Clinical evaluation of labor: an evidence- and experience-based approach

J Perinat Med. 2020 Oct 19;49(3):241-253. doi: 10.1515/jpm-2020-0256. Print 2021 Mar 26.


During labor mother and fetus are evaluated at intervals to assess their well-being and determine how the labor is progressing. These assessments require skillful physical diagnosis and the ability to translate the acquired information into meaningful prognostic decision-making. We describe a coordinated approach to the assessment of labor. Graphing of serial measurements of cervical dilatation and fetal station creates "labor curves," which provide diagnostic and prognostic information. Based on these curves we recognize nine discrete labor abnormalities. Many may be related to insufficient or disordered contractile mechanisms. Several factors are strongly associated with development of labor disorders, including cephalopelvic disproportion, excess analgesia, fetal malpositions, intrauterine infection, and maternal obesity. Clinical cephalopelvimetry involves assessing pelvic traits and predicting their effects on labor. These observations must be integrated with information derived from the labor curves. Exogenous oxytocin is widely used. It has a high therapeutic index, but is easily misused. Oxytocin treatment should be restricted to situations in which its potential benefits clearly outweigh its risks. This requires there be a documented labor dysfunction or a legitimate medical reason to shorten the labor. Normal labor and delivery pose little risk to a healthy fetus; but dysfunctional labors, especially if stimulated excessively by oxytocin or terminated by complex operative vaginal delivery, have the potential for considerable harm. Conscientiously implemented, the approach to the evaluation of labor outlined in this review will result in a reasonable cesarean rate and minimize risks that may accrue from the labor and delivery process.

Keywords: birth; cephalopelvimetry; labor; labor curves; pelvimetry; second stage labor.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Delivery, Obstetric / methods*
  • Female
  • Fetal Monitoring / methods*
  • Humans
  • Labor, Obstetric / physiology*
  • Obstetric Labor Complications / prevention & control*
  • Pelvimetry / methods
  • Pregnancy
  • Risk Adjustment
  • Uterine Monitoring / methods*