Best part: The technology is already being used.
Fact: Only 4 percent of women actually give birth to babies on their estimated due date, according to the Perinatal Institute. Which means that a lot of women are likely feeling all sorts of uncomfortable, agitated, and just plain done with being pregnant by the time that alleged due date comes and goes.
So when push comes to shove [pun intended], one in five women turn to induction, according to the CDC, using some form of medical intervention in order to jump-start labor and get the birthing process in motion. Induction can also be necessary when complications like high blood pressure and preeclampsia arise, when a woman's water breaks but labor doesn't naturally begin, or if mom has health problems like kidney disease or diabetes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Lisa Levine, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, says that in general there are two categories of induction methods— medicinal or mechanical—and women (with the guidance of their doctors) tend to choose one over the other. "Once labor is induced it can be the start of a really long process," says Dr. Levine. "So I thought, 'Is there a way to speed it up; is there a way to get these women delivered faster?'" (P.S. Here are the top 5 exercises to help prepare your body for childbirth.)
Enter Dr. Levine's study, which was recently published in Obstetrics & Gynecology. She and her team of researchers found that simply taking two methods of induction that are currently used on a regular basis—the Foley catheter (mechanical) and misoprostol (medicinal)—and combining them can potentially reduce labor time by upwards of four hours. Traditionally, mechanical and medicinal methods are used individually, but if a woman's main objective is to give birth as fast as she can (which isn't always the case—some women want to avoid medicinal intervention), this new approach may be the way to go.
That said, "When we [thought about using the methods] together, there was the concern that it could lead to too many contractions and increase distress to the baby and increase the risk of a C-section," says Dr. Levine. "But we found there was no difference in the rate of C-sections and no risks related to mom or baby." While you can never guarantee there will be no side effects or downsides to any medical intervention, Dr. Levine says that among the 500 women in her study (the largest clinical trial looking at labor induction methods, BTW) there was "nothing that pointed a finger toward thinking that this method is not safe in any way."
Each woman was randomly assigned to one of four different treatments: misoprostol, a synthetic hormone that Dr. Levine says is often used to soften the cervix and ready it for labor; a Foley catheter, which is inserted in the cervix and inflated like a balloon to help it open up and jump-start labor; a combination of the two; and the Foley method plus a synthetic version of the contraction-inducing hormone oxytocin.
The results showed that the average time between treatment and delivery was about 13 hours for the misoprostol+Foley combination, 14.5 hours for Foley+oxytocin, and 17 to 18 hours for those who only received a single method. Which means that simply adding misoprostol to the Foley method could potentially save you more than four hours of painful labor, according to the University of Pennsylvania Health System. A shorter labor also could potentially reduce the cost of health care. Seems like a win-win.
"Labor and delivery are resource-intensive," says Dr. Levine. "There are costs associated with monitoring baby and mom, utilizing a bed in a hospital, and utilizing a nursing staff both during labor and postpartum. All of these are costs that would be directly affected by reducing labor time."
What's more: Dr. Levine says that a shorter delivery time can lower the risk for complications and shorten your hospital stay after you've given birth. For example, according to the American Pregnancy Association, a C-section may be necessary if a woman is categorized as having a prolonged labor—more than 20 hours if you're a first-timer, more than 14 if you're not. C-sections come with their own set of risks and complications and, in general, the goal is to avoid them unless they're medically necessary. (Actually, exercise has been shown to reduce the need for C-sections as well as preterm births.) And as for the shortened hospital stay? Well, it means the whole family will be able to return home and settle into a new routine that much faster.
"If a woman has a particular goal or preference for their labor and delivery process, I think that it's important to stick to that goal," says Dr. Levine. "So if yours is a shorter labor, then we now have this proven method to get you there."