Cardiotocography (CTG) records changes in the fetal heart rate and their temporal relationship to uterine contractions. The aim is to identify babies who may be short of oxygen (hypoxic) to guide additional assessments of fetal wellbeing, or determine if the baby needs to be delivered by caesarean section or instrumental vaginal birth. This is an update of a review previously published in 2013, 2006 and 2001.
To evaluate the effectiveness and safety of continuous cardiotocography when used as a method to monitor fetal wellbeing during labour.
We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group Trials Register (30 November 2016) and reference lists of retrieved studies.
Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials involving a comparison of continuous cardiotocography (with and without fetal blood sampling) with no fetal monitoring, intermittent auscultation intermittent cardiotocography.
Two review authors independently assessed study eligibility, quality and extracted data from included studies. Data were checked for accuracy.
We included 13 trials involving over 37,000 women. No new studies were included in this update.One trial (4044 women) compared continuous CTG with intermittent CTG, all other trials compared continuous CTG with intermittent auscultation. No data were found comparing no fetal monitoring with continuous CTG. Overall, methodological quality was mixed. All included studies were at high risk of performance bias, unclear or high risk of detection bias, and unclear risk of reporting bias. Only two trials were assessed at high methodological quality.Compared with intermittent auscultation, continuous cardiotocography showed no significant improvement in overall perinatal death rate (risk ratio (RR) 0.86, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.59 to 1.23, N = 33,513, 11 trials, low quality evidence), but was associated with halving neonatal seizure rates (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.31 to 0.80, N = 32,386, 9 trials, moderate quality evidence). There was no difference in cerebral palsy rates (RR 1.75, 95% CI 0.84 to 3.63, N = 13,252, 2 trials, low quality evidence). There was an increase in caesarean sections associated with continuous CTG (RR 1.63, 95% CI 1.29 to 2.07, N = 18,861, 11 trials, low quality evidence). Women were also more likely to have instrumental vaginal births (RR 1.15, 95% CI 1.01 to 1.33, N = 18,615, 10 trials, low quality evidence). There was no difference in the incidence of cord blood acidosis (RR 0.92, 95% CI 0.27 to 3.11, N = 2494, 2 trials, very low quality evidence) or use of any pharmacological analgesia (RR 0.98, 95% CI 0.88 to 1.09, N = 1677, 3 trials, low quality evidence).Compared with intermittent CTG, continuous CTG made no difference to caesarean section rates (RR 1.29, 95% CI 0.84 to 1.97, N = 4044, 1 trial) or instrumental births (RR 1.16, 95% CI 0.92 to 1.46, N = 4044, 1 trial). Less cord blood acidosis was observed in women who had intermittent CTG, however, this result could have been due to chance (RR 1.43, 95% CI 0.95 to 2.14, N = 4044, 1 trial).Data for low risk, high risk, preterm pregnancy and high-quality trials subgroups were consistent with overall results. Access to fetal blood sampling did not appear to influence differences in neonatal seizures or other outcomes.Evidence was assessed using GRADE. Most outcomes were graded as low quality evidence (rates of perinatal death, cerebral palsy, caesarean section, instrumental vaginal births, and any pharmacological analgesia), and downgraded for limitations in design, inconsistency and imprecision of results. The remaining outcomes were downgraded to moderate quality (neonatal seizures) and very low quality (cord blood acidosis) due to similar concerns over limitations in design, inconsistency and imprecision.
CTG during labour is associated with reduced rates of neonatal seizures, but no clear differences in cerebral palsy, infant mortality or other standard measures of neonatal wellbeing. However, continuous CTG was associated with an increase in caesarean sections and instrumental vaginal births. The challenge is how best to convey these results to women to enable them to make an informed decision without compromising the normality of labour.The question remains as to whether future randomised trials should measure efficacy (the intrinsic value of continuous CTG in trying to prevent adverse neonatal outcomes under optimal clinical conditions) or effectiveness (the effect of this technique in routine clinical practice).Along with the need for further investigations into long-term effects of operative births for women and babies, much remains to be learned about the causation and possible links between antenatal or intrapartum events, neonatal seizures and long-term neurodevelopmental outcomes, whilst considering changes in clinical practice over the intervening years (one-to-one-support during labour, caesarean section rates). The large number of babies randomised to the trials in this review have now reached adulthood and could potentially provide a unique opportunity to clarify if a reduction in neonatal seizures is something inconsequential that should not greatly influence women's and clinicians' choices, or if seizure reduction leads to long-term benefits for babies. Defining meaningful neurological and behavioural outcomes that could be measured in large cohorts of young adults poses huge challenges. However, it is important to collect data from these women and babies while medical records still exist, where possible describe women's mobility and positions during labour and birth, and clarify if these might impact on outcomes. Research should also address the possible contribution of the supine position to adverse outcomes for babies, and assess whether the use of mobility and positions can further reduce the low incidence of neonatal seizures and improve psychological outcomes for women.