Here's something expectant parents won't be thrilled to hear: Women now spend significantly longer in labor than they did 50 years ago. That's according to a new study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health of nearly 140,000 deliveries.
After comparing data on deliveries gathered in the 1960s to more recent data, researchers found that, on average, 21st century moms spend at least two hours longer in the first stage of labor, the part during which the cervix dilates before active pushing begins.
Researchers aren't sure exactly why labor takes longer today, though one reason might be that modern mothers tend to be older and heavier when they give birth, both factors that can lengthen labor. Another is an increased use of epidural anesthesia, which can extend the first stage of labor by up to 90 minutes. Epidurals were used in more than half of the recent deliveries compared with only 4 percent of those in the 1960s.
One important implication of the findings is that everyone--from mothers to doctors and other providers--may need to adjust their expectations for "normal" labor. Standard labor and delivery timetables were based on data from the 1950s; today's providers may be too quick to intervene if they think that labor is not progressing as it should. In light of longer labor times, the researchers conclude that routine interventions such as use of the drug oxytocin to speed up labor and cesarean sections "may need to be thoughtfully reconsidered."
Although there's no magic formula to guarantee a quick labor, women can increase the odds that labor will be manageable and complication-free by being in the best possible health before conception and staying fit throughout their pregnancy. For tips on how to have the healthiest pregnancy and delivery as well as what interventions to think twice about, see our comprehensive report What to reject when you're expecting.
Changes in labor patterns over 50 years [American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology]