Inducing labor at 39 weeks - is picking your kid's birthday worth it?


Few aspects of modern medicine engender as much controversy as our labor and delivery practices. Rates of early induction of labor vary widely from country to country – even from hospital to hospital. And while some randomized trials have demonstrated that induction of labor prior to 40 weeks gestation might have favorable effects for infants with certain conditions like large-for-gestational age, we really don’t have much data on the effects of induction of labor during a normal pregnancy. But a study appearing in the New England Journal of Medicine attempts to shed light on that issue.

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Run out of 39 hospitals in England, this study randomized 619 women, all age 35 or older on their first pregnancy, to labor induction at 39 weeks, or usual care.

Why do this? Well, for one thing, induction of labor prior to the official due date is pretty common. There is, perhaps, a quality-of-life argument to be made about having the ability to more or less choose when to deliver a baby. There is also some observational data that suggests that the sweet spot for delivery is around 38-39 weeks. Prior to that, complications associated with pre-term infants go up, and much beyond that and you start to see other birth complications.

Now, this study was clearly too small to detect differences in rare outcomes like neonatal or maternal mortality, but there has been some concern that induction of labor might increase the rate of c-section.

This study saw no such increase. The rate of c-section was 32% in the induction group and 33% in the usual care group – not statistically different. There were also no differences in rates of assisted vaginal delivery or NICU admissions, and every child in the study survived to hospital discharge. One fact caught my eye, though, and I think it gives us insight into the main limitation of this trial.

There was no significant difference in birth weight between the arms of the study. You’d think that the early induction arm would at least have slightly smaller babies. But in reality, the arms just weren’t that different in terms of any measured variables. Why? Well, there were women in the usual care arm who went into labor at 38 weeks. In fact, only 222 of the 305 women in the induction group got induction of labor prior to 40 weeks of gestation, as the protocol specified.

This bias, which the authors half-jokingly describe as “non-adherence”, is due to the fact that randomization into the study could occur at any time from 36-40 weeks. If you wanted to really answer the question that the authors pose, you’d randomize everyone at 39 weeks, and if they were put in the early induction arm, induce them at or near the time of randomization.

So we need to interpret this study not as saying that early induction is safe, but that a plan for early induction is safe. This is a subtle difference, for sure, but an important one if you are discussing inducing a woman who has already hit the 39 week mark. Still, in my book, a small victory for patient autonomy is a victory nonetheless.