Background: Historically, women have been attended and supported by other women during labour. However, in recent decades in hospitals worldwide, continuous support during labour has become the exception rather than the routine. Concerns about the consequent dehumanization of women's birth experiences have led to calls for a return to continuous support by women for women during labour.
Objectives: Primary: to assess the effects, on mothers and their babies, 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 in the birth environment that may affect a woman's autonomy, freedom of movement and ability to cope with labour; (2) whether the caregiver is a member of the staff of the institution; and (3) whether the continuous support begins early or later in labour.
Search strategy: We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group's Trials Register (February 2007).
Selection criteria: All published and unpublished randomized controlled trials comparing continuous support during labour with usual care.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. All authors participated in evaluation of methodological quality. One author and a research assistant independently extracted the data. We sought additional information from the trial authors. We used relative risk for categorical data and weighted mean difference for continuous data to present the results.
Main results: Sixteen trials involving 13,391 women met inclusion criteria and provided usable outcome data. Primary comparison: women who had continuous intrapartum support were likely to have a slightly shorter labour, were more likely to have a spontaneous vaginal birth and less likely to have intrapartum analgesia or to report dissatisfaction with their childbirth experiences. Subgroup analyses: in general, continuous intrapartum support was associated with greater benefits when the provider was not a member of the hospital staff, when it began early in labour and in settings in which epidural analgesia was not routinely available.
Authors' conclusions: All women should have support throughout labour and birth.