Induction of labour and … everyone

This week, I ventured into a Twitter discussion around routine induction of labour for everyone at 39 weeks, initiated by obstetrician Ed Prosser-Snelling with this tweet, if you want to check out the thread:

Because this is the place I collect my controversial thoughts, and because this obviously affects the extremely narrow window of possibility for vaginal breech birth, here are my thoughts:

I actually think it’s not a bad idea to enable women who want it to have access to elective IOL from 39 weeks, regardless of their risk level (or indeed fetal presentation). The research is pretty clear that it does not increase CS rates. It appears to reduce perinatal mortality but increase neonatal admissions (Stocks et al 2012). My main, deep and passionate commitment is for women to be in control of their mode of birth and birth experiences as much as possible.

My biggest concern about committing services to making more medical options more easily accessible is that, at the moment, accessing the most evidence-based care for optimal physiological birth is not easy. Providing more medical interventions will divert resources and attention from achieving this. Not every woman has continuity of midwifery care, an intervention backed up by multiple systematic reviews, which also reduces preterm birth, total fetal loss and neonatal death (see Sands statement on Continuity of Carer). Midwifery CoC is a government-backed, national priority (see Better Births) and is requiring major reorganisation of services everywhere. Sometimes, to do things properly, concentrating on one big change at a time does help. It also helps when trying to determine which intervention is responsible for any observed changes.

Similarly, women who would like to plan a vaginal breech birth are not provided with care that the evidence base says will give them the best chance of a good outcome — an experienced attendant — effectively making this choice unavailable in most locations. And women who would like to await spontaneous labour past the locally decided date for routine IOL face judgement and resistance — not from all health care professionals, but from many.

I spend a good deal of my professional life supporting women who are actively seeking help to plan a birth that clearly involves more risk than awaiting spontaneous labour after 39 weeks. I know plenty of women are prepared to accept some element of increased neonatal risk in their holistic assessment of what is right for them, but that they are easily shamed into changing their minds. (If anyone is asking themselves why they don’t meet them, bear in mind most of them will stop talking about what they really want when they pick up on judgmental attitudes about their choices. Then they will seek support elsewhere, or just accept what’s on offer. It is emotionally exhausting for them and for those midwives and obstetricians who try to help them pick up the pieces.)

Midwives everywhere will also be worrying about the ever-narrowing window of normality during childbirth. What exactly will be a midwife’s sphere of practice in a world of routine induction at 39 weeks? Most guidelines indicate we’re not supposed to perform a cervical sweep on a nullip until after 40 weeks and a multip after 41? Who will give birth in midwife-led units? Home birth? Will it be reasonable to plan anything other than an OU birth? Midwives will also be concerned about hidden costs they can’t quite put into words (or a cost-utility analysis), things like the time spent scheduling and rescheduling IOL, time spent counselling women who are upset about ‘having to be induced,’ time spent scheduling additional appointments with consultant midwives or consultant obstetricians for women who have declined induction, time spent debriefing women who feel traumatised by an IOL process that felt out of control, etc.

Expanding the offer of IOL to 39 weeks requires careful, multi-professional collaboration because it has massive implications for women, the service, and the role of the midwife. What women need to have a satisfying induction (Coates et al 2019) is not something that can be provided for all women currently undergoing induction now — how will we provide it for more? The history of obstetrics is replete with well-meaning people implementing plausibly beneficent interventions ASAP, but also many instances in which unanticipated harms are discovered as consequences late in the day. I want world in which birthing families have more options, not less. But I would like to take things slowly, carefully so that we:

  1. Research the effects of implementing this policy thoroughly. Let’s do thorough PPI work to ensure all of the outcomes that all stakeholders are worried about are eventually accounted for. Let’s ensure midwives are part of the team that designs rather than just delivers the research, so they can take an equal part in confidently implementing & disseminating it. Ten years later, let’s look back and be able to confidently say, “Look what we’ve done!” with one tone of voice or another …
  2. Co-design an information and consent process with women who have had positive and negative experiences of IOL. Women would be informed at 37 weeks that the risk of stillbirth increases from 39 weeks with clear, consistent information, including infographics. They would be offered a scheduled induction, and if they decline, neither them nor their midwife (if otherwise low-risk) would be required to justify this decision.
  3. Co-design services which give women maximum control over the timing of their induction. Have some ‘scheduled’ slots for women who prefer that and some for arising medical indications. And tell everyone else that they can put themselves on the waiting list for medical induction whenever they want to after 39 weeks, to be seen on a first-come-first-serve basis. If we have capacity to do this many IOL, we ought to have capacity to offer greater flexibility. One of the things women regret losing with scheduled IOL is the ability to trust their instincts as they are becoming parents. Ensure at each visit women know how to access IOL if they want it, but don’t hound women who choose not to join this queue.
  4. See this as a ‘choice’ issue and not a stillbirth reduction ‘target.’ Targets which require everyone accept the intervention in order to achieve the target outcome will reduce, rather than expand, choice.

Finally, I feel that midwives need to lead on research that contributes to our knowledge about IOL, rather than seeing it as ‘the realm of the abnormal,’ and thus obstetric territory. If we are offering IOL closer and closer to 39 weeks, this is more ‘normal’ than ‘abnormal,’ especially as we know outcomes for live babies are best after 39 weeks. For example, we have Cochrane Reviews on cervical sweeps and nipple stimulation (see Evidence-Based Birth blogs on membrane sweeps and breast stimulation to stimulate labour).

Many women would like the ability to request a sweep earlier than 40 weeks, and they certainly will want this if induction at 39 weeks is routine. Might this help, or harm, or are there trade-offs? Might pumping breast milk after 38 weeks improve spontaneous birth and breastfeeding rates? Might these traditional midwifery approaches have potential to help women retain more control over initiation of their labour and consequently their choice of birth setting? Researching and changing midwifery practice related to cervical ripening for women at term who wish this would, in my opinion, be a more manageable and likely more widely acceptable first step than scheduling more hospital-based inductions. It would also dovetail nicely if a policy of offering induction at 39 or 40 weeks does become routine.

Shawn

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