As any woman who has ever been pregnant can attest, the last few days and weeks of pregnancy are a true test of endurance.
Between thinly stretched skin, smushed organs and sore ribs, she’s more than ready to hold her bundle of joy in her arms for a change.
But while she might be ready, the baby might not be.
In years past, many physicians would agree to hasten the birth of a child. But now doctors know the practice comes at a cost for many mothers and their babies.
Because the baby’s brain, lungs and liver are still developing in the final weeks, babies are at risk for breathing problems, jaundice, low blood sugar, feeding issues and temperature instability. Mothers are also at risk for a more painful labor and a higher likelihood of caesarean section.
The physicians, midwives and nurses at Northeast Georgia Medical Center are working to prevent the unnecessary complications that can accompany an early delivery.
The hospital was recently recognized by VHA Inc., a network of not-for-profit hospitals that work together to improve performance, for its efforts in reducing deliveries that were early by choice, whether by inducing or C-section.
According to a hospital press release, the rate of those elective deliveries is less than 5 percent, while many other hospitals in the nation are at 15 percent or more.
That success prompted representatives from VHA to observe hospital staff, physicians and nurses to see what the hospital does to make its rate so low. VHA created a blueprint to share with other hospitals that are also trying to reduce the numbers of elective deliveries, which include those made before 39 weeks of gestation but without a medical reason. A normal pregnancy lasts for 40 weeks.
To induce labor, women are given medications that essentially jump-start contractions and delivery. While inductions are still offered, many local doctors will recommend it only for medical reasons.
As a former nurse in the Mother Baby Unit of the hospital, Terri Kelly has seen firsthand the increased likelihood of complications with an induced delivery.
Kelly is 41 weeks pregnant with her fourth child. Though she’s past her due date, she prefers to let labor happen in its own time. She’s decided to wait through the weekend, as long as her doctor will allow, before inducing delivery.
“I think it’s safer for mom and baby and there are better outcomes when it happens on its own,” Kelly said.
Over the years, she’s been able to share her experiences and what she’s seen in the delivery room with friends and family. She said she always encourages mothers to wait until their babies are ready to be born.
Dr. Holt Harrison with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group Heritage OB-GYN said national studies show a large number of babies with unnecessary complications when birth comes early.
“Even small statistics make a difference when your child is the one with problems,” Harrison said. “If there is no medical necessity, why take the risk?”
He said children who experience problems from early elective deliveries are likely to need additional testing, monitoring and therapy, and in some cases may be admitted to the neonatal intensive care unit.
“By encouraging mothers to wait to deliver until at least 39 weeks, we can help avoid these health risks for newborns,” Harrison said.
Three years ago, Harrison started a program with other physicians at the hospital to reduce the amount of early elective deliveries. Through the program, nurses, physicians and midwives worked to educate mothers though their pregnancies about the risks associated with delivering early, with great success.
The biggest contributor to the hospital’s success, said Sara Dyer, director of Women and Children Services at NGMC, has been the consistency of the message.
“The education is getting out there,” Dyer said. “I think women are questioning it and trying to understand that this is really for their benefit and the baby’s benefit.”
Several national campaigns are also promoting the practice through educational programs, including the Association of Women’s Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses’ “Go the Full 40” campaign and the March of Dimes’ “Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait” campaign.
While more and more mothers are learning about the risks and avoiding the practice, Dyer said families and women in general can do a lot to help support pregnant women, especially in their last few weeks of pregnancy.
“I think this is where women can really play a role in supporting each other,” Dyer said. “It’s something we can do to help each other and support each other through those last days and weeks of pregnancy so that mom is healthy and baby is healthy.”