Too many first-time moms get C-sections

The most telling finding of a new study on cesarean sections in hospitals in the United States is that 31.2 percent of first-time mothers had C-sections.

"Reducing primary cesarean delivery is the key" to bringing down the overall C-section rate, the researchers concluded. In 2007, the last year studied, America's C-section rate stood at 32 percent, a new high.

The study, an analysis of nearly 229,000 births at 19 hospitals between 2002 and 2008 published on-line ahead of a print article in the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, was conducted under the aegis of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

The study found that 44 percent of women attempting a vaginal delivery were induced. Half of the women who had C-sections for dystocia — slow or difficult labor — were cervically dilated to less than 6 cm, far short of the 10 cm dilation that signals that birth is imminent, when the decision was made to operate.

Of the 29 percent of women in the study who had previous C-sections, and were allowed a trial of labor, 57 percent delivered vaginally.

The overall cesarean rate was 30.5 percent.

The abstract of the study concludes, "To decrease cesarean delivery rate in the United States, reducing primary cesarean delivery is the key. Increasing vaginal birth after previous cesarean rate (sic) is urgently needed. Cesarean section for dystocia should be avoided before the active phase is established, particularly in nulliparous women and in induced labor."

Many of the births included in the study took place at teaching hospitals, where more complicated birth often land, the study's authors noted.

Can the VBAC make a comeback?

Let's interrupt our Women's History Month programming to consider the news. The National Institutes of Health today begins a three-day session on vaginal birth after Caesarean, a hot topic, given that this practice, which was commonplace 15 years ago, has become scarce in the United States, at the same time that the Caesarean section accounts for nearly one-third of American births.

The VBAC has some passionate champions. While it isn't for everyone, it can work for many mothers, enabling them to avoid major surgery, and perhaps also to enjoy birth as they have always imagined it. The VBAC's decline has attended a steady rise in reliance on the Caesarean section, in part because the VBAC does carry a risk of rupture to the uterus, which can be life-threatening.

So it will be exciting to see what comes out of this conference, which aims to bring the best research available to bear on determining the safety and efficacy of the practice.

The VBAC is also one subject of an article by Denise Grady in the New York Times on Sunday, about a hospital in Tuba City, Ariz., where 32 percent of women who previously had Caesarean sections delivered vaginally, compared with a national average of less than 10 percent.

The rate of Caesarean births at the Tuba City Regional Health Care Corp., where about 500 babies are born a year, is 13.5 percent, less than half the national rate of 31.8 percent. The hospital is run by the Navajo Nation and is partially funded by the Indian Health Service, and it largely serves a Native American population.

What I love about Grady's account is how well this small, poor hospital appears to be doing in addressing one of the major tensions in the modern birth story -- how to keep the blissful experience of childbirth from being swamped by the technology that has been developed to keep it safe.