Induction of labor appears not to be associated with increased risk of autism spectrum disorders in children in a large new study led by Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The new finding suggests that concern about autism risk should not factor into clinical decisions about whether or not to induce labor.

The study will be published online July 25, 2016 in JAMA Pediatrics.

Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) —a group of permanent developmental disabilities characterized by impairments in social interaction, language development, and repetitive behaviors—are estimated to affect roughly 1 in 90 children in the U.S.

Labor induction is recommended when labor doesn’t progress on its own and there’s concern that waiting for it to start could endanger the health of the baby or mother. Methods to induce labor include rupturing of membranes, mechanical or pharmacological ripening of the cervix, and administration of oxytocin, either used alone or in combination.

In 2013, a large study in North Carolina found an association between induction of labor and risk of autism in offspring. The report gained widespread media attention, and although both the paper’s authors and other experts cautioned that the association may not be causal, obstetricians began reporting that some of their patients were expressing concern about or opposition to being induced. The Harvard Chan School researchers decided to further explore whether induction of labor truly causes increased risk of neuropsychiatric disorders, in order to help in weighing the risks and benefits of this common therapeutic intervention.

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