Twenty years ago, the majority of women in Australia gave birth at 40 weeks; today it’s between 38 and 39 weeks and continuing to get earlier. The main reason for this shift is the growing proportion of planned early births that are happening at 36, 37 and 38 weeks, either by induction of labour or by planned caesarean.
Professor Jonathan Morris, an obstetrics and gynaecology expert from Royal North Shore Hospital and the University of Sydney, said a recent healthcare study revealed up to 60 per cent of planned caesarean sections performed in Australia before 39 weeks gestation did not have a medical or obstetric reason.
“There is a general lack of awareness amongst both clinicians and expectant parents of the short, medium and long-term implications of being born even slightly early,” he said. “Those last few weeks of gestation might seem insignificant, but – in reality – babies are going through crucial developmental phases towards the end of a pregnancy”
“Our research has shown that for every week a baby is born before 39 weeks, he or she is at increasing risk of developmental delay at school. We have looked at the association between when babies were born and how they performed in kindergarten. We found for every week a child was born earlier than 39 weeks there was a small but significant increase in the likelihood of them being “developmentally vulnerable”. This means they scored poorly on two or more test categories. The risk was higher for babies born after a planned birth compared with those who had a spontaneous birth,” Prof Morris said.
Although many aspects of a baby’s development are almost complete by 36 weeks, the final weeks of pregnancy are crucial for optimal brain development. At 35 weeks, the baby’s developing brain weighs about two-thirds of its final size at 40 weeks. In babies who are born early, the brain continues to grow but in a slightly different way. This impacts how the brain works, and why some differences are found in later school assessment results. Similarly, a baby’s lungs are not fully developed until around 39 weeks. This is why babies born before this time often have early breathing difficulties and may need oxygen.
The timing of a planned birth is an important decision to discuss with your doctor and family. If you can wait a little longer and it is safe, then do so because every week counts. Further information and free educational material can be found at www.everyweekcounts.com.au Follow us on Instagram @birthinghealthybabies
Image: Professor Morris with the educational material from the campaign.