Early Repeat Caesareans Found to Increase Risks to Baby

Shannon Eubanks, with husband Gaston and their new baby, Kathleen Conley Eubanks, in a hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C., scheduled a Caesarean section for her 39th week of her pregnancy, the recommended delivery time, to help avoid complications.
Shannon Eubanks, with husband Gaston and their new baby, Kathleen Conley Eubanks, in a hospital in Chapel Hill, N.C., scheduled a Caesarean section for her 39th week of her pregnancy, the recommended delivery time, to help avoid complications. (By Stephanie Crayton -- Associated Press)

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By Rob Stein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 8, 2009

The common practice of scheduling a Caesarean section a little early to make childbirth more convenient sharply increases the risk that babies will be born with potentially serious complications, according to the first large-scale study to examine the dangers.

The study of more than 24,000 full-term infants found that those delivered at 37 weeks to mothers who had elective repeat C-sections were about twice as likely as newborns delivered at the recommended 39 weeks to experience breathing problems, bloodstream infections and other complications. Babies born at 38 weeks were 50 percent more likely to have problems; the risk was about 20 percent higher just a few days early.

"Having a baby at term, you might expect the baby would do well and come to your room with you and then go right home with you," said Catherine Y. Spong of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which sponsored the study in today's issue of the New England Journal of Medicine. "This shows there are significant risks."

The findings come as health authorities have become increasingly alarmed about the rate of Caesarean births, which has been rising steadily and is now at an all time-high, according to another federal report released yesterday. More than a third of U.S.-born babies are delivered by C-section, which involves removing the baby through a surgical incision in the abdomen instead of vaginally through labor.

The reason for the increase has been the subject of intense debate. In part it is the result of more women having children later in life, when complications are more common. In part it is because doctors are identifying more problem pregnancies early and intervening to protect the mother or the baby. And once a woman has had a C-section, she is much more likely to deliver subsequent children the same way.

Although a pregnancy is considered full term after 37 weeks, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that elective repeat C-sections occur no earlier than 39 weeks to make sure the baby has fully developed. But some women opt to deliver a little earlier for a variety of reasons, including being eager to see their baby, being tired of pregnancy or for convenience.

"Sometimes a patient is bonded to their physician and that physician may be going out of town and the patient wants that physician to perform the delivery and says, 'Can we schedule it when you're in town?' " Spong said. "Sometimes her in-laws are coming at a certain time and she may want to deliver then."

Although previous studies have suggested increased risks in C-sections before 39 weeks, the new study is the first large-scale attempt to confirm and quantify those risks.

"I think that as a patient or a physician, you might be convinced that being close to 39 weeks is probably good enough and there's probably no difference if you are going to turn 39 weeks on a Sunday to have a Caesarean on, say, a Friday," Spong said. "Before this, we didn't have the data to say that there would be more risk."

For the study, Alan T.N. Tita of the University of Alabama at Birmingham and his colleagues analyzed data collected by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, which gathers data on pregnancies at 19 medical centers nationwide.

Of 24,077 women who gave birth through a repeat C-section between 1999 and 2002, 13,258 were clearly elective -- meaning the researchers could find no evidence that the baby or mother was in distress or any other medical reason the woman could not attempt to deliver through labor. Of those, nearly 36 percent of the deliveries occurred before 39 weeks.

"To have more than a third of them done before 39 weeks is surprising," Spong said. "These are all elective repeat Caesareans without a medical indication and without labor."


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