Introducing more support for planned breech birth in your hospital setting? This post is for you.
The management of breech presentation is undergoing an important transition. In the past twenty years, we’ve gone from:
- Management according to the preferences of individual consultants and/or units, tending increasingly toward caesarean section
- Blanket caesarean section policy following the publication of the Term Breech Trial
- A recognition in more recent guidelines that vaginal breech birth should remain an option for women
- Increasing demand from women for more choice and involvement in decision-making around how they birth their breech babies
As a result, health care providers are needing to re-skill in the facilitation of breech birth, and in a way which matches women’s expectations. This requires introducing entirely new skills to manage breech births when the mother is upright and active, as women who choose to birth vaginally usually expect to be.
But transitions can be de-stabilising. Doing things ‘as they are always done’ provides some protection because team members are familiar with their roles. Each professional knows her/his place on the team. They are familiar with the range of events that might happen in this scenario, and they know by repetitive practice exactly how they will need to communicate and respond. The emergency caesarean section for the undiagnosed breech discovered at 9 cm – the team has been here before many times, and swings comfortably into action.
In contrast, a planned breech birth is novel territory. This is even more the case if the woman has planned to be upright and active, as many teams will have rehearsed emergency breech drills with the mannequin in a lithotomy position (legs in stirrups). Therefore, teams supporting this choice will need to employ different strategies to ensure effective teamwork around the time of birth.
Identify your breech birth dream team
(These suggestions apply to a planned breech birth which occurs in a hospital setting, particularly one where a planned breech service is being introduced.)
Ideally, the entire second stage and the birth of this breech baby will be primarily supported by three people. These three should be familiar with and aligned with the woman’s birth plan and each other, as any task or relational conflict will compromise decision-making ability (de Wit et al 2013, Puck & Pregernig 2014). They should each have a clear understanding of what their role in the team will be, and they should have rehearsed together the management of some common emergencies. They should have clear eye contact with each other throughout the birth, in order to confirm in an unobtrusive way the on-going evaluation that the birth is going well, or to prepare each other for the possibility that it might not be.
Each team member has a different primary responsibility:
1) Management – This person is primarily responsible for facilitating the birth, and may be an experienced midwife or an obstetrician. Ideally, this person will be known to the woman and have experience with breech birth in general (and the type of birth the woman has requested). The birth facilitator will be intimately familiar with the woman and her wishes, as well as the mechanics of breech birth, how to anticipate possible problems, and how to assist when required. They are responsible for co-ordinating care and preparing the rest of the team to assist when required.
2) Support – This person, usually a senior midwife, is responsible for taking over monitoring of the woman’s and baby’s well-being throughout the second stage, frequently relaying this information to the rest of the team and reassuring the woman. Positioned beside the woman, they are an important communication bridge, especially when the woman is in a kneeling position, facing away from the person managing the birth. In this position, the support professional is also placed to assist with applying suprapubic pressure and/or change of maternal position.
3) Perspective – This person is responsible for documenting the birth and providing a second evaluation of progress. This role requires breech experience because in order to document appropriately and accurately, the person needs to understand what they are seeing. Similarly, in order to assist with the evaluation of progress, this person needs to be familiar with normal progress in a breech birth. Because of their perspective, this person is also an important communication bridge with the rest of the team outside the door (eg calling for further help, alerting paediatricians to possible complications, etc.), and may alert the managing professional to potential problems. Therefore, this role is often taken by the most experienced person in the room, such as the obstetrician or the experienced midwife who is supporting another midwife to develop her skills.
The triangle: nature’s most powerful structure
Most normal births are attended by two midwives, and this is more than adequate. But a breech birth is not an everyday occurrence. Documentation will need to be of a gold star standard. Yet in most hospitals, each person in the room will still be developing their skills with breech and will therefore need to concentrate on the task at hand, making attendance to paperwork tricky. It is also easy to become enthralled with the beauty of an unfolding breech birth.
Therefore, supporting breech births with a primary team of three strengthens a situation made vulnerable by its novelty. A triangle is one of nature’s strongest structures; this mini-team is strengthened, given a base by the addition of perspective. Given the importance of documentation in any higher-risk birth, triangulation of data (eg strengthening the accuracy by using different sources) also makes practical sense. The triangulated team increases everyone’s safety in a novel situation.
Interestingly, many women instinctively form their own triangles, involving two supporters. The third person in this triangle also provides additional support, strength and perspective for both her and her partner.
Continuity: the way forward
Continuity of carer – ensuring a woman knows the professional who will be facilitating her birth, and ideally the entire team – has known, evidenced benefits. Fewer interventions, greater satisfaction. Knowing who else will be in the room, and what their role will be, will also help the woman to feel more relaxed and reassured about the upcoming birth.
Continuity has benefits for providers as well, especially when it comes to facilitating non-standard care. A number of sources have suggested on-call teams for breech births as the way forward (Kotaska 2009, Daviss et al 2010) and on-call midwives are a middle ground. Especially when experience is minimal, preparation is key. Where an on-call team is not available, the entire team who will be attending the birth should be identified when the woman is admitted to hospital, and again at handover if appropriate. This team should have a thorough discussion about roles and responsibilities, and a run-through of the ‘fire drill’ if things do not go as planned, well before second stage requires the additional team members to attend.
The team should meet afterwards to review the birth and identify if any group work issues have been identified that can be improved for future births. This review should involve the obstetric labour lead, a midwifery manager and/or risk management midwife if the breech service is new to the maternity team. A reflective approach in the early stages will pay off in increased safety and a more confident, united team in the long run.
Further information and inspiration for your dream team
Teamwork is crucial to the safety of breech births. Michael West has written extensively about the characteristics of ‘real teams,’ as opposed to ‘pseudo teams.’ Real teams have clear, shared team objectives; role interdependence and role clarity; and they meet regularly to review and improve performance (West, 2014). If we are to successfully change the culture of breech birth, and support women as safely as possible as we develop our skills and experience, we must function as real teams.
How have you prepared your teams to support planned breech births?