July 9, 2012
Every week of a pregnancy is crucial to a newborn’s health. Nationally, a trend has been noted that more and more births are being scheduled a little early for non-medical reasons. Experts are learning that this can cause problems for mom and baby. If possible, it’s best to stay pregnant for at least 39 weeks. If there are problems with your pregnancy or your baby’s health, you might not have a choice about when to have your baby, and you may need to have your baby earlier. But if you have a choice and you’re planning to schedule your baby’s birth, wait until at least 39 weeks.
With each decreasing week of gestation below 39 to 40 weeks, there is an increased risk of complications like respiratory distress, jaundice, infection, low blood sugar, extra days in the hospital (including time in the neonatal intensive care unit), and in some cases, even death of a newborn.
Although tests may show that the baby’s lungs are well developed at around 37 weeks, research has demonstrated that the risk of newborn complications is still significantly higher than if delivery occurs two to three weeks later than that. Many early deliveries contribute to an unacceptable number of premature births and avoidable, costly complications.
Satwant Dhillon, MD, an obstetrician and gynecologist with Fort HealthCare Center for Women’s Health states, “Studies have shown that newborns do much better if they are allowed to develop through at least 39 weeks gestation. Babies are just more mature closer to term than earlier. Their swallowing reflex is much stronger, and that is a necessary function for successful breastfeeding. Also, babies are more content, bilirubin levels are good, they can maintain their body temperature better, and they do not seem to experience respiratory difficulty when breathing regular room air compared to babies that are delivered too early.”
Although many women think that weight gain is all that happens to babies during the last few weeks of pregnancy, vital organs like the brain, lungs and liver are still developing. Babies aren’t fully developed until at least 39 weeks. For example, a baby’s brain at 35 weeks gestation weighs only two-thirds of what it will weigh at 39 to 40 weeks. There are also fewer vision and hearing problems among babies born at full term.
This is not to suggest that women should panic if labor begins earlier on its own. The recommendation applies not just to women whose labor is induced, but also to those having a scheduled Caesarean delivery. Too often, women are mistaken about when they got pregnant, which can throw off the calculation of their due date. Even when a “dating” ultrasound is done during the first trimester of pregnancy, there can be as much as a two-week margin of error. Thus, a woman may think her pregnancy has lasted 39 weeks when it is only 37 weeks along. Or she may think she is 37 weeks pregnant when she is only 35 weeks; a delivery at that point would result in a premature birth.
Why at least 39 weeks is best for your baby
Babies born too early may have more health problems at birth and later in life than babies born full term.
To help raise awareness about this important aspect of a healthy pregnancy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services launched a multi-faceted perinatal health campaign in 2011 called “Strong Start.” This awareness campaign is designed to let women and health care providers know that if a pregnancy is healthy, it is best to wait for labor to begin on its own, rather than scheduling an induction of labor or a Cesarean section.
Dhillon continues, “We regularly conduct our own internal audits of patient care. Our practice really changed years ago to establishing a firm tradition of only delivering babies as close to full term as possible. This decision was based on the results of our own observations and research at Fort Memorial Hospital. We instituted our practice of doing things this way before the rest of the country did, even years before the national recommendation was established.”
The work of the pediatricians, obstetricians/gynecologists, and obstetrics nurses and staff at Fort Memorial Hospital in Fort Atkinson is also prominently featured among the Wisconsin Association of Perinatal Care, to share best practices and research findings with other hospitals in Wisconsin.
Dhillon adds, “We not only stay up-to-date on the latest advances in technology and patient care here, but we also continually work to identify ways to improve the health of our patients. We’re continuously conducting quality assurance measures like this ourselves, because it results in the best care that we can give our patients, and that is the most important thing to all of us.”
Proper prenatal care and good health of the mother before and during pregnancy are important factors in having a healthy baby. Dr. Dhillon is one of the expert OB/GYNs on a team of women’s health specialists that includes Julie Mokhtar, DO, Christine Chuppa, MD, Nancy Aguirre, MD and Joyce Dedrick, NP with Fort HealthCare Center for Women’s Health. To learn more, visit FortHealthCare.com/Women.
Fort HealthCare is committed to improving the quality of life throughout the communities it serves, working to achieve its Mission of improving the health and well-being of residents by favorably impacting health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic factors and the physical environment. For more information, visit FortHealthCare.com/Mission.