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2 April 2012
Women spending longer in labor

Researchers at the National Institutes of Health say that women take longer to give birth today than they did 50 years ago, and the increase is probably due to changes in delivery room practice.

For the study, appearing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, the researchers compared data from the 1960s to data gathered in the early 2000s. They found that the first stage of labor (when the cervix dilates, before active pushing begins) had increased by 2.6 hours for first-time mothers. For women who had previously given birth, this early stage of labor took two hours longer in recent years than for women in the 1960s.

Other key differences included:

  • The women in the contemporary group tended to weigh more than did those who delivered in the 1960s. For the contemporary group, the BMI before pregnancy was 25, compared with 23 for the earlier generation.
  • Cesarean delivery was four times higher today than it was 50 years ago (12 percent vs 3 percent).
  • Mothers in the contemporary group were about four years older, on average, than those in the group who gave birth in the 1960s.
  • Epidural injections were used in more than half of recent deliveries, compared with just 4 percent of deliveries in the 1960s.
  • Oxytocin was administered to speed up labor in 31 percent of contemporary deliveries, compared with just 12 percent in the 1960s.

The study does not identify all the factors contributing to longer delivery times, but the findings do indicate that current delivery practices may need to be re-evaluated. "Older mothers tend to take longer to give birth than do younger mothers," said the study's lead author, S. Katherine Laughon. "But when we take maternal age into account, it doesn't completely explain the difference in labor times." She called for further research to determine the exact reasons modern delivery practices are increasing labor duration.

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Source: National Institute of Child Health and Human Development

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