C-sections May Hold Long-Term Health Risks for Baby

New research finds that being born by C-section could hold long-term health risks for baby, including a risk of asthma, diabetes and obesity later in life.

C-sections May Hold Long-Term Health Risks for Baby Maria Sbytova/Shutterstock

Most women who have a cesarean section, do it because they have to: for the sake of their own health and the health of their baby. In these circumstances, a C-section is often a life-saving procedure that has us thanking modern medicine with every fiber of our exhausted post-birth body. But a significant proportion of C-sections in the U.S. are happening unnecessarily, according to the World Health Organisation, and scientists worry this could be putting babies at risk.

The latest confirmation comes from a new paper published in the British Medical Journal this week, which looks at the evidence of long-term health problems for children born via C-section. The research reviewed a variety of sources and found that cesarean babies are more likely to develop chronic diseases like obesity, asthma and diabetes later on.

"Striking" evidence

Study author Jan Blustein, M.D., Ph.D., of New York University's Wagner School, tells FitPregnancy.com that although more research is needed to determine if there are other factors at play, it's fair to say that C-sections have the potential for long-term health problems in kids. One study Blustein and her colleagues examined was particularly telling because it was randomized, which means it should account for outside factors. That study "found that children in the cesarean group were in worse general health than those in the vaginal delivery group at two years old," she says. "This finding was striking. Unfortunately, the children were not followed up later in life."

Even with the lack of conclusive evidence on how or why cesareans can lead to health problems, Blustein says this new research should factor into a woman's decision about whether or not to have a C-section, especially an elective one. "Knowing about child health risks could change decisions when a cesarean is not a medical necessity," she says. "If I were still having children, and were considering asking for a cesarean, this is information that I'd want to have."

Should you try to avoid a C-section?

For pregnant women, knowing when a C-section is truly necessary is the million-dollar question. We all want to trust the opinion of our doctors about whether we should have one or not, and in some cases, C-sections are crucial. But with the cesarean rate in the U.S. at three times that which the World Health Organization says it should be (32.7% vs. the recommended 10-15%), it's clear that some C sections aren't really needed. In addition, the VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) rate is much lower than the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says is possible.

In light of the new information, clinical guidelines for doctors and midwives may change, but that hasn't happened yet. In the meantime, the best that women can do is talk to their health care professional about their concerns ahead of time. "My advice would be to choose an obstetrician who you trust to give you good information, and who you think can partner with you in a way that respects your values and wishes," Blustein says. "In the end, if there is a choice, it's a question of balancing risks and benefits."