Women spend more time in labor these days

Women spend longer in labor than they did 50 years ago, according to a new study from the National Institutes of Health.

The study of 140,000 deliveries said the main reason may be due to changes in delivery room practices.

The study, published online in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, compared childbirth data in the early 1960s to data from the early 2000s. Researchers found that the first stage of labor -- when the cervix dilates but there’s no pushing -- increased by 2.6 hours for first-time mothers. For those who had previously given birth, this stage took 2 hour longer.

The more recent group of babies were also born an average of five days earlier and weighed more. The mothers’ body mass index before pregnancy was also higher and the mother was about four years older than the 60s moms.

“Older mothers tend to take longer to give birth than do younger mothers,” said the study’s lead author, Dr. S. Katherine Laughon, of the Epidemiology Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, in a statement. “But when we take maternal age into account, it doesn’t completely explain the difference in labor times.”

A big change has come with pain management. More than half of the modern mothers were given epidural anesthesia, or an injection of pain killers into the spinal fluid. Only 4 percent of the 60s moms had that. That can extend delivery time but doesn’t account for the entire increase.

Another somewhat confusing factor is about a third of the modern women also got the hormone oxytocin, up from 12 percent. This speeds up labor when contractors slow.

Other changes later in labor include the decrease in the use of episiotomy, or incision to enlarge the vaginal opening, and use of forceps to extract the baby. There also has been a four-fold increase in cesarean delivery.

The researchers called for more studies of these factors and their influence on delivery times.

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