C-sections before 39 weeks put babies at risk, report claims

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Australian babies are being put at risk by c-sections scheduled too early without a medical reason, according to a new report released today. Despite evidence that waiting until 39 weeks for a caesarean is best for babies, around half of planned c-sections in 2017 in Australia were performed earlier.

The concerns are that early planned c-sections are potentially putting newborns at risk of medical and behavioural problems long-term. It’s prompted a call to stop planned births being booked before 39 weeks, without a medical need.

Are early c-sections a risk to babies?

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The key findings are part of the Fourth Australian Atlas of Healthcare Variation, which maps healthcare across the country. It identifies areas for healthcare improvement and is produced by the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care in partnership with the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare.

The Atlas says it’s particularly concerning that 13 percent to 19 percent of all planned caesarean sections performed before 37 weeks did not have a recorded medical or obstetric reason.

Professor in Obstetrics & Gynaecology at The University of Western Australia,  Professor John Newnham explained that births before 39 weeks are considered early. “While at times early birth is necessary, all too often it occurs without a medical or obstetric reason,” he said.

“The evidence is clear that waiting until at least 39 weeks is best for the baby’s development, unless there is a medical reason for an earlier birth.”

Professor Newnham said unnecessary early birth can lead to a higher risks of respiratory problems at birth and a higher risk of behavioural and learning problems in the long-term. “Every week counts towards the end of pregnancy.”

According to the Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Health Care the factors that are likely to influence the rates of early planned births include how the birth is funded, the hospital’s location, operating theatre capacity, organisational culture, and policies and guidelines.

So the Atlas is recommending changes to government, hospital and insurer policies to stop planned births being booked before 39 weeks without a medical need. “It is also important for parents to have accurate information about the risks and benefits of early planned birth, and access to clinicians and facilities at the right time,” Professor Newnham said.

“I encourage parents to ask questions before booking an early caesarean section, to make sure their birth plans are best for both mother and baby.”

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