Another NICE Guideline that mentions care for breech presentation has been put out for comment. This time it is Inducing Labour. Many fine colleagues are collating responses to the guideline in general, but I would like views on the specific section related to induction of labour in breech presentation.
I have prepared a response, based on previous feedback from women and birthing people. Please let us know how you feel about this, and whether you would word anything differently.
Induction of labour is controversial, and even more controversial for breech presentation. I have tried to word the response in such a way that reflects the need for more informed choice, rather than more induction per se.
p.10, line 6 “Induction of labour is not generally recommended if a woman’s baby is in the breech position. [2008, amended 2021]” Cannot locate evidence for this recommendation in evidence review. This statement is vague. Not generally recommended by who? Why? Induction of labour for breech presentation is common outside of the UK.
p.10, line 5 Suggest the section on ‘Breech Presentation’ is re-written to reflect the ethos of informed choice and discussion, in a similar manner to the section on ‘Previous caesarean birth.’ Otherwise, the service is inequitable. A guideline on IOL with breech presentation is only applicable to women who have chosen to plan a vaginal breech birth. The guideline should reflect and respect this, using neutral, non-judgemental language.
1.2.19 Advise women with a baby in the breech position, who have chosen to plan a vaginal breech birth, that:
induction of labour could lead to an increased risk of emergency caesarean birth, compared to spontaneous breech labour
induction of labour could lead to an increased risk of neonatal intensive care unit admission for the baby, compared to spontaneous breech labour
the methods used for induction of labour will be guided by the need to reduce these risks. See the recommendations on Methods for inducing labour.
1.2.20 If delivery is indicated, offer women who have a baby in the breech position a choice of:
an attempt at external cephalic version, immediately followed by induction of labour if successful
caesarean birth or
induction of labour in breech presentation
Take into account the woman’s circumstances and preferences. Advise women that they are entitled to decline the offer of treatment such as external cephalic version, induction of labour or caesarean birth, even when it MAY benefit their or their baby’s heath.
Current wording in Draft Guideline is:
1.2.19 Induction of labour is not generally recommended if a woman’s baby is in the breech position. [2008, amended 2021]
1.2.20 Consider induction of labour for babies in the breech position if:
delivery is indicated and
external cephalic version is unsuccessful, declined or contraindicated and
the woman chooses not to have an elective caesarean birth.
Discuss the possible risks associated with induction with the woman. [2008, amended 2021]
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.