Fundal Pressure During Labor

Child Birth Delivery Scene Fundal pressure is a simple obstetric technique that doctors, midwives, and nurses frequently utilize during the second phase of labor. The "fundal pressure" technique is performed by manually pushing or applying constant downward pressure with the hands at the top of the woman's uterus. Although fundal pressure is commonly used in delivery rooms it is a controversial method. There has never been any reliable evidence to show that the technique actually works. Moreover, that the use of fundal pressure in certain situations can actually cause complications and injury to the baby.

What is Fundal Pressure?

Fundal pressure is the formal medical term for a very basic technique that medical professionals commonly use to facilitate vaginal childbirth. Fundal pressure simply means manually applying pressure or pushing downward at the top of the mother's uterus. Fundal pressure during delivery is also referred to as gentle assisted pushing (GAP). Fundal pressure is a very common technique that is normally done during the second stage of labor.

The application of manual pressure to speed up vaginal childbirth is a technique that has been around since the 19th century. The technique was first described in medical texts in the 1870s. It has remained an accepted obstetric practice and is currently used in some fashion in approximately 80% of all vaginal deliveries.

The underlying concept of fundal pressure is simple. The doctor or another delivery room attendant applies pressure to the uppermost part of the mother's uterus during the second labor stage. The pressure is typically applied by simply pushing and holding down on the mother's abdomen with 2 hands. Sometimes an inflatable belt is used to maintain the fundal pressure. The belief is that applying gentle fundal pressure accelerates the second stage of labor by helping the mother "bear down" and move the baby into the birth canal for the final stage of delivery.

Does Fundal Pressure Actually Help?

Although fundal pressure is still a well-accepted obstetric practice, it has recently become controversial. Many OB/GYNs strongly recommend the routine use of fundal pressure, while others have condemned the practice entirely. A number of research studies have been done to evaluate whether the use of fundal pressure actually helps to accelerate the second stage of labor.

None of these studies have been able to establish any clear benefit to the use of fundal pressure. Specifically, several studies found no difference in the duration of the second labor stage for deliveries in which fundal pressure was used vs. those in which fundal pressure was not used. Currently the general consensus is that we simply don't know if fundal pressure actually helps speed up delivery or not.

What are the the Risks of Fundal Pressure?

While proof regarding the benefits of fundal pressure is inconclusive, there is a quite a bit of evidence showing that the application of fundal pressure can lead to various delivery complications. Pushing down on the mother's abdomen during delivery artificially increases the amount of uterine pressure. Under certain circumstances this increase in pressure can cause significant problems.

Research has conclusively linked the use of uterine fundal pressure to at least 3 major delivery complications:

  • Perineal Lacerations: a perineal laceration occurs when the skin and soft tissue between the mother's vagina and anus is torn apart during childbirth. Perineal lacerations come in several degrees of severity. Most are superficial tears that heal on their own with no treatment. The more severe perineal lacerations can be very serious and cause long term consequences for the mother. The use of fundal pressure significantly increases the risk of the more severe (3rd and 4th degree) perineal lacerations.
  • Uterine Rupture: uterine rupture is when the wall of the uterus actually tears apart at some point during labor and delivery. This is one of the most dangerous complications that can occur during childbirth. Once the uterine wall tears the baby is under very immediate threat of oxygen deprivation and an emergency C-section must be performed immediately. The application of fundal pressure has been linked to an increased rate of uterine rupture.
  • Uterine Inversion: acute uterine inversion is a very rare delivery complication that occurs when the mother's uterus gets turned inside out (partially or completely) after the baby comes out. Uterine inversion can cause maternal death from internal bleeding and shock. Some researchers have linked fundal pressure to an increased risk of this rare complication.
Fundal Pressure and Shoulder Dystocia

Shoulder dystocia is a potentially serious delivery complication which occurs when the baby's shoulder (or shoulders) becomes stuck behind the mother's pelvic bone, preventing the baby from entering the birth canal. When shoulder dystocia occurs the baby is left dangerously stuck with its head in the birth canal. Doctors must quickly dislodge the shoulder and deliver the baby to avoid oxygen deprivation.

The application of fundal pressure is sometimes used in combination with other obstetric techniques in response to shoulder dystocia. This can be problematic, however, because the additional downward force from fundal pressure can push the baby's shoulder even harder against the mother's pelvis. This type of force can fracture the baby's clavicle bone or damage the network of nerves at the base of the neck called the brachial plexus. Injuries to the brachial plexus cause a permanent birth injury called Erb's palsy.