“Let nature take its course.” Over the years, I’ve found this saying particularly applies to the process of giving birth. My personal experience as an ob-gyn and reams of scientific research demonstrate that Mother Nature knows best when a child is ready to be born. The start of natural labor is the main sign, but we’re not always patient enough to wait for it.
Today, one in three babies in the US are born by cesarean—the delivery of a baby through an incision in the mother’s abdomen and uterus. The rate of labor induction is also at an all-time high. Unfortunately, many of these births occur before the pregnancy is considered “term” at 39 weeks. These upward trends have long been a source of concern in the medical community, especially considering the increased risks to a baby who may not be fully developed at delivery.
Among cesarean deliveries, an estimated 2.5% (more than 100,000 births each year) are scheduled on a designated date by the mother and her doctor. Some women cite reasons such as a lower risk of future incontinence, better sexual functioning after childbirth, and fear of pain as motivations to schedule cesareans. Inevitably, some cesareans (and labor inductions, too) are scheduled before a pregnancy is full term, increasing the risk of negative outcomes for the newborn, including respiratory problems and time spent in the neonatal intensive care unit. The fact remains that due dates are estimates, and you can never be sure that the infant will have reached optimal maturity at the time of a scheduled delivery.
Women should keep in mind that cesarean delivery is no walk in the park. While it’s a safe option, cesarean delivery is a major surgery and comes with a number of risks, such as placental complications in future pregnancies, problems with anesthesia, infection, and longer recovery times.
Certain urgent situations—such as preeclampsia, eclampsia, multiple fetuses, fetal growth restriction, and poorly controlled diabetes—may make it necessary to deliver the baby before the onset of natural labor. However, newly issued guidelines from ACOG remind women and ob-gyns that in uncomplicated pregnancies, a vaginal birth that occurs after the natural onset of labor is ideal. Additional new ACOG guidelines reaffirm that cesareans and labor inductions should only be performed when medically-necessary.
Delaying delivery until labor starts naturally may not make ob-gyns too popular with a patient who’s uncomfortable and near the end of her pregnancy, but it’s a decision that will pay dividends by giving the baby the extra time it needs to face the world.