Fetal descent in nulliparous women assessed by ultrasound: a longitudinal study

Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2021 Apr;224(4):378.e1-378.e15. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2020.10.004. Epub 2020 Oct 8.


Background: Ultrasound measurements offer objective and reproducible methods to measure the fetal head station. Before these methods can be applied to assess labor progression, the fetal head descent needs to be evaluated longitudinally in well-defined populations and compared with the existing data derived from clinical examinations.

Objective: This study aimed to use ultrasound measurements to describe the fetal head descent longitudinally as labor progressed through the active phase in nulliparous women with spontaneous onset of labor.

Study design: This was a single center, prospective cohort study at the Landspitali - The National University Hospital of Iceland, Reykjavik, Iceland, from January 2016 to April 2018. Nulliparous women with a single fetus in cephalic presentation and spontaneous labor onset at a gestational age of ≥37 weeks, were eligible. Participant inclusion occurred during admission for women with an established active phase of labor or at the start of the active phase for women admitted during the latent phase. The active phase was defined as an effaced cervix dilated to at least 4 cm in women with regular contractions. According to the clinical protocol, vaginal examinations were done at entry and subsequently throughout labor, paired each time with a transperineal ultrasound examination by a separate examiner, with both examiners being blinded to the other's results. The measurements used to assess the fetal head station were the head-perineum distance and angle of progression. Cervical dilatation was examined clinically.

Results: The study population comprised 99 women. The labor patterns for the head-perineum distance, angle of progression, and cervical dilatation differentiated the participants into 75 with spontaneous deliveries, 16 with instrumental vaginal deliveries, and 8 cesarean deliveries. At the inclusion stage, the cervix was dilated 4 cm in 26 of the women, 5 cm in 30 of the women, and ≥6 cm in 43 women. One cesarean and 1 ventouse delivery were performed for fetal distress, whereas the remaining cesarean deliveries were conducted because of a failure to progress. The total number of examinations conducted throughout the study was 345, with an average of 3.6 per woman. The ultrasound-measured fetal head station both at the first and last examination were associated with the delivery mode and remaining time of labor. In spontaneous deliveries, rapid head descent started around 4 hours before birth, the descent being more gradual in instrumental deliveries and absent in cesarean deliveries. A head-perineum distance of 30 mm and angle of progression of 125° separately predicted delivery within 3.0 hours (95% confidence interval, 2.5-3.8 hours and 2.4-3.7 hours, respectively) in women delivering vaginally. Although the head-perineum distance and angle of progression are independent methods, both methods gave similar mirror image patterns. The fetal head station at the first examination was highest for the fetuses in occiput posterior position, but the pattern of rapid descent was similar for all initial positions in spontaneously delivering women. Oxytocin augmentation was used in 41% of women; in these labors a slower descent was noted. Descent was only slightly slower in the 62% of women who received epidural analgesia. A nonlinear relationship was observed between the fetal head station and dilatation.

Conclusion: We have established the ultrasound-measured descent patterns for nulliparous women in spontaneous labor. The patterns resemble previously published patterns based on clinical vaginal examinations. The ultrasound-measured fetal head station was associated with the delivery mode and remaining time of labor.

Keywords: angle of progression; cesarean delivery; fetal head position; fetal head station; head-perineum distance; transabdominal ultrasound; transperineal ultrasound.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Video-Audio Media

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesia, Epidural
  • Analgesia, Obstetrical
  • Cesarean Section / statistics & numerical data
  • Cohort Studies
  • Delivery, Obstetric / statistics & numerical data
  • Female
  • Head / diagnostic imaging*
  • Humans
  • Labor Onset
  • Labor Presentation*
  • Labor Stage, First
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Obstetrical Forceps / statistics & numerical data
  • Oxytocics / administration & dosage
  • Oxytocin / administration & dosage
  • Parity*
  • Pregnancy
  • Time Factors
  • Ultrasonography, Prenatal*
  • Vacuum Extraction, Obstetrical / statistics & numerical data
  • Young Adult


  • Oxytocics
  • Oxytocin