Do 9-plus pound babies need to be born via C-section? That’s the thing that stood out for me after reading Samantha M. Shapiro’s story in this week’s New York Times Sunday Magazine. I read this reprise on the homebirth debate with interest (and some dismay, since I talk about a visit to Ina May Gaskin on the Farm in my book). There are several things I liked about the article (the tone for instance), and several I didn’t (the title – ugh). But undoubtedly the strangest thing about the story was this:
“When I reached my due date, an ultrasound estimated that my baby weighed 9.4 pounds. I didn’t have gestational diabetes and had gained an average amount of weight, and fetal tests showed my baby was thriving. But the baby’s estimated size, combined with the fact that he hadn’t yet descended into my pelvis, worried my midwife.She wanted the baby out by 41 weeks, and to my surprise, she suggested I consider going straight to surgery without labor. She sent me to be evaluated by a doctor she worked with. “One way or another, this baby will be a C-section,” he said.”
Shapiro doesn’t go for the prophylactic C-section, and that prophecy comes true:
“I was told I wasn’t progressing. The midwife pressed for a C-section, saying if I continued to labor I risked the chance of infection or shoulder dystocia. Bigger babies are at a greater risk for this complication, which in rare cases results in stillbirth or injury to the baby. … The midwife told us, “You don’t want to wait until the baby shows signs of distress — at that point it’s too late.” I negotiated for two more hours, made no further progress and then, under pressure, agreed to surgery. It was the kind of coercion by dint of not offering any other options that Gaskin talks about.”
Here I wanted to know one more thing: Was this midwife (and the doctor) making good recommendations backed by evidence? In this story it sounds like the medical consensus is that C-sections should be used to prevent shoulder dystocia. It makes intuitive sense that big babies will be harder to deliver, but everything I could remember on the subject said that because it was so hard to estimate the fetal weight it didn’t make sense to do preemptive C-sections unless the baby was a real orca (I’m allowed to say that: 11 pound baby right here). Nine and a half pounds is still solidly in the bell curve–if C-sections are a forgone conclusion for all of then, whew, that’s a lot of surgeries.
“Some birth injuries would be averted if all women with suspected macrosomia [big babies] had c-sections, but the number needed to treat is in the thousands. (Thousands of women would need to have c-sections to prevent one permanent injury related to shoulder dystocia).”
“A policy of planned cesarean delivery for suspected macrosomic fetuses in women who do not have diabetes is not recommended … if all fetuses suspected of being macrosomic underwent cesarean delivery, the cesarean delivery rate would increase disproportionately when compared with the reduction in the rate of shoulder dystocia”
(ACOG notes that there is some evidence to support a C-section if it looks like the baby is over 11 pounds.) This is not some fringe group here–this is the main representative of the specialty reviewing the sum total of the science. Contrast that with the doctor saying “One way or another, this baby will be a C-section,” as if trying to give vaginal birth to a 9.5 lb baby was just crazy. In other words, this wasn’t a case of clinicians being somewhat coercive, this was a case of clinicians being totally anti-scientific (at least it seems that way, maybe there’s more to the story).
When I was reporting on childbirth I would see this kind of variation in care all the time. At one hospital they’d proudly assure me, (let’s see, to keep it simple I’ll use a made up example) say: “Oh, yeah, we paint every baby red within 5 minutes of birth. No exceptions.” And then at the next hospital down the road. “Of course we paint every baby blue, because we’ve known for years that red doesn’t work.”
Case in point, a month ago my sister in law gave birth to a 10.5 pound chubster. No one pushed her to have a C-section. And a prophylactic C-section for all babies over 9.5 lbs? The midwifes and doctors on her team (at UCSD) probably would think that was crazy talk. What do you think accounts for this difference? East vs. West medical culture? The legal culture? Or was there maybe something going on that we don’t know about with Shapiro?