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Early Elective Births on the Rise, with Health Risks for Both Mom and Baby


At the beginning of a pregnancy, couples are full of joy and plans for their new family. But as the months drag on, women often grow “tired of being pregnant” says Dr. Jeanne Conroy, California district chairwoman of the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. According to data reviewed by the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, more women are opting for induction or c-section for a birth earlier than 40 weeks, which is known to increase risks for both the mother and the baby.

Risks Include Premature Lung Development and Brain Function

According to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average time a fetus spends in the womb has fallen seven days since 1992. Babies born at 37 and 38 weeks increased by 40%, accounting for about 17.5% of total births in the United States.

In 2004, 21% of women had an induction of labor compared to only 9% in 1989. Of the term deliveries performed at Hospital Corporation of America facilities in 2007, 71% were medically unnecessary – meaning they were scheduled for the convenience of the mother or doctor.

While women can naturally give birth earlier than 40 weeks, the health risks occur when the baby is forced out of the womb.

Read: C-Section Babies May Not Have Same Beneficial Bacteria at Birth

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Babies born early through induction or C-section without a medical reason are nearly twice as likely to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit, the researchers say. In addition to the risk of the use of a breathing machine due to underdeveloped lungs, the drugs used to induce labor can increase the risk of abnormal fetal heart rate. Proper brain function of the infant may also be compromised.

Also, babies born too early often sleep longer than normal and have trouble learning how to breast-feed, which can lead to dehydration and jaundice. They are also more susceptible to infections.

Read: Older Mothers More Likely To Deliver By Cesarean Section

Induction of labor and c-sections, while more commonly performed now, are not without risks for the mother as well. Cesarean birth is major surgery and risks include infection, increased blood loss, decreased bowel function, respiratory complications, and a longer hospital stay and recovery time.

“We are finding out that the last weeks of pregnancy really do count,” says Leslie Kowalewski of the March of Dimes.

"For every day and every week before 39 weeks, it's an increasing risk to the baby," said Dr. Bryan Oshiro, vice chairman of obstetrics and gynecology at Loma Linda University in Southern California. "The vast majority of early term babies do fine, but it's like playing Russian roulette."