Choosing to deliver a baby early may increase the risk for pregnancy complications, according to a new study. Many women find the body aches, swelling, and anxiety associated with the final weeks of pregnancy unbearable. Empathetic obstetricians sometimes induce labor to help these women deliver early but this new research warns the practice could increase risks to both mother and baby.

Normally, doctors define a full-term pregnancy as one where delivery occurs 40 weeks after the mother’s last menstrual period. In a preterm pregnancy, the mother delivers before she has completed 39 weeks of gestation. Sometimes preterm deliveries occur spontaneously; in other cases, doctors induce labor before the expected delivery date to overcome a medical crisis suffered by either the mother or the baby. Inducing labor to begin a preterm delivery should be reserved for mothers and babies with a true medical need.

Publishing their findings in the medical journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings, the authors of this study say there is no true medical need for about 10 to 15 percent of the preterm deliveries occurring in the United States. Preterm delivery increases the risk for serious complications, including infant mortality, breathing problems, feeding difficulties and other conditions such as cerebral palsy. Babies born before 39 weeks of pregnancy are also more likely to spend time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) after birth.

Inducing labor has its own risks. Obstetricians must administer chemicals to start labor artificially. These drugs or procedures used may cause prolonged labor. Physicians must sometimes assist delivery with the use of forceps or vacuum, which can cause infection and bleeding. Inducing labor also increases the likelihood the woman will need an emergency cesarean section (c-section), raising the risk for even greater surgical complications.

The authors of this study express an interest in increasing awareness about the risks for preterm delivery and induced labor. A recent survey polled 650 women who had just delivered babies; half of them thought 37 weeks of gestation was a full-term pregnancy and 25 percent of respondents said it was safe to deliver a baby at 34 weeks.

Source: Clinic, Mayo. "Increased risk of complications for mother and baby from elective early-term deliveries." Medical News Today. MediLexicon, Intl., 20 Dec. 2013. Web. 10 Jan. 2014.