Active management of the third stage of labour involves giving a prophylactic uterotonic, early cord clamping and controlled cord traction to deliver the placenta. With expectant management, signs of placental separation are awaited and the placenta is delivered spontaneously. Active management was introduced to try to reduce haemorrhage, a major contributor to maternal mortality in low-income countries.
To compare the effectiveness of active versus expectant management of the third stage of labour.
We searched the Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group Trials Register (15 February 2011).
Randomised and quasi-randomised controlled trials comparing active versus expectant management of the third stage of labour.
Data collection and analysis
Two review authors independently assessed the studies for inclusion, assessed risk of bias and carried out data extraction.
We included seven studies (involving 8247 women), all undertaken in hospitals, six in high-income countries and one in a low-income country. Four studies compared active versus expectant management, and three compared active versus a mixture of managements. We used random-effects in the analyses because of clinical heterogeneity. There was an absence of high quality evidence for our primary outcomes. The evidence suggested that for women at mixed levels of risk of bleeding, active management showed a reduction in the average risk of maternal primary haemorrhage at time of birth (more than 1000 mL) (average risk ratio (RR) 0.34, 95% confidence interval (CI) 0.14 to 0.87, three studies, 4636 women) and of maternal haemoglobin (Hb) less than 9 g/dL following birth (average RR 0.50, 95% CI 0.30 to 0.83, two studies, 1572 women). We also found no difference in the incidence in admission of infants to neonatal units (average RR 0.81, 95% CI 0.60 to 1.11, two studies, 3207 women) nor in the incidence of infant jaundice requiring treatment (0.96, 95% CI 0.55 to 1.68, two studies, 3142 women). There were no data on our other primary outcomes of very severe postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) at the time of birth (more than 2500 mL), maternal mortality, or neonatal polycythaemia needing treatment.
Active management also showed a significant decrease in primary blood loss greater than 500 mL, and mean maternal blood loss at birth, maternal blood transfusion and therapeutic uterotonics during the third stage or within the first 24 hours, or both and significant increases in maternal diastolic blood pressure, vomiting after birth, after-pains, use of analgesia from birth up to discharge from the labour ward and more women returning to hospital with bleeding (outcome not pre-specified). There was also a decrease in the baby’s birthweight with active management, reflecting the lower blood volume from interference with placental transfusion.
In the subgroup of women at low risk of excessive bleeding, there were similar findings, except there was no significant difference identified between groups for severe haemorrhage or maternal Hb less than 9 g/dL (at 24 to 72 hours).
Hypertension and interference with placental transfusion might be avoided by using modifications to the active management package, e.g. omitting ergot and deferring cord clamping, but we have no direct evidence of this here.
Although there is a lack of high quality evidence, active management of the third stage reduced the risk of haemorrhage greater than 1000 mL at the time of birth in a population of women at mixed risk of excessive bleeding, but adverse effects were identified. Women should be given information on the benefits and harms of both methods to support informed choice. Given the concerns about early cord clamping and the potential adverse effects of some uterotonics, it is critical now to look at the individual components of third-stage management. Data are also required from low-income countries.