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology
“Changes in labor patterns over 50 years”
S. Katherine Laughon, et al.
March 2012

Image credit: Wikimedia commons