What is the issue?
In the past, women have been cared for and supported by other women during labour and birth, and have had someone with them throughout, which we call ‘continuous support’. However, in many countries more women are giving birth in hospital rather than at home. This has meant continuous support during labour has become the exception rather than the norm. The aim of this Cochrane Review was to understand the effect of continuous support on a woman during labour and childbirth, and on her baby. We collected and analysed all relevant studies to answer this question (search date: October 2016).
Why is this important?
Research shows that women value and benefit from the presence of a support person during labour and childbirth. This support may include emotional support (continuous presence, reassurance and praise) and information about labour progress. It may also include advice about coping techniques, comfort measures (comforting touch, massage, warm baths/showers, encouraging mobility, promoting adequate fluid intake and output) and speaking up when needed on behalf of the woman. Lack of continuous support during childbirth has led to concerns that the experience of labour and birth may have become dehumanised.
Modern obstetric care frequently means women are required to experience institutional routines. These may have adverse effects on the quality, outcomes and experience of care during labour and childbirth. Supportive care during labour may enhance physiological labour processes, as well as women’s feelings of control and confidence in their own strength and ability to give birth. This may reduce the need for obstetric intervention and also improve women’s experiences.
What evidence did we find?
We found 26 studies that provided data from 17 countries, involving more than 15,000 women in a wide range of settings and circumstances. The continuous support was provided either by hospital staff (such as nurses or midwives), or women who were not hospital employees and had no personal relationship to the labouring woman (such as doulas or women who were provided with a modest amount of guidance on providing support). In other cases, the support came from companions of the woman’s choice from her own network (such as her partner, mother, or friend).
Women who received continuous labour support may be more likely to give birth ‘spontaneously’, i.e. give birth vaginally with neither ventouse nor forceps nor caesarean. In addition, women may be less likely to use pain medications or to have a caesarean birth, and may be more likely to be satisfied and have shorter labours. Postpartum depression could be lower in women who were supported in labour, but we cannot be sure of this due to the studies being difficult to compare (they were in different settings, with different people giving support). The babies of women who received continuous support may be less likely to have low five-minute Apgar scores (the score used when babies’ health and well-being are assessed at birth and shortly afterwards). We did not find any difference in the numbers of babies admitted to special care, and there was no difference found in whether the babies were breastfed at age eight weeks. No adverse effects of support were identified. Overall, the quality of the evidence was all low due to limitations in study design and differences between studies.
What does this mean?
Continuous support in labour may improve a number of outcomes for both mother and baby, and no adverse outcomes have been identified. Continuous support from a person who is present solely to provide support, is not a member of the woman’s own network, is experienced in providing labour support, and has at least a modest amount of training (such as a doula), appears beneficial. In comparison with having no companion during labour, support from a chosen family member or friend appears to increase women’s satisfaction with their experience. Future research should explore how continuous support can be best provided in different contexts.