Just How Safe Is a C-Section for Baby and Mom?

Two new studies released today shed some light on safety questions surrounding Cesarean delivery.
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Ask a group of moms about their birth story, and chances are at least one of them delivered by C-section. For a host of reasons, more and more women around the world are going under the knife to deliver their babies. In the U.S. alone, the Cesarean rate jumped from 5 percent in 1970 to 32.7 percent in 2013, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But the nagging question experts have been grappling with is, just how safe is this method of delivery for newborns and their moms? Two new studies published today in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) are the latest to attempt to shed some light.

In one study, a team of researchers analyzed 2005-2012 childbirth data from all 194 World Health Organization (WHO) members. They discovered that in 2012, 22.9 million babies worldwide were delivered by Cesarean, or 19.4 per 100 live births. And further researched showed that rate is considered safe for the health of mom and baby.

This assertion is considerably different from what the WHO recommended in the not-so-distant past. Previously, it suggested no more than 10 to 15 C-sections per 100 live births for the postpartum health of mom and baby. But, as the study authors wrote, "previously recommended national target rates for Cesarean deliveries may be too low." Still, the U.S. C-section rate of about 30 percent is higher than this new suggestion.

Meanwhile, in the U.K, a second team of experts took an even deeper dive into how Cesareans impact infants' health, specifically their odds of developing such issues as asthma, obesity, and cancer. (Previous findings have been inconsistent at best.) In their study, the researchers examined data from 321,287 firstborns born in Scotland between 1993 and 2007, with follow-up all the way through February 2015. All babies were born term; most (79 percent) were delivered vaginally, while some (3.8 percent) were delivered by planned C-section, and others (17 percent) by unplanned C-section.

The team found that the type of C-section—planned vs. unplanned—had no effect on a baby's odds of asthma, obesity, inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, or death. Infants born by planned Cesareans were, however, at a slightly greater risk of type 1 diabetes. The picture changed when researchers compared babies born via planned C-section with babies born vaginally. According to the study, those delivered by planned C-sections were at a slightly greater risk of asthma and death, but there was no difference in their likelihood of obesity, developing inflammatory bowel disease, type 1 diabetes, or cancer.

So while a Cesarean delivery may slightly boost your babe's chances of developing asthma, the risk is low. (Read: Don't panic if your OB believes one is necessary for your and baby's sake.) "Health professionals and women considering planned Cesarean delivery should be made aware of this," researchers wrote. "However, the magnitude of risk is such that in the presence of a medical indication for Cesarean delivery, the apparent risk to offspring health is unlikely to justify a plan for vaginal birth."

Bonnie Gibbs Vengrow is a New York City-based writer and editor who traded in her Blackberry and Metro card for playdates and PB&J sandwiches—and the once-in-a-lifetime chance to watch her feisty, funny son grow up. Follow her on Twitter and Pinterest.

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