Rethinking Baby’s Lease on the Womb

Pregnant woman

If you were hoping to schedule an elective induction or C-section as soon as you hit the 37-week mark of your pregnancy, you might have considerable difficulty convincing your doctor to go for it now. Under new definitions published in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology and endorsed by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, a full term pregnancy is no longer considered to be anywhere from 37 to 42 weeks gestation, but instead just the two week-window that begins at 39 weeks. Anything after 37 weeks but before 39 weeks is now “early term,” and after 41 weeks but before 42 weeks is “late term.” The reason for the change is new research showing that babies born at early term or late term tend to be less healthy than their full-term, 39-to-41 week comrades. Complications from early delivery can include breathing and feeding problems, and even a small but increased risk of death. 

It’s good news for the babies, bad news for the compulsively planned parents and hyper-scheduled doctors who like to look at their appointment book and know whose baby they’re going to deliver on any given day. It doesn’t change the fact that a woman’s due date is no more than a semi-random guesstimate in a five-week time-frame. Your baby could come at 37 weeks, she could come at 41 weeks, she even could arrive exactly on time. The ideal should be letting baby, and not Grandma’s travel plans, pick the date, right?

Obviously there are many reasons doctors recommend early inductions for medical reasons, and this new definition is not meant to dissuade from those necessary deliveries. But the goal is to educate both doctors and mothers about the risks of delivering early or late, with the baby’s health at the core of the argument.

That doesn’t mean you can’t hope, like I am, for a baby who wants to show her face a bit before her due date. Though now “early term” instead of “full term,” the babies who voluntarily evict themselves between 37-39 weeks tend to be healthier than those born as the result of elective inductions, says Elliott Main, medical director of the California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative, in USA Today. Of course I just want a healthy baby, and if she sticks it out until 41 weeks, there’s not a thing I can (or would do) about it, other than trying every old wives’ trick in the book to get her to move along. But even one day “early” is a treat for a woman suffering from extreme swollen-belly syndrome. No matter: whenever babies show up, they’re always worth the wait.