Background: Cardiotocography (sometimes known as electronic fetal monitoring), 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), so additional assessments of fetal well-being may be used, or the baby delivered by caesarean section or instrumental vaginal birth.
Objectives: To evaluate the effectiveness of continuous cardiotocography during labour.
Search strategy: We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group Trials Register (March 2006), CENTRAL (The Cochrane Library 2005, Issue 4), MEDLINE (1966 to December 2005), EMBASE (1974 to December 2005), Dissertation Abstracts (1980 to December 2005) and the National Research Register (December 2005).
Selection criteria: Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials involving a comparison of continuous cardiotocography (with and without fetal blood sampling) with (a) no fetal monitoring, (b) intermittent auscultation (c) intermittent cardiotocography.
Data collection and analysis: Two authors independently assessed eligibility, quality and extracted data.
Main results: Twelve trials were included (over 37,000 women); only two were high quality. Compared to intermittent auscultation, continuous cardiotocography showed no significant difference in overall perinatal death rate (relative risk (RR) 0.85, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.59 to 1.23, n = 33,513, 11 trials), but was associated with a halving of neonatal seizures (RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.31 to 0.80, n = 32,386, nine trials) although no significant difference was detected in cerebral palsy (RR 1.74, 95% CI 0.97 to 3.11, n = 13,252, two trials). There was a significant increase in caesarean sections associated with continuous cardiotocography (RR 1.66, 95% CI 1.30 to 2.13, n =18,761, 10 trials). Women were also more likely to have an instrumental vaginal birth (RR 1.16, 95% CI 1.01 to 1.32, n = 18,151, nine trials). Data for subgroups of low-risk, high-risk, preterm pregnancies and high quality trials were consistent with overall results. Access to fetal blood sampling did not appear to influence the difference in neonatal seizures nor any other prespecified outcome.
Authors' conclusions: Continuous cardiotocography during labour is associated with a reduction in neonatal seizures, but no significant differences in cerebral palsy, infant mortality or other standard measures of neonatal well-being. However, continuous cardiotocography was associated with an increase in caesarean sections and instrumental vaginal births. The real challenge is how best to convey this uncertainty to women to enable them to make an informed choice without compromising the normality of labour.