Is it better for the baby to be born immediately or wait for labour to start if the waters break without contractions before 37 weeks of pregnancy?

What is the issue?

If a pregnant woman's waters break without contractions before 37 weeks of pregnancy there are two options: for the baby to be born as soon as possible, or to wait for labour to start naturally. We need to carefully look at the risks and benefits of both options.

Why is this important?

Being born too early can increase the chance of problems linked to prematurity, such as breathing difficulties and longer stays in the neonatal intensive care unit. However, staying in the womb may cause infections for both mother and baby that can lead to serious health problems and even death. This review aims to find out which is the best option.

What evidence did we find?

We included 12 trials that involved 3617 women with preterm prelabour rupture of the membranes. Women were randomly selected to either early birth or expectant management (wait for birth).The women were between 25 to 37 weeks of pregnancy. The studies happened in 16 countries between 1977 and 2013. Overall, the 12 studies were assessed as being at low or unclear risk of bias and the evidence was of moderate to high quality.

We found no difference in the rate of infant infection or infant death before birth between the two groups. However, early birth increased the risk of infant death after birth, as well as breathing problems, with the newborn needing extra help to breathe. The babies of women who had a planned early birth were more likely to be admitted to neonatal intensive care, and were born earlier than babies of women who waited to give birth. Early birth also increased the rate of caesarean section, induction of labour and the risk of infection of the lining of the womb but decreased the risk of infection in the membranes. Women had a longer hospital stay if they were randomised to waiting.

What does this mean?

In women whose waters break before 37 weeks of pregnancy, waiting for labour to begin naturally is the best option for healthier outcomes, as long as there are no other reasons why the baby should be born immediately.

Authors' conclusions: 

With the addition of five randomised controlled trials (2927 women) to this updated review, we found no clinically important difference in the incidence of neonatal sepsis between women who birth immediately and those managed expectantly in PPROM prior to 37 weeks' gestation. Early planned birth was associated with an increase in the incidence of neonatal RDS, need for ventilation, neonatal mortality, endometritis, admission to neonatal intensive care, and the likelihood of birth by caesarean section, but a decreased incidence of chorioamnionitis. Women randomised to early birth also had an increased risk of labour induction, but a decreased length of hospital stay. Babies of women randomised to early birth were more likely to be born at a lower gestational age.

In women with PPROM before 37 weeks' gestation with no contraindications to continuing the pregnancy, a policy of expectant management with careful monitoring was associated with better outcomes for the mother and baby.

The direction of future research should be aimed at determining which groups of women with PPROM would not benefit from expectant management. This could be determined by analysing subgroups according to gestational age at presentation, corticosteroid usage, and abnormal vaginal microbiological colonisation. Research should also evaluate long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes of infants.

Read the full abstract...

Current management of preterm prelabour rupture of the membranes (PPROM) involves either initiating birth soon after PPROM or, alternatively, adopting a 'wait and see' approach (expectant management). It is unclear which strategy is most beneficial for mothers and their babies. This is an update of a Cochrane review published in 2010 (Buchanan 2010).


To assess the effect of planned early birth versus expectant management for women with preterm prelabour rupture of the membranes between 24 and 37 weeks' gestation for fetal, infant and maternal well being.

Search strategy: 

We searched Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth's Trials Register (30 September 2016), and reference lists of retrieved studies.

Selection criteria: 

Randomised controlled trials comparing planned early birth with expectant management for women with PPROM prior to 37 weeks' gestation. We excluded quasi-randomised trials.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently evaluated trials for inclusion into the review and for methodological quality. Two review authors independently extracted data. We checked data for accuracy. We assessed the quality of evidence using the GRADE approach.

Main results: 

We included 12 trials in the review (3617 women and 3628 babies). For primary outcomes, we identified no clear differences between early birth and expectant management in neonatal sepsis (risk ratio (RR) 0.93, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.66 to 1.30, 12 trials, 3628 babies, evidence graded moderate), or proven neonatal infection with positive blood culture (RR 1.24, 95% CI 0.70 to 2.21, seven trials, 2925 babies). However, early birth increased the incidence of respiratory distress syndrome (RDS) (RR 1.26, 95% CI 1.05 to 1.53, 12 trials, 3622 babies, evidence graded high). Early birth was also associated with an increased rate of caesarean section (RR 1.26, 95% CI 1.11 to 1.44, 12 trials, 3620 women, evidence graded high).

Assessment of secondary perinatal outcomes showed no clear differences in overall perinatal mortality (RR 1.76, 95% CI 0.89 to 3.50, 11 trials, 3319 babies), or intrauterine deaths (RR 0.45, 95% CI 0.13 to 1.57, 11 trials, 3321 babies) when comparing early birth with expectant management. However, early birth was associated with a higher rate of neonatal death (RR 2.55, 95% CI 1.17 to 5.56, 11 trials, 3316 babies) and need for ventilation (RR 1.27, 95% CI 1.02 to 1.58, seven trials, 2895 babies, evidence graded high). Babies of women randomised to early birth were delivered at a gestational age lower than those randomised to expectant management (mean difference (MD) -0.48 weeks, 95% CI -0.57 to -0.39, eight trials, 3139 babies). Admission to neonatal intensive care was more likely for those babies randomised to early birth (RR 1.16, 95% CI 1.08 to 1.24, four trials, 2691 babies, evidence graded moderate).

In assessing secondary maternal outcomes, we found that early birth was associated with a decreased rate of chorioamnionitis (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.26 to 0.95, eight trials, 1358 women, evidence graded moderate), and an increased rate of endometritis (RR 1.61, 95% CI 1.00 to 2.59, seven trials, 2980 women). As expected due to the intervention, women randomised to early birth had a higher chance of having an induction of labour (RR 2.18, 95% CI 2.01 to 2.36, four trials, 2691 women). Women randomised to early birth had a decreased total length of hospitalisation (MD -1.75 days, 95% CI -2.45 to -1.05, six trials, 2848 women, evidence graded moderate).

Subgroup analyses indicated improved maternal and infant outcomes in expectant management in pregnancies greater than 34 weeks' gestation, specifically relating to RDS and maternal infections. The use of prophylactic antibiotics were shown to be effective in reducing maternal infections in women randomised to expectant management.

Overall, we assessed all 12 studies as being at low or unclear risk of bias. Some studies lacked an adequate description of methods and the risk of bias could only be assessed as unclear. In five of the studies there were one and/or two domains where the risk of bias was judged as high. GRADE profiling showed the quality of evidence across all critical outcomes to be moderate to high.