Dr Shawn Walker, Consultant Midwife and Chief Investigator, explains the OptiBreech position on planned vaginal breech birth at home.OptiBreech position on home breech birth — The OptiBreech Project
- Should we screen for nuchal cord using ultrasound when a woman is planning a vaginal breech birth? and
- What should we do with the information if we do identify a nuchal cord on ultrasound?
‘Nuchal cord’ means that one or more loops of umbilical cord are wrapped around the baby’s neck, during pregnancy or birth. Checking for nuchal cord prior to external cephalic version (ECV) or during risk assessment prior to a vaginal breech birth (VBB) is both common and controversial.
What is known:
- Nuchal cords are common, especially for breech presentation. For example, in this study (Wong & Ludmir, 2006), where someone specifically looked for a nuchal cord prior to an attempt at ECV, 34/75 (45.3%) babies were spotted wearing their cord as a necklace. They attempted the ECVs without this information. More babies with nuchal cords had transient (temporary) heart rate abnormalities, and their ECVs were less likely to be successful. But none of them had an emergency caesarean birth because of the way their heart rate was affected by attempting ECV.
- This really good summary of Nuchal Cord and Its Implications (Peesay 2007) indicates that at birth, as many as 30% of all babies could have a nuchal cord.
- It may cause problems in some pregnancies and/or births, but visual assessment by ultrasound does NOT help us to predict which ones. (… in general. Unless, as in this paper by Hinkson et al 2019, there are 6 loops of nuchal cord visible. Wow!)
What is not known: Does a nuchal cord increase the risk associated with an ECV or vaginal breech birth? We just don’t know if, or by how much, presence of a nuchal cord increases the risk. This is one reason neither of the RCOG guidelines (ECV, Management of Breech) indicate nuchal cord should be identified, or used as an exclusion criteria, for either of these. In fact, they don’t mention ‘nuchal cord’ or ‘cord around the neck’ at all.
When there is clinical uncertainty, we just say … there is clinical uncertainty. We can’t guarantee it won’t be a problem, but we have no clear evidence that it is likely to cause a problem.
Other guidelines often do say something like, “exclude nuchal cord.” This means, “Look for it with ultrasound to make sure it isn’t there.” But it’s not clear what one is supposed to do if you identify it IS there. And if a clinician has not looked for it, or has not spotted it, and it ends up being there and causing a problem during birth, have they been negligent? It’s a slippery slope.
In my own clinical experience, breech babies born vaginally quite often have one or sometimes two loops of nuchal cord around their neck at birth. My gut feeling is that these babies more often needed help to flex the head, for example with a shoulder press, but that this was not more difficult than when the cord is not there.
I also checked our video study (Reitter, Halliday & Walker 2020) database of 42 breech births with ‘good’ outcomes. Among these, 8/42 (19%) had a cord wrapped at least once around the neck. Among these 8, 5/8 had help with the arms, and 6/8 had help to flex the head. This was slightly higher than the overall averages in the whole dataset. In the dataset, there were also 2 cases of leg entanglement, 1 case of arm entanglement, and 1 cord prolapse, where the cord comes out first.
It seems plausible that cord entanglement, whether around the neck or another body part, could interfere with the normal mechanisms of a vaginal breech birth. These babies may then require more assistance to be born safely, which is not itself a problem, as long as that assistance is provided in a timely fashion. It also seems plausible that in some case, a tight or short cord entanglement could cause problems that would put the baby at risk. But the kind of potential problems Peesay describes are all very likely to be picked up with the kind of close monitoring (growth scans, fetal heart rate monitoring, etc.) that every known breech baby received antenatally and/or in labour.
I’ve also added a ‘cord’ tag to several videos in our video library. If you’ve taken our Physiological Breech Birth course, you can search the library to watch several videos where cord entanglements feature and are resolved.
In summary, these are my recommendations:
- Don’t routinely go looking for a nuchal cord in otherwise uncomplicated pregnancies.
- If you do spot a nuchal cord, explain the clinical uncertainty with regard to its implications.
- Offer and attempt ECV if the person chooses this.
- Offer and support a VBB if the person chooses this.
- When attending a VBB with a known/suspected nuchal cord in labour:
- interpret fetal heart monitoring in light of this;
- interpret descent in light of this;
- anticipate the cord could interfere with the mechanisms, which may require your assistance; and
- review all of your tools for assisting the head to flex.
I’d love to know others’ thoughts and experiences?
Thank you to the woman who provided permission to re-post this exchange, in case others are looking for similar information. Emma and I respond to many requests for information like this. Hoping that sharing this response helps others looking & those who are caring for them. Shawn’s replies in blue.
I’m P2+0, ventouse in first and normal birth on the second. In all of my pregnancies I’ve had Gestational diabetes and been induced. I’ve been well controlled on insulin with no complications for the babies either antenatally or in the neonatal period. Same is the plan for this one. Previous two babies weighed 2.8kg And 2.82kg. All went well for both mother and babies on both births.
This time round I’m currently 34+4 weeks and baby is firmly breech for the last 8 weeks. So far I’ve tried spinning babies, homeopathy, acupuncture and moxa sticks to encourage baby to turn. Not budging one bit. I know there is still time for it to turn but I’m getting myself educated as to options.
ECV is a potential option at 37 weeks and if that fails obstetrician has suggested that I go for an induction of labour with breech as he knows I really don’t want a c/s.
He has said himself as I’m a midwife I know what’s involved, I don’t have big babies and there is only 18mths between each of my babies so I should labour well.
Only breech births I’ve seen over my career are either second twins or unexpected fully dilated breech in labour on arrival. I’ve never seen one induced.
Yes, this is one of the things that causes problems for planned breech births. Most people are most familiar with the ones what progress quickly and ‘just fall out’ before a CS can be performed. This can give a false impression, and though people may be ‘experienced,’ they may lack experience of more challenging breech births that take a little longer, such as people giving birth for the first time and inductions. [See No more ‘hands off the breech.’]
I’ve been doing reading & research on the topic but it’s hard to find current evidence. As you know historically from previous research c/s has been recommended instead of induction. I have found some more current evidence suggesting that with the right maternal candidate induction is possible and long term outcomes for both mother and baby are of no significant difference to those that have elective c/s. Am I right in this?
In experienced centres, the balance of evidence does not indicate increased risk from induction compared to spontaneous breech birth. In fact, in experienced centres, induction is sometimes used to increase the likelihood of a good outcome by ensuring a birth occurs when significant experience is available – not ideal, but nothing to do with vaginal breech birth is currently ideal.
Most recent published systematic review is Sun et al (2017) in EJOG. https://www.ejog.org/article/S0301-2115(17)30578-X/fulltext
One of my talented midwifery students just repeated this review with the addition of the most recent evidence, and the results showed not one significant difference. However, all of these studies would have been done in centres that are experienced enough to be confident inducting breech births. Given what I have said above, I feel it is likely that in centres who do not regularly do this, there is some increased risk. But this would be more applicable to people giving birth for the first time, in my opinion.
Also my baby is currently in a complete breech position flexed knees and feet above the buttock. Again I know this could change but I have read conflicting information on if this is a suitable position for induction of breech.
Breech babies dance until they can’t dance no more. So the position could change to head down or feet up or knees down or something else at the time of labour or even in labour. Non-frank breech presentations are at slightly higher risk of cord prolapse, so you may want to consider labouring with a cannula if this is the case at the time of induction. I have no further research-based information to offer.
It’s hard to find current information for parents on options using recent research so that is why I am contacting yourself. I’ve been following your twitter and some of the work the breech team is doing. I think as a midwife it’s a great idea and desperately needed to give real options to parents and expand skill set in health professionals. Do you have any patient information that you give to parents on induction of breech that I might benefit from reading?
Agreed, it’s hard. We have a leaflet, developed by Emma Spillane, which was developed based on the current RCOG guidelines. https://breechbirth.org.uk/2019/07/18/new-information-leaflet/ Because the RCOG guidelines currently ‘do not recommend’ induction of labour for breech births, we have chosen not to go there. Working in a controversial area like breech birth, one has to choose one’s battles. I’m very happy to support this as an individual choice myself, but in the wider context of re-establishing effective breech services, it hasn’t been the priority. Given increases in induction across the service, and evidence of the potential benefits of offering induction, this will eventually need to be addressed in any contemporary breech service. ‘Not going into labour,’ either by the date considered optimal, or following waters breaking, is the biggest reason that people who plan a vaginal breech birth do not end up having one.
Finally – Would you be happy for me to publish this e-mail exchange as a blog, with names and any other identifiable information removed, or not if you prefer? It helps me to be able to provide a link when people ask similar questions, which I expect will happen more with this topic.
Wishing you all the best,
Since the publication of the 2017 RCOG guidelines on the Management of Breech Presentation, mothers have, in theory, been given more choice in their options relating to mode of birth. Unfortunately, anecdotally this does not seem to be the case for all. Many units across the UK do not have dedicated services for mothers found to have a breech presentation at or near term. Therefore, they are potentially missing out on receiving balanced information regarding their choice of mode of birth. Finding out your baby is in a breech presentation at this late stage of pregnancy can be upsetting for some, birth plans have been discussed and made, excitement is building for the new arrival and then suddenly this seems to all be turned upside down. More decisions have to be made, that’s if the choices are offered to parents. Having a dedicated breech clinic, run by those knowledgeable and experienced in breech presentation, can help to allay some of the worries and concerns experienced by parents and ensure all evidence-based options are discussed in a balanced way. The clinic enables a two-way dialect between healthcare practitioner and mother in a supportive environment. In the current financial climate of the NHS it can be difficult to set up new services, however, the mother’s well-being must come first. Additionally, the skill of the practitioner is key to ensuring safety. The RCOG states:
“The presence of a skilled practitioner is essential for safe vaginal breech birth.”
“Selection of appropriate pregnancies and skilled intrapartum care may allow planned vaginal breech birth to be nearly as safe as planned vaginal cephalic birth.”
But with the decline in the facilitation of vaginal breech birth over the past two decades how do we ensure as healthcare practitioners that we are skilled to facilitate such births? This post aims to describe one way to increase knowledge, skill and experience in this field and how to set up a breech service within an NHS Trust to ensure mothers really do have all the options open to them for mode of birth with a breech presentation.
The first step to gaining knowledge and experience is to become involved in teaching. This has many benefits including, increasing your comprehension and embedding that information so you can pass it on to others; enables people to recognise you as breech specialist and it helps to build confidence when discussing with colleagues and parents alike. The more you are teaching the greater your understanding and the more people will recognise you within this role as a breech specialist. It is vital to keep your own skills up to date if you are putting yourself forward as a specialist, teaching both locally and assisting with teaching through the Breech Birth Network, CIC will help you keep up to date with the latest evidence and move things forward within your own constabulary. The team at the Breech Birth Network, CIC are very keen to support others to teach on our Physiological Breech Birth courses. You can read the following blog post for more information on the benefits of teaching Physiological Breech Birth with the Breech Birth Network, CIC.
Other ways to get involved with teaching are within the University and to the students coming through the local hospitals, these are the midwives of the future and this is where the biggest change is going to come from. Likewise, speak with the lead Consultant Obstetrician for new doctors starting in your Trust to see if you can teach them a shorter session on their induction days. This enables the new doctors coming into the hospital an awareness of what will be expected of them in terms of offering choice and ensures they have an understanding of both the mechanisms of breech birth and recognising complications. Additionally, setting up a weekly morning teaching session for thirty minutes ideally after handover so those finishing the night shift and those starting the day shift can both attend. This can be done as a case discussion or a scenario using a breech birth video. You could even use a breech birth proforma (if you have one) and ask those attending to complete the proforma whilst watching a video to see if they understand about the timings for a physiological breech birth and when to intervene. Speak to the Practice Development team and ask if you can teach the breech sessions on the mandatory training days too – moral of the story…teach, teach, teach!!
Of course, with all this knowledge and skills you are teaching you need to put it into practice. Put yourself forward at every opportunity to attend breech births both to facilitate them yourself and to support others to gain confidence in facilitating vaginal breech births. Clinical experience is essential. Research has shown, to maintain skills and competence the breech specialist should attend between three to ten breech births every year (Walker, 2017; Walker et al, 2017; Walker et al, 2018). In some smaller units this may be difficult to achieve but by making yourself available to attend births you will have a far better chance at getting these numbers in practice. There is also evidence which suggests that you can create the same complex pattern recognition by watching videos of vaginal breech births, both normal and complicated, as you can by attending breech births in real-life (Walker et al, 2016). Watching videos has the added benefit that you can rewind and re-watch parts of the video to ensure understanding and further analysis.
Setting up a breech birth service would be an excellent next step. Firstly, find a Consultant Obstetrician who is supportive of physiological breech birth and who would help to lead on service development with you. This has to be a multi-disciplinary approach other wise it just won’t be sustainable or safe. The best way to move such services forward is with consultant support and input, don’t try and do it on your own. A breech birth clinic is a good starting point for any service development, this will provide midwife-led and consistent counselling for parents attending the clinic. Depending on the size of the hospital, running the clinic once a week should be adequate initially. Setting up a dedicated email address for all referrals to be sent to is a great way to ensure referrals are not missed and there is a clear pathway set out. The following is an example of such a pathway:
Referrals can be made by any healthcare practitioner, but it is a good idea to link in with the sonographers performing the ultrasound scans. They may be able to send the details of the mother via email immediately following the scan and give the parents an information leaflet. This avoids any delay with the referral being made by another healthcare practitioner and ensures the counselling remains consistent. Moreover, the development of ‘breech teams’ is supported in the literature to ensure there are breech specialist midwives and doctors on every shift, or on-call, to support the wider team to gain their clinical skills to facilitate vaginal breech births and increase safety for mother and baby.
To further develop the service and your own skills you could complete a midwife scanning course. This will enable you to scan mothers referred into the breech service to check presentation before sending for a detailed scan. The advantages of this is that mothers could be referred into the clinic earlier, from thirty-four weeks gestation based on identification on palpation. Research has shown mothers find it difficult making decisions about mode of birth for breech presentation so late in pregnancy and would benefit from earlier referral and discussion. Referrals made at thirty-four weeks gestation with a bedside midwife scan to assess presentation, would enable the counselling to begin sooner giving more time for decision-making. An additional advantage of being able to scan is following mothers up after successful external cephalic version (ECV). Seeing mothers, a week after successful ECV enables you to scan the mother to ensure the baby has remained in a head-down position avoiding unexpected breech births. An adjunct to the scanning course would be to learn to perform ECV’s. This enables a fully midwife-led service and research has indicated comparable rates of success for ECV’s performed by Midwives and those performed by Obstetricians. It is also cheaper for the Trust to have ECV’s performed by Midwives!
Governance and audit are the final steps to take to building the specialist breech midwife role and for service development. This is often seen as the mundane part of the job, but you will benefit greatly by doing this, not just from immersing yourself in all the research but by knowing your service inside and out. Knowing what needs to be changed and what has improved. The first step in governance change is to write the guidelines incorporating physiological breech birth, new evidence relating to breech presentation, service development, the breech clinic, referral pathways and training. An example of a current guideline can be found via this link. Develop an information leaflet to give to parents which contains the latest evidence in relation to breech birth options. It can be given to the mothers either by midwives in the clinic and/or by the sonographers after their ultrasound confirming breech presentation. The following can be used as an example and is editable for use in your organisation.
Finally, audit, audit, audit! Before, after and everything in between! This is your evidence that things need to change and, once the service is developed, the outcomes since you implemented all the aspects of the service. It will also act as evidence of safety which the governance team within the organisation will want to see. Audit rates of planned caesarean, emergency caesarean, planned VBB, successful VBB, neonatal outcomes, maternal outcomes, uptake of ECV, success rate of ECV etc. All before and after the service. It is also a good idea to obtain service user feedback. Developing a simple questionnaire such as this one enables you to easily send and receive feedback regarding the service. Feedback from service users is the most powerful way of moving services forward and supporting change within an organisation, it also enables you to develop the service dependent on the needs of the parents using it. The process of audit and user feedback is continuous throughout the time running the service. However, it is important analyse and present the result at regular opportunities such as at local level with clinical governance days and meetings and at a wider national level at conferences and in journals.
Whilst it can seem daunting and places you in a seemingly vulnerable position, starting your journey as breech specialist is an extremely rewarding one which will enable you to learn and develop new skills not just clinically but operationally and strategically. It will give you a stepping stone into research, audit and teaching, build your confidence as a practitioner and most of all, empower you to provide the best evidence-based care for those families who need that knowledge and support at a crucial time in their pregnancy to help them to make the right decision on mode of birth for them and their breech baby.
Following the implementation of all that has been discussed in this post, the results within the large teaching hospital I work are as follows:
- Planned caesarean section increased from 55.8% (n=43) to 62.9% (n=66);
- Unplanned caesarean section decreased from 42.9% (n=33) to 24.8% (n=26);
- Vaginal breech birth increased from 1.3% (n=1) to 12.3% (n=13)
All results are for those over thirty-six weeks gestation, there were no differences in neonatal mortality or morbidity prior to or following the implementation of the service. This is a positive change and shows how supporting vaginal breech birth in a safe environment can increase the normal birth rate. The results are after a year of implementing the service and will hopefully continue to improve as time goes on and more midwives and doctors become more confident to facilitate breech births.
Emma Spillane is seeking your thoughts on a new piece of research prior to its submission for ethics approval. If you have experienced a breech pregnancy within the last 5 years in the UK, either yourself or your partner, or you work with pregnant women in a non-medical capacity (e.g. doula, antenatal teacher, breastfeeding supporter, etc.), I would love to hear from you.
I am conducting research as part of my Masters exploring breech childbirth preferences of expectant parents to understand if there is demand for breech birth services within the NHS and explore the factors which influence parents decision-making. At this stage, I would like your feedback on the suggested design of the trial, to ensure that the information resulting from the research will be useful to those considering breech options. For those of you who would like to remain with the project I am forming a Breech Advisory Group provide feedback at further stages in the project such as analysing the results.
If you are interested in participating in my research in this way, please read the plain text summary of the project below and complete a short survey by following the link after the research summary.
Approximately 3-4% of babies at term present in the breech position (bottom or feet first) (Impey et al. 2017). The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ (RCOG) most recent clinical guideline on Management of Breech Presentation recommends that pregnant women should be offered choice on mode of birth for breech presentation at term(after 37 weeks’ gestation) (Impey et al, 2017). Despite this recommendation, only 0.4% of all breech babies in the UK are born vaginally (Hospital Episode Statistics, 2017), and this figure includes pre-term breech births where breech presentation is more common (Impey et al. 2017). These statistics suggest that either the demand for vaginal breech birth is low, or the choice of mode of birth is not being consistently offered. This study aims to explore this enigma by providing empirical evidence necessary to inform maternity services on the requirement of breech birth services.
Current evaluations of demand for vaginal breech birth services have been limited by the quality and impartiality of information parents are able to access via their maternity services. For example, research has shown that women have difficulties finding information to support their choices and are pressured into making the decision based upon practitioner preference (Petrovska et al, 2016). An investigation carried out in the Netherlands, found that one third of parents would prefer to have their babies born vaginally (Kok, 2008). However, little is currently known about parents’ preferences in England.
This research will evaluate the extent of expectant parents’ preferences for vaginal breech birth prior to counselling, and the factors that influence these preferences, using personal interview surveys (Bhattacherjee, 2012). All women presenting with suspected breech presentation at a large London based teaching hospital – St George’s University Hospital NHS Foundation Trust – will be given information about this study along with their Trust approved mode of birth information leaflet during their routine antenatal appointment at 36 weeks of pregnancy. As per Trust clinical protocol, women with suspected breech presentation will be offered a referral for an Obstetric Ultrasound Scan (OUSS) for confirmation of fetal presentation. During this routine OUSS appointment, either prior to or following the scan taking place, parents will be approached by the researcher and invited to take part in an interview on their preferred mode of birth and the reasons behind these preferences. Both parents, if present, will be interviewed separately. Parents will already have been given information about the study in the form of a Participant Information Sheet PIS) by the clinician referring them for an OUSS. The timing of the interview has been chosen because it fits with the participating Trusts usual pathway of care. Parents are informed there may be long waiting times due to OUSS being arranged at short notice.
The findings from this research will provide evidence on the following:
- the demand for a vaginal breech birth service, based on written information prior to individualised counselling;
- the factors influencing this demand, which can be used to improve shared decision-making training and taken into account when planning future research; and
- a predicted service planning model for a fully integrated breech continuity team within the host Trust.
Data on parents’ preferences for mode of birth will be reported descriptively as a percentage. Qualitative data regarding parents’ reasons for their preferences of mode of birth will be analysed thematically.
Providing evidence-based information to parents throughout the pregnancy, birth and post-partum journey is an essential part of the role of all healthcare professionals working in maternity services. However, evidence suggests in some areas of maternity, such as the highly politicised area of vaginal breech birth, the information provided to parents is biased towards that of what the system supports or the individual healthcare professional providing the counselling prefers. A compelling ethical and legal requirement exists to provide the evidence to parents which they have a right to receive, as discussed by Kotaska et al (2007).
An international qualitative survey by Petrovska et al (2017) surveyed women who had a breech presentation and were seeking support for their choice of mode of birth. Petrovska et al (2017) examines how mothers found inadequate system and clinical support for vaginal breech birth which impeded their access to unbiased information on their options for mode of birth and the care they received. In a paper written by Powell et al (2015) they also found that parents were often given unbalanced information. This lack of balanced information was a motivating factor in developing an information leaflet for parents identified with a breech presentation at or near the end of their pregnancy. The development of an information leaflet is supported by many papers such as that by Guittier et al (2011) and Sloman et al (2016) who also found parents were often provided with biased information. We hope the development and provision of useful, unbiased information material will assist with decision making and enable parents to make an informed choice of their options with a breech presentation.
2.3 encourage and empower people to share in decisions about their treatment and care
2.4 respect the level to which people receiving care want to be involved in decisions about their own health, wellbeing and care
2.5 respect, support and document a person’s right to accept or refuse care and treatment
6 Always practise in line with the best available evidence
To achieve this, you must:
6.1 make sure that any information or advice given is evidence-based including information relating to using any health and care products aor servicesNursing and Midwifery Council, The Code
Having not been given the option of a vaginal breech birth the practitioners counselling them were breaching the NMC Code. Furthermore, the RCOG (2017) Management of Breech Presentation Guidelines state:
Clinicians should counsel women in an unbiased way that ensures a proper understanding of the absolute as well as relative risks of their different options. [New 2017]
It is alarming that despite this guidance, and in light of more recent evidence which has emerged on the suitability of vaginal breech birth for selective pregnancies, that parents are still not being given all their options and more importantly the impact it is having on their future pregnancies.
The information leaflet has been developed in response to the acknowledged lack of balanced information available to parents. To ensure the information is evidence-based it includes data from the RCOG (2017) guidelines as well as other research sources such as that from Louwen et al (2016) and the NICE Caesarean Section Guideline (2013). The information leaflet was circulated to healthcare professionals of all grades (midwives, SHO’s, Registrars and Consultants) as well as parents who had experienced a breech presentation previously. They were asked to comment via a SurveyMonkey on the information which was provided in the leaflet to ensure it was easy to understand, informative, evidence-based and unbiased. The leaflet is provided below in both PDF leaflet form as well as an MS Word format, so healthcare professionals are able to download and edit for use in their own healthcare organisation.
Providing this readily available resource for parents and healthcare professionals is invaluable for ensuring the correct information is easily accessible and shared to not only support parents in making an informed choice about their options, but also for assisting with the counselling healthcare professionals provide to those in their care. If you have any questions or comments about the information leaflet, please do not hesitate to contact us on the contact form provided below.
We are seeking your thoughts on two new pieces of research currently in the development stage. If you have experienced a breech pregnancy within the last 5 years in the UK, either yourself or your partner, or you work with pregnant women in a non-medical capacity (e.g. doula, antenatal teacher, breastfeeding supporter, etc.), we would love to hear from you.
Emma Spillane would like your feedback on an Information Leaflet for people pregnant with breech-presenting babies. The leaflet will be used in research to determine an approximate level of demand for vaginal breech birth, with balanced counselling and adequate support.
Shawn Walker is preparing an application for a large grant to fund a pilot randomised controlled trial. No term breech trials have been published since 2000 (Hannah et al). The team around this project would like to gather a Breech Advisory Group composed of people who have experienced a breech pregnancy within the last 5 years in the UK, either yourself or your partner, and non-medical birth workers, such as doulas and antenatal teachers. At this stage, we would like your feedback on the suggested design of the trial, to ensure that the information resulting from the research will be useful to those considering breech options. For those of you who would like to remain with the project if funding is obtained, we will send regular updates with opportunities to provide feedback at stages like final project design, advertising the trial and analysing the results.
If you are interested in participating in our research in this way, please complete the form below and one of us will be in touch.
On Sunday, I am heading off to New Zealand (Christchurch & Auckland), where doctors and midwives are keen to learn more about physiological breech birth. From there it’s on to Sydney for the Normal Birth Conference 2016, where I’m excited to be giving an oral presentation about my research into how professionals develop skills to support breech birth. This is my first Normal Birth Conference, and I can’t wait to soak up the influence of so many birth researchers, including the team from Sydney currently publishing some groundbreaking papers about breech (more below). You can follow the conference on Twitter at #NormalBirth16.
I am often asked by students with a budding interest in breech birth and a requirement to write a dissertation, if I can recommend any good/important breech research papers. Why, yes, I can.
- The easy and Kuhnian answer to this question is: As it happens, I’ve published a good handful of peer-reviewed research and professional publications concerning breech presentation and breech birth! History may or may not deem them to be important, but if you want to know what I think is important, the reference lists will reveal all.
- Read the Term Breech Trial. Read all of it, including all of the follow-up studies written by people who weren’t named Hannah. Critique the research and form your own opinions about if/how it is relevant to contemporary practice. Until you have completed this task, resist the urge to claim publicly that the TBT has been ‘disproven’ or ‘debunked.’ It hasn’t. It is still a powerful force, and in fact contains many relevant lessons. Finally, read the critiques of the TBT.
- Now do the same for PREMODA, and if you are reading this in a few months’ time, the Frankfurt studies. At this point it will start to become interesting if you compare the reference lists of the different ‘camps’ of breech thought.
- When I was starting my PhD, I did a PubMed search on ‘breech presentation,’ which returned over 4000 results. I read all of the abstracts related to management of breech presentation, and all of the articles where the abstract looked interesting/relevant. It took me about 6 months. My PhD supervisors suggested this strategy might be ‘inefficient.’ Fair point. However, it’s one of the best things I ever did, as I feel confident that I have a broad understanding of research related to breech. However, I’ve muted this suggestion, as it may not fit the time constraints of the pre-registration students. It’s just to say — there is no shortcut if you want to thoroughly understand the research base in your area of practice.
- Finally, keep an eye on the group in Sydney who are currently publishing some very important papers. Mixing qualitative and quantitative methods, and focusing on the experiences of women and health care professionals, this team is producing research which complements the observational studies which have predominated in the past 15 years. Although each piece of research contains its own question, underlying them all, the wider questions are lurking: How did we get in such a muddle about breech? And how can we get out of it?
I will link a few of the Sydney papers below. Looking forward to seeing several members of this team at #NormalBirth16.
Catling, C., Petrovska, K., Watts, N., Bisits, A., Homer, C.S.E., 2015. Barriers and facilitators for vaginal breech births in Australia: Clinician’s experiences. Women Birth 29, 138–143. doi:10.1016/j.wombi.2015.09.004 — A qualitative study of interviews with 9 breech-experienced professionals (midwives and obstetricians) exploring what helped and hindered their ability to provide women with the option of a vaginal breech birth.
Catling, C., Petrovska, K., Watts, N.P., Bisits, A., Homer, C.S.E., 2016. Care during the decision-making phase for women who want a vaginal breech birth: Experiences from the field. Midwifery 34, 111–116. doi:10.1016/j.midw.2015.12.008 — Additional analysis from the qualitative study above, exploring how these professionals provide care during the decision-making phase, when women are choosing mode of childbirth for a breech-presenting baby.
Homer, C.S.E., Watts, N.P., Petrovska, K., Sjostedt, C.M., Bisits, A., 2015. Women’s experiences of planning a vaginal breech birth in Australia. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 15, 1–8. doi:10.1186/s12884-015-0521-4 — A large qualitative study exploring women’s experiences and what women want when planning mode of breech childbirth. Open access too.
Petrovska, K., Watts, N.P., Catling, C., Bisits, A., Homer, C.S.E., 2016. Supporting Women Planning a Vaginal Breech Birth: An International Survey. Birth. doi:10.1111/birt.12249 — An international survey exploring the support women received when planning a breech birth. The researchers found that women were generally happy with their decision to plan a breech birth and would do it again in another pregnancy. However, lack of support from their primary care providers often made this difficult to achieve.
Petrovska, K., Watts, N., Sheehan, A., Bisits, A., Homer, C., 2016. How do social discourses of risk impact on women’s choices for vaginal breech birth? A qualitative study of women’s experiences. Health. Risk Soc. 1–19. doi:10.1080/13698575.2016.1256378
Petrovska, K., Watts, N.P., Catling, C., Bisits, A., Homer, C.S., 2016. “Stress, anger, fear and injustice”: An international qualitative survey of women’s experiences planning a vaginal breech birth. Midwifery 0, 464–469. doi:10.1016/j.midw.2016.11.005
Petrovska, K., Sheehan, A., Homer, C.S.E., 2016. The fact and the fiction: A prospective study of internet forum discussions on vaginal breech birth. Women and Birth. doi:10.1016/j.wombi.2016.09.012
Watts, N.P., Petrovska, K., Bisits, A., Catling, C., Homer, C.S.E., 2016. This baby is not for turning: Women’s experiences of attempted external cephalic version. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 16, 248. doi:10.1186/s12884-016-1038-1 — Oh, thank goodness for this. The rhetoric around external cephalic version (ECV) is so strong, it almost feels a sacrilege to question it. Despite the Cochrane Review stating clearly that the evidence does not indicate that ECV improves neonatal outcomes, women are constantly told that ECV is ‘best for babies.’ Which says a lot about how reluctant to engage with the option of vaginal breech birth their providers are. This study of women’s experiences is a welcome balance to the dominant view that vaginal breech birth is only something to be considered after ECV has failed. ECV is a good option for many women, and a safe procedure in experienced hands. But it is not for everyone.
Borbolla Foster, A., Bagust, A., Bisits, A., Holland, M., Welsh, A., 2014. Lessons to be learnt in managing the breech presentation at term: An 11-year single-centre retrospective study. Aust. N. Z. J. Obstet. Gynaecol. 54, 333–9. doi:10.1111/ajo.12208 — Technically from another team, with one cross-over member, inspirational obstetrician Andrew Bisits. This observational study helps to shed light on the clinical context surrounding these researchers. Although the article makes no mention of use of upright positioning for labour and birth, Dr Bisits is well-known for his use of a birthing stool for breech birth. You can read more about this in a previous blog, Bottoms Down Under.
Andrew Bisits performing a gentle ECV
I may have missed something, or a new study may have been published while I am writing this. (I have updated the post with some recent editions.) Best to keep a look out yourself.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is consulting the public on the proposed new breech guideline, until 2 May, which is Monday. They accept one peer review per organisation, so I will collate any comments sent to me personally or posted here on Monday afternoon, and submit them for Breech Birth Network. – Shawn
This story about a woman’s home birth after 3 caesarean sections (HBA3C) caused a bit of a Twitter storm earlier this year. OB Prof Jim Thornton has written about his involvement here – his post and the comments below it will give you a sense of what the outrage was all about. What they won’t tell you is that a significant number of maternity service users and professional advocates active in the #matexp campaign called for an end to the storm, just as they are calling for an end to disrepectful care and divided professional camps. Their work is very worthy of your attention.
What interests and concerns me is that criticism and debate around this woman’s story seems to centre on:
- the woman’s decision to birth her baby at home attended by midwives, after having had three previous caesarean sections; and
- the woman’s memory that the midwife “told me I COULD have a natural birth no matter how many sections I’d had!” – and the near universal interpretation that this permission (for lack of a better word) equates to reassuring her that it was somehow the safest or the best option.
Conspicuously absent is discussion about the woman’s description of care leading to her first 3 caesarean sections .. “As I was naive I thought I had to do what they said” .. “I was determined to have my VBAC. Until the doctor told me I was going to kill myself and my baby. So a scheduled CS was made for 38+4.” In my experience of working with women requesting support for what some might call extreme birth choices, disrespectful, coercive and often non-evidence based experiences of maternity care usually precede such apparently extreme decisions. Moderate risk-taking behaviour by a woman keen to collaborate with her care providers has been over-ruled by someone who feels they know best.
Strictly speaking, her midwives were correct: a woman CAN have a natural birth no matter how many sections she has had .. or she can try. This descriptive statement says nothing about the risk/benefit balance of such a choice, which her caregivers would certainly have discussed in detail. Women are supported to choose the mode of birth which is best for them, or they aren’t. Women are supported to choose the location of their birth, or they aren’t. ‘Risking out’ is an entirely different model of decision-making. And supporting women to exercise their own power and autonomy in low- to moderate-risk situations will potentially create fewer high-risk situations further compromised by lack of trust and respect between women and caregivers.
I would like to see more professional discussion around how we counsel women making very complex birth choices. This conversation is often difficult for health professionals because it requires an admission of vulnerability. The nature of complexity means several things could be going on at once, some of which may be new and unfamiliar and thus require more time and consideration for an appropriate response. But the nature of birth is that a crisis can emerge very quickly, and that time may not available. Experience helps. But who has a hefty bulk of experience supporting VBA3Cs? Experience of complications is particularly valuable in such work – but how many midwives who have actually experienced a uterine rupture at home are still practising? Professionals in these situations are always out on a limb.
Does this mean health professionals should never support women making choices which increase the complexity of caring for them in labour? What should professionals’ attitudes be to such choices? One tweeter opined that the NHS should not support VBAC’s at home, because brain damaged babies cost the NHS a fortune and, “There is a limit to what you can do with other people’s money.” What exactly did the woman in question do with ‘other people’s money,’ except use the minimum required for such a birth? Should a woman be forced to have surgery because otherwise her baby might cost the health system too much? Is this really a route we want to go down as a society?
All of the outrage about women making apparently ‘risky’ birth choices contrasts with societal reactions when men make make similarly risky lifestyle choices. Stories about mountain climbers always send a chill up my spine, and one that particularly affected me was the disappearance of Jean-Christophe Lafaille during his ill-fated winter climb up Makalu in 2006. I casually stumbled upon an article in some large-circulation magazine, containing a haunting photo of his wife and 4-year-old son. I was struck by the look of loss and longing in their eyes, probably because in 2006 I had two sons of my own of a similar age. I often wonder how his wife and son are doing now.
While mountain climbers are not immune to criticism from their own community as well as those outside it, they are also glorified and funded by large companies. They usually climb with teams of people, so it is not just their own lives they are responsible for (although in the case of J-C L it was). The captivating stories of their exploits are used to promote merchandise. Even people who would never dream of scaling Makalu find their tales inspiring. The makers of the film Everest, due to be released this week, are banking on it.
Perhaps Jean-Christophe Lafaille can help shed some light on the essential humanness of risk-taking and some women’s deep desire for contact with their most basic – and essential – self:
“I find it fascinating that our planet still has areas where no modern technology can save you, where you are reduced to your most basic – and essential – self. This natural space creates demanding situations that can lead to suffering and death, but also generate a wild interior richness. Ultimately, there is no way of reconciling these contradictions. All I can do it try to live within their margins, in the narrow boundary between joy and horror. Everything on this earth is a balancing act.” (reference)
While maternity services are about safety, they should never be about enforcing some presumed collective version of what is safe onto everyone, suppressing in the process the inherently creative and often risk-taking human spirit, as well as the potential discovery of benefits in these non-mainstream choices. Nations have mountain rescue services because people will continue to climb mountains. And women will continue to want to birth their babies, sometimes in extreme circumstances. I am comfortable with my role ‘on the ground,’ so to speak, providing the standardised care which institutional systems offer and most women are happy with. I am also comfortable supporting women who metaphorically want to scale a mountain, and I will continue trying to find what sort of equipment, sustenance, maps and guidance will help them be as safe as possible while being boundary-testing humans in all their glory. I hope that maternity services can find a way through which enables more women to ‘be themselves’ in birth, as safely as possible, with an open acceptance by women and health professionals that in some instances, this may in fact come with some greater risk. I hope that maternity services can provide care which meets women’s spiritual as well as physical needs, and that judgements and coercion can recede into the past. Every woman who gives birth – however she does it – is a hero.
(Originally written on 12 April 2015. Publication postponed due to professional blizzards.)
Related resources –
You may be interested in this article, co-written with Mariamni Plested. Plested M, Walker S (2014) Building confident ways of working around higher risk birth choices. Essentially MIDIRS 5(9):13-16 – (Archived at City Research Online)
See also the Mama Sherpas film