Sadly, labor seems to be a necessary evil

Many years ago, when I was in about seven months along with my first pregnancy, I begged my OB for a C-Section. I didn’t need one, but I’d had surgery before, and figured better the pain I knew than the scary and unfamiliar pain of labor. She refused my request, telling me that it’s good for babies to go through the labor process. If she hadn’t been a brilliant, hip, delightful, young woman, I might have accused her of misogyny, especially by the time I entered my twentieth hour of labor. As it was, I survived labor and had one healthy baby, followed a couple of years (and twenty hours of labor) later, by a second health baby. And it turns out my OB was right:

A recent study of nearly six million births has found that the risk of death to newborns delivered by voluntary Caesarean section is much higher than previously believed.

Researchers have found that the neonatal mortality rate for Caesarean delivery among low-risk women is 1.77 deaths per 1,000 live births, while the rate for vaginal delivery is 0.62 deaths per 1,000. Their findings were published in this month’s issue of Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care.

The percentage of Caesarean births in the United States increased to 29.1 percent in 2004 from 20.7 percent in 1996, according to background information in the report.

Mortality in Caesarean deliveries has consistently been about 1½ times that of vaginal delivery, but it had been assumed that the difference was due to the higher risk profile of mothers who undergo the operation.

This study, according to the authors, is the first to examine the risk of Caesarean delivery among low-risk mothers who have no known medical reason for the operation.

Congenital malformations were the leading cause of neonatal death regardless of the type of delivery. But the risk in first Caesarean deliveries persisted even when deaths from congenital malformation were excluded from the calculation.

Intrauterine hypoxia — lack of oxygen — can be both a reason for performing a Caesarean section and a cause of death, but even eliminating those deaths left a neonatal mortality rate for Caesarean deliveries in the cases studied at more than twice that for vaginal births.

“Neonatal deaths are rare for low-risk women — on the order of about one death per 1,000 live births — but even after we adjusted for socioeconomic and medical risk factors, the difference persisted,” said Marian F. MacDorman, a statistician with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the lead author of the study.

“This is nothing to get people really alarmed, but it is of concern given that we’re seeing a rapid increase in Caesarean births to women with no risks,” Dr. MacDorman said.

Part of the reason for the increased mortality may be that labor, unpleasant as it sometimes is for the mother, is beneficial to the baby in releasing hormones that promote healthy lung function. The physical compression of the baby during labor is also useful in removing fluid from the lungs and helping the baby prepare to breathe air.

The researchers suggest that other risks of Caesarean delivery, like possible cuts to the baby during the operation or delayed establishment of breast-feeding, may also contribute to the increased death rate. (Bolded emphasis mine.)