Study Suggests Inducing Childbirth At 39 Weeks Could Lessen The Need For C-Sections

And it could even be a breakthrough in reducing the number of C-sections.

When a pregnant woman is overdue, she's often told to attempt to naturally induce labor by doing such things as eating spicy foods, walking around, or having sex. Many doctors won't even consider expediting childbirth with medication until after she reaches the full-term 40-week mark. For centuries, medical professionals have believed that inducing labor increases the risk of complications. This, in turn, leads to more Caesarean sections, which put both mother and child baby at risk.

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However, a recent study, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, provides new evidence that may counter this prevailing wisdom. Focusing on more than 6,000 healthy, first-time mothers in 41 hospitals, the researchers randomized the participants into two groups. While half were medically induced during the 39th week of pregnancy, the rest were permitted to let their pregnancies progress beyond that time.

The results were unexpected. Mothers who were induced at 39 weeks were actually less likely to need a C-section than those who waited for labor to begin naturally. In the group of induced women, only18.6 percent needed a C-section, compared to 22.2 percent of the other group. Overall, the health outcomes of the babies were similar for both groups, with statistically equal rates of various medical complications. 

According to Uma M. Reddy, a doctor with the pregnancy and perinatology branch of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), which funded the study, the results suggest that "one C-section could be avoided for every 28 women who undergo induction at 39 weeks." In the United States, one in three of all births require a C-section, so induction does have the potential to lower this relatively high rate. Though C-sections are generally considered safe surgeries, they do increase the risk of bleeding, infection and other potentially life-threatening complications.

The study's researchers consider their findings revolutionary for pregnant women suffering from discomfort due to prolonged pregnancies, as well as those who'd like to schedule their deliveries for personal reasons. 

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine were less enthusiastic about the results, stating that the study only showed that it's now "reasonable" for doctors to offer 39-week induction as an option. 

Currently, in the U.S., about one-fourth of pregnant women end up inducing labor, often because of medical reasons or by choice. "I don't think the conclusion of this paper should be recommending or encouraging induction at 39 weeks," Errol Norwitz, chair of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine, told The Washington Post. "But if someone comes to you and desires to be induced, it is a conversation we should now be having." 

Cover image via Nastyaofly / Shutterstock

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