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Mechanism of Labor

The ability of the fetus to successfully negotiate the pelvis during labor involves changes in position of its head during its passage in labor. The mechanisms of labor, also known as the cardinal movements, are described in relation to a vertex presentation, as is the case in 95% of all pregnancies. Although labor and delivery occurs in a continuous fashion, the cardinal movements are described as 7 discrete sequences, as discussed below.[4]

The widest diameter of the presenting part (with a well-flexed head, where the largest transverse diameter of the fetal occiput is the biparietal diameter) enters the maternal pelvis to a level below the plane of the pelvic inlet. On the pelvic examination, the presenting part is at 0 station, or at the level of the maternal ischial spines.

The downward passage of the presenting part through the pelvis. This occurs intermittently with contractions. The rate is greatest during the second stage of labor.

As the fetal vertex descents, it encounters resistance from the bony pelvis or the soft tissues of the pelvic floor, resulting in passive flexion of the fetal occiput. The chin is brought into contact with the fetal thorax, and the presenting diameter changes from occipitofrontal (11.0 cm) to suboccipitobregmatic (9.5 cm) for optimal passage through the pelvis.

Internal rotation
As the head descends, the presenting part, usually in the transverse position, is rotated about 45 to anteroposterior (AP) position under the symphysis. Internal rotation brings the AP diameter of the head in line with the AP diameter of the pelvic outlet.

With further descent and full flexion of the head, the base of the occiput comes in contact with the inferior margin of the pubic symphysis. Upward resistance from the pelvic floor and the downward forces from the uterine contractions cause the occiput to extend and rotate around the symphysis. This is followed by the delivery of the fetus' head.

Restitution and external rotation

When the fetus' head is free of resistance, it untwists about 45 left or right, returning to its original anatomic position in relation to the body.

After the fetus' head is delivered, further descent brings the anterior shoulder to the level of the pubic symphysis. The anterior shoulder is then rotated under the symphysis, followed by the posterior shoulder and the rest of the fetus.

(1) Descent. The fetus head is pushed deep into the pelvis in a sideways position, the face is to the left and the occiput is to the right.

(a) In a primigravida, this may occur two weeks before delivery. This is referred to as "lightening." Lay people might call this "dropping." (b) In a multipara, this may not occur until dilatation of the cervix. (2) Flexion. As the fetus head descends, the chin is flexed to come into contact with the infant's sternum. The occiput position allows the occipital bone in the back of the head to lead the way (smallest diameter of the head). (3) Engagement. This is when the presenting part is at the level of the ischial spines or at a zero (0) station. Before this time, it is referred as "floating." (4) Internal rotation. (a) The amount of internal rotation depends on the position of the fetus and the way the head rotates to accommodate itself to the changing diameters of the pelvis. (b) If the fetus starts to descend in LOA or LOT, rotation is only a short distance-45 to 90 degrees. (c) If the head is in a posterior position, it may mean a turn of 180 degrees. (d) Occasionally, the fetus may not turn to the anterior position and is born O.P. (occiput posterior). (5) Extension. As the previously flexed head slips out from under the pubic bone, the fetus is forced to extend his head so that the head is born pushing upward out of the vaginal canal. The natural curve of the lower pelvis and the baby's head being pushed outward forces distention of the perineum and vagina. As it moves through the vaginal canal, the chin lifts up (extends) and the head is delivered. During this maneuver, the fetal spine is no longer flexed, but extends to accommodate the body to the contour of the birth canal. (6) External rotation restitution. (a) Once the fetus head is out, it will turn to line up with its back, revealing its position just before internal rotation of the head. This is called restitution. (b) This aids in internal rotation of the shoulders to an anteroposterior diameter of the pelvic outlet or shoulder rotation. (7) Expulsion. (a) The top of the anterior shoulder is seen next just under the pubis. (b) Gentle downward pressure by the physician delivers the anterior shoulder.

(c) The head is gently raised to deliver the posterior shoulder. (d) The rest of the body follows the head, which then completes expulsion. (e) The fetus remains completely passive as it moves through the birth canal. c. Movement. The first four movements (descent, fl

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