|Older Mothers More Likely Than Younger Mothers
To Deliver By Cesarean
Researchers funded by the National Institutes of Health have found
that older mothers with normal, full-term pregnancies — particularly
first-time older mothers — were more likely to undergo Caesarean
delivery than were younger women with similarly low-risk pregnancies.
The researchers arrived at their finding after examining birth
certificates from 8 million U.S. births, for children born between
1995–2000. Because the researchers were limited solely to information
from birth certificates, they were unable to ascertain why older
mothers were more likely to undergo cesarean delivery than were
mothers who were younger.
“Until we learn why older mothers with low-risk pregnancies have
a disproportionately high rate of Caesarean delivery, the utmost
caution is needed in evaluating older mothers as candidates for
the procedure,” said Duane Alexander, M.D., Director of the NICHD,
the NIH Institute that conducted the study. “Although older mothers
share certain risk factors in common, each woman is a unique individual
and the potential benefits and risks of Caesarean delivery should
be evaluated for her specific case.”
The researchers undertook the study to evaluate the risks of pregnancy
complications — including Caesarean delivery — associated
with advancing maternal age among women pregnant with a single
Overall, older mothers (over age 35) were more likely than were
younger women to experience complications during pregnancy and
The study authors found that the risk of delivery complications
increased with the mother’s age, as did the risk of premature birth
and infant death. Such complications include excessive bleeding
during labor, prolonged labor lasting more than 20 hours, and dysfunctional
labor that does not advance to the next stage.
In addition, older pregnant women were more likely to have diabetes
and hypertension during pregnancy.
The study was published online in Human Reproduction.
Barbara Luke, Sc.D., M.P.H., R.N., R.D., Professor of Nursing,
Obstetrics, and Pediatrics at the University of Miami School of
Nursing and Health Studies, and Morton B. Brown, PhD, Professor
of Biostatistics, School of Public Health, University of Michigan,
conducted the study.
Using birth data from the National Center for Health Statistics,
the researchers compared information on the mothers’ medical risk
factors, pregnancy complications, and mode of delivery. Mothers
in three age groups — 35 to 39, 40 to 44, and 45 and older — were
compared to mothers age 30 to 34 years old.
After adjusting for race and smoking status, researchers found
that older women were at much higher risk for complications during
pregnancy and delivery. Whether or not the women had previously
given birth also affected their risk of certain complications.
Women giving birth at age 45 or older were also the most likely
to have high blood pressure and diabetes while pregnant. The oldest
mothers were also at greatest risk for excessive bleeding during
labor, premature delivery (before 32 weeks), and Caesarean delivery.
The study authors found that the chance of Caesarean delivery
in all pregnancies increased with the women’s age. The chance of
Caesarean delivery increased with age even in those deemed low
risk because the mother had carried to term and had no complications
due to excessive bleeding or to the baby’s positioning.
The researchers found that, regardless of their age, women giving
birth for the first time were much more likely to deliver by Caesarean.
First-time mothers were six times more likely to have a Caesarean
delivery than were women who had given birth before, and even when
their pregnancies were low risk (full-term, infants without birth
defects, with a normal, head-down presentation, and in the absence
of any bleeding complications).
Although the study authors couldn’t identify reasons for the increased
Caesarean delivery rate from the birth certificate data they analyzed,
Dr. Luke explained that several factors could underlie the increase.
Dr. Luke theorized that physicians’ concerns of potential malpractice
could be one cause of the increased number of Caesareans for older
and first-time mothers. She added that the mother’s weight could
also be a factor. Women tend to get heavier as they age and with
each subsequent pregnancy. Obesity and overweight are known to
complicate pregnancy and labor. Moreover, some of the Caesarean
deliveries among older women may be elective procedures, with women
opting for the procedure over conventional labor, Dr. Luke said.
Members of an independent panel weighed the merits of patient-requested
Caesarean deliveries at an NIH-sponsored conference in March 2006.
Panel members noted that there were benefits and risks involved
with each mode of delivery. Ultimately, the panelists could not
make a recommendation for or against elective Caesarean deliveries
The number of women giving birth at age 30 and older has shown
a marked increase in the last two decades. The National Center
for Health Statistics reported that, between 1980 and 2004, the
number of women in the United States giving birth at age 30 or
older has doubled and at age 35 and older has tripled. The number
of mothers giving birth at age 40 or older has nearly quadrupled.
The study authors attribute the trend of more women giving birth
at an older age, in part, to the increased use of fertility-enhancing
Citing statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, the study authors noted that more than half of all
in vitro fertilization (IVF) cycles between 1998 and 2003 were
among women 35 years and older. The authors noted that several
studies have found that women who had conceived with the help of
fertility therapies were significantly more likely to have pregnancy
complications than those who had conceived without assistance.
These included complications involving the placenta and vaginal
The study authors do not know the reasons for the increased risk
of complications in assisted pregnancies but theorize that the
older maternal age and underlying causes of infertility might account
for the increased risk.
In the current study, researchers were unable to identify which
women had conceived with the help of fertility treatments.
Dr. Luke said that birth certificates now in use will ascertain
if other methods of delivery were attempted before the Caesarean
delivery. She added that this new information might provide insight
into why the Caesarean delivery rate has increased among older
The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth;
maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population
issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit
the website at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.
The National Institutes of Health (NIH) — The Nation's
Medical Research Agency — includes 27 Institutes and
Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and
Human Services. It is the primary federal agency for conducting
and supporting basic, clinical and translational medical research,
and it investigates the causes, treatments, and cures for both
common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and
its programs, visit www.nih.gov.