Tag Archives: perineum

The breech and the perineum

In an active breech birth, we aim to support and encourage the physiological process as long as it appears to be safely unfolding. When practising in this way, we have to understand why some variations occur, when they may threaten the safety of mother or baby, and how clinicians might intervene to safely assist the birth when necessary. 

Breech deliveries are not associated with an increased incidence of severe perineal damage (Jones 2000), and compare favourably to instrumental cephalic deliveries and persistent posterior positions. However, in a lithotomy (supine, legs in stirrups) breech delivery, episiotomies are commonly used to assist with manoeuvres. Manual assistance at some stage is almost always necessary when women are in this position, and an early episiotomy is considered by many to be beneficial. So much so that ‘inappropriate avoidance of episiotomy’ has been identified as a common mistake in breech simulation exercises (Maslovitz et al 2007). However, current RCOG guidelines indicate that episiotomies should not be performed as a matter of course, but according to clinical indication. So what are these indications?

In contrast, active breech births (where women assume upright positions) are associated with lower rates of perineal damage than cephalic births. In a recent study (Bogner et al 2014) comparing a small series of all fours breech births with lithotomy deliveries, serious perineal lacerations occurred only 14.6% of the time when women were in all fours, compared to 58.5% of the time with lithotomy deliveries. A majority in the latter category were due to episiotomies, rather than the mechanical process of birth.

The breech stretches a perineum differently from a head. A well-flexed, round head will displace the fanning perineum more or less evenly, spreading the tissue during the crowning process. In contrast, a bottom is softer and flatter. And other limbs provide irregular pressure.

When might intervention be helpful?

I became interested in this question due to differing information from several experienced clinicians. Mary Cronk MBE, with whom I had the great privilege to teach a few years ago, explained in her inimitable way that she was a bit more ‘scissor-happy’ with breech babies, so there must be good reason. However, other experienced clinicians feel that an intact perineum is important to maintain fetal flexion for as long as possible, and needing to cut an episiotomy should be a very rare occurrence. (See a previous discussion.)

One of Mary’s classic slides includes a birth where she cut an episiotomy because the perineum had become overstretched and was tearing in a button-hole pattern. Especially when nulliparous women give birth to frank breech babies, this overstretching may occur because the perineum does not spread and recede over the comparatively flat bottom in the same way as it does a head.

If the perineum has become abnormally distended and is causing significant delay, consider a 'perineal sweep.' If not successful, an episiotomy is indicated.

If the perineum has become abnormally distended and is causing delay, consider a ‘perineal sweep.’ If not successful, an episiotomy is indicated.

The illustration to the right depicts an abnormally distended and overstretched perineum. The baby’s bitrochanteric diameter (the distance between the outer points of the hips) has already descended past the ischial spines, and we have passed the ‘point of no return’ – the baby will be born vaginally.

The potential risks with an abnormally distended perineum are:

  • Delaying the birth at a point when the umbilicus has already descended into the pelvis and may be compressed. The fetal heart may no longer be reliably auscultated due to descent into the pelvic brim. If this is the case, assistance is warranted.
  • A button-hole tear in the mother’s perineum.

Are there alternatives to episiotomy?

When we recently met up at the RCOG and Oxford Breech Conferences this October, I asked Anke Reitter what she would do if she felt that a tight perineum was holding up a birth at a crucial point. She described to me what might be called a ‘perineal sweep.’ Similar to a cervical sweep, (with consent) the clinician inserts one finger between the breech and the tightly applied perineum, and sweeps around the perimeter, encouraging the border of the perineum to recede over the presenting part and allow the birth to proceed. She explained that this often causes progress to resume without the need to perform an episiotomy.

I found this really helpful to consider as part of my breech midwifery toolkit. As we re-develop our professional cultural knowledge about breech, it is important we continue to talk about what we do and how we do it, even those skills we feel will be rarely needed. While we strive to create the conditions for those 85% of women to give birth to their breech babies over intact perineums without assistance, we also have to be able to recognise the perineum/bottom combination which may occasionally present a problem, and how we might address this for the best possible outcome.

I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences.

Shawn

Update, October 2016: This would be a good topic for a systematic review. Bogner’s study demonstrated that breech deliveries (supine & upright) had the lowest rate of perineal trauma AND highest rate of episiotomy in the local population (eg. compared to cephalic births). I have seen Bogner’s statistics (eg. simultaneous lowest rate of perineal trauma AND highest rate of episiotomy in the population) replicated in an audit from Sydney, and now again in this study out of Pakistan. Please be in touch if you are looking for a systematic review topic and would like to collaborate.

Jason S, Khan Jadoon S, Shah R. Maternal and neonatal complications in term breech delivered vaginally. Journal of the College of Physicians and Surgeons–Pakistan : JCPSP. 2008 vol: 18 (9) pp: 555-8

Resources and a plug

Posterior arm born, anterior arm high, shoulders in A-P diameter - help is required!

Posterior arm born, anterior arm high, shoulders in A-P diameter – help is required!

In July, Gerhard Bogner of Salzburg presented data at a Breech Birth Network study day.  Although the series is small, the data indicate that when the mother is in all fours position to birth a breech baby, approximately 70% of those births will occur completely spontaneously, eg. without the need to perform assisting manoeuvres at all. Use of upright positioning also reduced the rate of maternal perineal damage from 58.5% to 14.6%, which is actually better than cephalic births!

The reduced need for manoeuvres potentially reduces iatrogenic damage to babies associated with interference at the time of birth, such as birth injuries and inhaled meconium. That’s great for that 70%, but what about the other 30%? The babies born with upright positioning in Bogner’s study had a slightly higher rate of low cord blood gases, indicating hypoxia, although no consequences for the infants or differences in 5 minute Apgar scores were observed.

If a woman is birthing her baby in an upright position, how do we assist the birth confidently and safely when delay is identified? How do upright manoeuvres differ from those performed when the woman is supine? To address a growing need for more practical training in upright breech birth, City University are offering Physiological Breech Birth Workshops in London and taster days around the country. The next one is on 2nd of December at the Whittington in Central London. Lots of hands-on training with a small group of doctors and midwives committed to extending breech skills. We also post conferences and workshops provided by others when we can.

Several people have been in touch to ask about the How and When to Help handout. I disabled the link because it is constantly being updated! Please feel free to download this one and use it in your practice area. But keep in mind understanding in this area is constantly expanding, and this is just one midwife’s current approach. I’m working on research to understand others’ approaches as well, but it will be some time until this is finished.

Look out for two articles appearing this month. In The Practising Midwife, I present a summary of current evidence related to ECV (external cephalic version), with some excellent photos provided by Dr Helen Simpson and Midwife Emma Williams of South Tees Foundation Hospital. In Essentially MIDIRS, Mariamni Plested and I talk about issues in providing innovative care for higher risk birth choices.

Finally, shameless plug: Today (30/9/14) is the last day to vote for my, um, remarkable cousin Jake in the NRS National Model Search. Read all about him here, and then click on the link at the bottom of the article to VOTE FOR JAKE!

Favourite quote from the article: “The funny thing is, some bulls are just like big dogs. They come up to you, put their butt in your face and say, ‘Scratch my butt.’ But as soon as they get that flank rope on them, it’s like, ‘Game on. I’ve got something to do now.'”

Awww. Gotta love a bit of passion, of finding your niche and loving it … We love you, Jake! (Just what every 18 year old boy always wanted, a plug on a breech birth information site. We clearly share a common love of butts.)

Update: He won! Go Jake!

Shawn

Bogner, G., Strobl, M., Schausberger, C., Fischer, T., et al. (2014) Breech delivery in the all fours position: a prospective observational comparative study with classic assistance. Journal of perinatal medicine. [Online] Available from: doi:10.1515/jpm-2014-0048