Episiotomy use in the United States has decreased dramatically in the last few decades. In the year 2000, about 30% of women still underwent an episiotomy during delivery. Currently the recommendation is that episiotomy should not exceed 5-8% of use during vaginal deliveries.
So what is an episiotomy? Essentially it is a cut made is the delivering woman’s vaginal opening while she is pushing out the baby. Historically, there were thought to be multiple benefits to this procedure. Most, if not all, have not been supported by research. In fact, woman who have an episiotomy tend to have more pain after delivery (and during the procedure!), further risk of tearing, and increased risk of pelvic floor dysfunction to name a few disadvantages to the procedure.
In 2006, yes 10 years ago, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology recommended against the routine use of episiotomies. However, what we in the obstetric world know is this varies greatly by physician practice. In fact, some research has found that private practitioners (as opposed to residents or hospital based physicians) have the highest rates of use.
There are very few acceptable reasons for an episiotomy and even those aren’t always concrete. I think most practitioners would agree that if a baby is in distress and the episiotomy will expedite the delivery, then yes an episiotomy is appropriate. However, another reason often considered acceptable, is to prevent severe maternal perineal tearing. This benefit would be difficult to prove. How does the physician know how severely the woman will tear? I haven’t heard or read a good prediction of tearing yet.
It is important to ask your practitioner what their episiotomy rate is. They should know the answer to this question. And if they claim they don’t, ask “50%? 33%? Less than 10%?” Then I think the next question is, when would you do an episiotomy? They should speak to expediting delivery when the baby is in trouble. If you hear, “easier to repair, protect the pelvic floor, or every first time mom needs one” this should raise some red flags.
Feel like you need more information about episiotomies? This is a summary of the ACOG recommendation.
Choices in Childbirth has more information about the procedure itself and how to potentially avoid the procedure.