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Amniotomy for shortening spontaneous labour

Smyth RMD, Markham C, Dowswell T
Published Online: 
18 June 2013

Evidence does not support routinely breaking the waters for women in normally progressing spontaneous labour or where labours have become prolonged.

The aim of breaking the waters (also known as artificial rupture of the membranes (ARM), or amniotomy), is to speed up and strengthen contractions, and thus shorten the length of labour. The membranes are punctured with a crochet-like long-handled hook during a vaginal examination, and the amniotic fluid floods out. Rupturing the membranes is thought to release chemicals and hormones that stimulate contractions. Amniotomy has been standard practice in recent years in many countries around the world. In some centres it is advocated and performed routinely in all women, and in many centres it is used for women whose labours have become prolonged. However, there is little evidence that a shorter labour has benefits for the mother or the baby. There are a number of potential important but rare risks associated with amniotomy, including problems with the umbilical cord or the baby's heart rate.

The review of studies assessed the use of amniotomy in all labours that started spontaneously. There were 15 studies identified, involving 5583 women, none of which assessed whether amniotomy increased women's pain in labour. The evidence showed no shortening of the length of first stage of labour and a possible increase in caesarean section. Routine amniotomy is not recommended as part of standard labour management and care.