To evaluate fetal and maternal adverse effects of intrathecal opioid analgesia during labour. A systematic search was performed, in Medline, Embase, the Cochrane Library, bibliographies, and personal contact with authors, in any language, up to February 2001. selection Full reports on randomised comparisons of any analgesia with intrathecal opioid (experimental group) with any non-intrathecal opioid regimen (control group) during labour. Dichotomous data from 24 trials (3513 women). With intrathecal opioids, there was a significant increase in the risk of fetal bradycardia: odds ratio 1.8 (95% confidence interval 1.0 to 3.1), number-needed-to-harm 28. The risk of caesarean section due to fetal heart rate abnormalities was similar (6.0% versus 7.8%). The incidence of pruritus was significantly higher with intrathecal opioids: relative risk 29.6 (95% CI 13.6 to 64.6), number-needed-to-harm 1.7. Intrathecal opioids for labour increase the risk of fetal bradycardia and maternal pruritus. The risk of subsequent caesarean section is not increased.