It’s late summer now. Middays are hot, but the mornings are chilly. And the blackberries–my favorite berries of all– so ripe a few weeks ago, are starting to shrivel and go dormant until next year. Sure I have some guilt for loving this invasive plant, but somehow I can’t help myself. Ahhh… blackberries.
And the picking of berries makes me think of–what else?–pregnancy and birth, of course. Why, you ask? Because I’m an impossible birth nerd and I nearly always have labor on the brain. And also because they are both about nature, about the mystery of why one berry on the vine is ripe for the picking and releases easily with a gentle tug and others on the same branch resist the traction you place on them. The unripe berry might have good size, it might be nice and black (although if you turn it, you may find it’s still pale on the underside), but still it tells you, “Not yet. Give me another day.”
But while most people seem to understand and accept that not all berries ripen at the same time, they do not always feel the same about pregnant women and labor. Sometimes I think they view it more like baking a cake. When the timer goes “ding” the cake needs to come out soon or it will end up dry, or worse, burnt. Though any good baker knows to check the cake for doneness, in the baking world it’s always better to pull the cake out early (and put it back if underdone) than to wait too long. Often, this thinking pervades in the labor and delivery world even though you can’t check a baby for doneness without getting him/her out and you certainly can’t put the baby back in to “cook” for longer if s/he was born too early.
We just like to know when the baby is supposed to be done and in this day and age it seems impossible that we still cannot pinpoint a normal healthy delivery date to any smaller range than 4 weeks. But such is life. As annoying as it is, there are some good reasons to learn to live with it.
a) When women are induced or scheduled for cesarean births prior to 39 or 40 weeks, providers sometimes discover that the due date was wrong and that the baby hadn’t yet reached “term” resulting in an accidental premature birth with all the resulting health risks (known as “accidental iatrogenic prematurity”).
b) Though we consider 40 weeks the average end-point to a normal pregnancy, a 1990 study by the Harvard School of Public Health showed that the average (median) length of gestation for uncomplicated first pregnancies (in which the mother goes into labor spontaneously) is actually 41 weeks + 1 day. For subsequent pregnancies the average length of gestation was 40 weeks + 3 days. (Note: This study applies to white women only. Weird, huh? There’s a lot to explain about this which I can’t get into here, but for those who are curious, here’s a short explanation: For reasons that aren’t completely understood [but may be related to the stress of institutional racism, not just in the woman’s lifetime but in the lifetime of her mother and grandmother] black women have a much higher rate of premature delivery even when they are highly educated, get good prenatal care and have higher incomes).
c) By studying other mammals, such as the mice in this study, we know that the presence of lung surfactant protein (which is key in making the lungs work after birth) acts to trigger the hormones which lead to labor. Though this has not been studied in humans, it has been studied in other mammals so it’s reasonable to guess that something similar occurs in humans. If this hypothesis is correct, it means that babies signal their mother’s bodies to go into labor when when they are ready to survive outside of the womb.
Everything seems to flow more easily when babies are ripe and ready to be born–while it might look early or late based on the calendar, often when labor happens on its own, it is right on time for the baby.
In my own experience, I’ve seen babies born at 38 weeks at 7.5 lbs and babes born at 42 weeks at 8 lbs and everything in between. My own two little monkeys had quite different gestational times. My first child was born at 41 weeks exactly and my second was born at 39 weeks +1 day, weighing just a few ounces less than my first (they were 8 lbs 2 oz and 7 lbs 14 oz, respectively). For whatever reason, my younger child needed nearly 2 weeks less gestational time than my older child did.
Of course, nature does make mistakes sometimes. I would be a fool not to recognize that. Women do go into labor prematurely and some women do get to a point at which it is safer to induce labor. But this ought to be the exception, not the rule. Having a great care practitioner that you trust is key–one that recommends induction only if it is truly needed, not just because the clock is ticking.
Good things are worth the wait. Here’s to babies born ripe, healthy, plump and delicious!