Is childbirth on its way to becoming the next extreme endurance sport?
According to statistics gathered by researchers from the National Institutes of Health, first-time moms today take longer—much longer—to give birth than women did 50 years ago. Comparing data on deliveries in the early 1960s to data gathered in the early 2000s, the typical length of first-stage labor increased an average of 2.6 hours for first-time mothers and two hours for moms who had already given birth at least once.
In more comparisons with the past, researchers noticed that infants today are born five days earlier, on average, than those born in the 1960s, and tend to weigh more. Today's moms weigh more, too (the current average pre-pregnancy body mass index is 24.9, compared with a BMI of 23 for the earlier generation). Today's moms are also older. Compared to their 1960s counterparts, moms in the 21st century are an average of four years older.
Is this last find about age the key to understanding what's holding modern moms back in the delivery room? Partly, says researchers. "Older mothers tend to take longer to give birth than do younger mothers," says the study's lead author, Dr. S. Katherine Laughon. "But … it doesn't completely explain the difference in labor times."
What does seem to matter are certain interventions that have become increasingly common over the past few decades, especially the use of epidural anesthesia. Today, epidural injections are used in over 50 percent of deliveries, compared with only 4 percent of deliveries in the 1960s. Less pain may mean more time in the delivery room for moms. As researchers note, epidural anesthesia, while it may make labor a less painful process, is known to increase delivery time.