The fetal occiput posterior position: state of the science and a new perspective

Birth. 2010 Mar;37(1):61-71. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-536X.2009.00380.x.


Background: The fetal occiput posterior position poses challenges in every aspect of intrapartum care-prevention, diagnosis, correction, supportive care, labor management, and delivery. Maternal and newborn outcomes are often worse and both physical and psychological traumas are more common than with fetal occiput anterior positions. The purpose of this paper is to describe nine prevailing concepts that guide labor and birth management with an occiput posterior fetus, and summarize evidence to clarify the state of the science.

Methods: A search was conducted of the databases of PubMed and the Cochrane Library. Additional valuable information was obtained from obstetric and midwifery textbooks, books and websites for the public, conversations with maternity care professionals, and years of experience as a doula.

Results: Nine prevailing concepts are as follows: (1) prenatal maneuvers rotate the occiput posterior fetus to occiput anterior; (2) it is possible to detect the occiput posterior fetus prenatally; (3) a fetus who is occiput anterior at the onset of labor will remain in that position throughout labor; (4) back pain in labor is a reliable sign of an occiput posterior fetus; (5) the occiput posterior fetus can be identified during labor by digital vaginal examination; (6) an ultrasound scan is a reliable way to detect fetal position; (7) maternal positions facilitate rotation of the occiput posterior fetus; (8) epidural analgesia facilitates rotation; (9) manual rotation of the fetal head to occiput anterior improves the rate of occiput anterior deliveries. Concepts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 8 have little scientific support whereas concepts 6, 7, and 9 are supported by promising evidence.

Conclusions: Many current obstetric practices with respect to the occiput posterior position are unsatisfactory, resulting in failure to identify and correct the problem and thus contributing to high surgical delivery rates and traumatic births. The use of ultrasound examination to identify fetal position is a method that is far superior to other methods, and has the potential to improve outcomes. Research studies are needed to examine the efficacy of midwifery methods of identification, and the effect of promising methods to rotate the fetus (simple positional methods and digital or manual rotation). Based on the findings of this review, a practical approach to care is suggested.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Cesarean Section
  • Female
  • Head
  • Humans
  • Labor Presentation*
  • Obstetric Labor Complications / diagnostic imaging
  • Obstetric Labor Complications / epidemiology
  • Obstetric Labor Complications / prevention & control*
  • Pregnancy
  • Pregnancy Outcome
  • Ultrasonography, Prenatal*
  • Version, Fetal*