Cesarean section births are necessary in cases where the life of the baby or mother is at risk. And in the early part of the decade, the rates of C-sections were soaring. This was partly due to advances in technology making the procedure safer, minimizing the scar size, and offering the convenience of a timely birth. This ultimately alarmed U.S. health regulators, however, because the procedure still puts the mother and child at unwarranted risk. The health regulators sought to curb the growth of this trend.

In the years between 1996 and 2009, the rates of cesarean section procedures ballooned by a rising 60 percent to a total of 20.7 percent of total births in the U.S. Seeing this, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists decided to update its guidelines to reduce the rates of nonmedical-indicated C-section procedures in women before 39 weeks. These guidelines offered better education to future mothers, increased care for pregnant women around their time of giving birth, and inspired changes to hospital policies.

Since these changes have been implemented, the rate of C-sections has remained steady at 31 percent of all births for the last three years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The report looked at the birthing of single children and not twins because the inherent birthing danger in birthing twins increases the need for a cesarean section procedure. The procedure is invasive, requiring doctors to cut into the lower abdomen of pregnant women and through the uterus. It also carries the risk for infection, profuse bleeding, and a longer recovery time than traditional vaginal birth. "It's invasive abdominal surgery," said Michelle Osterman, an author of the report.

The breakdown showed that cesarean sections for babies born between 37 and 38 weeks decreased by four percent, while the procedure for full term babies (39-40 weeks) increased by three percent. The demarcation for full term has recently been changed to reflect that babies born between 37 and 38 weeks are "early-term," where previously any baby born after 37 weeks was considered full term.

Benefits for the Baby

This comes as good news not only to mothers, who will have shorter recovery times with natural births, but also to babies who may face less long-term effects. Recent studies have shown that a full gestation of 39-41 months conferred significant developmental advantages to babies. Babies who were in the womb longer had an increased score on a mental development exam, and their body movement and coordination was also higher. Additionally, babies who are not carried to full term do not have complete lung development and may have issues with breathing initially, putting their lives at risk.

Another line of evidence has shown that natural vaginal birth may impart important and beneficial bacteria to the baby at birth. The ecosystem of bacteria in a woman's vagina changes in the weeks leading up to birth. Recent studies have found that the healthy commensal bacteria contained within the vagina is passed on to the child during vaginal birth and allows the baby to get a dose of healthy beneficial bacteria, which promotes intestinal health and better processing of nutrition.

The researchers also extended this correlation to the baby's weight at three years of age. Babies born by C-section were more than twice as likely to be overweight than their natural birth peers. The scientists in this study believe that the difference in intestinal bacteria makeup plays a large role in this process.

The full report on cesarean section rates in the U.S. can be found here.