Monday, November 23, 2009

Calculating 39 weeks for a full-term cesarean is a shared responsibility

Numerous studies have stressed the importance of planning a cesarean delivery after 39 weeks, and despite accusations to the contrary, I don't believe that obstetricians are arbritarily scheduling surgery ahead of this date unless there is an indicated medical need (either for the mother or the baby). That is - despite the risks of respiratory distress with preterm births, there is a greater risk of (for example) the baby or mother dying if it remains in utero any longer.

I also don't believe that the vast majority of women choosing a cesarean - despite accusations to the contrary - would urge their doctor to deliver their baby early for convenience, vanity reasons or to bring an end to their pregnancy.

Blame game
But now a study, reported in the media on Friday, suggests that one possible reason behind the U.S.' climbing pre-term delivery rate is that 'Many Women Miscalculate Time to Full-Term Birth'.

The report continues: 'When asked, "What is the earliest point in pregnancy that it is safe to deliver the baby, should there not be other medical complications requiring early delivery?", more than half chose 34 to 36 weeks, 41 percent chose 37 to 38 weeks and less than 8 percent chose 39 to 40 weeks.

However, experts warn that any delivery short of 39 weeks puts a baby at higher risk of respiratory distress, sepsis (blood infection) and needing to be placed in the neonatal intensive care unit, according to background information in the study. Only one-quarter of new moms realized 39 to 40 weeks was safest.'

Education, Access to Early Ultrasound and Less Confusion please
For what it's worth, here are my suggestions for improving this situation:

1) Educate women that when it comes to planning a cesarean delivery, the ideal gestational age is 39 weeks. Ideally, that means taking responsibility for recalling your last menstrual cycle date before you became pregnant - not always possible or indeed accurate, but the more information a doctor has at hand for calculating your gestational age, the better.

2) Arrange an early ultrasound. This is easier said than done sometimes - and you, your doctor, your hospital, and if applicable, your insurance company, must all take responsibility for this. With my second pregnancy, one of the hospitals I was going to go to said they didn't do the first ultrasound until 12 weeks, but my OBGYN insisted that I had it done earlier because research has shown that the most accurate calculation of gestational age can be made during an early ultrasound (read more here).

3) Stop confusing women by quoting data from medical studies with 'full-term' gestational ages described as 34 or 37 weeks one minute, and then 39-40 or 41-42 weeks the next. Women could be forgiven for not knowing the definition of 'full-term', especially in the context of planned cesarean delivery, because there is so much confusion in the presentation of planned cesarean risks and benefits in any case.

For example, when natural birth advocates want to highlight respiratory distress problems in babies born via elective cesarean, they will frequently include studies that invlude 'full-term' getational ages much earlier than 39 weeks. Equally, they are less inclined to present data from medical studies that have found greater fetal demise post-39 weeks.

Delivery at 39 weeks is optimal - for the baby's sake, we should all be working together to make sure that wherever possible, this date is reached.

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