Despite a health-care system that outspends those in the rest of the world, infants and mothers fare worse in the U.S. than in many other industrialized nations. The infant mortality rate in Canada is 25 percent lower than it is in the U.S.; the Japanese rate, more than 60 percent lower. According to the World Health Organization, America ranks behind 41 other countries in preventing mothers from dying during childbirth. In fact, the rate of maternal deaths in the U.S. has risen over the past decade, and the number of premature and low-birth-weight babies is higher now than it was in the 1980s and 1990s.
Why are we doing so badly? Partly because mothers tend to be less healthy than in the past, “which contributes to a higher-risk pregnancy,” says Diane Ashton, M.D., deputy medical director of the March of Dimes.
But another key reason appears to be a health-care system that has developed into a highly profitable labor-and-delivery machine, operating according to its own timetable rather than the less predictable schedule of mothers and babies. Childbirth is the leading reason for hospital admission, and the system is set up to make the most of the opportunity. Keeping things chugging along are technological interventions that can be lifesaving in some situations but also interfere with healthy, natural processes and increase risk when used inappropriately.
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Of course, the idea is not to reject all interventions. The course of childbirth is not something that anyone can completely control. In some situations, inducing labor or doing a C-section is the safest option. And complications are the exception, not the norm. But when they’re not medically necessary, the interventions listed below are associated with poorer outcomes for moms and babies.
1. A C-section with a low-risk first birth
While C-sections are generally quite safe, “the safest method for both mom and baby is an uncomplicated vaginal birth,” says Catherine Spong, M.D., chief of the pregnancy and perinatology branch at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.
The best way to reduce the number of C-sections overall is to decrease the number of them among low-risk women delivering their first child. That’s because having an initial C-section “sets the stage for a woman’s entire reproductive life,” says Elliott Main, M.D., chairman of the department of obstetrics and gynecology at the California Pacific Medical Center and director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative. “In this country, if your first birth is a C-section, there’s a 95 percent chance all subsequent births will be as well,” he says.
A C-section is major surgery. So it’s no surprise that as rates for the procedure go down, so do the numbers for several complications, especially infection or pain at the site of the incision. Rare but potentially life-threatening complications include severe bleeding, blood clots, and bowel obstruction. A C-section can also complicate future pregnancies, increasing the risk of problems with the placenta, ectopic pregnancies (those that occur outside the uterus), or a rupture of the uterine scar. And the risks increase with each additional cesarean birth.
Babies born by C-section can be accidentally injured or cut during the procedure and are more likely to have breathing problems. They are also less likely to breast-feed, perhaps because of the challenges of starting in a post-surgical setting.
In some situations, such as when the mother is bleeding heavily or the baby’s oxygen supply is compromised, surgical delivery is absolutely necessary. But women can maximize their chances of avoiding an unnecessary cesarean by finding a caregiver and birthing environment that supports vaginal birth.
When choosing a practitioner and hospital or birthing center, ask about C-section rates, particularly rates for low-risk women having their first child. The target rate for that population should be around 15 percent, according to the American Congress of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG). Although it can be difficult to find a hospital with a C-section rate that low, you might be able find one that meets the more modest goal of about 24 percent, which was set by the government’s Healthy People 2020 initiative.