Researchers Investigate Changes in Labor Over Last 50 Years

Chances are pretty good that, if you ask your mother about her labor, she’ll paint a picture quite different than your labor story. According to a recent study conducted on the differences in labors today and 50 years ago, you’re not alone.


Set to be published in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Dr. S. Katherine Laughon of the National Instituted of Health and her colleagues compared the labor records of 39,491 women who had given birth between 1959 and 1966 with the records of 98,359 women who had given birth between 2002 and 2008. Only women who had experienced spontaneous (non-induced) labor and were pregnant with one child were included in the study.

After accounting for various factors like age, weight and ethnicity, researchers found that women spend more time in labor now than they did 50 years ago – approximately 2 hours longer, on average. More specifically, women delivering their first child in the present day take 2.6 hours longer to advance from the first stage of labor (the time it takes for the cervix to open fully) to the second stage of labor (the actual delivery until the baby’s head emerges). However, women delivering subsequent children in the present day did see a slight decrease in the length of time spent in first stage labor, taking only 2 hours longer than women 50 years ago did. Regarding the second stage of labor, researchers found that there was not much difference between the present day group and the historic group; just a matter of minutes, in fact.

Researchers are unsure as to why there is such a difference in the duration of first stage labor between the present day group of women and the historic group of women. They suspect, however, that a number of factors may come into play. Researchers found that women giving birth in the present day tend to be older and heavier than the women in the historic group. Additionally, pain relief options may play a role in the increased labor times. Despite this fact, however, researchers say that epidurals are generally the preferred method of pain relief during labor.

Concerning the use of drugs, researchers found that fifty-five percent of women in the present day group received an epidural during delivery. This was compared to only 4 percent in the historic group. Epidurals are used to reduce pain during labor and have been found to increase the length of labor anywhere from 45 to 90 minutes. Oxytocin, a drug used to speed up the progress of labor, was used in 31 percent of women in the present day group but only 12 percent in the historic group.

Researchers also found that the cesarean section rate was four times higher in the present day group than it was in the historical group. On the other hand, forceps, which are surgical instruments that can help extract a baby from the birth canal, were used more frequently in the historic group than in the present day group.

Researchers say that the main reason they conducted the study was not to determine the reason for extended labor times but more to change the way that obstetricians deal with lengthy labors.

“Women may simply need more time to deliver than they used to,” said Laughon.

The findings are important, she says, because the current definition of “normal” labor time is based on information from the 1950’s. In light of the new information, Laughon says that OB doctors should wait longer to administer drugs like oxytocin or perform a C-section on “lengthy” labors. This could help reduce the overall cost of a longer labor, which is said to increase the cost of each birth by $110.


About the author


Kate Givans is a wife and a mother of five—four sons (one with autism) and a daughter. She’s an advocate for breastfeeding, women’s rights, against domestic violence, and equality for all. When not writing—be it creating her next romance novel or here on Growing Your Baby—Kate can be found discussing humanitarian issues, animal rights, eco-awareness, food, parenting, and her favorite books and shows on Twitter or Facebook. Laundry is the bane of her existence, but armed with a cup of coffee, she sometimes she gets it done.

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