Uterine contraction frequency in the last hour of labor: how many contractions are too many?

J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med. 2022 Dec;35(25):8698-8705. doi: 10.1080/14767058.2021.1998893. Epub 2021 Nov 3.


Objective: Increased frequency of uterine contractions is a component in the cluster of causal conditions that can lead to fetal hypoxia and acidosis and increase the risk for neonatal neurologic injury. For most international obstetrical societies, 5 contractions per 10 min averaged over 30 min is considered as the upper limit of normal uterine activity. We hypothesize that it might be safer to adopt an upper limit of 4 contractions per 10 min.

Methods: We reviewed our 1970's research database containing 475 patients with closely monitored and well-documented labor and neonatal assessments that included cord blood (CB) pH, base excess (BE), and continuous recording of neonatal heart rate (NHR). Using data segregated by the proportion of the last hour before delivery when uterine contraction frequency (UCF) exceeded 4 and 5 contractions per 10 min respectively, we evaluated outcomes (CB BE, pH, Apgar scores at 1 min, the status of NHR at 16 min after birth, and the proportion of births that did not the result from normal spontaneous vaginal deliveries (NSVDs). ANOVA established relationships between UCF cutoffs and these outcomes. Our sample size is sufficiently large to provide the ability of UCF, per se, to accurately detect an alpha region of .05 88% of the time with an effect size of .15.

Results: During the last hour prior to delivery, a UCF cutoff at 4 contractions per 10 min performed better than a UCF cutoff at 5 contractions per 10 min to enable the earlier identification of risks for abnormal outcomes. The longer UCF was increased, the worse were the outcomes that were measured, and the region >4 but ≤5 contractions identifies the beginnings of worsening conditions in a variety of measures of poor outcomes.

Conclusion: Lowering the recommended threshold for UCF from 5 to 4 contractions per 10-minute period as averaged over 30 min facilitates earlier detection of potentially compromised fetuses and is also an important contributor to a multicomponent contextualized approach to risk assessment.

Keywords: Uterine contraction frequency; base excess; electronic fetal monitoring; fetal reserve index; fetal scalp sampling; pH.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Acidosis*
  • Delivery, Obstetric
  • Female
  • Fetal Hypoxia
  • Humans
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Labor, Obstetric*
  • Pregnancy
  • Uterine Contraction / physiology