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Labour takes longer today than 50 years ago: study

A new study suggests that labour takes three hours longer than 50 years ago. (Credit: Thinkstock)Sorry to break it to you, writhing moms-to-be and anxious, pacing dads. But it's looking like you're going to be in the labour room for a while.

According to a recent U.S. government study of nearly 150,000 women, the process of childbirth is taking longer today than it did in the 1960s. Women are now spending just under three hours longer in the delivery room than women did 50 years ago.

The length of the first stage of labour (contractions, but no pushing) has increased on average by two hours and 36 minutes for first-time mothers and two hours for women who have previously given birth.

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The age and weight differences of mothers now verses 50 years ago (first-time mothers today are, on average, older and heavier than first-time mothers were back then) is an important factor, but the study suggests the slowdown has more to do with changing patterns in medical protocols and practices.

"Older mothers tend to take longer to give birth than do younger mothers," says the study's lead author, Dr. S. Katherine Laughon, in a statement. "But when we take maternal age into account, it doesn't completely explain the difference in labour times."

One major reason for the slowdown is thought to be the very common use of epidurals in modern labour. Over 50 per cent of the American women studied had epidurals administered, compared to just four per cent of women in the 1960s. Epidurals can prolong labour anywhere from 40 to 90 minutes.

"The advent of modern labour epidural pain relief is one of the great advances of our age," says Dr. Pamela Angle, director of the Ostetrical Anesthesia Research Unit at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre.

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As for the study itself, Dr. Angle observes, "This type of study design should not be interpreted as proving a cause and effect relationship between epidural pain relief and longer labours, nor can it account for all of the important changes in obstetrical practice that might explain study findings."

Forceps have also fallen out of fashion, and recent years have seen the decline of the episiotomy, a surgical incision. According to the 2008 Canadian Perinatal Health report, episiotomy rates have been dwindling in Canada. In 2004, just over 20 per cent of women had an episiotomy during vaginal childbirth, compared to 31 per cent in 1995, less than ten years earlier — a rather drastic drop.

Having said that -- expectant parents, it might be a good idea to pack an extra magazine or two in your overnight bag.

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