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!
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
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 to help in upright breech births.
The shoulder press is very effective in the following circumstances:
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. all fours 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
In this scenario, the maternal pubic arch is directly behind the baby’s occiput. When pressure is applied to the baby’s torso along 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.
Buttock/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 is obese, 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.
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.
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.
Fractured clavicle. When applying pressure on the clavicle, fracture is an obvious potential risk, although neither I nor those I have learned from have reported fractured clavicles resulting from the use of this manoeuvre. This potential risk can be minimised by spreading the fingers to apply even pressure along 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.
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.
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.
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 research indicates eponyms cause confusion and lead to inaccurate documentation. 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. Others have described a similar experience in my qualitative studies of how people learn vaginal breech birth skills.
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 Birth26(4): e99-e104.
Introducing more support for planned breech birth in your hospital setting? This post is for you.
The management of breech presentation is undergoing an important transition. In the past twenty years, we’ve gone from:
Management according to the preferences of individual consultants and/or units, tending increasingly toward caesarean section
Blanket caesarean section policy following the publication of the Term Breech Trial
A recognition in more recent guidelines that vaginal breech birth should remain an option for women
Increasing demand from women for more choice and involvement in decision-making around how they birth their breech babies
As a result, health care providers are needing to re-skill in the facilitation of breech birth, and in a way which matches women’s expectations. This requires introducing entirely new skills to manage breech births when the mother is upright and active, as women who choose to birth vaginally usually expect to be.
But transitions can be de-stabilising. Doing things ‘as they are always done’ provides some protection because team members are familiar with their roles. Each professional knows her/his place on the team. They are familiar with the range of events that might happen in this scenario, and they know by repetitive practice exactly how they will need to communicate and respond. The emergency caesarean section for the undiagnosed breech discovered at 9 cm – the team has been here before many times, and swings comfortably into action.
In contrast, a planned breech birth is novel territory. This is even more the case if the woman has planned to be upright and active, as many teams will have rehearsed emergency breech drills with the mannequin in a lithotomy position (legs in stirrups). Therefore, teams supporting this choice will need to employ different strategies to ensure effective teamwork around the time of birth.
Identify your breech birth dream team
(These suggestions apply to a planned breech birth which occurs in a hospital setting, particularly one where a planned breech service is being introduced.)
Ideally, the entire second stage and the birth of this breech baby will be primarily supported by three people. These three should be familiar with and aligned with the woman’s birth plan and each other, as any task or relational conflict will compromise decision-making ability (de Wit et al 2013, Puck & Pregernig 2014). They should each have a clear understanding of what their role in the team will be, and they should have rehearsed together the management of some common emergencies. They should have clear eye contact with each other throughout the birth, in order to confirm in an unobtrusive way the on-going evaluation that the birth is going well, or to prepare each other for the possibility that it might not be.
Each team member has a different primary responsibility:
1) Management – This person is primarily responsible for facilitating the birth, and may be an experienced midwife or an obstetrician. Ideally, this person will be known to the woman and have experience with breech birth in general (and the type of birth the woman has requested). The birth facilitator will be intimately familiar with the woman and her wishes, as well as the mechanics of breech birth, how to anticipate possible problems, and how to assist when required. They are responsible for co-ordinating care and preparing the rest of the team to assist when required.
2) Support – This person, usually a senior midwife, is responsible for taking over monitoring of the woman’s and baby’s well-being throughout the second stage, frequently relaying this information to the rest of the team and reassuring the woman. Positioned beside the woman, they are an important communication bridge, especially when the woman is in a kneeling position, facing away from the person managing the birth. In this position, the support professional is also placed to assist with applying suprapubic pressure and/or change of maternal position.
3) Perspective – This person is responsible for documenting the birth and providing a second evaluation of progress. This role requires breech experience because in order to document appropriately and accurately, the person needs to understand what they are seeing. Similarly, in order to assist with the evaluation of progress, this person needs to be familiar with normal progress in a breech birth. Because of their perspective, this person is also an important communication bridge with the rest of the team outside the door (eg calling for further help, alerting paediatricians to possible complications, etc.), and may alert the managing professional to potential problems. Therefore, this role is often taken by the most experienced person in the room, such as the obstetrician or the experienced midwife who is supporting another midwife to develop her skills.
The triangle: nature’s most powerful structure
Most normal births are attended by two midwives, and this is more than adequate. But a breech birth is not an everyday occurrence. Documentation will need to be of a gold star standard. Yet in most hospitals, each person in the room will still be developing their skills with breech and will therefore need to concentrate on the task at hand, making attendance to paperwork tricky. It is also easy to become enthralled with the beauty of an unfolding breech birth.
Therefore, supporting breech births with a primary team of three strengthens a situation made vulnerable by its novelty. A triangle is one of nature’s strongest structures; this mini-team is strengthened, given a base by the addition of perspective. Given the importance of documentation in any higher-risk birth, triangulation of data (eg strengthening the accuracy by using different sources) also makes practical sense. The triangulated team increases everyone’s safety in a novel situation.
Interestingly, many women instinctively form their own triangles, involving two supporters. The third person in this triangle also provides additional support, strength and perspective for both her and her partner.
Continuity: the way forward
Continuity of carer – ensuring a woman knows the professional who will be facilitating her birth, and ideally the entire team – has known, evidenced benefits. Fewer interventions, greater satisfaction. Knowing who else will be in the room, and what their role will be, will also help the woman to feel more relaxed and reassured about the upcoming birth.
Continuity has benefits for providers as well, especially when it comes to facilitating non-standard care. A number of sources have suggested on-call teams for breech births as the way forward (Kotaska 2009, Daviss et al 2010) and on-call midwives are a middle ground. Especially when experience is minimal, preparation is key. Where an on-call team is not available, the entire team who will be attending the birth should be identified when the woman is admitted to hospital, and again at handover if appropriate. This team should have a thorough discussion about roles and responsibilities, and a run-through of the ‘fire drill’ if things do not go as planned, well before second stage requires the additional team members to attend.
The team should meet afterwards to review the birth and identify if any group work issues have been identified that can be improved for future births. This review should involve the obstetric labour lead, a midwifery manager and/or risk management midwife if the breech service is new to the maternity team. A reflective approach in the early stages will pay off in increased safety and a more confident, united team in the long run.
Further information and inspiration for your dream team
Teamwork is crucial to the safety of breech births. Michael West has written extensively about the characteristics of ‘real teams,’ as opposed to ‘pseudo teams.’ Real teams have clear, shared team objectives; role interdependence and role clarity; and they meet regularly to review and improve performance (West, 2014). If we are to successfully change the culture of breech birth, and support women as safely as possible as we develop our skills and experience, we must function as real teams.
West, M.A., & Lyubovnikova, J. (2013). Illusions of Team Working in Health Care. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 27(1), 134-142. (more from West)
Everyone is concerned about entrapment of the after coming head in a breech birth. And it seems so unpredictable. Many breech babies, even large ones, seem to just fall out. And then others, not so large, get stuck. RCOG guidelines suggest an estimated fetal weight above 3800 g is ‘unfavourable’ for vaginal breech birth, but goes on to say, “If the baby’s trunk and thighs pass easily through the pelvis simultaneously, cephalopelvic disproportion is unlikely.” (Easily is undefined, but in light of the evidence against augmenting breech labours, I interpret it as occurring spontaneously within about an hour of active pushing.)
Can we predict which babies’ heads are more likely to have difficulty passing through the pelvis? I don’t know, but I feel one phenomenon in particular deserves more attention – dolichocephaly.
Dolichocephaly developing due to positional pressures
Technically, dolichocephaly is a mild cranial deformity in which the head has become disproportionately long and narrow, due to mechanical forces associated with breech positioning in utero (Kasby & Poll 1982, Bronfin 2001, Lubusky et al 2007). This change in shape is more commonly associated with primiparity (first babies), larger babies, oligohydramnios, and posterior placentas, all of which result in greater forces applied to the fetal head.
(Note: Like all positional molding which occurs in utero, dolichocephaly does not in itself cause nor indicate abnormal brain development. The head shape is highly likely to return to completely normal in the days and weeks following birth, especially if baby receives lots of holding and cuddles to permit free movement of the head.)
Following the birth of the arms in a breech birth, the head will be in the anterior-posterior diameter of the pelvis. When the head shape has become abnormally elongated, the longest diameter of the fetal head will meet the shortest diameter of the maternal pelvis at the inlet. Unless the baby is still on the small side and the pelvic inlet very round, the chin may get stuck on the sacral promontory, preventing head flexion. A very experienced breech provider will have encountered this situation before, and should be able to assist, but it is quite a tricky place to be. The head may need to be rotated into the transverse diameter to safely enter the pelvis. A very elongated head can have difficulty passing through the lower pelvis as well, and can cause damage to the maternal pelvic floor, unless appropriate techniques are used to assist the head to flex.
Abnormal head molding in some breech babies
Estimation of fetal weight by ultrasound is notoriously inaccurate. However, a lack of proportionality between the head circumference and the biparietal diameter is more obvious to spot (e.g. HC=90th percentile, BPD=60th percentile; or a difference in correlating dates of two weeks or more), and may be a more relevant indication that this baby is too big for this particular woman. Dolichocephaly can be discerned on palpation as well, as the occiput is prominently felt above the fetal back, the head is not ballotable, and may feel unusually wide. I would suggest caution where estimated fetal weight is above 3500 g and a difference in HC and BPD, or careful palpation, indicates abnormal cranial molding has occurred, especially for women who are having their first baby, have a low amniotic fluid index, and/or a high posterior placenta; and in situations where imaging pelvimetry is not used to confirm an ample pelvic inlet.
Women instinctively do not like weight limits used as ‘selection criteria.’ One woman (Ann, multip, 6’1”) looks at another (Carol, primip, 5’0”) and they both think – We can’t possibly be expected to have similar-sized babies. While Ann may carry a 4000 g baby with no abnormal head molding, and expect a straightforward birth, Carol’s baby may begin to show signs of dolichocephaly at 3300 g, especially if she has low levels of amniotic fluid and a posterior placenta. Carol may still have a successful birth, but it will more likely depend on the skill and experience of her attendant in assisting the aftercoming head to flex, rotate and negotiate the pelvic diameters, and the pelvic diameters themselves.
A ‘normal’ breech baby – well-flexed, with lots of room to move
We need to move away from the concept of ‘selection criteria,’ which are used by professionals to make decisions for women, and towards an understanding of what is ‘normal for breech.’ We need to understand more about which babies are more likely to experience those beautiful, often-easier-than-cephalic, dancing-into-the-world births, and which babies are truly being put at additional risk by their in utero conditions.
Then we will be able to explain to women the benefits of a caesarean section for pregnancies which have become ‘abnormal.’ Women will be able to approach this intervention with an open heart when they observe professionals are truly supporting ‘normal’ breech births and providing individualised care and screening to those which are not.
I would love to know what others think about this.
The Dutch in Old Amsterdam do it .. not to mention the Finns .. The folks in Bergen, Norway, do it .. They’re not even second twins …
This Valentine’s Day over 100 obstetricians, midwives, student doctors and student midwives assembled at Crosshouse Hospital in Kilmarnock to show some love to breech babies.
explaining the way ‘prayer hands’ help maintain alignment of the fetal head
We were privileged to be joined by Dr Susanne Albrechtsen, Head of Obstetrics at Haukland Hospital in Bergen, Norway, home of Jørgen Løvset. She has written extensively about the practical management of breech presentation and authored several epidemiological articles. Dr Albrechtsen is responsible for the Norwegian breech guidelines, and shares her expert knowledge of breech and operative vaginal deliveries through practical training throughout Scandinavia and beyond (details available through the Norwegian Medical Society). Her hospital in Bergen, which currently enjoys a CS rate of 13%, is a mecca for trainees hoping to improve their hands-on skills. Haukland, with an annual birth rate of 5000, sees 150-200 breech deliveries per year and Dr Albrechtsen herself has attended over 500 breech deliveries.
How do they do it? Dr Albrechtsen tells us: “You just have to decide that it is good for babies to be born vaginally, unless there is clearly a problem, and commit yourself to developing the skills to enable that to happen.” As she explained, a normal vaginal birth is an important programming event with life-long consequences. Evidence is growing about the links between caesarean section and future disease in the child, such as Type 1 diabetes, asthma, allergies, gastroenteritis and obesity (see Ulander et al, 2004). Dr Albrechtsen also presented her epidemiological data, demonstrating the way CS rates and rates of vaginal birth have changed over the last 40 years in Scandinavia. Particularly interesting were the way the Finns have been able to make a dramatic change within a few years, simply by making the decision to do so.
Dr Michele Mohajer Royal Shrewsbury
Dr Michele Mohajer, whose unit in Shropshire currently enjoys a 14.3% CS rate, shared with us the work of her breech clinic and her extensive experience with ECV, having performed over 1500 procedures herself, in addition to attending hundreds of breech deliveries in her career. It is reassuring to know that these skills are being maintained by expert practitioners.
Feedback from the day suggested that those attending had concerns about managing an undiagnosed breech birth, and interest in developing skills had been driven by recent experiences. This is a real concern. Approximately 3-4% of babies present breech at term, and 25-30% remain undiagnosed until labour. Consequently, an undiagnosed breech presents in labour approximately 1:100 of all births. It is in everyone’s interests that we do our best to support all women wishing to make the informed choice to labour with their breech babies, putting plans in place so that skills can be developed for when women cannot make a measured decision.
working it out together
In my view, organising small on-call teams for breech, involving both doctors and midwives, is the best way to accomplish the re-introduction of breech skills. Some research and professional opinion supports this view (Kotaska 2009, Maier et al 2011). Neither all doctors nor all midwives will be confident and keen to attend a breech birth. Ideally all staff involved will be both, but at least one well-prepared and experienced person at every breech birth is essential, for both safety and the reassurance of the woman involved. At the conference, we also reviewed the mechanisms of breech birth, counselling for informed choice, and how to help in a complicated breech birth, particularly when the woman births in an upright position. I’ve noticed more doctors attending these study days each time we do it. One young obstetrician said to me, “I needed you here about a week ago, when I got hauled over the coals for supporting a woman to [successfully] have her breech baby vaginally.” This threatening cultural atmosphere needs to change. We need obstetricians and midwives who are willing to develop the skills to facilitate breech birth in the safest possible way.
Let’s do it .. Let’s fall in love… with breech babies
This study day was organised by Geraldine Butcher, Consultant Midwife for Ayrshire and Arran, and a passionate advocate for the rights of women to make informed decisions about how to have their babies. Feedback from the study day:
“It has been a very fruitful day for me and I will use the presentations and practice to update my own. I will feel more confident in supporting upright breech birth.”
“It gives me more confidence to promote breech delivery and services surrounding breech as an option.”
“Video scenarios were very helpful. Recent undiagnosed breech presentations have encouraged us to review / update knowledge.”
‘Into the Breech’ Workshops in Perth and Melbourne, December 2013
Anke Reitter, Danielle Freeth, Rhonda Tombros, Andrew Bisits
This month has seen a small series of Australian workshops, hoping to increase confidence among those already working to modernise breech birth in Australia. The ‘Into the Breech’ conferences were instigated by Dr Rhonda Tombros, an academic lawyer with an interest in human rights and the mother of a breech born baby, and organised by Barbara Glare. The conferences coincided with a six month research fellowship visit by Dr Anke Reitter (FRCOG) of the Frankfurt team, whose MRI research will soon be published, concerning changes in pelvic diameters with maternal position changes.
The Perth workshop, on 3 December, was held in the Perth Zoo and was opened by midwife Danielle Freeth, also the mother of two breech babies. As for obstetricians, it was quality rather than quantity on this occasion. One of the participants, Dr Liza Fower, Head of Obs and Gynea at the Armadale Hospital, gained significant experience facilitating breech birth in South Africa and has been able to continue to offer support. She also contributed to one of our practical workshops with some useful tips.
Anke Reitter frisking Andrew Bisits .. while demonstrating how to release stuck nuchal arms.
Dr Andrew Bisits (FRANZCOG) presented in Perth, on pathways for women and complications. Bisits is one of the Directors of the ALSO (Advanced Life Support in Obstetrics) course in Australia, which will be updated to include emergency manoeuvres when a woman is in an upright position. He and his team, including Midwifery Professor Caroline Homer, have launched an intensive course for professionals in Australia, the BABE (Become a Breech Expert) course. I am very much hoping to bring this course to the UK at some point in the future, and in the meantime will be ensuring that the information presented at the Breech Birth Network study days is in line with the systematic approach they are developing.
Melbourne attracted more consultant obstetricians, GP obstetricians and a lively group of midwives. Many conversations occurred during the break, suggesting a critical mass in this location, likely to move on with a more organised and collaborative approach to supporting women with breech presenting babies. This may require more working together across traditional boundaries if women are to have adequate support for viable choices, especially as breech services are reintroduced among teams with minimal recent experience.
Dr Rhonda Tombros
A highlight of both days was Dr Rhonda Tombros’ presentation on the legal aspects of informed consent and negligence focusing specifically on issues around breech birth. We all hope she writes this up for publication in the near future.
Although I present at these conferences (in this case, on the evidence base and ‘normal for breech’), I find them invaluable to developing my own practice. The two messages I found most interesting with this visit concerned timings and episiotomy.
Timings: Bisits and Reitter gave increased focus to achieving a prompt delivery, suggesting that 3 minutes from the birth of the umbilicus to the birth of the aftercoming head is ideal. “Three minutes is ideal, you are probably okay with five, but after that most babies will experience some sort of compromise.” This aspect has not been previously emphasised at the conferences I have attended, but the intense dialogue which has developed between midwives and obstetricians supporting breech has revealed differences. It seems that timings are almost taken for granted in obstetric training for breech, whereas midwives have a much higher tolerance for a ‘wait and see’ approach, emphasising the ‘hands off the breech’ philosophy. In reviewing the anecdotal experiences where breech is being reintroduced, the current consensus among our small collective of professionals is that, while a ‘wait and see’ approach will often result in a spontaneous resolution, it will also more often result in a severely compromised baby when that spontaneous resolution does not occur. Therefore, following the birth of the umbilicus, if the birth does not continue to progress promptly or you are not confident of the condition of the baby, intervening to facilitate the birth is recommended, using the systematic approach we are advocating:
Try to sweep down the arms in front of the face
If not possible, rotate in the direction of the nuchal arm (modified Lovesets)
Ensure the head is aligned with the body and the mother’s birth canal
Deliver the head using classic or modern techniques to achieve flexion
The skill of an experienced practitioner is in holding back from intervening when the birth is progressing normally, balanced with effective intervention when it is not, and developing this judgement is a key aspect of breech training days.
Michelle Underwood, Anke Reitter, Shawn Walker, Barbara Glare
Episiotomy: In Melbourse, Consultant Midwive Michelle Underwood presented data from the Westmead Clinic which she runs with Dr Andrew Pesce in Sydney. While all of their statistics were fascinating – especially demonstrating a reduction in CS for breech from 90% to 63% in the first year of the clinic – I was intrigued by their stats on perineal damage. It seems that, compared to all births, the breech births have the highest rate of episiotomy AND the highest rate of intact perineum. This suggests to me that the majority of perineal damage from vaginal breech births may be iatrogenic, which is not surprising given that cutting a timely episiotomy is an over-emphasised part of some obstetric training for breech (Deering et al 2006), as is the use of forceps.
But is it necessary, or helpful (in most cases)? In his own practise, Bisits avoids episiotomy because he feels the perineum has an active role in encouraging breech babies to remain well flexed throughout the birth. Reitter also discussed her own personal stats – three (3) episiotomies cut in the last 10 years, a period which has included management of over 300 breech births and countless cephalic complications. The episiotomy rate in her unit in Frankfurt is exceptionally low overall. Change was accomplished when the Lead Obstetrician (Prof Frank Louwen) insisted that episiotomies would not be cut unless absolutely necessary, and that each episiotomy would need to be justified personally to him. That’s what leadership can do.
Wow! On my way home to Norwich after an amazing day in Brighton.
The day was organised by Jenny Davidson, currently Acting Deputy Head of Midwifery at the Royal Sussex Hospital in Brighton. Jenny is an inspirational midwife, and doing great things to empower both midwives and women with breech babies. She’s nearing the end of a PhD and started the study day off with a research round-up, exploring why the heavily criticised Term Breech Trial has had such an impact on breech practice, and presenting other evidence which widens the discussion and decision-making process for breech. (See Premoda and Toivonen for a start, but Jenny had several pages of references.) The increasing amount of qualitative research revealing women’s experiences of breech pregnancy and childbirth was also discussed. (See Guittier for a start.)
Following this, Benna Waites discussed ‘talking breech’ – how we counsel women with breech-presenting babies. She stressed the importance of recognising that the risks to women of CS are not inconsequential, and of remaining non-judgemental even when women are making decisions which professionals may not feel are the ‘right’ ones. Benna, author of the ‘breech bible’ – Breech Birth – is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, as well as the mother of a breech-born baby. She brings these important perspectives into her presentations. I hope that well-informed, deeply immersed service user advocates like Benna can in the future participate more fully in discussions around national guidelines, such as those written by NICE and RCOG.
Jane Evans continues to inspire a new generation of midwives presenting her excellent knowledge of the mechanisms of breech birth, and how to assist when help is required, built upon decades of clinical practice. Jane has authored many articles, but her more recent publications in Essentially MIDIRS should be essential reading for professionals seeking to modernise their breech practice.
Today was the first time I have had the opportunity to hear from Dr Michele Mohajer, co-author of this UK-based study) and Consultant Obstetrician at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital in Shropshire. Michele has run a breech clinic there since 1997, where both breech and ECV have been well supported. Her ECV success rate is excellent, approximately 60%. She shared with us several of her methods for increasing the likelihood of succeeding. There are few things I like more than hearing someone with excellent clinical skills discuss their techniques. I especially admired Dr Mohajer’s discussion of the influence of gaining the woman’s trust and co-operation to her success rates. Her ECV films were excellent and a really useful practice update. I hope Dr Mohajer is also able to reach wider audiences to share her classic obstetric skills. Women who wish to have their babies turned deserve for the practitioners attempting this to have success rates as high as possible.
Hopefully others will share their personal highlights from the day. And (although this study day was sold out), we all look forward to more obstetricians and midwives attending future study days. Please do get involved, share your experiences, develop your services. As several people remarked today, it really does feel like the green shoots of change are growing for breech.
Breech births are few and far between, and there are very few ‘experts’ in the world to learn from, so staying updated is a real challenge. Especially if you do not live and work near others who are supporting breech births regularly.
Updating has two purposes: keeping up to date with current evidence and best practice; and reminding yourself how to use skills you use infrequently. Many breech babies, especially those whose mothers are active and upright (e.g. knees/elbows), can be born spontaneously. But those who cannot need calm, considered help in a timely manner. The same applies to external cephalic version – ECV. Both practices benefit from regular performance and knowledge sharing among those who are practicing.
Here are my suggestions on keeping your practice as safe and supportive as possible:
Attend study days. Many individuals offer study days to develop breech skills. Breech Birth Network days concentrate on lots of practical skills, but also have an emphasis on care pathway planning in the UK, aiming to encourage more Trusts to adopt an organised, committed approach to breech.
Share your work. If you are doing research or working with breech and would like to share your experiences, get in touch and present at one of the study days. I am not an expert, but an experienced and passionate believer in the idea that the more we share, the more we talk about it, the more normal it becomes. The best study days have a wide variety of speakers and reflect a wide community dedicated to developing and sharing skills.
Share your experiences. If you learned something at a breech birth you attended that might help us to make our practice safer, share it! Publish it if appropriate, but if you need to share anonymously to protect your client’s and your confidentiality, I can give you space on this blog. It is wonderful and encouraging to hear stories of triumphant breech births where the baby just fell out singing. But we need to hear the stories of doubt and sadness as well, and often these are the ones you learn the most from.
Create your own network. It’s been so valuable to me to have colleagues who I can phone up to debrief the breech births I’ve attended. I learn so much more by doing this. And so valuable to hear their stories, how they have approached certain complications, how they support women, their thoughts on what makes breech birth safe. Keep a record of these sessions and document them; they are part of your professional updating. Write an article about what you have learned together, so that others can respond to it. We need more voices talking about breech skills.
Organise your own study day. Bring the conversation to you. Empower those local to you to share their skills by asking them to present. Inspire your local community to think more about breech.
If you don’t have anyone local to ask questions or debrief with, my number is 07947819122 (in the UK) and I’m always happy to listen. I’m sure most of us are. Good luck!
Some friends of mine at the Coalition for Breech Birth (a consumer advocacy organisation) have been discussing the role of practitioner experience in reducing risk associated with vaginal breech birth. My response is a bit longer than Facebook will permit, so I’m putting it here.
The study I find most useful in this discussion is here:
Su M, McLeod L, Ross S, Willan A, Hannah WJ, Hutton E, et al. Factors associated with adverse perinatal outcome in the Term Breech Trial. Am J Obstet Gynecol. 2003 Sep;189(3):740-5. PubMed PMID: 14526305. Epub 2003/10/04. eng.
Overall, the team found very few factors associated with an increase or reduction of risk of adverse perinatal outcome. They did find a dose-reponse relationship between amount of labour and adverse outcome. In other words, a pre-labour CS seemed to afford the most benefit, followed by early labour CS. By the time you are in active labour (>3 cm), there is no longer a statistically significant difference between CS and vaginal birth. So I get particularly annoyed when this study is used to tell women who arrive in advanced labour with an undiagnosed breech that a CS is the safest option.
They also found, contrary to popular belief, that big babies (>3500g) fared no worse than more averaged weight babies, but small babies (<2800g) did. Makes sense to me. Generally but not always, babies who are very small at term may already be slightly compromised; labour may be an additional stress. On the other hand, if a chunky 9-pounder folded in half can fit both his abdomen and his legs through your pelvis, chances are his head is going to fit, especially if you are with someone who knows how to help it into an optimal position.
He also needs to fit without help, because the study also revealed that using augmentation to enhance a labour which is not progressing well enough on its own was associated with over twice the risk of labours which proceeded spontaneously. Similarly, longer second stages increased the risk, so our baby needs to be descending fairly easily in the second stage, without help, or a CS may be the better option.
But the only factor shown to reduce the risk associated with a vaginal breech birth (by over 2/3) is the presence of an experienced clinician at the birth. This person need not be a licensed obstetrician, and the years of experience did not make a difference either – the TBT team specifically looked at these factors. The risk reduction occurred only when ‘an experienced clinician was defined as a clinician who judged him or herself to be skilled at vaginal breech delivery, confirmed by the Head of Department.’ Midwives were among those included in this definition.
Although we do not (yet) have any research (get back to me in a decade or so) which looks at the results of spontaneous breech birth with experienced clinicians at term, this analysis of the TBT suggests that this scenario is significantly less risky than many of the births included in the trial which were responsible for adverse outcomes. Add to that the further benefits we are seeing emerge with upright breech (reduction in need for manoeuvres and the minor injuries these can sometimes cause), and vaginal breech birth is a realistic option for many women.
One further comment on the research: Many are frustrated because the results of retrospective observational studies overwhelmingly indicate similar outcomes for vaginal breech birth and planned CS. These have comparatively little influence on guidelines because they are considered ‘biased.’ However, understanding why they are biased is sometimes useful. Retrospective studies are most often done by experienced practitioners who feel their own results conflict with the lowest common denominator represented by a large multi-centre RCT like the TBT. They present these results to illustrate that a comparatively safe vaginal breech service is possible, despite the fact that breech is often grossly mismanaged in many areas. Retrospective studies do not necessarily represent the ‘norm.’ But they do suggest, along with the TBT’s own data, that if your provider feels confident supporting you to have a vaginal breech birth, you can probably feel pretty confident as well.
Update 2015: A meta-analysis of observational studies indicates significantly better short-term outcomes when CS is planned than when VBB is planned. However, the rate of complications following planned VBB is much less than reported in the Term Breech Trial and similar to the results when a cephalic birth is planned. Read Berhan et al 2015 by clicking the link.
I always smile when people say, “It’s all well and good to support natural breech birth, but what happens if the head gets stuck?” Those of us who are supporting woman-centred, modern breech birth take an equally realistic view about the need to intervene in a skilled and confident manner when help is needed, although we are probably more realistic about the frequency with which such intervention is required. We also obsess about creating trusting relationships and environments which facilitate more spontaneous, easier births, with the end result that we need to use our skills less often.
However we sometimes rely on these skills to achieve a safe outcome. Therefore we share our experiences with others, for when they might be needed. And we know that supporting others to confidently support more breech births will create new knowledge which will in turn help us to improve our own practice.
Where does this knowledge come from? Hint: not Randomised Controlled Trials. One of the many ways midwives create knowledge about practice is by listening to each other and listening to women. For example, in the training aid linked above, one of the options involves assisting a woman who is on all fours to become straight upright on her knees, and applying suprapubic pressure. This is how my own personal learning about that happened (participants not identified to maintain confidentiality):
The baby’s head was hyperextended at the time of delivery, but not before. Woman on all fours, no progress with the next contraction, no spontaneous movements from the baby to assist his own flexion. Neither the midwife managing nor the Registrar who was supporting could reach the baby’s chin, just what felt like a bird beak (the lower jaw bone) pointed up to the sky, so Mariceau-Cronk was not an option. All present were fairly inexperienced, and no training aids were available, so the decision to get the woman upright was instinctive. The decision to apply suprapubic pressure while doing so was based on RCOG guidelines about how to help when the woman is in lithotomy, transcribed to the current situation. The occiput was felt during suprapubic pressure. Then suddenly the baby’s head dropped into the pelvis, and was immediately born wearing his placenta like a hat. Several minutes of resuscitation were required. Baby recovered quickly and well.
Following on from this story, I returned to the sources I use over and over again. Anne Frye’s Holistic Midwifery described how some midwives get the woman upright (for breech and shoulder dystocia) because this tightens the abdominal muscles, promoting head flexion. So someone else has a theory for how it works. There is also increasing radiological evidence that when upright or prone (e.g. shoulders, pelvis and knees in a straight line), the pelvic inlet is largest, while squatting significantly enlarges the mid-pelvis and pelvic outlet. The strategy of assisting the woman to move into an upright posture and use suprapubic pressure may have resulted in an even better outcome if performed earlier, as soon as the dystocia was identified.
Once you begin to see the patterns, they emerge in the stories you immerse yourself in. Reading Jennie Clegg’s story about her ‘Breech VBAC at home,’ I found this:
The next push I gave it everything I had and rumping happened very quickly followed by the body; the relief of the pressure was immense. Two sharp sensations happened which were the legs releasing, I remember looking through my legs and seeing a little body! Then there were a few sharp uncomfortable movements which were caused by the baby wriggling its arms out. My contractions at this point had stopped.
Debs could see no chin on the chest to examined me and found the head to be extended. An ambulance was called and Debs started manoeuvres to birth the baby. No movement was felt so I was encouraged to change position and Michelle tried nipple stimulation to get contractions coming. Michelle and James helped me to stand, Debs attempted head flexion, movement was felt and I was encouraged to push, baby was born immediately followed by the placenta! (Midwifery Matters, ISSUE 135, Winter 2012)
This scenario was slightly different, but maternal movement was again helpful. Jane Evans, a midwife with many years of breech experience, writes and talks about how her understanding of the physiology of breech birth has been informed by listening to and close observation of women (Evans 2012a, Evans 2012b).
Listen to women. Listen to midwives. Share your stories. Share your skills.
Michel, S. C., Rake, A., Treiber, K., Seifert, B., Chaoui, R., Huch, R., . . . Kubik-Huch, R. A. (2002). MR obstetric pelvimetry: effect of birthing position on pelvic bony dimensions. AJR Am J Roentgenol, 179(4), 1063-1067. doi: 10.2214/ajr.