“We believe that we do well what we do often.” – Caroline Daelemans
Drs Caroline Daelemas and Sara Derisbourg
Contact Hōpital Erasme Clinique du Siège on Tel 00 32 2 5553325, or siege.clini-obs @ erasme.ulb.ac.be.
This month I visited Hōpital Erasme, in Brussels, Belgium. Led by Lead Obstetrician Caroline Daelemans, Erasme began to offer a dedicated Breech Clinic in December 2015. Much of the organisation and development of the clinic has been done by Dr Sara Derisbourg, who continues to research the impact of instituting a dedicated breech service.
I came to Brussels to provide our usual physiological breech study day. The breech team has transitioned to using physiological methods, including upright maternal positions (Louwen et al 2016), after attending training in Norwich in 2017. They now needed the rest of the team to understand the philosophy behind this approach. But the day began with Caroline describing the impact of instituting a dedicated Breech Clinic, and this was particularly exciting for me.
Josephine and Thiago talk about their experience of Ulysse’s breech birth at Erasme
My own research concerning the development of breech competence and expertise, and the recovery of these skills within a service, indicates that developing a core team with significant experience is the most effective method of safely offering a vaginal breech birth service (Walker et al 2016). This skilled and experienced core is more important than the ‘selection criteria’ that are used to predict the likelihood of a good outcome (but in fact are not very predictive). Skill and experience facilitate good outcomes and enable other colleagues to develop competence (Walker et al 2018). The Erasme team even encourage other health care professionals to come with their clients and attend them in labour with their support, to encourage the growth of breech skills.
The need for new ways of organising care has been emphasised in an on-line survey of Dutch gynaecologists just published by Post et al (2018, Does vaginal breech delivery have a future despite low volumes for training?): “Potential suggested alterations in organization are designated gynecologists within one centre, designated teams within one region or centralizing breech birth to hospitals with a regional referral status. Training should then be offered to residents within these settings to make the experience as wide spread as possible.”
Daphne Lagrou of Médecins Sans Frontières demonstrates shoulder press
Daelemans and Derisbourg began with a small team of 5 people. This has gradually expanded and now includes eight members who together provide 24/7 cover for all breech births within the hospital. Women with a breech presentation are referred by colleagues and increasingly by other women. The environment at Erasme is ideal because the hospital has a very positive approach to physiological birth in general, and a 15% overall caesarean section rate in 2017. This compares to 20.2% in Brussels and much higher in many places globally.
Practising collaborative manoeuvres for resolving head extension at the inlet of the pelvis (elevate & rotate)
What has the Breech Clinic changed? Before the introduction of the clinic, the planned vaginal breech birth rate was 7.19%, and in just a few years this has climbed to 42.7% of all breech presentations. Neonatal outcomes have remained stable. Actual vaginal breech births have climbed from 4.2% to 35.96% of all breech presentations within the hospital. The success rate for planned vaginal breech birth is 76.3%, which suggests that within experienced teams, the emergency caesarean section rate is also reduced. (The RCOG guideline suggests about 40% of planned breech births end in CS.)
All of this is very impressive. The message is clear: a physiological approach and an organised care pathway, including a breech clinic and experienced on-call team, can reduce the caesarean section rate significantly without negatively impacting neonatal outcomes. We should all look out for Derisbourg’s papers when they are published.
If you are a woman seeking support for a physiological breech birth, or a health care professional looking to refer a woman to the breech clinic, they can be contacted on Tel 00 32 2 5553325, or siege.clini-obs @ erasme.ulb.ac.be. Caroline Daelemans will be teaching with me in Lewisham, London, on 12 November.
Next month, Dr Anke Reitter and I will be travelling to Drammen, Norway, to facilitate our Physiological Breech Birth study day, in collaboration with OBGYN Dr Tilde Broch Østborg of Stavanger University Hospital. Still room to book if you are interested in this hands-on workshop.
Tuesday 13 March, 2018, Drammen — Book through Jordmornaturligvis.
Last Tuesday, 14th October 2014, obstetricians and midwives from around the world converged in the basement of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Midwives (RCOG) in London for a study day on Management of the Term Breech (#RCOGbreech). The day was originally planned to correspond with the publication of the new RCOG guideline, last published in 2006. However, the re-write has been delayed, understandably. Across the country, more and more units are not only raising the level of support for breech, they are supporting women to birth their breech babies in upright positions, something the current guideline recommends women are advised not to do.
The update authors face some tough choices: 1) continue to advise against an increasingly popular practice, alienating many of the few professionals currently supporting breech births; or 2) turn the current state of affairs upside down by … guess we’ll see when it’s published! The RCOG day was opened by the rather marvellous Mr Lawrence Impey, Oxford Consultant in Obstetrics and Fetal Medicine and co-author (with Justus Hofmeyr) of the 2006 guideline, and Mrs Anita Hedditch, Delivery Suite Senior Midwife and ECV Midwife, also at Oxford. Impey acknowledged the sense of anticipation and slight tension in the room by instructing delegates: “No heckling, and no snorting!”
However, Professor Deirdre Murphy from Dublin created little controversy with her fair and balanced evaluation of the evidence. Although her analysis was much more nuanced, following discussions, the take-home message was: With experienced support, the short-term risks for breech babies (neonatal mortality, serious morbidity) are probably not significantly greater than those for cephalic babies. Both breech and cephalic babies have increased short-term risks compared to a planned caesarean section (CS). For breech babies, the available evidence indicates that by two years of age, no significant difference in primary adverse outcomes (death and neuromotor delay) is apparent between babies born after planned CS and babies born after planned vaginal breech delivery (PVD). But babies born following planned CS face some increased risk of other medical problems.
Murphy was followed by Mich Mohajer of the Royal Shrewsbury, who presented evidence from her telephone survey about what exactly is happening around the UK for breech. ECV appears to be almost universally offered throughout England and Wales at the moment, although she found significant variations in models of care, with some units offering dedicated breech clinics and other units offering an ad hoc service on delivery suite. She found even more variations in levels of support for vaginal breech birth, with only 27% of units in England and Wales supporting VBD. Mohajer also acknowledged the importance of involving midwives with breech skills, as the facilitation of breech births has always been considered part of midwives’ expertise. These two themes: the importance of a specialist approach through dedicated clinics and ‘breech teams,’ and the value of multi-professional collaboration, were echoed frequently throughout the week.
After a brief break, Dr Leonie Penna from King’s in London presented on ‘pitfalls and pearls’ in delivering the vaginal breech. She summarised a number of common errors and helpful hints, bringing the focus onto the real gap in clinical skills which will need to be closed or bridged in order to reintroduce systematic support for planned breech births. Penna was also very upfront in discussing the reluctance of the obstetric profession to shift away from women on their backs, even with strong evidence of how helpful it is. She drew parallels with fetal blood sampling, which it is now recommended to perform with women in left lateral. With Penna’s talk, it became clear that the discussion is finally shifting away from an assumption of vaginal breech DELIVERY and towards and understanding of vaginal breech BIRTH. Finally, Penna as well emphasised the important role midwives have always played in supporting breech births at King’s.
After this, Dr Anke Reitter presented on her experience of being a part of the now-famous breech clinic in Frankfurt, and her MRI data demonstrating how significantly maternal movement affects the dimensions of the bony pelvis. Reitter (@OB_Anke) also discussed how our current understanding of helpful manoeuvres for upright breech birth – especially the first principle of rotation by the shoulder girdle rather than the pelvis – is not new. She showed captivating drawings from historic German and Australian textbooks showing nuchal arms and how to resolve the problem. Thankfully, Reitter will be returning to the UK in June to share her hands-on skills at one of our Breech Birth Network Physiological Breech Study Days.
Visiting speaker Thomas van den Akker, obstetrician and researcher from the Netherlands, reminded the audience of the RCOG’s responsibility to the developing world. In less resource-rich countries, CS presents a much higher risk to women and their future children than it does in the UK. But the world follows the RCOG’s example and demands the highest standard of care, even when it is inappropriate in that context. Van den Akker also presented data from follow-up studies by the Vlemmix team which demonstrate that per 10,000 babies delivered by CS for breech (compared to planned VBD), there were 26 neonates saved in the first pregnancy (19/7442). However, there were 27 neonates (18/6689) lost in subsequent pregnancies in a policy of trial of labour. Can we continue to recommend that first time mothers avoid a vaginal breech birth, while encouraging them to plan a vaginal breech birth after caesarean section (VBAC) in their next pregnancies?
Over lunch, Jane Evans gave a presentation of the mechanisms of breech labour, and strategies to help when help is needed. She brought along her slide show and doll and pelvis, for those who wanted to make the most of every minute available to learn breech skills.
Deirdre Murphy, Anke Reitter, Mich Mohajer, Thomas van den Akker, Leonie Penna
After lunch, the morning speakers engaged in a panel discussion about how the term breech should be managed. The relaxed mood and support for the option of vaginal breech birth was clearly emotive for some. One obstetric delegate stood up and shared how he had become a pariah among his colleagues for continuing to facilitate vaginal breech birth (VBB), and how he hoped the new guideline would be more clear about how important and appropriate it is to support VBB.
This was followed by talks by Impey and Hedditch about the evidence base, practice and their clinical experience of external cephalic version (ECV). Like many other professionals, I have made a pilgrimage to Oxford to visit their renowned clinic and learn from them and their community midwife colleague, Pauline Ellaway. They presented their most recent statistics, which like others’ (see Grootscholten et al, 2008) show a higher rate of interventions and adverse outcomes for post-ECV babies than babies who spontaneously assumed a head-first position (neonatal mortality = 0.9/1000; not significantly different from 1.3/1000, the neonatal mortality for planned VBD in the Netherlands reported in Vlemmix et al). This is a video from a Dutch team which also use a two-person approach.
This then opened up the discussion in the final afternoon panel to a point I had not previously hoped was possible: The genuine suggestion that perhaps dedicated ECV services should become dedicated Breech services, where women’s individual clinical situations are evaluated and those felt to be good candidates are offered a VBB, while those who are not felt to be good candidates are encouraged to consider ECV. (Selection criteria remain controversial, but this openness is a very good start.) The strong message was that women should have access to a high-quality, experienced ECV service, but this should not be the only alternative to CS.
Dr Joris Hemelaar also presented about rates of undiagnosed breech in Oxford, which are over 20% like most places in the UK which do not do routine third trimester scans (which are not recommended by Cochrane. Hemelaar’s point in presenting this information alongside reports on breech/ECV clinics is that we cannot offer women an ECV or detailed counselling about VBB if we do not detect the breech antenatally. However, and my view differs somewhat, as we do not yet have any evidence that the undiagnosed breech is at greater risk in the UK. Most of the available evidence indicates that the undiagnosed breech is far more likely to be born vaginally, at no increased risk. The situation is unlikely to change until more than 27% of UK units support a planned VBB, and until that time, obstetric and midwifery-led units would be wise to put a proactive plan in place so that these births can be managed with a calm, team approach.
Shawn Walker, Ethel Burns, Anita Hedditch, Andrew Bisits, Lawrence Impey, Anke Reitter, Betty-Anne Daviss
As if the RCOG conference was not exciting enough, Senior Midwifery Lecturer Ethel Burns of Oxford Brookes University made the most of international visitors to host a conference on “Breech Birth: Sharing what we know and do, and exploring best practice for the future,” on Saturday, 18th October 2014 (#Oxfordbreech). The day included repeat presentations (for a new audience) from Anke Reitter and Anita Hedditch, and Jane Evans again presented her slides, mechanisms and manoeuvres over lunch; but there were some additions.
This day kicked off with Lawrence Impey presenting the evidence base for breech birth, emphasising some of the themes from the previous Tuesday’s conference:
In selected women with high quality care baby mortality is probably little different from cephalic presentation, but is higher than ELCS
However, there may be a higher risk of obesity, asthma and other serious problems following elective CS
Maternal mortality and morbidity is dependent on emergency CS rate but unless this is >50% is likely to be increased with a polity of elective CS. This is particularly important in the developing world.
In the long term, there is a small increase in risk of mortality and morbidity to future babies through unexplained stillbirth and uterine scars.
Lost skills will mean a higher complication rate for unplanned breech deliveries, be these CS or vaginal
Impey was followed by Ruth Sloman, who has recently completed her Masters in Midwifery at Oxford Brookes. Sloman used focus groups to look at midwives’ knowledge and experience of breech births. I really enjoyed this presentation, and some of Ruth’s themes resonated with my own research, especially the value of video footage in helping professionals to learn when hands-on experience is difficult to come by, and midwives frustration at witnessing vaginal breech deliveries poorly managed and the lack of choice available to many women.
After the break, the conference continued with Dr Andrew Bisits, FRANZCOG of Sydney, Australia. Bisits’ sensitivity to women’s experiences has made him beloved of women and midwives across the globe, and his long-term commitment to supporting vaginal breech births has gained him knowledge and experience exceeding most obstetricians working in 2014. Crucial to Bisits’ talk was a recognition of how important the experience of attempting a vaginal breech birth is to some women. He also encouraged us to recognise that moderate risk-taking confers psychological benefits. Although Bisits’ talk included much more than I can summarise here, a final important point concerned the ‘atomic reaction’ which usually follows adverse outcomes in breech births, and knee-jerk responses usually preclude any genuine learning from these events. If we are to improve the safety of breech birth, it is vitally important that we learn from adverse outcomes by reflecting on them in an open and enquiring, rather than punitive way.
Reitter and Bisits are of course not only two of the most highly experienced breech practitioners in the world, they are passionate advocates for the use of upright positioning. Reitter’s clients birth mostly in all fours/kneeling positions, and Bisits’ clients commonly use a birthing stool. Their view is that it is not so much the position, as the ability of women to move spontaneously and assume the position of her choice, which matters most. The mood of both days indicated that this point has been well and truly made and heard by those writing the new guideline. The question became not so much whether upright positioning would be acknowledged as a legitimate approach, but whether or not it will continue to be considered in any way ‘alternative’ in the new guideline.
Betty-Anne Daviss visited from Ontario, presenting an encapsulated history of the women’s movement in Canada, and how this has influenced the progress they have made with breech birth. She explained the way in which the Canadian-born Coalition for Breech Birth worked with sympathetic doctors and midwives to reintroduce the choice of VBB. Remarkably, Daviss has succeeded in gaining privileges to attend VBBs in her local hospitals, and currently supports approximately 1-3 women per month to achieve their goal.
I also presented my current research concerning how practitioners learn breech skills. We need to accelerate this process if we are going to increase support for planned vaginal breech birth within the current risk-adverse maternity care culture. I’m looking forward to sharing more of this in publications as the research progresses, so watch this space! My presentation also highlighted the standard of care when it comes to maternal birth position for healthy women. NICE’s evidence-based and woman-centred approach is clear:
Women should be discouraged from lying supine or semi-supine in the second stage of labour and should be encouraged to adopt any other position that they find most comfortable. (1.7.7, current Intrapartum Care guideline)
If policy-makers are now acknowledging that VBB carries a similar risk to cephalic birth in experienced hands, then those who continue to advocate a maternal birth position (lithotomy) which deviates from the current standard of care should present evidence as to why they are doing this, rather than the other way around. Experience alone may be enough to explain it for those who have continued to safely facilitate VBDs, but the next generation and those who have taken a 14-year hiatus would do well to learn the new upright techniques as part of their standard training.
If the authors of the new RCOG guideline walk the walk as well as they have talked the talk in the past week, some major changes are a-foot. But policy changes are only a small part of what happens on the ground, evidenced by the fact that the RCOG has recommended the choice of VBD be offered to women since 2006, something that is clearly not happening universally in the UK. A major cultural shift is required, but these two events suggest that the shifting has indeed begun.
Well done you if you’ve read all the way to end of this post, and join the breech activist club! If you found other aspects of the day important and informative, please do highlight them in the comments below.
Well, I suppose a backlash was inevitable. Due to the campaigning of women and the willingness of a significant number of health care providers to provide women with a real choice when it comes to breech childbirth, the argument for re-skilling to better support breech births has been gaining momentum. But this week saw the publication of two studies arguing this is not such a good idea.
First it was a Dutch group (Vlemmix et al 2014) who made the argument that at 1.3/1000 compared to nil, vaginal breech birth (VBB) results in ten times the mortality of planned CS. They overlooked the need to match the word ‘planned’ with an intention-to-treat analysis, and their own research (Vlemmix et al 2013) suggesting that neonatal mortality was doubled in pregnancies following an elective CS compared to those where a VBB was planned in the first pregnancy (2.5/1000 vs 1.3/1000). (Read my response here.)
When baby’s head has descended into the pelvis, the pubic bones are directly behind the occiput
Now a Danish study asks, “Can Caesarean section improve child and maternal health? The case of breech babies” (Jensen and Wust, 2014). Wait, did I read that right? Are we asking whether CS can improve maternal health? Really?
Unlike their Dutch counterparts, Jensen and Wust have decided: “In our estimation sample, we observe only few infant deaths for breech babies. Thus we do not consider this very rare outcome in the proceeding analysis.” One country decides this outcome is a deal breaker, another feels it is so rare that it is not necessary to consider it.
Jensen and Wust present a lot of beautiful graphs and calculations showing that there was a noticeable improvement in Apgar scores and a reduction in visits to the GP, but no significant change in serious morbidity (ill-health) or hospitalisations in the first three years of life, following the sudden increase in elective CS for breech associated with the publication of the Term Breech Trial in 2000.
Although I am in favour of attempting to calculate the longer-term effects of such sweeping changes, I am concerned about what they did and did not choose to speculate upon.
Their most statistically significant finding was an increase in prolonged maternal hospitalisation following an elective CS. This has noticeable financial implications, which they calculated, but they do not address the increase in costs and risks in future births. The financial blind eye is concerning, but their conclusion that CS does not affect the health of the mother, without considering future births, is even more disconcerting.
On the other hand, they speculate that the additional expenditure for elective CS is balanced by costs savings as a result of significant reductions in cerebral palsy and subsequent care needed. They did not have information on actual rates of CP in this population. Instead, they reference a 2001 study by Krebs, which did NOT note a relationship between CP and mode of delivery, and found in 20,000 breech births a total of 4 serious long-term disabilities and 18 minor disabilities possibly related to low Apgar scores. They ignored Krebs previous research (1999) indicating that an increase in CP for breech-presenting babies was NOT associated with mode of delivery. They also ignored a recent systematic review and meta-analysis (O’Callaghan and MacLennan 2013) demonstrating that CS does NOT reduce the risk of CP for breech-presenting babies.
It’s important to get this right. Low Apgars are definitely associated with increased CP and other problems in head-down babies, possibly because the birth itself less often causes minor asphyxia, and therefore the cause is often an underlying fragility. In Krebs’ work, he found the association was mostly with small for gestational age infants; this corresponds with other breech research which consistently associates smaller babies with poorer outcomes. But because many breech babies have lower Apgars as a consequence of the way they are born, Apgars are not such a clear indicator of future risk in this population. They were not in the Term Breech Trial (Whyte et al 2004), and that is the best evidence we have to go on at the moment.
The main outcomes shown in this research are an increase in overall Apgar scores and a decrease in visits to the GP in the first year, less significantly in the second year, and not significantly different in the third year of life. They found no increase in significant neonatal morbidity or hospitalisations in the first 3 years of life. Although it was not originally one of their primary outcomes, the GP visits could be significant. It could also be that in the wake of a major change in practice suggesting that breech-born babies are at increased risk, everyone’s a bit nervous in the first couple of years? We need more information regarding these babies’ actual health problems to understand and use this data, because it conflicts with a Finnish study which found the opposite was the case at 7 years (Ulander et al 2004).
So Jensen and Wust have given us more research indicating an increase in short-term morbidity (with mortality being rare and insignificant?) but no difference in significant neonatal morbidity and the need for increased medical care after 2 years. This matches the information from the Term Breech Trial. Despite the authors insistence they have uncovered evidence that CS is best for all breech babies, and that it is ultimately cheaper (based on their non-evidence-based speculation on future costs of CP only), it actually adds to the literature confirming no concrete evidence of a difference in long-term outcomes for breech babies. Just goes to show you how you can take a group of statistics and put just about any spin on it you like, especially if your mathematical ability makes your analysis fairly impenetrable to most people. (Good thing I live with an actuary.)
Turning now to the elephant in the room
Being born vaginally may be more risky for some babies than being born by CS. Most of the evidence seems to indicate that, in the short-term at least, using standard lithotomy delivery practices, this is the case. On the other hand, most of the long-term evidence does not indicate lasting effects.
What concerns me about literature like this, which makes predictions about what would be saved or not, financially or physically, with this approach or that – is that women, as long as they are human, will continue to have their own unique approach, and they should. That is what being human is about. Many will want to deliver their breech babies by CS, and they should have access to that care, even if it means a greater financial burden. And many will want to give birth vaginally, even in awareness that the rare outcome of neonatal mortality is more likely to happen to them, even in the awareness that if something goes wrong, they will need to live with it for the rest of their lives. We will always have death, and handicapped children that require our grief, our love and our devotion. This cannot be eradicated. Women deserve to be able to make this very personal decision without being made to feel criminal.
Instead of continuing to do research which tells us what we already know, we should invest in research exploring modern management strategies which are showing promise in reducing risk to babies born vaginally, so that women who live in countries where there ought to be a choice actually have one, and women who live in countries where CS is either inaccessible or a real danger to their health have the best chance of going home with a healthy baby. We should stop trying to have the last word on how breech babies should be born, let women decide how to balance the complex array of risks and benefits in their own lives and families, and develop our skills at being ‘with woman’ and her breech.
This week (August 2014), a Dutch research team published the results of a large retrospective cohort study concerning the results of all breech births in the Netherlands. They concluded that an increase in the caesarean section rate following publication of the Term Breech Trial (TBT) has resulted in a significant reduction in perinatal mortality related to breech presentation, and therefore a policy of universal caesarean section for breech would improve outcomes for breech babies even further.
In the year prior to October 2000 (the team does not present data from earlier than 1999; why not?), the perinatal death rate was 1.3/1000 for all breech deliveries (VBB and CS inclusive). Elective sections increased from 24% prior to publication of the TBT to 60% afterwards, and from December 2000-2007, the perinatal mortality rate was 0.7/1000 for all breech deliveries, with an overall VBB rate of 22%. Moreover, the team showed that all of the perinatal deaths occurred during what they called planned breech deliveries (although their understanding of ‘planned breech delivery’ is very different from mine, as I discuss below), so the actual perinatal mortality rate for breech babies born vaginally remained steady at 1.6/1000 during both periods.
A rate of 1.6/1000 is actually quite low compared to the mortality rate of approximately 1/100 reported in the Term Breech Trial. However, the authors propose that the results of this study should replace the information currently given to women in Dutch national guidelines, because according to their calculations, “A policy of elective caesarean section for all term breech deliveries could lower the overall term neonatal mortality in term deliveries by 6.8%, from 172 to 162 per year.”
Unfortunately, it’s not so simple.
Dreaming the impossible dream.
A ‘normal’ breech baby – well-flexed, with lots of room to move
The first problem with this prediction is that it’s not possible to pursue a policy of elective caesarean section for all term breech deliveries, even if you ‘convinced’ the 40% of women who choose to plan a VBB in the Netherlands to plan a CS. The researchers themselves noted that approximately 1:5 of the perinatal deaths observed occurred when breech presentation was not diagnosed until birth. Without instituting expensive changes to breech screening on a national basis, these outcomes will not necessarily be improved, certainly not without performing many more risky caesarean sections in advanced labour. (When these births were excluded from the analysis, the perinatal mortality rate for VBB’s which were actually planned was 1.3/1000 overall. The Netherlands has a high rate of home birth, so some of these unplanned VBB probably occurred at home with surprised, rather than prepared, midwives.)
Also, the researchers note that they have not performed an intention-to-treat analysis of their data. Multiple studies have noted that approximately 10% of women who plan caesarean sections go into labour unexpectedly before their scheduled operation, and 9.7% of the woman randomised to CS in the TBT gave birth vaginally. The researchers say that those for whom this was the case ‘could not be included in the caesarean section group’ for their study. Why? Were they included in the ‘planned’ vaginal breech birth group? The authors note this category was a ‘composite of vaginal delivery and emergency cesarean.’ Regardless of whether these women actually planned a VBB?
In an intention-to-treat analysis, the outcomes for babies who turn head-down spontaneously would also be included, as the decision to plan a VBB influences whether or not they will. In the Term Breech Trial, twice as many turned when a VBB was planned than when a CS was planned, so that 3.8% of all babies who planned a VBB were born in a cephalic position. Failing to do an intention-to-treat analysis disregards the complexity of breech decision-making and the full range of consequences.
Putting the figures into perspective.
The researchers note that 40% of women in the Netherlands choose to plan a vaginal breech birth, in collaboration with their doctors and midwives, and approximately 55% of them achieve this. This results in an overall perinatal mortality rate for breech presenting babies in the Netherlands of 0.7/1000, which happens to be the same perinatal mortality rate for low-risk women giving birth in hospital settings in the Netherlands (de Jong et al 2009; the mortality rate was slightly lower for women who planned a home birth at 0.6/1000). From where I am sitting, this looks like a good example of collaborative decision-making reducing risk while preserving choice.
Earlier this year, another team also led by Vlemmix (2013) published an abstract in the AJOG using further data from the Dutch nationwide perinatal registry from 2000-2007. This demonstrated that in addition to greatly increased maternal morbidity, neonatal mortality in pregnancies which followed an elective CS for breech presentation was 2.5/1000, compared to 1.3/1000 following pregnancies where a VBB was planned (which will be an average of the 2.5/1000 risk following a CS, and substantially lower risk following successful planned VBB’s). How then does this affect the prediction that elective caesarean section for all breech presentations would further significantly reduce the overall national perinatal mortality rate? Only if these women do not have any more children. Seems worth a mention to me, when you are recommending that all breech babies with a neonatal mortality risk of 1.3/1000 be delivered by CS.
Consider statistics given in the RCOG guideline on Birth After Previous Caesarean Birth. They summarise the data relating to term VBACS: “Planned VBAC is associated with a 10/10,000 risk of antepartum stillbirth beyond 39 weeks of gestation and a 4/10,000 risk of delivery related perinatal death (if conducted in a large centre).”
So a woman choosing to await spontaneous labour past 39 weeks and attempt a VBAC has a 1.4/1000 risk of losing her baby, but this is not only perceived as a reasonable decision, it is positively encouraged in most hospitals in the UK. Entire midwifery-led care pathways are set up to support women making this choice, and primiparous women to whom elective section for breech is recommended are proactively counselled that they can feel positively about attempting a VBAC the next time around.
But a woman choosing to birth her breech baby vaginally, knowing that she has a 1.3/1000 chance of losing her baby, is suspect. Does anyone else get the feeling we are robbing Peter to pay Paul?
The researchers identified no sub-classification of women for whom breech birth was more risky, or less risky compared to CS. They did observe that babies with a birth weight of over 3500 g (often excluded from VBB) actually only had a perinatal mortality rate of 0.8/1000. Contrary to what they have concluded, encouraging any woman who plans to have more children and wishes to attempt a VBB (at a relative PMR of 1.3/1000) as opposed to advocating universal elective CS for breech (and exposing subsequent children to double the mortality rate, at 2.5/1000), seems a measured approach.
The team’s representation of morbidity statistics also distorts the picture, as long bone fractures (included in their composite statistic) are common in cephalic births as well. They heal well, and are not generally considered ‘serious morbidity.’ Nonetheless, the morbidity rate of 22/1000 reported in this research was also significantly less than the rate of approximately 1/20 reported in the Term Breech Trial.
Designing research which meets the needs of women and their partners
Kok’s study (2008) demonstrated that women were mostly concerned with the safety of their baby and fear for a handicapped child, and that the 2-year outcome was what mattered most to them. Why then has this team conducted yet another study telling us what we already know – that short-term morbidity and mortality is significantly greater when VBB is planned in most cases – rather than robust research addressing what matters most to the families making these decisions? Whyte’s team (2004) emphasised that the 2-year results surprised them, as the group of children who went on to have handicaps at 2 years of age did not overlap at all with the group of children who experienced severe morbidity in the neonatal period. They were all born apparently healthy, and in the Vlemmix study would have been included in the ‘proof’ that universal CS is a safer policy. Given the numerous studies demonstrating a higher risk of cerebral palsy and other adverse outcomes for breech-presenting babies regardless of mode of delivery (O’Collaghan and MacLennan 2013), the question of whether the babies we save from death in the first 7 days go on to lead full and healthy lives is a fundamental question. And it is the concern which matters most to women.
On the other hand, according to Kok et al (2008) the concern which matters most to women’s partners is the outcomes for women. This study reported only 2 maternal deaths in the 1999-2007 period, despite acknowledging another study already published by the Dutch Maternal Mortality Committee reporting 4 deaths following elective section for term singleton breech in the Netherlands in 2000-2002 alone.
Why are the women disappearing?
If this study does not address the central concerns of women and their partners, why should it take precedence in the information given to aid informed decision-making? If the authors have not performed an intention-to-treat analysis, how can they possibly claim to know that their treatment will have the predicted result? If the study has demonstrated a risk similar to that of planning a VBAC, why are both choices not considered equally reasonable?
These authors are all very much involved with research concerning external cephalic version (ECV) and also feel the results of this research demonstrate the need to use ECV more liberally in order to reduce the incidence of breech presentation at term. While I am a fan of their ECV research and a proponent of ECV as a readily available option for women with breech presenting babies, again we cannot ignore the fact that ECV has not yet been demonstrated to improve neonatal outcomes, possibly for the same reasons the 2 year outcomes for children are not affected. However, ECV does significantly reduce the CS rate for women, particularly in centres where the option of VBB is not well supported. Again, I would like to see this highly experienced and highly influential team turn their attention to answering questions we do not already know the answer to, including whether or not manually turning a breech baby from a breech to a head-down position improves the short- and long-term outcomes for these babies, beyond increasing their chance of being born vaginally.
De Jonge, A., van der Goes, B.Y., Ravelli, A.C.J., Amelink-Verburg, M.P., et al. (2009) Perinatal mortality and morbidity in a nationwide cohort of 529,688 low-risk planned home and hospital births. BJOG : an international journal of obstetrics and gynaecology. [Online] 116 (9), 1177–1184. Available from: doi:10.1111/j.1471-0528.2009.02175.x [Accessed: 12 August 2014].
Vlemmix, F., Kazemier, B., Rosman, A., Schaaf, J., et al. (2013) 764: Effect of increased caesarean section rate due to term breech presentation on maternal and fetal outcome in subsequent pregnancies. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology. [Online] 208 (1, Supplement), S321. Available from: doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajog.2012.10.102.
Vlemmix, F., Bergenhenegouwen, L., Schaaf, J.M., Ensing, S., et al. (2014) Term breech deliveries in the Netherlands: did the increased cesarean rate affect neonatal outcome? A population-based cohort study. Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica. [Online] 93 (9), 888–896. Available from: doi:10.1111/aogs.12449 [Accessed: 12 August 2014].
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!
This post was originally written as a Letter to the Editor, but when I went to submit it, I discovered the on-line journal does not accept any unsolicited writing. All of the articles are ‘commissioned by the Editors from specialists in their field,’ so I guess we should read them as more of a pronouncement than the opening of a dialogue?
I have some concerns about an intervention for cord prolapse described in a recent article on Abnormal Labour (Obstetrics, Gynaecology and Reproductive Medicine, Volume 23, Issue 4, Pages 121-125, April 2013): “Filling the urinary bladder (with 500-750 ml normal saline) helps to elevate the presenting part off the cord – this technique is particularly more suitable to the homebirth or standalone midwifery unit setting where prolonged manual elevation during transfer to an obstetric unit is difficult to maintain. In the hospital setting, filling the urinary bladder offers no increase in survival or improvement in fetal umbilical cord gases over manual elevation alone, although may be a useful adjunct if there is no theatre immediately available.”
As I said, I have some concerns. The authors suggest filling the urinary bladder as a method of preventing cord compression following cord prolapse. They say this technique has not been shown to improve outcomes in a hospital setting, but is ‘particularly more suitable to the homebirth or standalone midwifery unit.’ There are no references provided for the evidence related to use of this technique in either setting. As a midwife who has worked in two countries and the complete range of midwifery-led settings, I have never encountered this technique, nor anyone carrying appropriate equipment to enact it. I am concerned that an unproven, potentially harmful intervention not in widespread use is being presented as best practice, for use by midwives.
I am also concerned that, although the case scenario ended in a vaginal birth, the discussion presents caesarean section as the preferred method of delivery when a cord prolapse is seen, without discussing the importance of determining whether or not delivery is imminent before intervening. Cord prolapse is a common occurrence preceding the birth of a second twin, and during the births of babies with complete (knees flexed) and footling breech presentations. A prolapsed cord at full dilatation may precede a healthy vaginal birth with a delivery interval significantly less than a caesarean section (Gannard-Pechin et al 2012, Huang et al 2012), and when accompanying non-frank breech and twin births is associated with fetal compromise less often than for cephalic singletons (Kouam & Miller 1980, Broche et al 2005). Therefore, giving the impression that the best course of action upon seeing a cord in every situation is to elevate the presenting part manually, effectively preventing descent and spontaneous delivery in preference of a crash section, in many instances will cause more harm than good. This may seem like a matter of course to experienced practitioners, but it won’t be for the inexperienced.
Judging which instances require such emergency measures, and which would benefit from cautious expectant management, is a matter of skill and experience (in theory and practice), to which articles like the one linked above could usefully contribute. Factors to consider include cervical dilatation, type of presentation, signs of fetal distress, and descent with expulsive effort. Additionally, management of breech deliveries with the woman in an all fours position may reduce cord compression (as the cord is above the fetal body rather than below), and can easily be converted to a knees-chest position for more active intervention if delivery does not progress as quickly as expected. This is a strategy midwives are actually using in the community.
Update (December 2014): Those of you who are interested in this topic should read this report from the Netherlands:
When considering what is recommended and best practice for midwives working in primary care settings, evidence needs to come from those settings. In this study, 2/8 UCP’s were managed with retrograde bladder filling, and these two instances were associated with the poorest Apgars, and the only death reported. While the numbers are small, they suggest that bladder filling in primary care settings may not offer benefits over manual elevation of the presenting part. Additionally, because it is time consuming, especially for a single midwife on her own at home, it may lead to unnecessary delays, compared to outcomes which were conducted in settings where assistance from other staff was immediately available.
What do you think? Are you carrying equipment to inflate women’s bladders if you detect a cord prolapse at home?
Broche, D. E., Riethmuller, D., Vidal, C., Sautiere, J. L., Schaal, J. P., & Maillet, R. (2005). [Obstetric and perinatal outcomes of a disreputable presentation: the nonfrank breech]. J Gynecol Obstet Biol Reprod (Paris), 34(8), 781-788.
Gannard-Pechin, E., Ramanah, R., Cossa, S., Mulin, B., Maillet, R., & Riethmuller, D. (2012). [Umbilical cord prolapse: a case study over 23 years]. J Gynecol Obstet Biol Reprod (Paris), 41(6), 574-583. doi: 10.1016/j.jgyn.2012.06.001
Huang, J. P., Chen, C. P., Chen, C. P., Wang, K. G., & Wang, K. L. (2012). Term pregnancy with umbilical cord prolapse. Taiwan J Obstet Gynecol, 51(3), 375-380. doi: 10.1016/j.tjog.2012.07.010
Kouam, L., & Miller, E. C. (1980). [Prolapse of umbilical cord – new aspects]. Zentralbl Gynakol, 102(13), 724-733.