The last few weeks of pregnancy are very important for your baby’s development.
“For years, we thought babies born at 37 or 38 weeks were fine,” says Scott Berns, MD, deputy medical director of the March of Dimes.
But over the last 10 years, experts have learned that’s not true. “Babies born even a couple of weeks early have a higher chance of medical problems,” he says.
Sometimes moms or doctors try to plan childbirth around their busy schedules, trying to fit the delivery more easily into their own work or vacation schedule. Or a doctor may be trying to make sure they handle the delivery instead of another doctor at their practice. It’s become more popular to try to schedule delivery rather than wait for labor to start on its own.
The number of babies delivered through early, induced labor almost doubled between 1992 and 2004, and rates of early induction remained high. This means the number of babies born between 36 and 38 weeks has been rising, while the number of babies delivered at 39 weeks has been going down. That's not good for babies or their families.
To help reverse the trend, the March of Dimes has launched a campaign, Healthy Babies Are Worth the Wait. And the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) has launched the Strong Start Program. When parents find out how much the last weeks count, Berns says, they almost always decide to wait and let nature take its full course. It's best for you, and it's best for your baby.
Why Early Delivery May Be Dangerous
A baby’s important organs, like the brain and lungs, are still developing in weeks 37 and 38. Babies born earlier than 39 weeks are more likely to have medical conditions that require time in the intensive care unit. A baby delivered early may have:
- Breathing problems because their lungs are not fully developed
- Feeding problems because they may have trouble sucking or swallowing
- A serious infection that could threaten their life
When Early Delivery Is Your Only Choice
Sometimes your baby needs to be born early because one of you has a medical problem. The most common medical reasons for inducing labor early include:
- Your baby isn’t growing. You may hear your doctor call this intrauterine growth restriction or IUGR.
- Your water breaks. You may hear your doctor call this premature rupture of membranes, or PROM.
- You had diabetes before you were pregnant or developed gestational diabetes during your pregnancy.
- You have high blood pressure or preeclampsia.
In these cases, the benefits of an early induction outweigh the risks. However, if there are no medical risks present, it's best to let labor begin on its own.
When an Early Delivery Isn’t a Good Choice
Putting pressure on your doctor to deliver your baby early when it’s not medically necessary could be harmful to you and your baby. While the last 1-2 months of pregnancy can be very uncomfortable, it's not a good idea to induce for any of these reasons:
- You don’t want to gain any more weight.
- Concerns that your baby is too big
- You are having trouble sleeping.
- You have a family or work event you want to schedule around.
- Your doctor wants to schedule around a vacation, conference, or another family or work event.
- You want your baby to have a certain birth date.
Talk with your doctor early on in your pregnancy about when and why they would recommend early delivery. If your doctor suggests an elective early delivery, the March of Dimes recommends asking these questions:
- Is there a problem with my health or the health of my baby so I need to have my baby early?
- Can we wait to see if my labor begins on its own?
If there is no medical reason for having an early delivery, then your doctor should respect your wishes to wait until labor occurs on its own.