When I hear stories from my mother’s generation about childbirth – how so few women were offered epidurals despite laboring for days on end and, worse, how little say they had when it came to their birth plan – it makes me cringe. Sure, we’re statistically way more likely to have an unplanned c-section than our mothers and grandmothers, but at least here in North America we’re empowered like never before when it comes to how (and where) we’d like to deliver our babies. But here’s a surprising new fact: women take longer to give birth today than they did 50 years ago.
According to a study by the National Institute of Health, women are in labor around 2.6 hours longer than their counterparts 50 years ago. This surprised me because, like I said, I feel like my mother and her friends have crazy stories of laboring for days one end (one woman labored for 56 hours!). Today, of course, you’d be sent for a c-section long before that.
Still, the study compared data from more than 39,491 first-time moms who gave birth between 1959-1966 to date from 98,359 first-time moms who gave birth between 2002-2008. While researchers did not explain in the report why labor seems to be lasting longer, they have their suspicions. For example, lead author Dr. Katherine Laughon attributes it to the increased use of epidurals. “That is known to prolong labor by approximately 40 to 90 minutes,” she said. ” Of course, it’s very accepted practice to help improve pain control during labor.” (Interestingly, 55% of women in the 2002-208 group had an epidural while only 4% in the 1959-1966 group did.)
Other changes in delivery-room practices include an increase in c-sections and induced labors, the latter which is also known to slow down labor. Then, of course, there are changes with the women themselves: those in the contemporary group tended to be older and weighed more than women in the historic group – both relevant factors when it comes to labor and delivery.
The bottom line is that more research is needed to find out what other factors increase labor times. But these latest findings are interesting because, as Laughon points out, the definition of “normal” labor time is based on data from the 1950s.
While it may seem counter-productive to want an epidural when that is precisely what could be slowing down labor, I’d still opt for the epidural. After all, we’re talking about a difference of a couple of hours here. I’ve always believed to each his own – barring any medical emergencies, women should do what works best for them – but for me, personally, I’m all about the epidural (and I thank god I had one during my first, 27-hour labor!). That said, it’ll be interesting to see if these latest findings influence expectant moms in any way – and also what other factors in general are increasing labor times. It also makes me wonder what this means for future generations.