Historically, women have generally been attended and supported by other women during labour. However, in hospitals worldwide, continuous support during labour has often become the exception rather than the routine.
The primary objective was to assess the effects, on women and their babies, of continuous, one-to-one intrapartum support compared with usual care, in any setting. Secondary objectives were to determine whether the effects of continuous support are influenced by:1. Routine practices and policies in the birth environment that may affect a woman's autonomy, freedom of movement and ability to cope with labour, including: policies about the presence of support people of the woman's own choosing; epidural analgesia; and continuous electronic fetal monitoring.2. The provider's relationship to the woman and to the facility: staff member of the facility (and thus has additional loyalties or responsibilities); not a staff member and not part of the woman's social network (present solely for the purpose of providing continuous support, e.g. a doula); or a person chosen by the woman from family members and friends;3. Timing of onset (early or later in labour);4. Model of support (support provided only around the time of childbirth or extended to include support during the antenatal and postpartum periods);5. Country income level (high-income compared to low- and middle-income).
We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (31 October 2016), ClinicalTrials.gov, the WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP) (1 June 2017) and reference lists of retrieved studies.
All published and unpublished randomised controlled trials, cluster-randomised trials comparing continuous support during labour with usual care. Quasi-randomised and cross-over designs were not eligible for inclusion.
Two review authors independently assessed trials for inclusion and risk of bias, extracted data and checked them for accuracy. We sought additional information from the trial authors. The quality of the evidence was assessed using the GRADE approach.
We included a total of 27 trials, and 26 trials involving 15,858 women provided usable outcome data for analysis. These trials were conducted in 17 different countries: 13 trials were conducted in high-income settings; 13 trials in middle-income settings; and no studies in low-income settings. Women allocated to continuous support were more likely to have a spontaneous vaginal birth (average RR 1.08, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.04 to 1.12; 21 trials, 14,369 women; low-quality evidence) and less likely to report negative ratings of or feelings about their childbirth experience (average RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.59 to 0.79; 11 trials, 11,133 women; low-quality evidence) and to use any intrapartum analgesia (average RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.84 to 0.96; 15 trials, 12,433 women). In addition, their labours were shorter (MD -0.69 hours, 95% CI -1.04 to -0.34; 13 trials, 5429 women; low-quality evidence), they were less likely to have a caesarean birth (average RR 0.75, 95% CI 0.64 to 0.88; 24 trials, 15,347 women; low-quality evidence) or instrumental vaginal birth (RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.85 to 0.96; 19 trials, 14,118 women), regional analgesia (average RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.88 to 0.99; 9 trials, 11,444 women), or a baby with a low five-minute Apgar score (RR 0.62, 95% CI 0.46 to 0.85; 14 trials, 12,615 women). Data from two trials for postpartum depression were not combined due to differences in women, hospitals and care providers included; both trials found fewer women developed depressive symptomatology if they had been supported in birth, although this may have been a chance result in one of the studies (low-quality evidence). There was no apparent impact on other intrapartum interventions, maternal or neonatal complications, such as admission to special care nursery (average RR 0.97, 95% CI 0.76 to 1.25; 7 trials, 8897 women; low-quality evidence), and exclusive or any breastfeeding at any time point (average RR 1.05, 95% CI 0.96 to 1.16; 4 trials, 5584 women; low-quality evidence).Subgroup analyses suggested that continuous support was most effective at reducing caesarean birth, when the provider was present in a doula role, and in settings in which epidural analgesia was not routinely available. Continuous labour support in settings where women were not permitted to have companions of their choosing with them in labour, was associated with greater likelihood of spontaneous vaginal birth and lower likelihood of a caesarean birth. Subgroup analysis of trials conducted in high-income compared with trials in middle-income countries suggests that continuous labour support offers similar benefits to women and babies for most outcomes, with the exception of caesarean birth, where studies from middle-income countries showed a larger reduction in caesarean birth. No conclusions could be drawn about low-income settings, electronic fetal monitoring, the timing of onset of continuous support or model of support.Risk of bias varied in included studies: no study clearly blinded women and personnel; only one study sufficiently blinded outcome assessors. All other domains were of varying degrees of risk of bias. The quality of evidence was downgraded for lack of blinding in studies and other limitations in study designs, inconsistency, or imprecision of effect estimates.
Continuous support during labour may improve outcomes for women and infants, including increased spontaneous vaginal birth, shorter duration of labour, and decreased caesarean birth, instrumental vaginal birth, use of any analgesia, use of regional analgesia, low five-minute Apgar score and negative feelings about childbirth experiences. We found no evidence of harms of continuous labour support. Subgroup analyses should be interpreted with caution, and considered as exploratory and hypothesis-generating, but evidence suggests continuous support with certain provider characteristics, in settings where epidural analgesia was not routinely available, in settings where women were not permitted to have companions of their choosing in labour, and in middle-income country settings, may have a favourable impact on outcomes such as caesarean birth. Future research on continuous support during labour could focus on longer-term outcomes (breastfeeding, mother-infant interactions, postpartum depression, self-esteem, difficulty mothering) and include more woman-centred outcomes in low-income settings.