What is ‘physiological breech birth?’

‘Physiological breech birth’ is an approach to care informed by evidence about the physiological processes of vaginal breech births, and an approach to clinical education based on evidence about how professionals learn to facilitate breech births.

I spend a lot of time communicating about vaginal breech birth, and equally importantly, a lot of time listening to how other people communicate about vaginal breech birth. Lately, I have become aware that many people misunderstand what ‘physiological breech birth’ is. This causes difficulties in communication and prevents current research evidence from improving the safety of vaginal breech birth as quickly as it could.

Image from Dr Anke Reitter, 2019

It’s my job to help clarify so that research can be used to improve safety and choice, as it is intended. Let’s start with what physiological breech birth is NOT:

Physiological breech birth is NOT ‘upright breech birth,’ ‘standing breech,’ or ‘all fours breech.’ Upright maternal birth positions are a TOOL and not a RULE of physiological breech birth. The reference standard is that, in a normally progressing birth, the woman or birthing person should give birth in the position of their preference. For many women having an unmedicated birth, particularly in midwife-led settings, this will be an upright position. Therefore, the logic goes, a ‘normal breech birth’ is one in which the woman is enabled to give birth in the position of her choice. Requiring supine positioning is an intervention.

How does this fit with the RCOG guideline (2017)? This states: “Either a semi-recumbent or an all-fours position may be adopted for delivery and should depend on maternal preference and the experience of the attendant. If the latter position is used, women should be advised that recourse to the semi-recumbent position may become necessary.”

The RCOG supports the use of upright positioning, but suggests this should be dependent on maternal preference and the experience of the attendant. Our recent analysis of video evidence (2020) showed that conversion to supine maternal position occurs within 10 seconds when use of supine manoeuvres is required. Therefore, the most recent evidence indicates that, while providers should continue to inform women that they may need them to turn over if the birth is very complicated, the experience of the attendant does not need to influence a woman’s initial choice of birthing position. Even if the attendant knows only supine manoeuvres.

Permission to use this video for teaching purposes is granted. Just access this page and click the full screen icon.

Where it is possible and safe to support a woman’s liberty in her birthing process, that’s what we should be doing, right? There is no evidence to indicate that use of supine birthing position improves outcomes for mothers and/or babies compared to enabling upright positioning. There is also no evidence to support the use of some manoeuvres over others; only things, like pulling, we know are dangerous. If a local guideline stipulates that women should be asked to assume a supine position to birth, this is out of line with both current RCOG guidance and the principles of woman-centred care.

Physiological breech birth is NOT, “It’s just hands off the breech. Just breathe, wait for the next contraction.”

The penny dropped for me after hearing two different midwives in two different cities describe to two other people what ‘physiological breech birth is’ using exactly this phrase, word for word. And then participating in risk management reviews following adverse outcomes, where midwives had document that they were practising ‘hands off the breech.’ And then attending multiple births (and videos), where midwives were instructing women to ‘just breathe, wait for the next contraction,’ even when there was concern about fetal condition and the situation was becoming urgent. Because this is what they had been taught. ‘Hands off the breech’ has become a dogma with unintended consequences. Instructing someone to avoid pushing when they feel the urge is an INTERVENTION. It has no evidence to back it up, nor any good theoretical basis other than preventing people from pulling when they don’t know what else to do.

It’s not surprising that some senior managers are cautious about enabling ‘physiological breech birth,’ if this is what they understand it to be, especially if they have participated in adverse outcome reviews where this sort of practice has been described.

But, due to science, we know how to do better. Our video analysis showed that in a sample of 42 births, the birth was complete within 2:46 of the birth of the pelvis in 75% of cases. Regarding birth intervals, the RCOG guideline states that breech births should be assisted if there is delay of more than 5 minutes from the buttocks to the head. We are in the same ballpark of the RCOG’s recommendation based on expert opinion. But now we know that if you wait this long to assist, you are already outside the normal reference range.

Physiological breech birth is not contradicting our already strong, evidence-based guideline. Rather, current, living, emerging evidence is refining it.

Permission granted to use for teaching purposes

Historical use of the phrase ‘physiological breech birth’

Midwife Jane Evans used the phrase ‘physiological breech birth’ in her 2012 article, Understanding Physiological Breech Birth. In it, Evans shares her insights and descriptions of the mechanisms based upon her observations in clinical practice. Those of use who use this phrase in our research have continued in this tradition, using systematic, planned observational and other research methods. Many of her observations we have confirmed; some have been modified.

How to let the evidence help you

Let’s say you are a Practice Development Midwife. You teach the breech birth update in a 40-minute slot, using materials commonly used in other obstetric emergencies training programmes. You’d like to ensure the update is as informed by up-to-date evidence* but don’t want to blow people’s minds apart with variations from what they already know, especially now. Good idea.

These are my top 3 tips for making sure the training you deliver evolves with the current evidence base (as of January 2021):

  1. Explain that the RCOG guideline recognises and supports women to adopt an upright position if that is their preference. Explain that the evidence indicates it takes less than 10 seconds to convert from upright to supine position. So even if providers are only experienced in supine complications, women should be supported to adopt the position of their choice. Although ‘lithotomy’ is not necessary, run through what conversion would look like in practice with your team if this helps people envision what is possible. Show them the video above if you are able.
  2. Recommend the use of maternal movement and effort if any delay is identified. Delay is defined as no progress for 90 seconds at any point once the baby begins to emerge. Our video research indicated that maternal movement (#giveitawiggle) and effort (gentle encouragement to “push”) alone is often effective, without the risk of iatrogenic damage from hasty manoeuvres, but it is not always used. Instead, women are often instructed to breathe through a contraction and resist the urge to push. Because time is of the essence, and contractions may be 5 minutes apart in 2nd stage, this is a safety risk. Even in supine births with an epidural in situ, simply asking the woman to push will also work in this situation if there is no obstruction. At this point, the uterus is almost entirely empty; a contraction creates the urge to push, but maternal effort does the job. The use of maternal agency to facilitate the birth is a first principle of physiological breech birth – it’s not all about the position.
  3. Teach shoulder press alongside MSV. Our video research found this simple manoeuvre was used in 57% of the upright breech births in our sample. Start by explaining the principle: elevating the occiput and flexing the fetal head, so that the smallest diameter delivers. When a woman is supine it is done like this … MSV. When a woman is upright, this works too … shoulder press. But the principle is the same. Then invite people to practice the one they are most likely to use. This flexible approach, recognising the variety of practice contexts, also reduces the risk an out-of-hospital midwife will ask a woman to lie down on the floor so she can perform MSV. This is a safety risk as it automatically deflexes the head.

Sure, the physiological breech birth evidence base covers a lot more. Our full training package (study day or on-line) goes into less common complications and their solutions, more about the research, and how to use the Algorithm to guide decision-making. A feasibility study is currently being conducted, hoping to trial a new care pathway based on physiological breech birth. But it is possible RIGHT NOW to use the available evidence to update current practice in a safer direction, without making major changes to what you are already doing.

In Summary

Lastly, if one can point out a single maxim in breech deliveries, take heed of the results of the experienced country midwife and doctor. They are usually very good, and their results are obtained by a policy of non-intervention. Do not interfere unless it is necessary, but when it is necessary interfere quickly and with certainty.

Ian Donald, 1956, Practical Obstetric Problems

The careful, systematic study of vaginal breech births that has taken place in the physiological breech birth tradition reflects this maxim. Do not intervene, not by dictating a birth position, not by instructing someone not to push, not at all, unless it is necessary. Due to a lack of exposure, many health care professionals just do not know how to recognise ‘when it is necessary’ and therefore cannot act quickly and with certainty, through no fault of their own. Due to physiological breech birth research, ‘when it is necessary’ can now be defined and described much more precisely. Therefore, it can be taught. And it can be tested.

But if the available research indicates simply stopping untested but commonly applied interventions may reduce identifiable risks, do we really need to wait for an RCT?

Shawn

P.S. A note on *up-to-date evidence. When preparing to write this blog, I did a brief literature search to find others (e.g. not ‘physiological breech’) who are publishing research related to the clinical practice of vaginal breech birth in the UK. The last I could find were Sloman et al 2016 and Pradhan et al 2005. Many of Sloman’s findings are consistent with those of other physiological breech researchers. I am keen to hear if anyone else in the UK is producing evidence concerning the clinical practice of vaginal breech birth at the moment — breech birth itself, not ECV or decision-making. Because it’s starting to feel surreal when people say, “We don’t teach/do physiological breech birth because it’s not evidence based …”

Here’s some!

Jan, H., Guimicheva, B., Gosh, S., Hamid, R., Penna, L. and Sarris, I. (2014), Evaluation of healthcare professionals’ understanding of eponymous maneuvers and mnemonics in emergency obstetric care provision. International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics, 125: 228-231. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijgo.2013.12.011 — And one of the co-authors (L Penna) is also a co-author of the RCOG guideline. This is the reason we do not use eponyms when teaching skills on physiological breech birth study days.

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