A population-based cohort study of the effect of Caesarean section on subsequent fertility

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Abstract

STUDY QUESTION

Is there an association between Caesarean section and subsequent fertility?

SUMMARY ANSWER

There is no or only a slight effect of Caesarean section on future fertility.

WHAT IS KNOWN ALREADY

Previous studies have reported that delivery by a Caesarean section is associated with fewer subsequent pregnancies and longer inter-pregnancy intervals. The interpretation of these findings is difficult because of significant weaknesses in study designs and analytical methods, notably the potential effect of the indication for Caesarean section on subsequent delivery.

STUDY DESIGN, SIZE, DURATION

Retrospective cohort study of 1 047 644 first births to low-risk women using routinely collected, national administrative data of deliveries in English maternity units between 1 April 2000 and 31 March 2012.

PARTICIPANTS/MATERIALS, SETTING, METHODS

Primiparous women aged 15–40 years who had a singleton, term, live birth in the English National Health Service were included. Women with high-risk pregnancies involving placenta praevia, pre-eclampsia, eclampsia (gestational or pre-existing), hypertension or diabetes were excluded from the main analysis. Kaplan–Meier analyses and Cox proportional hazard models were used to assess the effect of mode of delivery on time to subsequent birth, adjusted for age, ethnicity, socio-economic deprivation and year of index delivery.

MAIN RESULTS AND THE ROLE OF CHANCE

Among low-risk primiparous women, 224 024 (21.4%) were delivered by Caesarean section. The Kaplan–Meier estimate of the subsequent birth rate at 10 years for the cohort was 74.7%. Compared with vaginal delivery, subsequent birth rates were marginally lower after elective Caesarean for breech (adjusted hazard ratio, HR 0.96, 95% CI 0.94–0.98). Larger effects were observed after elective Caesarean for other indications (adjusted HR 0.81, 95% CI 0.78–0.83), and emergency Caesarean (adjusted HR 0.91, 95% CI 0.90–0.93). The effect was smallest for elective Caesarean for breech, and this was not statistically significant in women younger than 30 years of age (adjusted HR 0.98, 95% CI 0.96–1.01).

LIMITATIONS, REASONS FOR CAUTION

We used birth cohorts from maternity units with good quality parity information. The data are likely to be nationally representative because the characteristics of the deliveries in included and omitted units were similar. There may be residual bias in our adjusted results due to unmeasured maternal factors such as obesity and voluntary absence of conception. Any residual bias would lead to an overestimate of the effect of Caesarean section on fertility, and the true effect is therefore likely to be smaller than the effect reported in our study.

WIDER IMPLICATIONS OF THE FINDINGS

Our results provide strong evidence that there is no or only a slight effect of Caesarean section on future fertility. The clinical and social circumstances leading to the Caesarean section have a greater effect on future fertility than the Caesarean section itself. This finding is important in light of rising Caesarean section rates.

STUDY FUNDING/COMPETING INTEREST(S)

IG-U is supported by the Lindsay Stewart R&D Centre, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, UK. The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.

TRIAL REGISTRATION NUMBER

n/a.

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