Defining an abnormal first stage of labor based on maternal and neonatal outcomes

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The objective of the study was to determine the threshold for defining abnormal labor that is associated with adverse maternal and neonatal outcomes.


This study consisted of a retrospective cohort of all consecutive women admitted at a gestation of 37.0 weeks or longer from 2004 to 2008 who reached the second stage of labor. The 90th, 95th, and 97th percentiles for progress in the first stage of labor were determined specific for parity and labor onset. Women with a first stage above and below each centile were compared. Maternal outcomes were cesarean delivery in the second stage, operative delivery, prolonged second stage, postpartum hemorrhage, and maternal fever. Neonatal outcomes were a composite of the following: admission to level 2 or 3 nursery, 5 minute Apgar less than 3, shoulder dystocia, arterial cord pH of less than 7.0, and a cord base excess of –12 or less.


Of the 5030 women, 4534 experienced first stage of less than the 90th percentile, 251 between the 90th and 94th percentiles, 102 between the 95th and 96th percentiles, and 143 at the 97th percentile or greater. Longer labors were associated with an increased risk of a prolonged second stage, maternal fever, the composite neonatal outcome, shoulder dystocia, and admission to a level 2 or 3 nursery (P < .01). Depending on the cutoff used, 29–30 cesarean deliveries would need to be performed to prevent 1 shoulder dystocia.


Although women who experience labor dystocia may ultimately deliver vaginally, a longer first stage of labor is associated with adverse maternal and neonatal outcomes, in particular shoulder dystocia. This risk must be balanced against the risks of cesarean delivery for labor arrest.

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