Continuous support for women during childbirth

Continuous support in labour increased the chance of a spontaneous vaginal birth, had no harm, and women were more satisfied.

Historically women have been attended and supported by other women during labour and birth. However in many countries, as more women are giving birth in hospital rather than at home, continuous support during labour has become the exception rather than the norm. This may contribute to the dehumanisation of women's childbirth experiences. Modern obstetric care frequently subjects women to institutional routines, which may have adverse effects on the progress of labour. Supportive care during labour may involve emotional support, comfort measures, information and advocacy. These may enhance physiologic labour processes as well as women's feelings of control and competence, and thus reduce the need for obstetric intervention. The review of studies included 23 trials (22 providing data), from 16 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), 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), or by companions of the woman's choice from her social network (such as her husband, partner, mother, or friend). Women who received continuous labour support were more likely to give birth 'spontaneously', i.e. give birth with neither caesarean nor vacuum nor forceps. In addition, women were less likely to use pain medications, were more likely to be satisfied, and had slightly shorter labours. Their babies were less likely to have low five-minute Apgar scores. No adverse effects were identified. We conclude that all women should have continuous support during labour. Continuous support from a person who is present solely to provide support, is not a member of the woman's social network, is experienced in providing labour support, and has at least a modest amount of training, appears to be most 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 childbearing experience.

Authors' conclusions: 

Continuous support during labour has clinically meaningful benefits for women and infants and no known harm. All women should have support throughout labour and birth.

Read the full abstract...

Historically, women have been attended and supported by other women during labour. However, in hospitals worldwide, continuous support during labour has become the exception rather than the routine.


Primary: to assess the effects of continuous, one-to-one intrapartum support compared with usual care. Secondary: to determine whether the effects of continuous support are influenced by: (1) routine practices and policies; (2) the provider's relationship to the hospital and to the woman; and (3) timing of onset.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (31 May 2013).

Selection criteria: 

All published and unpublished randomised controlled trials comparing continuous support during labour with usual care.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used standard methods of The Cochrane Collaboration Pregnancy and Childbirth Group. Two review authors independently evaluated methodological quality and extracted the data. We sought additional information from the trial authors. We used random-effects analyses for comparisons in which high heterogeneity was present, and we reported results using the average risk ratio (RR) for categorical data and mean difference (MD) for continuous data.

Main results: 

Twenty-two trials involving 15,288 women met inclusion criteria and provided usable outcome data. Results are of random-effects analyses, unless otherwise noted. Women allocated to continuous support were more likely to have a spontaneous vaginal birth (RR 1.08, 95% confidence interval (CI) 1.04 to 1.12) and less likely to have intrapartum analgesia (RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.84 to 0.96) or to report dissatisfaction (RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.59 to 0.79). In addition, their labours were shorter (MD -0.58 hours, 95% CI -0.85 to -0.31), they were less likely to have a caesarean (RR 0.78, 95% CI 0.67 to 0.91) or instrumental vaginal birth (fixed-effect, RR 0.90, 95% CI 0.85 to 0.96), regional analgesia (RR 0.93, 95% CI 0.88 to 0.99), or a baby with a low five-minute Apgar score (fixed-effect, RR 0.69, 95% CI 0.50 to 0.95). There was no apparent impact on other intrapartum interventions, maternal or neonatal complications, or breastfeeding. Subgroup analyses suggested that continuous support was most effective when the provider was neither part of the hospital staff nor the woman's social network, and in settings in which epidural analgesia was not routinely available. No conclusions could be drawn about the timing of onset of continuous support.