Each year approximately 750,000 women in the United States are prescribed antepartum bed rest (ABR) for a portion of their pregnancy due to (but not limited to) preterm labor contractions, incompetent cervix, placental issues, multiple gestation, vaginal bleeding, hypertension/pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes, impaired fetal growth or oligoamnios. The amount of time spent on bed rest can be anywhere from a few days to several months and women are typically confined to bed with activity restricted (AR) to bathroom privileges only. While the indications for ABR vary, the unifying rationale for prescribing ABR and its perceived benefits remain the same—to prevent preterm labor and the delivery of a premature infant. Preterm birth is the leading cause of perinatal infant morbidity and mortality in developed countries. In 2005, 68.5% of all infant deaths <1 year old in the U.S. were in preterm infants. The rate of preterm birth in 2005 was 12.7% in the US (and continues to climb) compared to 5-7% in European countries. (Go here and here for additional information on these statistics.)
To date, there is no data to support the efficacy of ABR in the prevention of preterm labor and premature birth. Much of the research done on antepartum bed rest actually shows that it does more harm than good. Additionally, in-patient ABR has been shown to have worse effects on maternal and infant morbidity and mortality than ABR at home. To further investigate these findings, Judith Maloni, PhD, RN, FAAN performed an integrative literature review on the research to date. Her findings were published in the article, “Antepartum Bed Rest for Pregnancy Complications: Efficacy and Safety for Preventing Preterm Birth” (Biological Research for Nursing, October 2010,Volume 12 (2) 102-124). Although ABR has been a mainstay of clinical obstetrical practice for the past 30 years in the United States, Maloni found no evidence for its effectiveness. On the contrary, she found that there is increasing evidence that ABR leads to several negative physical and psychological effects to both mothers and babies yet these findings have not lead to a change in clinical practice. Here she presents the evidence for the practice of prescribing ABR and its associated physiologic, psychological, and experiential side effects. She also presents recommendations for additional research on ABR including the evidence that supports prescribing home care with support as a safe, efficacious and cost effective model.
Maloni chose to organize her work following the Human Response Model and its concept of physiologic, behavioral and experiential adaptation. 69 publications made up the sample for this study: 26 articles discussed the physiologic, behavioral and experiential side effects of bed rest; 17 articles compared ABR at home vs. the hospital setting; 5 meta-analyses of RCTs assessed the effectiveness of ABR; and 4 articles analyzed physician use of bed rest. Articles ranged in date from 1990 when major interest in the study of bed rest began, to the present time. The articles come from research in nursing, medicine, psychology, social, biological and aerospace sciences. Maloni searched MEDLINE, CINAHL, PubMed/Medline, and the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews.
Several conclusions emerged following the literature review, but none of them supported the idea that ABR with activity restriction (AR) is beneficial in preventing preterm labor. What quickly became apparent is that ABR/AR has some very deleterious effects on mothers and babies. Aerospace research showed that prolonged inactivity in the supine position leads to redistribution of body fluids towards the head, causing functional changes in the cardiovascular/cardiopulmonary systems, fluid and electrolytes balances, hormone balances, hematologic systems, neurosensory and vestibular systems. Additionally, the body weight distribution is shifted and the result is muscle atrophy and bone demineralization. These changes persist far into the postpartum period and may have long standing consequences. They also necessitate a longer than usual postpartum recovery due to deconditioning. Women also reported fatigue, back aches, muscle soreness, sleep changes, round ligament pain, nasal congestion, reflux and indigestion which also persisted well beyond 6 weeks postpartum.
Non-pregnant women on bed rest (astronauts) tend to lose weight due to fluid and bone loss, and occasional loss of appetite. Carbohydrate and fat metabolism are also altered during bed rest. Similar to findings with female astronauts, (pregnant) women on bed rest have been noted to either maintain or to lose weight which is dangerous for fetal growth. Three of the studies, including one which focused on multiple gestations showed that women on ABR—both in the hospital and at home—did not gain the anticipated one pound per week as recommended by the Institute of Medicine for adequate (fetal) growth.
The literature also demonstrates that behavioral changes ensue as a result of prolonged bed rest. Women reported feeling imprisoned with a sense of sensory deprivation. They worried about their lives and their families and felt powerlessness to fix anything. This stress led to altered mood and often pre- and postpartum depression. These symptoms were most pronounced in women on hospital bed rest and remained well beyond 6 weeks postpartum. Family members were stressed as well, most notably partners who assumed the role of caring for the family in addition to their partners on bed rest. It was also noted that infants born to mothers on ABR had higher incidences of allergies, motion sickness and the need to be rocked to sleep than those infants born to mothers who were never on ABR.
Alternative Models For Antepartum High Risk Care
While ABR in the hospital is currently the standard of care in the United States, it has not been shown to reduce perinatal morbidity or mortality. The literature has shown that women on hospital ABR often had the most pronounced adverse effects, both physical and psychological. Despite these findings, ABR (in-patient ABR, in particular) continues to be prescribed.
Physicians in other countries often prescribe ABR but have patients remain at home, providing maternal and fetal monitoring as well as light housekeeping, child care, nutritional counseling, education and psychological counseling. In contrast, very limited home care assistance is available in the United States. Home care in the U.S. consists mostly of uterine and fetal monitoring and infusions of Magnesium Sulfate or Terbutaline—medication thought to (but not proven to) inhibit contractions. Maloni’s study showed that women who underwent ABR at home with support (assistance with familial responsibilities and emotional support) actually fared better than women who completed their ABR in the hospital. Additionally, infants born to mothers who experienced ABR at home had fewer or shorter NICU admissions. All researchers concluded that, when truly warranted, home care of high risk pregnant women with ABR is as effective, safe and feasible as hospital care.
Because of the significant burden ABR puts on a pregnant woman, her fetus, her family and the U.S. health care system, and given the fact that there has been no recent evidence to support its efficacy, experts agree that bed rest should no longer be a standard component of treatment for the prevention of preterm birth. In fact, these same experts agree that the practice should be eliminated. While there may be a need for an emergent period of intense hospitalization following a crisis, experts concur that once a pregnant woman and her baby have been stabilized, they should be discharged home and managed with modified/restricted activity and supportive home care visits that not only monitor maternal and fetal well-being, but also support a women and her family psychosocially.
While some experts argue that neonatal mortality has gone down over the last 20 years, this has been primarily due to improved neonatal care in NICU’s and increased access to such care. The incidence of preterm birth has essentially remained unchanged . As such, researchers are increasingly skeptical that the current U.S. model of prenatal care, in terms of prescribing bed rest for threatened pre-term birth, can prevent prematurity. While some researchers advocate the addition of steroids, sedation, psychosocial support and nutrition, other researchers note that these methods have yet to prove effective in reducing the incidence of preterm birth (6,7,11). Maloni, in agreement with their research findings, believes that there really needs to be a complete overhaul of the management of prenatal care. Maloni and others advocate a re-evaluation and reconceptualization of prenatal care as part of a broader approach to optimize all of women’s health.
Posted By: Darline Turner-Lee, MHS, PA-C
Bed Rest, Do No Harm, Practice Guidelines, Pregnancy Complications, Research, Science & Sensibility, Systematic Review