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Shoulder Press and Gluteal Lift

Helping the aftercoming head to flex in upright breech births

When women are in upright positions, many breech births will proceed completely spontaneously because the birth canal follows the flow of gravity. However, the attending clinician may need to assist, either because maternal effort no longer results in steady progress, or because the baby appears compromised and assistance will result in a quicker delivery.  In this blog, I describe one manoeuvre I have learned to help in upright breech births.

The shoulder press is very effective in the following circumstances:

Deflexed head in mid-pelvis

Deflexed head in mid-pelvis

  • The aftercoming head has descended through the pelvic inlet and is either on the perineum (chin visible) or mid-pelvis (chin not visible, but easily reached in the sacral space); and the occiput is anterior
  • The mother is in an upright, forward-leaning position (e.g. hands/knees or kneeling)
  • The clinician facilitating the birth is behind the mother, and the baby is directly facing the clinician (‘tum to bum’ with mother), with head and body in alignment
When baby's head has descended into the pelvis, the pubic bones are directly behind the occiput

When baby’s head has descended into the pelvis, the pubic bones are directly behind the occiput

In this scenario, the maternal pubic arch is directly behind the baby’s occiput. When pressure is applied to the baby’s torso just below the clavicular ridge, guiding the baby’s body straight back through the mother’s legs, the pubic arch will push the occiput up and forward. This causes the aftercoming head to flex and descend, following the curve of the birth canal. The sternocleidomastoid muscles (SCM), responsible for head flexion, attach to the superior aspect of the clavicle and keep the head in alignment throughout this process.

Gluteal Lift – If descents stops with the perineum tight on the baby’s forehead (bregma), and the shoulder press alone has no further effect, an assistant can augment the manoeuvre by lifting the woman’s buttocks up and out. This lifts the perineum over the bregma as the primary attendant performs the shoulder press, moving the baby in the opposite direction. This assisted manoeuvre is especially helpful when the woman has a very full figure, or the perineum is especially tight and intact.

The feeling and effectiveness of this manoeuvre is very easy to replicate using an obstetric model, turned upside down, as in the video below.

Potential benefits

Preserving an intact perineum. An intact perineum helps to maintain beneficial fetal flexion, and routine episiotomy should be avoided for this reason. However, when the aftercoming head has descended onto the perineum, reaching the maxillary or malar bones to perform a modified Mariceau-Smellie-Veit (MSV) can be difficult. Therefore, many clinicians will cut an episiotomy early in order to avoid cutting one while the baby’s face is on the perineum. However, this is not necessary. When the chin is visible, pressure on the maxillary bones through an intact perineum is possible, in combination with upward pressure on the occiput behind the pubic arch, enabling descent to continue. However, the shoulder press is more effective.

The path of the head must follow the arc of the pelvic cavity

The path of the head must follow the arc of the pelvic cavity

Clinicians who are inexperienced or untrained in manoeuvres specific to upright birth will be tempted to pull down on the baby’s torso to deliver the head. However, this does not follow the direction of the birth canal in the same way as the shoulder press as described. Pulling rather than pushing is potentially more likely to result in severe perineal damage, and may also cause cervical nerve damage in the baby due to increased resistance from the intact perineum.

Potential risks

Fractured clavicle. When applying pressure on the clavicle, fracture is an obvious potential risk. This potential risk can be minimised by spreading the fingers to apply even pressure just below the entire ridge, or by applying pressure with fingers or thumbs at the distal aspect, near the glenohumeral joint. The pressure exerted is firm but is not significantly different to that applied when delivering an anterior shoulder in a supine cephalic delivery, and therefore no more likely to result in trauma. The shoulder press minimises the amount of force needed to achieve delivery by promoting maximum head flexion and descent in the direction of the birth canal.

Limitations

The shoulder press as described, on its own, may not resolve a dystocia caused by a deflexed or hyperextended aftercoming head. A very high chin, pointing upwards, identifies a hyperextended head; only the bottom jawbone (resembling a ‘bird beak’) is felt at the very top of the maternal sacrum. If the deflexed head has impacted at the pelvic inlet, the baby’s whole body may need to be lifted in order to flex and/or rotate the head to oblique so that it can enter the pelvis before the shoulder press is useful. Additionally, suprapubic pressure performed by an assistant may help flex the head enough to pass through the pelvic inlet.

Uses

The practice of supporting breech births with the mother in an upright position is somewhat controversial, as minimal research evidence regarding effectiveness exists. Although breech experience is generally at a very low level, most clinicians are only trained to perform lithotomy manoeuvres, and therefore the RCOG recommend lithotomy as the preferred maternal position (RCOG 2006). However, increasingly women are requesting freedom of movement and their own preference to be upright, which is potentially a more satisfying birthing position (Thies-Lagergren L et al 2013). In the absence of evidence that such an approach increases risks, introducing upright manoeuvres into mandatory training will enable this option.

In addition, through discussions with other midwives and participation in the risk management process for various Trusts, I have been informed of several cases of undiagnosed breech births where women were instructed to get onto their backs on their floor following the diagnosis of a breech in labour, due to lack of an obstetric bed in that setting. In some cases, this has been associated with severe delay in delivering the aftercoming head. In true lithotomy, head flexion is promoted by allowing the baby to hang off the end of the bed, where the maternal pubic arch again is responsible for lifting the occiput as gravity gently pulls the baby through the birth canal. This cannot occur on the floor, and the head becomes deflexed. In these cases, the midwives were only trained to perform lithotomy manoeuvres, and instructed that guidelines required them to manage breech births in this way, but the births occurred in settings with no obstetric bed. Providing mandatory training in upright breech to those working in midwifery-led settings will potentially improve outcomes in emergency cases in the short term, and increase maternal choice in the long term.

Read more

Visualizing the obstructed breech: Read Dr Rixa Freeze’s blog, on how Spinning Babies midwife Gail Tully teaches this manoeuvre.

Sources

I first learned about this mechanism from Dr Anke Reitter, FRCOG, of Frankfurt, Germany, and Jane Evans, an experienced UK Independent Midwife. At the University Hospital Frankfurt a similar technique is called ‘Frank’s Nudge’ after the lead obstetrician, Prof Frank Louwen, who introduced the upright management of breech birth to their unit. I do not refer to the manoeuvre as ‘Frank’s Nudge’ because my technique may differ slightly, and that team has yet to publish their own description of their manoeuvre. Some have described the mechanism as a reflex action, but my hands have experienced it as purely mechanical, and much more effective than Mariceau-Smellie-Veit when women are upright. I can only speak for my experience.

Shawn

Need a Reference?

Evans J. (2012) Understanding physiological breech birth. Essentially MIDIRS. 3(2):17–21.

RCOG (2006) The Management of Breech Presentation. RCOG Green-top Guidelines, No. 20b. London, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.

Thies-Lagergren L et al (2013) Who decides the position for birth? A follow-up study of a randomised controlled trial.” Women and Birth 26(4): e99-e104.

Walker, S. (2015) Turning breech upside down: upright breech birth. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest 25(3):325-330. This is the first time shoulder press is mentioned in print & contains a photo series.

“[B]irth attendants can assist the head to flex using forward pressure on the fetal chest — ‘shoulder press .’ This is applied in the sub-clavicular space, using either the fingers along the ridge, or the thumbs at the distal end of the clavicle, with the attendant’s fingers wrapped around the fetal shoulders. When the fetal body is brought straight back through the maternal legs and towards the maternal abdomen, the pubic bone will assist head flexion. However, if the fetal head is extended and caught at the inlet, the attendant may need to lift the fetal body to displace the head to a higher station, and rotate into the oblique or transverse diameter to assist engagement, before the flexion described above can be achieved — ‘elevation and rotation .’ (p 328)

Walker S, Scamell M, Parker P. Standards for maternity care professionals attending planned upright breech births: A Delphi study. Midwifery. 2016 Mar;34:7–14.

(‘Using subclavicular pressure to flex the head’ is an agreed manoeuvre professional should be taught in this consensus research involving an experienced international panel of midwives and obstetricians)

Updated 15 June 2016

Emerging evidence for upright breech birth

When I talk about ‘upright breech birth,’ I mean a birth where the woman is encouraged to be upright and active throughout her labour and able to assume the position of her choice for the birth. This is in contrast to the classic lithotomy position, in which the woman is flat on her back, usually with legs in stirrups. Upright includes all fours, kneeling, standing, sitting on a birth stool, lying on her side if her body (and not her attendant) tells her to, etc. Birth position is not a static concept. The defining feature of upright breech birth is the woman’s ability to follow her birthing instincts, to move spontaneously in order to assist the birth. However, many providers have developed preferences, having observed women birth successfully in a variety of positions.

Many advantages have been claimed for upright positioning. But if supporting this ideal is to become a reality, we need two things. Firstly, we need evidence regarding the outcomes for breech births managed in non-lithotomy positions. And we need skills in managing complications which occur when women are in non-lithotomy positions.

A step forward for the evidence occurred this week with the publication of research covering 11 years of experience at a large metropolitan teaching hospital in Australia (Foster et al 2014). This retrospective study, which used an intention-to-treat analysis, found much lower rates of complications than the Term Breech Trial, in line with those achieved by the PREMODA group, concluding that in experienced centres, vaginal breech birth is a reasonable option. For me, the take home message coming from the increasing number of studies which show the same comparatively better results is less about the inherent safety of breech birth, and more about how fundamental the local experience level and organised team approach is to achieving optimal safety levels.

Although the article does not discuss birthing position, the correspondence author, Dr Andrew Bisits, is well known for supporting upright breech births using a birthing stool, and in many of the births in this series, the women would have remained upright and active (see also Kathleen Fahy’s description of spontaneous breech birth). Some evidence indicates that use of a birthing stool may shorten duration of labour (Swedish birth seat trial), and this would certainly be an advantage for a breech birth.

Another advantage to using a birthing stool is that health professionals who are comfortable with lithotomy manoeuvres do not have to make any major adjustments to their practice, aside from a willingness to get closer to the floor. The baby emerges facing the same way, the same signs of descent are observed, very similar manoeuvres are used to resolve a delay in progress. An obstetric bed can also be adjusted to mimic a birthing stool, but women have more ability to stand up and move spontaneously when their feet are planted on the ground.

Active Birth Labour Support Stool

Active Birth Labour Support Stool

A number of birthing stools are available in the UK. Active Birth Pools supply a model which is very similar to the Birthrite seat. A birthing stool is a good investment for a Trust. As one of my former obstetric colleagues put it, “If they are good for breech, they are probably pretty good for cephalic babies as well!” Indeed.

Midwives have long supported women to birth in upright positions (for example, Maggie Banks, Jane Evans and Mary Cronk are well-known midwifery authors about breech), but as the RCOG guidelines (2006) recommend lithotomy, supporting this in hospital settings has been difficult. However, around the world, obstetric departments are increasingly discovering the benefits of enabling women to be upright, especially in all fours, kneeling and standing positions. These include teams in Frankfurt (some statistics, some background), Salzburg, Ecuador (Parto podalico), Brazil (parto natural hospitalar pélvicoParto Pélvico Existe Sim!, and of course various parts of the UK.

Facilitating this type of breech birth requires a change in perspective and an understanding of new manoeuvres to assist in the event of complications or delay. The sooner these alternatives are incorporated into national skills/drills training, the more women with breech babies will be able to follow their instincts to assist with securing the safest possible delivery for their babies.

Shawn