How labour is longer for a modern mother: Giving birth can take two and a half hours more than 50 years ago
00:11 GMT, 2 April 2012
As if having a baby wasn’t difficult enough, research suggests that labour is taking longer.
A study of almost 150,000 women found the average labour can last more than two and a half hours longer today than 50 years ago.
This increase has been blamed on many 21st century mothers being older and heavier than their 1960s counterparts and changes in the way babies are delivered.
Painful: Changes in modern medicine, including the widespread use of powerful pain killers, may be a cause longer labour. (Posed by models)
For example, the increased use of powerful epidural painkilling injections may be partly responsible.
The study looked at American women but British doctors say there is no reason to think the pattern is not similar here. U.S. researchers compared data on almost 40,000 births between 1959 and 1966 with almost 100,000 deliveries between 2002 and 2008.
It revealed the first stage of labour – in which contractions have started but pushing has not – has got longer by an average of 2 hours 36 minutes in first-time mothers.
It increased by an average of two hours for those who already had at least one child.
The increase can partly be explained by differences in the women, said researcher Katherine Laughon, of the National Institute of Child Health in Maryland. The modern-day mothers weighed more before and during pregnancy and were on average around four years older than those in the 1960s group.
Lifestyle: Modern women tend to be heavier than those giving birth a generation ago, which could slow down labour, the study found
And more than half of the contemporary women had epidurals – which can prolong labour by between 40 and 90 minutes – compared with 4 per cent of 1960s deliveries.
In addition, women were usually confined to bed after an epidural, which may also slow down labour.
But Dr Laughon, writing in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said she could not fully explain the difference in labour times.
For example, changes in medical practice over the past 50 years – such as using the drug oxytocin to speed up labour – should lead to shorter delivery times. Dr Laughon said the lengthening of labour means doctors may be able to wait longer before intervening with oxytocin or delivering the baby by caesarean section.
Caesarean sections now account for nearly a quarter of all British births, twice as many as 30 years ago.
Patrick O’Brien, spokesman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said the study showed a large fall in forceps deliveries – one of women’s biggest fears.
He also added that the increase in average labour times does not seem to be harmful, with the data showing, if anything, that today’s babies are slightly healthier when they are born.