Category Archives: guidelines

What is ‘physiological breech birth?’

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

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

Image from Dr Anke Reitter, 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permission granted to use for teaching purposes

Historical use of the phrase ‘physiological breech birth’

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

How to let the evidence help you

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

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

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

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

In Summary

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

Ian Donald, 1956, Practical Obstetric Problems

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

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

Shawn

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

Here’s some!

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

New Canadian breech guidelines published

new guidelineA new SOGC Clinical Practice Guideline No. 384 — Management of Breech Presentation at term has been published. It echoes the latest RCOG guideline in promoting accurate and supportive informed consent discussions. One of the main authors, Andrew Kotaska, has written extensively about this before: Informed consent and refusal in obstetrics: a practical ethical guide.

The SOGC guideline frames counselling around mode of childbirth for a breech baby within the context of human rights, especially in the ‘Key Messages:’

A woman’s choice of delivery mode should be respected.

The risk of planned vaginal breech birth is acceptable to some women with a term singleton breech fetus.

Women with a contraindication to a trial of labour should be advised to have a Caesarean section. Women choosing to labour despite this recommendation have a right to do so and should be provided with the best possible in-hospital care. 

The summary of evidence related to safety is similar to that provided by the RCOG and a good reference for anyone counselling women about their breech childbirth options. A notable difference is the recommendation that,

Although data are limited, induction of labour with breech presentation does not appear to be associated with poorer outcomes than spontaneous labour.

https://twitter.com/SisterShawnRM/status/1143838688637542400

As with the RCOG guideline, the new SOGC guideline recognises the importance of skill and experience to the safety of vaginal breech births. One of the SOGC’s summary statements is:

Vaginal breech birth requires a high degree of skill and support. To avoid the increased risk of out-of-hospital vaginal breech birth, women who choose planned vaginal breech birth should be accommodated in-hospital. To facilitate this, referral to more experienced centres, back-up on-call arrangements, and continuing medical training in vaginal breech birth skills should be promoted (very low).

(Very low refers to the quality of evidence in relation to this recommendation.) The RCOG also recommends antenatal referral to a centre with more skill and experience if necessary. Later in the SOGC text, the authors point out:

Many newly qualified obstetricians do not have the experience necessary to supervise a breech TOL [trial of labour]. Mentoring by more senior colleagues will be necessary if they are to attain these skills. As women will continue to request planned VBB and precipitous breech births occur in all settings, theoretical and hands-on breech birth training using models should remain part of basic obstetrical and midwifery training and of traingin programs such as ALARM, ALSO, and MORE ob.

I am particulary interested in recommendations made regarding how to support breech skill development because Competence and Expertise in Physiological Breech Birth was the topic of my PhD.

In our integrative review of the Effectiveness of vaginal breech birth training strategies (2017), inclusion of breech birth as part of an obstetric emergencies training package without support in practice was negatively associated with subsequent attendance at vaginal breech births, meaning practitioners attended fewer breech births. None of the evaluations of training packages included clinical outcomes, so it was not possible to determine whether they had an effect on safety. But the evidence suggests that support and mentorship in practice is likely to be key to giving less experienced practitioners the confidence to support breech births and gain the skills in practice.

Research on Expertise in physiological breech birth and the Deliberate acquisition of competence in physiological breech birth suggest that mentorship is indeed very important, but that this does not always take the form of senior colleagues supporting newly qualified colleagues. Maintaining classical hierarchies — such as expecting senior obstetricians to have breech skills while younger colleagues, or midwives, not to — can promote a form of alienating authority, which inhibits the development of generative expertise.  Among practitioners who had deliberately developed competence to support breech births, younger, highly motivated practitioners often had to leave their primary clinical setting to acquire knowledge, skills and new techniques, which they brought back with them. The fact that they needed to do this suggests that they had not been being mentored at home.

One of the things I love about working in the UK is the long history of multi-disciplinary working. Although some teams work more effectively than others, it means that a person wishing to birth their breech baby with an experienced midwife in attendance does not have to choose between a home birth and an obstetrically-managed hospital birth. The obstricians I work with recognise the skill with physiological birth that their midwifery colleagues bring into the room — and we are grateful for their skill with surgical and very complicated births. We keep each other safe.

Given that referral to experienced centres is recommended in both RCOG and SOGC guidelines, more research is needed about how this works in various settings. What happens if a woman is referred elsewhere, but that hospital cannot or will not accept her for care? What are the economic implications? What defines an ‘experienced centre?’ In some hospitals, such as in Frankfurt Germany, the vaginal breech birth rate can be as high as 6-11% of the total birth rate due to women travelling to experienced providers, compared to 0.4% of the total birth rate in the UK.

We also need to consider and study other potential solutions to skill redevelopment. For example, why expect women to travel away from their known and trusted care team — why not shift professionals instead? I am employed primarily by a university, but I have a contract with one NHS Trust and am completing a contract with another by request, so that I can support them to develop their breech services. Mobility of providers also happens when obstetric trainees rotate between training centres. Sadly, I have heard numerous stories from senior obstetric trainees who have acquired breech experience in one hospital, only to be blocked from using that experience by their senior colleagues in another, a case of hierarchical and alienating authority. Similarly, many midwives have spent time abroad and delivered dozens of breech babies, but have had to stand aside when a woman is diagnosed in labour with a breech because the woman is now considered ‘an obstetric case.’ Women are often not informed when skill and experience is available because these remain invisible and under-utilised, especially in midwives and younger obstetric colleagues.

Throughout the UK, many new breech services are being developed. Breech clinics, like the one at the Royal London, ensure women get consistent counselling by breech-experienced practitioners. They also provide an environment where trainees can learn this skill. Many hospitals are developing ‘breech teams‘ so that vaginal breech births and those attending them can be supported by confident and competent members of the team — this includes experienced midwives. Training activities to support these new teams emphasise the elements available literature suggests will be effective — repetition and reflection — especially using birth videos for team debrief and simulation training. Gradually, we are supporting each other to reintroduce breech skills and consider new ways of sustaining them in order to be able to offer the care our countries’ leading guidelines recommend.

— Shawn

References

García Adánez J et al 2013. Recuperación del parto vaginal de nalgas y versión cefálica externa. Progresos Obstet. y Ginecol. 56, 248–253.

Hickland P et al 2018. A novel and dedicated multidisciplinary service to manage breech presentation at term; 3 years of experience in a tertiary care maternity unit. J. Matern. Neonatal Med. 31, 3002–3008.

Homer C S E et al 2015. Women’s experiences of planning a vaginal breech birth in Australia. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth 15, 89.

Kidd L et al 2014. Development of a dedicated breech service in a London teaching hospital. Arch. Dis. Child. – Fetal Neonatal Ed. 99, A20–A21.

Kotaska A 2017. Informed consent and refusal in obstetrics: A practical ethical guide. Birth 44, 195–199.

Kotaska A, Menticoglou S 2019. No. 384-Management of Breech Presentation at Term. J. Obstet. Gynaecol. Canada 41, 1193–1205.

Larsen J W, Pinger WA 2014. Primary cesarean delivery prevention: a collaborative model of care. Obstet. Gynecol. 123 Suppl, 152S.

Louwen F et al 2017. Does breech delivery in an upright position instead of on the back improve outcomes and avoid cesareans? Int. J. Gynecol. Obstet. 136, 151–161.

Maier B et al, 2011. Fetal outcome for infants in breech by method of delivery: experiences with a stand-by service system of senior obstetricians and women’s choices of mode of delivery. J Perinat Med 39, 385–390.

Marko K I et al 2015. Cesarean Delivery Prevention. Obstet. Gynecol. 125, 42S.

Petrovska K et al 2016. Supporting Women Planning a Vaginal Breech Birth: An International Survey. Birth 43, 353–357.

Reitter A et al 2018. Is it reasonable to establish an independent obstetric leadership in a small hospital and does it result in measurable changes in quality of maternity care? Z. Geburtshilfe Neonatol.

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

Walker S, Scamell M, Parker P 2016. Principles of physiological breech birth practice: A Delphi study. Midwifery 43, 1–6.

Walker S 2017. Competence and expertise in physiological breech birth. PhD Thesis. City, University of London.

Walker, S., Breslin, E., Scamell, M., Parker, P., 2017. Effectiveness of vaginal breech birth training strategies: An integrative review of the literature. Birth 44, 101–109.

Walker S, Scamell M, Parker P 2018. Deliberate acquisition of competence in physiological breech birth: A grounded theory study. Women and Birth 31, e170–e177.

Walker S, Parker P, Scamell M 2018. Expertise in physiological breech birth: A mixed-methods study. Birth 45, 202–209.

New Information Leaflet

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.

 

Since setting up a breech service within the Trust I work I have seen the difference in counselling techniques and the information provided to parents.  As part of my clinical role I meet parents for birth options discussions, often parents seeking support to use a Birth Centre for labour and birth despite having either medical or obstetric complexities which means the recommendation would be to labour and birth on the obstetric unit.  Many of these discussions are with mothers who have had a previous caesarean section often for breech presentation in their first pregnancy.  In nearly all of these cases the parents say they were never given the option to have a vaginal breech birth and yet the NMC Code states:

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 services

Nursing 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.

— Emma

 

What is the evidence for shoulder press / Frank’s Nudge?

Learning shoulder press in Montreal with Isabelle Brabant

As physiological breech practice gains acceptance, guidelines are changing to reflect this change in practice. One of the questions those updating guidelines often ask is: What is the evidence? For example, what is the evidence for the shoulder press manoeuvre we teach in Physiological Breech Birth study days?

To answer this question, we have to consider what level of evidence underpins breech practice in general. To my knowledge, no breech manoeuvres have been tested in randomised controlled trials. A recent Cochrane Review looked at ‘Quick versus standard delivery’ for breech babies and found no reliable studies to inform practice.

Image from Louwen et al 2017, Does breech delivery in an upright position instead of on the back improve outcomes and avoid caesareans? Open Access, click on image for full report. Artwork by Chloe Aubert

Observational studies that contain clear descriptions of the methods of management used in that setting reported alongside perinatal outcomes contain one form of evidence. A problem with observational studies is that even when ‘classical methods’ are reported, the meaning of that expression varies between settings. So studies from Canada, for example, are not necessarily generalizable to settings in the UK because standard practice varies between the two continents. A notable exception is the study of outcomes associated with upright breech birth reported by the Frankfurt team (Louwen et al 2017), in which a very clear description of the ‘Frank’s Nudge’ manoeuvre is provided, alongside excellent perinatal outcomes associated with upright maternal positions.

Another type of evidence is the support of a ‘responsible body of similar professionals.’ This is related to the Bolam test for clinical negligence in English tort law (Bolam v. Friern Hospital Management Committee), which holds that, “there is no breach of standard of care if a responsible body of similar professionals support the practice that caused the injury, even if the practice was not the standard of care.” In our research with 13 obstetricians and 13 midwives who had attended a self-reported average of 135 breech births each (Walker et al 2016), 73% of those participating agreed or strongly agreed that health professionals attending upright breech births should be competent to assist by:

  • sub-clavicular pressure and bringing the shoulders forward to flex an extended head; and
  • pressure in the sub-clavicular space, triggering the head to flex.

Additionally, 86% agreed or strongly agreed that an essential skill was:

  • moving infant’s body to mum’s body, so that infant’s body follows the curve of the woman’s sacrum

This research avoided the use of names such as ‘shoulder press’ and ‘Frank’s Nudge’ in favour of descriptions because not everyone uses the same terms, or refers to the same actions even if they do.

Evidence for manoeuvres also comes from evaluations of training programmes, both breech-specific and obstetrics emergencies courses. In our review of the effectiveness of vaginal breech birth training strategies (Walker et al 2017a), we found no published studies demonstrating an association between any training strategy and improvement in perinatal outcomes. The evidence base for the PROMPT training programme, widely used in the UK, comes from a study that did demonstrate an association with training and a subsequent reduction in low 5-minute Apgar scores and HIE (Draycott et al 2006). But that study questionably excluded outcomes for breech births, and because of this the breech methods in PROMPT cannot be said to be evidence-based, although the programme’s overall approach of multi-disciplinary working and clear communication remains important.

Most obstetrics emergencies training programmes have been evaluated at the level of change in confidence and/or knowledge. Our Physiological Breech Birth training programme, which includes shoulder press, has also been evaluated at this level in published research and demonstrated good results (Walker et al 2017b).

Finally we have the most recent RCOG guideline (Impey et al 2017), which states: “The choice of manoeuvres used, if required to assist with delivery of the breech, should depend on the individual experience/preference of the attending doctor or midwife.”

— Shawn

New RCOG guideline published today!

The new RCOG Management of Breech Presentation guideline has been published today. This guideline substantially revises recommendations in the previous version, published in 2006. If followed, it will undoubtedly improve women’s access to and experience of breech care. Below I will highlight two of the new guideline’s game-changing recommendations, and then raise two key questions concerning areas of on-going exploration.

Reference: Impey LWM, Murphy DJ, Griffiths M, Penna LK on behalf of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Management of Breech Presentation. BJOG 2017; DOI: 10.1111/1471-0528.14465.

Victoria and Kirin Owal celebrate the healthy birth of their twins (#2 breech) with their NHS Team.

Counselling (Section 4.1)

The guideline offers specific recommendations around counselling, following the summary presented by lead author Mr Lawrence Impey at the RCOG Breech Conference in 2014. When discussing perinatal mortality, rather than focusing on the dichotomy between elective caesarean section at 39 weeks (0.5/1000) and planned breech birth (2.0/1000), the guidelines also recommend women consider these figures in light of those for planned cephalic birth (1.0/1000).

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This is important. If we follow the logic that has dominated breech care for the last 17 years – elective CS for all because it reduces perinatal mortality – we would need to apply this to planned cephalic births as well. The truth is always somewhere in between. All childbirth options carry benefits as well as risks, and women should be supported to apply their own values to decision-making, rather than feel obligated to adopt uniform recommendations arising from contemporary risk-focused discourse. This new guideline is much clearer about the obligation of health care professionals to present women with genuine breech childbirth options.

Maternal birth position (Section 6.7)

The guideline has changed from recommending lithotomy birth position to the following: “Either a semi-recumbent or an all-fours position may be adopted for delivery and should depend on maternal preference and the experience of the attendant.” This will be joyously welcomed by midwives and obstetricians who have been gradually incorporating upright breech methods into clinical skills training for some time, and the women who have been insisting on the freedom to choose their own birthing position.

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But as the explanatory notes indicate, “The principle difficulty with an all-fours position is when manoeuvres are required. Most obstetricians are more familiar with performing these in a difficult breech birth with the woman in the dorsal position.” This begs the question of how we will overcome the difficulty resulting from lack of obstetric familiarity with performing manoeuvres when women are in upright, particularly kneeling positions. Our recently published evaluation of the Breech Birth Network Physiological Breech Birth training days reported that one of the greatest concerns expressed by participants in the workshops was lack of involvement and collaboration from obstetric colleagues, whom they had difficulty convincing to attend the training in order to learn effective manoeuvres. Hopefully changes in our national guideline will prompt more interest.

Question #1: What does it mean to be ‘skilled’ in breech birth birth?

The word ‘skilled’ recurs 15 times in the new RCOG breech guideline. Variations include: ‘skilled intrapartum care,’ ‘skilled birth attendant(s),’ ‘skilled supervision,’ ‘skilled attendant(s),’ ‘operator skilled in vaginal breech delivery,’ ‘skilled support,’ ‘skilled personnel.’ Each reference suggests skill is a key ingredient of safe vaginal birth.

What does it mean to be ‘skilled’ in vaginal breech birth? Is it a quality possessed by individuals, or institutions, or both? How is skill assessed? How is it maintained?

The danger with lack of definition regarding breech skill is that by default it will be judged in retrospect. A good outcome occurs = the attendants were skilled. A bad outcome occurs = the attendants lacked skill and were overconfident in assessment of their own competence. A health professional attends four spontaneous breech births which do not require intervention = they are now perceived as ‘skilled.’

The guideline points to evidence from the PREMODA study, in which good outcomes were achieved in a study with senior obstetrician presence in 92.3% of cases. Association is not causation, but we need to take seriously the value the PREMODA researchers placed on this as a key to their success. In a UK context, or elsewhere, does that mean we can (or should?) reasonably expect all senior obstetricians to be ‘skilled’ at vaginal breech birth? What if the senior obstetrician does not feel ‘skilled’ her/himself? What if a midwife is the most experience person available to attend a breech birth?

The new RCOG guideline further recommends: “Units with limited access to skilled personnel should inform women that vaginal breech birth is likely to be associated with greater risk and offer antenatal referral to a unit where skill levels and experience are greater.” And: “All maternity units must be able to provide skilled supervision for vaginal breech births where a woman is admitted in advanced labour and protocols for this eventuality should be developed.” How will all maternity units be able to provide skilled supervision for undiagnosed breech births, if some of them will also need to be up front about their lack of skill to support planned breech births?

The new guideline recommends that “simulation equipment should be used to rehearse the skills that are needed during vaginal breech birth by all doctors and midwives.” The extent to which such simulation training will result in skill development in settings where skills have become depleted over the last 20-30 years is unclear. Our recent systematic review highlights the lack of evidence regarding the ability of standard training programmes to improve outcomes, and suggests that teaching vaginal breech birth as part of an obstetric emergencies course may actually reduce the chances that providers will actually attend breech births (Walker, Breslin, Scamell and Parker, 2017).

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The development of professional competence to facilitate breech births is a complex matter to which institutions may like to pay closer attention as they develop the ‘routine vaginal breech delivery service’ envisioned by the new guideline. Some of this complexity is explored in these two papers involving research with experienced practitioners: Standards for maternity care professionals attending planned upright breech births and Principles of physiological breech birth practice.

Question #2: What is a footling presentation?

Despite the acknowledged paucity of evidence regarding factors that increase the risks of vaginal breech birth, ‘footling presentation’ remains a clinical indication for advising women that the risks associated with vaginal breech birth are likely to be independently increased. Unfortunately, neither the guideline nor generally available breech literature provides a clear definition of what this means, nor is it likely that a similar definition has been used among disparate studies looking at outcomes associated with variations of breech presentation.

The danger with this lack of definition is that in many complete and incomplete breech presentations, where one or both legs are flexed, one or more feet will be palpable on vaginal examination. This is especially the case at advanced dilatation, when legs will often slip further down due to the increased space in the sacral cavity, into which the breech has also descended. And of course in advanced labour, the dangers of performing a caesarean section for a dubious indication are increased. It has never made sense to me to perform a caesarean section at advanced dilatation because one might need to perform a caesarean section! Where skill levels are minimal and practitioners are not taught to locate the sacrum as the denominator, many complete and/or incomplete breech presentations will be labelled ‘footling.’

Dr Susanne Albrechtsen teaching breech skills

In my practice, I follow the nomenclature suggested by Susanne Albrechtsen (unfortunately only available in Norwegian): a footling breech is one in which both feet present first, and the fetal pelvis is disengaged, above the pelvic brim. A fetus whose pelvis is engaged with one or more feet palpable alongside is a flexed breech (complete/incomplete).

We will await more professional debate and actual evidence concerning the definition of ‘footling breech’ and its association with fetal outcomes. Perhaps now that the new RCOG is more supportive of vaginal breech birth, more professionals will feel experienced enough to engage in discussions which will move our knowledge base forward and further increase the safety of breech birth.

Shawn