Potential Childbirth Complications — What to Watch Out For
What can go wrong during labor? What are some birth complications to be aware of? Learn about 17 of the most common and dangerous complications of pregnancy and childbirth here.
There’s no doubt about it: Childbirth can be a scary experience. Even when things seem to be perfectly lined up and the doctors tell you you’re as healthy as you can be during this time, there are always certain risks that come with labor and delivery.
So, while it’s always good to anticipate a stress-free, healthy delivery, it’s also important that you fully understand the childbirth complications that could come during this life-changing experience. Only by recognizing the signs of labor complications and knowing what can happen can you really be 100 percent prepared for your baby’s delivery.
Remember: Only your doctor can provide the best medical advice for your situation, including information on which complications during pregnancy and childbirth you may be more likely to experience. The information in this article is not intended to be and should not be taken as medical advice — simply as a starting point for things to talk with your obstetrician about at your next prenatal visit.
So, in the meantime, learn a little bit more about the risk involved in child delivery in the United States today.
What Percentage of Births Have Complications?
Many expectant mothers who are worried about delivery complications want to know how common these problems during birth are. Unfortunately, birth complications statistics are few and far between. Because there are so many different causes of pregnancy and delivery complications, and there is not a foolproof way for doctors to report conditions (that is, if they classify them as serious complications in the first place), compiling birth complications statistics is very difficult.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have tracked three main categories of complications during labor and delivery since 1993: hypertensive disorders (including gestational diabetes and preeclampsia), postpartum hemorrhage, and deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism. Here are the most recent birth complication statistics from 2014:
- Hypertensive Disorders: 912.4 per 10,000 delivery hospitalizations
- Postpartum Hemorrhage: 39.7 requiring blood transfusions and 21.2 requiring obstetric procedures per 10,000
- Deep Vein Thrombosis and Pulmonary Embolism: 4.3 per 10,000 and 2.2 per 10,000 respectively
If you’ve been paying attention to recent news, however, you’ve probably seen a lot of reports about the rate of complications during labor in the United States — specifically, the rate of maternal mortality. Among those women who give birth in a hospital, more than 50,000 are severely injured and about 700 die per year. Unfortunately, reports show that half of these deaths could be prevented and half the injuries reduced or eliminated with better care. This is why it’s so important that you speak in depth with your healthcare provider and research your hospital’s policies for maternal care. A certain amount of the risk involved in child delivery cannot be completely eliminated, but you can take steps to reduce certain dangers of childbirth by being your own advocate.
17 Complications of Childbirth to Prepare For
So, what are the common complications during pregnancy and childbirth?
As mentioned above, you will always want to talk with your medical provider for the best information about what can go wrong during labor and how they will work to reduce those risks and potential issues. While every doctor will have a different definition of what they consider serious risks, there are some common complications from childbirth that you should be aware of.
Labor Complications for an Expectant Mother
If you are pregnant, it’s completely normal to worry about the risks of giving birth, especially if this is your first pregnancy or you weren’t anticipating being pregnant at this time in your life. Your doctor can provide a full list of the birth difficulties you might experience, but here are some of the biggest labor complications that can directly affect your body:
Preeclampsia is a condition that usually develops after the 20th week of pregnancy. It is characterized by high blood pressure and problems with the kidneys and other organs. If left untreated, it can lead to serious and even fatal complications (such as fetal growth restriction, preterm birth, placental abruption and more). In most pregnancies, the best course of action is to induce early delivery but, if your baby needs more time to mature, your doctor will monitor you closely and prescribe medication until you are ready to deliver. Preeclampsia may require delivery by cesarean-section.
- Failure to Progress (Prolonged Labor)
If a first-time mother labors for more than 20 hours, or a woman who has previously given birth labors for longer than 14 hours, she is experiencing prolonged labor. Prolonged labor can lead to severe complications for both mother and baby, including infections, abnormal heart rhythms in the baby, or other forms of medical distress. This condition may require an emergency C-section.
- Rapid Labor
A labor that occurs too quickly can also cause childbirth complications. Your body needs time to prepare for your baby’s delivery, and laboring too quickly can increase the risk of tearing and laceration to the cervix and vagina, hemorrhage and postpartum shock. It can also prevent you from getting to a proper healthcare facility for your delivery.
- Cephalopelvic Disproportion
One of the other common complications of pregnancy and childbirth that leads to an emergency C-section is cephalopelvic disproportion — when a baby’s head or body is too large to fit through a mother’s pelvis. CPD is rare, but it can increase the chance of a lengthy and painful childbirth and the tearing of the birth canal.
- Placenta Previa (or Other Placental Disorders)
During placenta previa, the placenta covers the opening of the cervix, and a C-section delivery is often required. The main symptom is heavy bleeding without pain during the third trimester. Placenta previa can lead to other placenta-related complications in childbirth, such as placenta accreta, in which the placenta becomes inseparable from the uterine walls.
One of the more serious complications from childbirth is hemorrhage, which can occur for many reasons. Bleeding during delivery can occur after the placenta is expelled, because of placenta previa, because of a prolonged labor or can even occur up to 12 weeks after labor (secondary bleeding). Hemorrhage usually requires immediate medical action to prevent serious complications.
- Emergency C-section
Several labor complications can lead to emergency C-section, but this medical procedure itself can also be considered a kind of complication. If a woman is having difficulty giving birth naturally, or experiences any other delivery complications, a C-section may be required. Like any medical procedure, it comes with certain risks and potential issues.
- Blood Clots
Blood clots in the legs and lungs are a leading cause of illness associated with pregnancy and birth. Conditions such as pulmonary embolism and deep vein thrombosis can be life-threatening during pregnancy.
Sepsis is a blood infection that can develop before or after a baby is delivered. Septicemia occurs when an infection (which pregnant and postpartum women are especially prone to) spreads into the bloodstream. It can be life-threatening.
- Amniotic Fluid Embolism
During this pregnancy complication, amniotic fluid, fetal skin or other cells enter a mother’s bloodstream and trigger an allergic reaction. It is a serious but rare complication; it often results in the death of the mother.
- Uterine Rupture
This condition occurs when a woman who has previously had a C-section delivery experiences the opening of the surgery scar during future labor. This can put the baby at risk of oxygen deprivation and the mother at risk of excessive bleeding (hemorrhage).
Complications During Labor Affecting the Baby
Just as an expectant mother is at risk for certain complications during labor and delivery, her unborn baby can experience complications from childbirth, too. During your pregnancy, your doctor will monitor your baby’s health closely to identify any risk factors that could impact your delivery, but there is always a risk that a certain condition may develop unexpectedly right before labor or during your delivery process. Here are some of the most common conditions that may affect your baby:
- Baby in Breech Position (Abnormal Presentation)
In an ideal labor, a baby is positioned head-down before labor starts. But, this isn’t always the case. If your baby is positioned feet-down while you go into labor, they are at risk for fetal distress. Your doctor may recommend an emergency C-section if the baby cannot be moved into a different position before delivery.
- Shoulder Dystocia
If your baby’s head is delivered, but the shoulders cannot pass through the vagina, shoulder dystocia is at fault. If your baby cannot be quickly delivered, they are at risk for fetal brachial plexus injury (a nerve injury), fetal fracture (in which the humerus or collar-bone breaks), or low oxygen supply to the brain (which can lead to brain damage). This condition is responsible for half of all C-sections.
- Preterm Labor
If you go into labor before your 37th week of pregnancy, you will experience preterm labor. The earlier that you deliver, there will be a higher risk to your baby. Most medical professionals will prescribe medication to delay your labor and stop your contractions but, if you continue to labor, your baby will have to be delivered early. Premature babies grow more slowly than babies born at full-term and have a higher risk of long-term health problems. If he or she is delivered early, your baby may need to stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) to prevent further complications from childbirth too early.
- Low Birth Weight
If your baby is born at a low birth weight, he or she will have a higher risk of respiratory infections, learning disabilities, heart infections, blindness and other conditions. Your baby may need to stay in the NICU for a few months after birth to gain weight and be monitored for health issues.
- Umbilical Cord Prolapse
In a normal delivery, a baby is born before the umbilical cord and placenta. However, there are situations in which the umbilical cord can precede the baby in the birth canal or even protrude from the vagina. In these situations, the cord can get blocked and stop blood flow, putting your baby at severe risk of long-lasting and even fatal side effects.
- Umbilical Cord Compression
Many expectant mothers have heard of cases where the umbilical cord gets wrapped around the baby, causing harm. However, these cases are extremely rare. It’s more likely that the umbilical cord is stretched or compressed during labor, which can lead to a brief decrease in or loss of blood flow to the baby. In most labors, babies quickly pass through this stage with no serious side effects. However, an emergency C-section may be necessary if the baby starts showing signs of fetal distress.
- Perinatal Asphyxia
Perinatal asphyxia can be one of the more serious complications during delivery for a baby. It occurs when your child doesn’t breathe normally before, during or after birth. Usually, babies experiencing perinatal asphyxia are born silent or limp, sometimes due to a prolapsed umbilical cord or umbilical cord compression. Medical professionals may discover a decreased oxygen level to a baby while delivery is occurring, or they may see the baby struggle to breathe after birth. Either way, a medical professional will take steps to get oxygen to the baby.
As mentioned above, this is only a small list of labor and delivery complications. The best medical advice will always come from your obstetrician. If you haven’t already, start receiving regular prenatal care to ensure the healthiest delivery experience possible for yourself and your baby.