Last month, the New York Times reported on a new study in Scotland that compares the health of babies born by planned cesarean sections to the health of babies born vaginally or by emergency c-section.
Because Scotland keeps close records that link birth and medical data, the authors were able to track the long-term health of the babies as they grew up. The findings were unexpected:
Surprisingly, the data showed more health problems among babies born by planned C-section than among those delivered by emergency C-section or vaginal birth, even though the planned surgery is done under more controlled conditions. The finding suggests that the arduous experience of labor — that exhausting, sweaty, utterly unpredictable yet often strangely exhilarating process — may give children a healthy start, even when it’s interrupted by a surgical birth.
Many have long suspected that there are benefits to a course of labor for newborns, but little research has been done. In the Times article, Carol Sakala, director of Childbirth Connection at the National Partnership for Women & Families, explains why such research is important:
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‘When you don’t wait for labor to begin on its own, you cut short all kinds of physiological changes and preparations for birth that are taking place toward the end of pregnancy,’ said Carol Sakala. ‘What is the effect of cutting off those processes so casually on such a large scale?’
The study compared health conditions including asthma, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, Type I diabetes, early death and cancer among the babies, and found that babies who experienced some labor, but were still born surgically, were slightly healthier than babies who experienced no labor whatsoever.
Over all, the differences between a scheduled C-section and an emergency C-section were slight. However, the data do begin to shed light on why babies born through vaginal birth may have fewer health risks than babies born by C-section.
The biggest difference between babies born by scheduled and unscheduled C-section appeared in risk for Type 1 diabetes. The results showed that babies born by planned C-section had a 35 percent higher risk of Type 1 diabetes compared with babies born by emergency C-section, after adjusting for differences among the mothers.
The exact physiological mechanisms that result in improved outcomes for babies born vaginally are not totally understood. Labor beginning on its own is also a good indication of the baby reaching full maturity, something that can’t be guaranteed in planned c-section or induced labor.
The article concludes:
The findings are a reminder that although C-sections are appropriate in some circumstances, they are a poor substitute for labor.