Usurping Mother Nature: The Rise in Induced Births

It seems that our dependence on technology is such nowadays that we’re happy to let it take over the job of Mother Nature – at least when it comes to helping us deliver our babies. Not content to let nature take its course, more and more women are undergoing induced birth with the aid of technological intervention. According to the National Center for Health Statistics, the number of induced births has doubled since 1990, and in 2006 22.5 percent of births in the US were induced.

The rise in numbers could, in part, be explained by more women leaving it later in life to start a family, as well as the increase in the number of women undergoing fertility treatment and becoming pregnant with more than one child. Pregnancy for an older woman, and her unborn baby, carries more health risks than it does for a younger mom: Therefore, a doctor is more likely to induce the birth if he or she believes it’s the safest option for mother and baby. Likewise, induced labor could also be recommended to a woman expecting more than one baby if her doctor feels that it’s in the best interests of all concerned.

However, while a number of inductions are carried out for bona fide medical reasons, many of them, apparently, are being performed for no other reason than convenience. “Social induction” is a term used for inducing labor for the convenience of the patient or physician, with reasons cited ranging from a mother’s wish to avoid her baby’s birth clashing with the family holiday, to the hospital’s staffing schedule running from 9-to-5 Monday to Friday with no after-hours care.

It seems that technology’s not only being used to save lives nowadays, but is also playing a role in making the process of giving birth more convenient and relatively hassle-free: good news for the expectant father who doesn’t have to extend his period of paternity leave, and the physician who gets the weekend off to play golf (statistics also show that in 2006, Sunday was the slowest day for births in the US).

But now some medical experts are asking if perhaps technology isn’t being used a little excessively in the birthing process and whether Mother Nature should be given more of a say in the matter; Mother Nature, after all, having a little more experience in delivering babies than technology. Because even with the advances in technology, induced labor doesn’t come risk-free: There are a number of potential repercussions, including the risk of a premature birth, which can have serious consequences on a baby’s health.

A full-term pregnancy is usually defined as lasting 37 weeks or more, although doctors commonly set a date at 40 weeks from the mother’s last full period. Late preterm babies are those born between 34 and 36 weeks’ gestation. And while they’re usually considered healthy, they are more likely to have medical problems than those born a few weeks later at full term (37 – 42 weeks). A baby’s lungs and brain mature later in pregnancy, which means that late preterm babies are more at risk of being jaundiced, and having problems with breathing, feeding, and maintaining their body temperature.

An induced labor can also be more painful than a natural one. Pitocin, a synthetic form of the hormone oxytocin, which is secreted during natural childbirth, is intravenously fed to the mother to induce labor. It generates contractions unnaturally close to one another, providing inadequate rest in between, often making the labor a lot more tiring than giving birth naturally. It also causes intense contractions to start earlier than they do in a natural delivery, before the cervix is significantly dilated. And if all that wasn’t enough, the mother has to be wired up to an electronic monitoring device, adding to her discomfort, to detect any fetal distress which may be caused by the drug.

The possibility of a mother having to undergo a Cesarean section also increases with an induced birth, and it’s no surprise that, in line with the rise in inductions, the percentage of Cesarean-delivered babies has also increased since 1996. In 2006, 31.1 percent of all births were delivered by Cesarean section representing a 50 percent increase since 1996.

But whether the rise in inductions is due to the wishes of the mother, or her physician, is unclear. It can be difficult for some women to know what’s best when it comes to giving birth. While some elect to be induced, others may feel they have little say in the matter, finding it difficult to refuse an induced labor if the advice from their physician is that induction really is in the best interests of both mother and baby.

However, while a doctor has to weigh up all the pros and cons of each individual situation when delivering a baby, a mother still has a say in how she gives birth.  Any woman who is advised to have an induced labor before 39 weeks can ask her physician if there’s any risk to her or her baby’s health that may necessitate inducing at this time. She can also ask to wait to have her baby closer to the 40-weeks mark. Even for older women and those expecting more than one baby, there’s scant evidence to show that inducing labor is beneficial to either mother or baby, provided there are no complications and both appear to be in good health.

It could be that the medical profession is losing confidence in a woman’s ability to deliver naturally without the intervention of technology, and in turn expectant moms are, too. Or maybe we’re using technology more than necessary simply because we can. Providing there’s no bona fide medical reason for an induced birth, shouldn’t we trust Mother Nature a little more to do the job she’s best at…?