A recent small New York Times article cited research showing that, with regard to newborns, the last weeks spent in the womb aren’t just nap time. In fact, every week matters.
The research was conducted jointly by the NIH (National Institutes of Health), FDA (Food and Drug Administration) and the March of Dimes, and published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology. What it found was that, although full human gestation takes 40 weeks – and the due date is a matter more of art than science – up until now, babies born at 37 weeks of gestation have been regarded as safely delivered.
However, infants born at 37 weeks of gestation face twice the risk of dying before their first birthday. “In 2006, infants born at 37 weeks were twice as likely to die in the first year of life, with 3.9 deaths per 1,000 births, as those born at 40 weeks, with 1.9 deaths per 1,000 births,” the article said, and quoted the study’s lead author, Dr. Uma Reddy: “If the pregnancy is uncomplicated, babies should not be delivered before 39 weeks.”
This study gives added force to the finding that one of the reasons for the US’s dismal international standing in maternal mortality is the prevalence of Caesarean sections, many of which are elective and pre-term. Mothers who choose to C-section their babies risk their own lives. If a C-section is performed at 37 weeks (I suspect the evidence will grow to prove that 38 weeks is also too early), both the mother’s and the baby’s lives are at risk both immediately and for the first year.
Caesarean sections pay better than non-surgical, vaginal deliveries, so doctors make more money from them. They’re also more dramatic. I’ve heard women gush over their obstetricians: “Oh, he saved our lives with that emergency section!” Perhaps he did. But equally clear is that each C-section also adds risk to both mother and baby, and that’s especially true where the surgery performed occurs pre-term, that is, before 40 weeks of gestation.
Obstetricians owe it to their patients (pregnant women) and to their patients’ children to avoid C-sections and to keep that pregnancy going to at least 39 weeks. No ideal of convenience, no preferred choice of doctor, no “I have to get back to work” is worth risking a child’s health and life.
Parenthood is about putting someone else’s needs before one’s own. It’s time to prevent pre-term births and non-emergency C-sections, both of which are costly to babies. When it comes to infants’ health, every week counts.