Why waiting until at least 39 weeks is important for your baby.

We know that pregnancy, while wonderful, can also be tough.  The swelling, the waddle, the yearning to be out of maternity clothes, and of course the urge to meet your baby, can make us want to just get it over with!

But the list of reasons to wait until at least 39 weeks of a healthy pregnancy to have your baby is long and powerful, too.

In recent years the trend toward earlier scheduled inductions and cesarean sections has resulted in the average pregnancy getting shorter.  Some facts from the  California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative:

  • There are now more babies born at 39 weeks than at full term.
  • The average time a fetus spends in the womb has fallen seven days since 1992.
  • Between 1990 and 2006, the number of babies born at 36 weeks increased by about 30 percent, and babies born at 37 and 38 weeks rose more than 40 percent.
  • In 2007, 9.6 percent of births were early – through scheduled inductions or C-sections – for non-medical reasons.
  • Deliveries at 37 and 38 weeks account for about 17.5 percent of total births in the United States.

Having a baby early for no medical reason (known as an early elective birth), can pose a number of risks to your baby, including:

  • Increased NICU admissions
  • Increased respiratory distress syndrome
  • Increased ventilator support
  • Increased suspected or proven sepsis
  • Increased newborn feeding problems [breastfeeding] and other transition issues

In response to this troubling trend, the March of Dimes has launched a campaign to reduce births before 39 weeks called Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait™.   And recently, hospitals have started instituting a policy of no elective births before 39 weeks.  This summer, all 17  Portland, Oregon area hospitals instituted policy banning non-medically necessary births before 39 weeks.

Some of this increase is driven by mothers’ preferences, but there is little question that some of the trend is a result of pressure from health care providers.  Choosing your OB or midwife carefully can help you avoid an early elective birth.  But if you find yourself being pressured into an early birth for no medical reason, the March of Dimesrecommends asking:

  • Is there a problem with my health or the health of my baby that may make me need to have my baby early?
  • Can I wait to have my baby until I’m closer to 39 weeks?
  • Why do you need to induce labor?
  • How will you induce labor?
  • Will inducing labor increase the chance that I’ll need to have a c-section?

We would also recommend sharing this Toolkit, aimed at helping providers reduce early elective births, from the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative.   Finally, while mothers are sometimes reluctant to do it, it’s also often possible to change providers, even late in pregnancy, in order to avoid an early elective birth.