Doctors: No elective deliveries, extra week in womb pays off

May 9, 2012

More babies in Washington are entering the world at full-term. An effort to end the practice of mothers scheduling an early delivery has led to a 65% drop since 2010.

Even doctors have been “really surprised” to see compelling research that babies born just two weeks early are more likely to have medical problems, all the way up through age five, says Dr. Tom Benedetti, an obstetrics professor at the University of Washington.

Until a couple years ago, if a baby was born at 37 weeks, it was still considered full-term. 

Some mothers would schedule the delivery – to be induced or have a C-section. Benedetti says their reasons include:

  • It fit their work-schedule better
  • They needed to schedule a family caregiver
  • They wanted their personal doctor to deliver the baby and that doctor only works certain days.

In those last weeks of pregnancy, weeks 37 and 38, the baby’s organs are developing, recent research has shown. The baby’s brain is getting dramatically bigger, and it’s adding a protective layer of fat, says Dr. Jeff Thompson of the Washington State Health Care Authority.

“When we wait until a baby is ready to come out and enter the world, what we find is their bodies are ready to take on the hazards of being in the real world.”

The eyes, ears, and lungs are all stronger, he says. And that means they’re less likely to need any medical help.

Now, a campaign by the March of Dimes, the Washington State Hospital Association and several state agencies  has cut those elective deliveries dramatically – by about two-thirds statewide. That adds up to more than 600 babies in 2011 who stayed an extra couple weeks in the womb.

A lot of doctors are telling women they simply won’t do elective deliveries any more, says Benedetti, who has been overseeing the campaign.

But, doctors say pre-term deliveries are still necessary when there’s some complication that could threaten either the baby or the mom. The statewide consortium is keeping track of stillbirths to make sure they're not inadvertently preventing early deliveries that are medically necessary.