Pre-labour Rupture of Membranes

04 Apr

This is an article of great interest to me due to Gabe’s PROM.  I wish I had had this evidence back then.  But then again, I didn’t have the faith in my body to just wait it out, back then, either.  Gee I’ve found lots of great articles today!  Insane! 

Pre-labour Rupture of Membranes: impatience and risk


Most women experience their waters breaking towards the end of labour. However, for a significant minority their waters break before labour begins. The standard approach to this situation is to augment labour by using prostaglandins and/or syntocinon aka pitocin to stimulate contractions. Women who choose to wait are often told their baby is at increased risk of infection and they are encouraged to have IV antibiotics during labour. In my experience most women agree to have their labour augmented rather than wait. I wonder how many of these women would choose a different path if they knew there was no increased risk of infection for their baby?

The rush to start labour and get the baby out after the waters have broken is fairly new. When I first qualified in 2001 the standard hospital advice (UK) for a woman who rang to tell us her waters had broken (and all else was well) was: “If you’re not in labour by [day of the week in 3 days time] ring us back for an appointment.” Over the following years this reduced from 72 hours to 48 hours, then 24 hours, then 18 hours, then 12 hours and now 0 hours. You might assume that this change in approach was based on some new evidence about the dangers involved in waiting for labour. You would be wrong.

This post is mostly based on a couple of Cochrane reviews because hospitals are supposed to base their policies/guidelines on research evidence. Obstetricians also have great respect for research evidence – certainly more than other forms of knowledge midwives often use (experience, intuition aka witchcraft etc.). I’ve found that a ‘good’ research review waved about with a smile works wonders when going against an institutional norm. However, please note that research reviews are only as good as the research reviewed. Research is not conducted in a vacuum and the questions that are asked, and the methods used, tell us a lot about the social and cultural context of knowledge and what is valued. For example in most trials the ‘doing nothing’ group is the experimental group and the ‘routine intervention that was previously introduced without evidence’ is the control group.

Outcomes: planned vs expectant management

For Baby

A Cochrane review comparing planned (augmented labour) vs expectant (waiting) management concluded that:“Fewer infants went to neonatal intensive care under planned management although no differences were seen in neonatal infection rates.”

Let’s take a closer look at this. More infants went to neonatal intensive care nursery if their mother waited for labour to start. Not surprising really considering that it’s policy to routinely send newborns to the nursery for observation after ‘prolonged rupture of membranes’ in most hospitals. What is significant, is that there was no increase in infection rates for these babies. Basically babies were separated from their mothers for no reason at all – to be observed just in case. The implications of this unnecessary separation for the baby, mother and breastfeeding are ignored despite the available evidence supporting skin-to-skin contact. Allowing uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact could reduce the chance of infection due to colonisation of the baby by mothers bacteria, reduced stress levels and early breastfeeding initiation. Even if there are concerns about a baby, the mother is probably the best person to ‘observe’ her baby’s well-being.

For mother

The Cochrane review did find a slight increase in the risk of uterine infection for mothers who waited for labour. The risk is small and you would need to augment labour in 50 women to avoid 1 case of infection. In addition these studies were done in hospitals which are not the best setting when attempting to avoid infection. Lets also not forget that uterine infection can be treated if symptoms occur ie. once it is a reality.

The experience: planned vs expectant management

Only one of the trials in the Cochrane review bothered to ask women what they thought of their experience (no surprises there). In this trial women who had their labour augmented were more likely to tick the box saying that there was ‘nothing they disliked in their management’. There are huge limitations when using surveys to assess experiences, and a good qualitative study is needed here. For example, how can a woman compare one experience (augmentation) against an experience they did not have (physiological labour) – you don’t know what you don’t know. Also, if a woman believes she is protecting her baby against infection by augmenting labour I’m sure she would not dislike the management. The Cochrane review states that no trials reported on maternal views of care, or postnatal depression – pity.

Antibiotics – just in case?

A Cochrane review of antibiotics for pre-labour rupture of membranes at or near term concluded that: “No clear practice recommendations can be drawn from the results of this review on this clinically important question, related to a paucity of reliable data. Further well-designed randomised controlled trials are needed to assess the effects of routine use of maternal antibiotics for women with prelabour rupture of the membranes at or near term.”

oral thrush 

So it appears that women and babies are being given high doses of antibiotics during labour without sufficient evidence to support the practice. In addition these antibiotics may have short term, and long term side effects. As a student midwife I was asked by a mother what would happen if her unborn baby was allergic to antibiotics. I had no idea and asked the Consultant… after a long and complex answer I realised he didn’t know either. I am guessing that most side-effects are more subtle than anaphylaxis. The effect I most often see is oral thrush in the baby and subsequent breastfeeding problems.

Choosing to wait

According to the Cochrane review of planned vs expectant management: “Since planned and expectant management may not be very different, women need to have appropriate information to make informed choices.” I’m not sure most women get this information and instead are told their baby is at risk. As we all know you can get a mother to do anything if she believes it is in the best interests of her child. So what happens if a woman chooses to wait for labour?

Most women (95%) will go into labour within 24 hours of their waters breaking. Some will wait much longer than this. Ashlee whose birth I recently attended has given me permission to share her experience and photos here. Ashlee’s daughter Arden taught both her family and her midwives about patience and trust. We waited 63 hours from waters breaking to welcome her into the world. After a 2 hour, 20 minute labour she was gently born through water and into her mothers arms (notice the nuchal cord). I wonder how different this birth would have been if Ashlee had chosen to follow hospital guidelines. Instead she weighed up the small risk of uterine infection (which could be treated if it occurred) with the risks of syntocinon + continuous CTG for her baby. She chose to stay at home amongst her own familiar bacteria and let her daughter decide when she was ready to be born.

Suggestions for waiting:

  • Encourage the mother to view the situation positively – we are all getting time to prepare for the birth and the arrival of baby. She can use the time to relax, sleep and be pampered.
  • The vagina self cleans downwards. Reduce the chance of infection by not putting anything into the vagina ie. no vaginal examinations. If a vaginal examination is absolutely necessary sterile gloves must be used. Some women also like to boost their immune system with nutritional supplements (eg. vitamin C, echinacea, garlic).
  • Encourage the mother to be self-aware, connect with her baby and let you know of any changes eg. feeling unwell, temperature, if the amniotic fluid changes colour or smell, any reduction in the baby’s movements etc.
  • I have observed Acupuncture and Bowen Therapy encourage contractions. However, if the cervix is not ready the contractions will fizzle out. If the cervix is ready it may be enough to kick start labour. Nipple stimulation will also stimulate oxytocin (and clitoral stimulation).
  • Most importantly trust the process. Birth will happen.
  • Once the baby is born – keep mother and baby together skin-to-skin to reduce the risk of infection (this applies to all births).


There is no increased risk of infection for the baby following pre-labour rupture of membranes if you wait for labour to start naturally compared to inducing labour straight away. There is a slight increased risk of uterine infection for the mother. Uterine infection can be diagnosed and treated if it occurs. Giving antibiotics in labour ‘just in case’ is not supported by current evidence and may cause problems for baby and mother. Women need adequate information on which to base their decisions regarding the management, or not, of this situation. Women who choose to wait for labour should be supported and encouraged to do so. Babies should not be removed from their mothers on a ‘just in case’ basis.

Here is a real story of 2 different approaches to pre-labour rupture of membranes and 2 very different outcomes.

You can read this in French here.


2 responses to “Pre-labour Rupture of Membranes

  1. Lyndi

    May 29, 2012 at 3:31 am

    A bit disheartening to read this. I wish I would have been allowed to wait. I know the risks and everyone trying not to get into a legal issue. After 30 hours of my water being broken my daughter was born via c-section. I desperately wanted a natural birth and am still processing all the procedures that I went through even though I choose a home water birth, I still ended up in the hospital due to “lack of progression”.

    • misskalypso

      May 29, 2012 at 6:41 pm

      Yes, I agree. It is rather disheartening When I found this article after the birth of my DS1, I felt really sad that my medical caregivers basically let me down by not knowing the research. After all, it is their job to practice the best medicine they can! I’m so sorry for the loss of the birth you wanted and planned. Keep reading & learning. And watch out for the language you use: ‘allowed to wait’. You could have chosen to wait, despite their bullying tactics (as insanely difficult as it would have been in that situation). But we all make the best decisions we can, with the knowledge and resources available to us at the time, so don’t you dare beat yourself up over it! Knowledge is power & your next birth (down the track perhaps!) will be powerful & healing. ((hugs))


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