Written and peer-reviewed by physicians—but use at your own risk. Read our disclaimer.

banner image

amboss

Trusted medical answers—in seconds.

Get access to 1,000+ medical articles with instant search
and clinical tools.

Try free for 5 days

Childbirth

Last updated: February 2, 2021

Summarytoggle arrow icon

Childbirth begins with the onset of labor, which consists of contractions that lead to progressive cervical dilation and effacement, eventually resulting in the birth of the infant and expulsion of the placenta. Complications of childbirth include arrest of or prolonged labor, premature rupture of membranes and preterm premature rupture of membranes, and nerve injuries. The clinical status of the mother and fetus should be consistently monitored during childbirth. While vaginal delivery is typically preferred, cesarean delivery may be indicated under certain circumstances.

Obstetric contractions (uterine muscle contractions)

Time Characteristics

Uterine contractions during pregnancy

Alvarez-waves
  • Physiological; occurs after 20 weeks of pregnancy
  • Low intensity, high frequency
Braxton Hicks contractions
  • Physiological; occur after 20 weeks of pregnancy
  • High intensity
  • Tetanic (sustained muscle contraction) in nature
  • Diffuse abdominal tightening
  • Last for 1 minute at the most
  • Frequency: typically ≤ 2 times / hour; may become more frequent near term (false labor)
False labor
  • 3–4 weeks before birth
  • Uncoordinated uterine contractions of moderate intensity (helps with fetal positioning)
  • Cervical changes are absent
  • Contractions do not increase in frequency, intensity, or duration
  • Easily relieved with analgesia
Prelabor
  • 3–4 days before birth
  • Irregular contractions of high intensity, which occur every 5–10 min shortly before phase 1 begins. They are responsible for correctly positioning the fetal head in the pelvis.
Labor Stage 1: cervical dilation and effacement
  • Onset of normal childbirth.
  • Coordinated, regular, rhythmic contractions of high intensity; occur approximately every 10 minutes. Shortly before stage 2, they occur every 2–3 min. These contractions are responsible for cervical dilation.
Stage 2: fetal expulsion
  • After complete cervical dilation and effacement
  • Coordinated and regular contractions of high intensity; occur approximately every 4–10 min and are responsible for fetal expulsion. Towards the end of the stage, they occur very often (every 2–3 minutes) and are of higher intensity (≥ 200 Montevideo units).
Stage 3: placental expulsion or afterbirth
  • Several minutes after childbirth
  • Irregular contractions of very low intensity, which force the placenta through the vaginal canal within 30 min after fetal expulsion
Afterpains
  • Several days after childbirth
  • Irregular contractions of varying intensity, which cause uterine involution and bleeding cessation

False labor only requires reassurance!

Stages of labor

First stage of labor

  • Definition: period from the onset of labor until complete dilation of the cervix has occurred
  • Phases
    • Latent phase of labor
      • Occurs during onset of labor (regular contraction) → ends at 6 cm of cervical dilation
      • Characterized by mild, infrequent, irregular contractions with gradual change in cervical dilation (< 1 cm per hour).
      • Duration
    • Active phase
      • Occurs after the latent phase at ≥ 6 cm of cervical dilation → ends with complete (∼ 10 cm) cervical dilation
      • Characterized by an increase in the rate of cervical dilation (1–4 cm per hour)
      • Duration
  • Clinical features
    • Cervix effaces and shortens → cervical dilation
    • Bloody show: A blood-tinged mucous plug may be discharged when the cervix shortens and dilates.
    • Spontaneous rupture of membranes: Watery discharge (caused by rupture of amniotic sac) usually occurs during the onset of labor.
  • Management

Second stage of labor

  • Definition: a stage of labor that begins once the cervix is completely dilated and ends with the birth of the infant
  • Duration
  • Clinical features
    • Completely dilated cervix
    • Regular uterine contractions increasing in frequency and intensity
    • Crowning: the appearance of the fetus's head at the vaginal opening as contractions progress
  • Management
    • Warm compresses and perineal massage
    • Assist the mother to find any comfortable and safe position.
    • Episiotomy: not routinely performed
      • Definition: usually a midline incision of the perineum to enlarge the vaginal opening during delivery
      • Indications: shoulder dystocia, forceps or vacuum-assisted delivery, or vaginal breech delivery
    • Delay cord clamping for ∼ 1 minute; alternatively milk the cord (to enhance blood transfusion to the newborn )

Third stage of labor

  • Definition: stage of labor that begins with the birth of the infant and lasts until the complete expulsion of the placenta
  • Duration: 30 minutes
  • Clinical features

Fourth stage

References:[1][2][3][4][5][6][7][8][9][10][11]

Etiology

  • Abnormalities of the 3 P's of labor
    • Pelvis: size and shape of the maternal pelvis (e.g., small bony pelvis)
    • Passenger: size and position of the infant (e.g., fetal macrosomia or abnormal orientation)
    • Power: strength and frequency of contractions (e.g., dysfunctional contractions )

First stage of labor

Prolonged latent phase

  • Diagnosis: poor acceleration phase with a cervical dilation ≤ 6 cm
  • Management
    • Rest, hydration, and adequate analgesia
    • Oxytocin may be considered in well-rested mothers if the other measures have been implemented.

Prolonged active phase

  • Etiology: abnormalities of the 3 P's of labor
  • Diagnosis: ≥ 6 cm cervical dilation without adequate dilation (< 1 cm/2h)
  • Management
    • Augmentation with oxytocin for hypotonic contractions
    • Analgesia for hypertonic contractions

Arrested active phase

  • Etiology: abnormalities of the 3 P's of labor
  • Diagnosis: ≥ 6 cm cervical dilation with ruptured membranes and no cervical change for ≥ 4 hours if adequate contractions (i.e., ≥ 200 Montevideo units) are present; or no cervical change for > 6 hours if only inadequate contractions are present
  • Management: cesarean delivery

Prolonged second stage of labor

  • Etiology: abnormalities of the 3 P's of labor
  • Diagnosis: failed delivery of the baby after 3 hours in a primipara and after 2 hours in a multipara (an extra hour may be added if an epidural was administered)
  • Management
    • Augmentation with oxytocin if uterine contractions are inadequate and progress is > 1 cm after 60–90 minutes of pushing
    • Trial of forceps or vacuum delivery if the fetal head is engaged AND maternal contractions are adequate
    • Cesarean delivery if the fetal head is not engaged

Complications of a prolonged second stage are postpartum hemorrhage and a poor neonatal outcome!

Prolonged third stage of labor

If the placenta is incomplete or if an accessory placenta is suspected, manual palpation should be performed and any remaining tissue should be removed by curettage!

References:[12][13][14]

Types

Premature rupture of membranes (PROM)

Delayed rupture of membranes

  • Definition: rupture of membranes occurs during fetal expulsion, after cervical dilation and effacement

Preterm premature rupture of membranes (PPROM)

Clinical features

  • Sudden “gush” of pale yellow or clear fluid from the vagina (may also be a constant leaking sensation)

Diagnosis

  • Sterile speculum examination
    • Positive pool: amniotic fluid exiting the cervix and pooling in the vaginal fornix
    • Detection of amniotic fluid: during sterile speculum examination
      • Litmus test or nitrazine test: test strips turn blue
      • Positive fern test: fern pattern on glass slide
      • Positive IGF1: IGF1, normally present in amniotic fluid, appears in the cervix if membranes rupture.
      • Positive placental α-microglobulin-1 (PAMG-1) in cervicovaginal fluid
  • Ultrasound: Oligohydramnios may be present.

Management

Tocolysis is contraindicated in advanced labor (cervical dilation > 4cm), chorioamnionitis, nonreassuring fetal signs, abruptio placentae, or risk of cord prolapse!

References:[2][15][16][17][18][19][20][21][22]

Electronic fetal heart rate monitoring

  • Widely used diagnostic tool during 3rd trimester and labour to detect signs of fetal distress
  • Procedure
    • Determination of the fetal heart rate (FHR), presence of acceleration or deceleration by Doppler ultrasound, recording beats per minute in the upper curve (cardiogram)
    • During birth, the FHR may be monitored internally via an electrode that is attached to the fetal head (fetal scalp electrode); rupture of the membranes must have occurred or an amniotomy performed.
    • Mechanoelectrical measurement of uterine contractions via a pressure transducer, recording in the lower curve in kPa (tocodynagraph)
  • Indications

Fetal heart rate [23][24][25]

Acceleration (CTG)

  • A normal temporal increase in the FHR from the baseline by > 15 bpm for more than 15 seconds but less than 10 minutes.

Decelerations (CTG)

  • A temporary decline in the FHR of > 15 bpm for a maximum duration of 3 minutes
  • Early deceleration
    • The beginning and end of deceleration correspond with the progression of a contraction; deceleration reaches its minimum, known as the nadir, when the contraction curve attains its peak.
    • Onset to nadir is gradual (≥ 30 sec)
    • Typically occur during active labor when the cervix is dilated ≥ 5 cm and the head is engaged within the pelvic cavity
    • Usually a normal reading (no fetal distress)
    • Causes: compression of the head during contraction triggers a vagal response
  • Late deceleration
  • Variable deceleration
  • Prolonged deceleration
  • Management with intrauterine resuscitation measures [26]
    • Repositioning of the mother, administer O2 and possibly fluids
    • If initial steps unsuccessful, consider:
    • Delay active pushing during the 2nd phase of labor
MNEMONIC for etiology of fetal HR alterations: VEAL CHOP
Variable decelerations → Cord compression/prolapse
Early decelerations → Head compression
Accelerations → OK
Late decelerations Placental insufficiency/Problem

Score
0 points 1 point 2 points 3 points
Cervical position Posterior Midline Anterior
Cervical consistency Firm Moderately firm Soft (ripe)
Cervical effacement (thinning of the cervix that occurs during labor. Usually reported in percentages) Up to 30% 31–50% 51–80% > 80%
Cervical dilation closed or 0 cm 1–2 cm 3–4 cm > 5 cm
Fetal station - 3 cm - 2 cm - 1/0 cm + 1/+ 2 cm
  • Approach
    • Membrane sweeping (shortens time to onset of labor)
    • If the cervix is still unfavorable: cervical ripening with prostaglandin E1 or E2 (e.g., misoprostol)
    • Maternal oxytocin infusion
    • Consider amniotomy (only if the cervix is partially dilated and completely effaced, and the fetal head is well applied)
    • Administer under fetal heart rate monitoring.

References:[27]

Obstetric forceps delivery

  • Definition: a forcep is a metal device that enables gentle rotation and/or traction of the fetal head during vaginal delivery
  • Types
    • Kielland: enables rotation and traction of the fetal head
    • Simpson: only enables traction of the fetal head
    • Barton: used for occiput transverse position of the fetal head
    • Piper: used to deliver the fetal head during breech delivery
  • Classification (See “Station” in “Mechanics of childbirth”)
    • Outlet: fetal head lies on the pelvic floor
    • Low: fetal head is below +2 station (not on the pelvic floor)
    • Mid: fetal head is below 0 station (not at +2 station)
    • High: fetal head is not engaged
  • Indications
  • Prerequisites
    • Skilled clinician
    • Clinically adequate pelvic dimensions (see “Mechanics of childbirth”)
    • Full cervical dilation
    • Engagement of the fetal head
    • Knowledge of exact position and attitude of the fetal head
    • Emptied maternal bladder
    • No suspicion of fetal bleeding or bone mineralization disorders
  • Advantages (compared to vacuum delivery)
    • Scalp injuries are less common
    • Cannot undergo decompression and “pop off”
  • Complications

Vacuum extractor delivery

A routine episiotomy is not recommended with assisted vaginal delivery because of the risk of poor healing and anal sphincter injury!

An advantage of assisted vaginal delivery is avoiding cesarean delivery!

References:[5][28]

Overview

  • Definition: the delivery of a newborn through a vertical or horizontal incision in the lower abdominal and uterine wall
  • Advantages
    • Safest method of birth if maternal and/or fetal health is compromised by a vaginal delivery
    • Fetal birth trauma is rare.
  • Disadvantages

Indications

Type of cesarean delivery Maternal indications Fetal indications
Primary cesarean delivery
Secondary cesarean delivery(after PROM and/or onset of phase 1)
Emergency cesarean delivery
  • Pathological CTG (particularly persistent, severe fetal bradycardia)
  • Fetal acidosis
  • Immediate threat to life of mother or fetus

Types of incisions

Definition Advantages Disadvantages

Low segment transverse

  • ↓ Risk of:
    • Adhesions
    • Hemorrhage
  • Trial of labor in subsequent pregnancy is possible, in the absence of any conditions requiring cesarean delivery
  • Better cosmetic appearance
Classical
  • May be performed in the presence of lower segment pathologies (e.g., myoma)
  • Fetus can be delivered regardless of lie
  • Easily allows extension of incision intraoperatively
  • Shorter incision-to-delivery period
  • ↑ Risk of:
    • Rupture in subsequent pregnancies
    • Hemorrhage
    • Adhesions

Procedure

Complications

There are guidelines detailing indications for cesarean delivery that are based on scientific findings. However, each hospital can individually determine how these indications are interpreted. The well-being of the mother and child should be of the utmost priority!

References:[29][30][31][32][33]

Obstetric lacerations

Severity Description
First degree Cutaneous to subcutaneous tissue tear (skin, fourchette, posterior vaginal wall) with no involvement of the perineal muscles
Second degree Structures in first degree lacerations and the perineal muscles without involvement of the anal sphincter
Third degree

Structures in second degree lacerations with involvement of the external anal sphincter → can cause fecal incontinence due to sphincter involvement

Fourth degree Structures in third degree lacerations and the anterior wall of the anal canal or rectum
  • Treatment
    • Surgical repair within 24 hours
    • Depending on the degree of severity, local, regional, or general anesthesia can be used.
    • Suturing the torn structures with subsequent digital-rectal examination to assess wound care
  • Complications
  • Prevention: application of warm compress to perineum during delivery and avoidance of risk factors

Complications of fourth degree tears include rectovaginal fistulae!

Obstetric nerve injuries

Acute nerve injury can occur during childbirth due to compression, transection, traction, or vascular injury to the nerve.

Obstetric nerve injuries
Nerve Clinical Features Risk Factors
Lumbar radiculopathy
Lateral femoral cutaneous nerve injury
Common peroneal nerve injury
  • Prolonged squatting during childbirth
  • Hyperflexion of the knees during childbirth
  • Direct compression of the nerve with direct pressure over the fibular head
  • Inadequate foot rests or stirrups used during vaginal delivery

References:[15][34][35]

Causes

Umbilical cord prolapse

There are 3 types:

Overt umbilical cord prolapse

Occult umbilical cord prolapse

Cord presentation

Nuchal cord

  • Most often caused by activity/turning of the fetus
  • Single cord around the neck: observed in ∼ 20% births
  • Multiple cord loops around the neck: < 1% births

Knotting of the umbilical cord

  • Most often caused by activity/turning of the fetus
  • Cord knot: 1–2% births

References:[5][36][37]

  1. Berghella V, Lockwood CJ, Barss VA. Cesarean Delivery: Postoperative Issues. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/cesarean-delivery-postoperative-issues.Last updated: November 21, 2016. Accessed: June 29, 2017.
  2. Saint Louis H. Cesarean Delivery. In: Isaacs C, Cesarean Delivery. New York, NY: WebMD. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/263424. Updated: August 16, 2017. Accessed: October 24, 2017.
  3. Berghella V. Cesarean Delivery: Preoperative Planning and Patient Preparation. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/cesarean-delivery-preoperative-planning-and-patient-preparation.Last updated: October 17, 2017. Accessed: October 24, 2017.
  4. Fortner KB. The Johns Hopkins Manual of Gynecology and Obstetrics. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins ; 2007
  5. Berghella V. Cesarean Delivery: Surgical Technique. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/cesarean-delivery-surgical-technique.Last updated: September 6, 2017. Accessed: October 24, 2017.
  6. Brown T. ACOG Urges More Frequent Use of Operative Vaginal Delivery. ACOG Urges More Frequent Use of Operative Vaginal Delivery. New York, NY: WebMD. http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/853132. Updated: October 23, 2015. Accessed: June 28, 2017.
  7. Dutta DC, Konar H. Textbook of Obstetrics. Jaypee Brothers Medical Publishers ; 2015
  8. Callahan TL, Caughey AB. Blueprints Obstetrics and Gynecology. Lippincott Williams&Wilki ; 2013
  9. Dudenhausen JW, Obladen M. Practical Obstetrics. Walter de Gruyter GmbH & Co KG ; 2014
  10. Nation's Ob-Gyns Take Aim at Preventing Cesareans. https://www.acog.org/About-ACOG/News-Room/News-Releases/2014/Nations-Ob-Gyns-Take-Aim-at-Preventing-Cesareans. Updated: February 19, 2014. Accessed: July 25, 2017.
  11. Satin AJ, Lockwood CJ, Barss VA. Latent Phase of Labor. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/latent-phase-of-labor.Last updated: May 11, 2017. Accessed: July 25, 2017.
  12. Aggrawal A. APC Forensic Medicine and Toxicology for Homeopathy. Avichal Publishing Company
  13. Hagood Milton S. Normal Labor and Delivery. In: Talavera F, Barnes AD, Normal Labor and Delivery. New York, NY: WebMD. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/260036. Updated: February 25, 2016. Accessed: October 12, 2017.
  14. Madara B, Avery CT, Pomarico-Denino V, Wagner L. Quick Look Nursing: Obstetric and Pediatric Pathophysiology. Jones & Bartlett Learning ; 2008
  15. Walls R, Hockberger R, Gausche-Hill M. Rosen's Emergency Medicine - Concepts and Clinical Practice. Elsevier Health Sciences ; 2013
  16. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Delayed umbilical cord clamping after birth. Obstet Gynecol. 2017; 129 : p.5-10.
  17. Rhodes Alden K, Leonard Lowdermilk D, Cashion MC, Perry SE. Maternity and Women's Health Care. Elsevier Health Sciences ; 2013
  18. Ehsanipoor RM, Satin AJ, Lockwood CJ, Barss VA. Normal and Abnormal Labor Progression. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/normal-and-abnormal-labor-progression.Last updated: June 7, 2017. Accessed: June 16, 2017.
  19. Karjane NW. Abnormal Labor. In: Talavera F, Pierce JG, Abnormal Labor. New York, NY: WebMD. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/273053. Updated: May 8, 2017. Accessed: October 15, 2017.
  20. Weeks AD. The retained placenta. Afr Health Sci. 2001; 1 (1): p.36-41.
  21. Beckmann CRB. Obstetrics and Gynecology. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins ; 2010
  22. Obstetrical Nerve Injury.
  23. Mikolajczyk RT, Zhang J, Troendle J, Chan L. Risk factors for birth canal lacerations in primiparous women. Am J Perinatol. 2013; 25 (5): p.259-264.
  24. Feinstein N, Torgersen KL, Atterbury J, Association of Women's Health, Obstetric, and Neonatal Nurses. Fetal Heart Monitoring, Principles and Practices. Kendall/Hunt ; 1993
  25. ACOG Practice Bulletin Number 106, July 2009 - Intrapartum Fetal Heart Rate Monitoring: Nomenclature, Interpretation, and General Management Principles.
  26. Ayres-de-Campos D, Spong CY, Chandraharan E. FIGO consensus guidelines on intrapartum fetal monitoring: Cardiotocography. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2015; 131 (1): p.13-24. doi: 10.1016/j.ijgo.2015.06.020 . | Open in Read by QxMD
  27. Maharaj D. Intrapartum Fetal Resuscitation: A Review. The Internet Journal of Gynecology and Obstetrics. 2007; 9 (2).
  28. Wing DA, Lockwood CJ, Barss VA. Induction of Labor with Oxytocin. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/induction-of-labor-with-oxytocin.Last updated: May 30, 2017. Accessed: June 28, 2017.
  29. Beall MH. Umbilical Cord Complications. In: Isaacs C, Umbilical Cord Complications. New York, NY: WebMD. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/262470. Updated: September 9, 2015. Accessed: October 24, 2017.
  30. Bush M, Eddleman K, Belogolovkin V. Umbilical Cord Prolapse. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/umbilical-cord-prolapse.Last updated: October 11, 2017. Accessed: October 24, 2017.
  31. Magnesium Sulfate Use in Obstetrics. https://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Magnesium-Sulfate-Use-in-Obstetrics. Updated: January 1, 2016. Accessed: July 22, 2017.
  32. Ross MG, Smith CV. Preterm Labor. Preterm Labor. New York, NY: WebMD. http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/260998-overview#a5. Updated: January 25, 2017. Accessed: July 25, 2017.
  33. Von der Pool BA. Preterm Labor: Diagnosis and Treatment. Am Fam Physician. 1998; 57 (10): p.2457-2464.
  34. Duff P, Lockwood CJ, Barss VA. Preterm Premature (Prelabor) Rupture of Membranes. In: Post TW, ed. UpToDate. Waltham, MA: UpToDate. https://www.uptodate.com/contents/preterm-premature-prelabor-rupture-of-membranes.Last updated: July 6, 2017. Accessed: July 25, 2017.
  35. Jazayeri A. Premature Rupture of Membranes. In: Smith CV, Premature Rupture of Membranes. New York, NY: WebMD. https://emedicine.medscape.com/article/261137. Updated: June 16, 2016. Accessed: October 20, 2017.
  36. Berman MR. Parenthood Lost. Greenwood Publishing Group ; 2001
  37. Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL et al. Obstetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. Elsevier Health Sciences ; 2016
  38. Kaplan. USMLE Step 2 CK Lecture Notes 2017: Obstetrics/Gynecology . Kaplan Medical ; 2016