This post builds on my primary research, Standards for maternity care professionals attending planned upright breech births: A Delphi study. The research reports an experienced panel’s consensus on the skills required for midwives and obstetricians supporting physiological breech births. The practical content of the article is my personal application of one of the findings to clinical teaching.
“Health professionals attending upright breech births should be competent [to assist] rotation of the fetal back to anterior (when the mechanism has deviated from normal)” (p 5). 77% of the panel agreed that this is an important skill. This standard of competence combines two skills: 1) recognising deviation from normal mechanisms; and 2) assisting by restoring the mechanism to normal.
- Recognising deviation from normal mechanisms
Within the past two weeks, two people have discussed with me concerns about an incorrect understanding of the correct position for the fetal back when a woman is in a hands/knees position. First, a Practice Development Midwife (PDM) says she advocates teaching breech in ‘only one way’ (eg. lithotomy) because people get confused. A midwife attending training advocated for hands/knees positioning, but when questioned about where the fetal back should be, replied, “The fetal back remains uppermost.” Similarly, a student I am mentoring in practice attended sessions on breech at university. Her lecturer suggested hands/knees may be a more advantageous positioning, but later she is told, even in hands/knees, “The fetal back remains uppermost.” The student had worked out that this couldn’t be correct and sought more information. Excellent critical thinking, Charlotte!
These are signs of a practice in transition, and the PDM and Charlotte are right to be concerned. Rotating the fetal back uppermost in a hand/knees position is a dangerous but not uncommon mistake. Even in textbooks, such as this German textbook for midwives (Geburtshilfliche Notfälle: vermeiden – erkennen – behandlen, Göbel & Hildebrandt, 2007), the woman’s position is changed, but the professional is still following the rule of, “The fetal back remains uppermost.” (Just to reassure you, once the arms are born, they advocate rotating the fetal body 180° so that the head is born occiput-anterior.)
A physiology-based understanding of the normal mechanisms comes from closely observing spontaneous births which are not interrupted. In a spontaneous breech birth, the most common and most optimal (a.k.a. ‘normal’) rotation of the fetal back is to anterior after the sacrum is born, regardless of the position of the mother.
The simplest way for teaching this aspect of the mechanisms I learned from midwife Jenny Davidson. The baby should rotate “tum to bum.” In other words, the baby’s tummy (stomach/front torso) should be facing the mother’s bum (bottom/posterior), no matter what position the mother is in. If those teaching breech can adopt this language to describe mechanisms and positioning, fewer dangerous misunderstandings, and more flexible thinking mayoccur. Teaching breech as a set of rote manoeuvres leads to automatic behaviours, which are sometimes counter-productive. In my research, I am observing that the path to acquiring breech competence and expertise involves learning to problem-solve in complex, unique clinical situations, often un-learning ‘rules’ that one was taught in skills/drills — because the rules don’t always work (eg. ‘the fetal back remains uppermost’ does not apply in every situation). Experienced professionals replace inflexible rules with more flexible understandings and principles, over a period of time, and through much reflection with peers and mentors. Perhaps teaching should be about patterns and principles, rather than prescriptions?
2. Assisting rotation of the fetal back to anterior — restoring the mechanisms to normal
You should rarely have to do this, but if you do, this principle may be helpful: “Rotation, not traction.” You can assist rotation with your fingers on the bony prominences of the baby’s pelvic girdle, as for any breech manoeuvre. Consider as you do what is happening at the inlet of the pelvis – have the shoulders already engaged, or are they just beginning to enter the pelvic brim?
Safe facilitation of physiological breech births depends on the ability to determine when intervention will be beneficial, and when it is unnecessary and potentially harmful. A breech baby will normally rotate spontaneously, with the back to the anterior (“tum to bum”), as the shoulders engage in the transverse diameter of the pelvic inlet. Pulling or manipulating prior to this spontaneous rotation could cause problems. But if the rotation is to the posterior, it may be beneficial for attendants to intervene at this point rather than rotate an occiput-posterior head mid-pelvis. Or at least 77% of an experienced panel think so …
Gibes E & Hildebrandt S (2007) Geburtshilfliche Notfälle: vermeiden – erkennen – behandlen, Thieme
Questions for reflection:
- Watch the videos in this collection. Identify the normal mechanisms, beginning with descent of the sacrum transverse (to the mother’s side). As you are watching, identify which way you will expect the rotation to occur, anticipating the normal rotation. Did the baby rotate as you expected?
- Imagine you are attending one of the births in the videos and quietly communicating with a colleague who has no previous breech experience, about what you are expecting to see, and what to document during the birth. What do you whisper to your colleague? Do this simultaneously with your colleague/fellow student as you both watch the video
Watch this obstetrician (Diego Alarcon) facilitate a complete breech birth. He is touching more than is advocated by physiological breech-experienced providers – the mechanism has not yet deviated from normal – but his hands tell you what he is thinking. The baby’s right foot is behind the left, indicating that rotation is tending in this direction – sacral anterior, good. However, he is closely guarding this. Watch when he puts the forefinger of his right hand on the baby’s right hip bone to ensure that the rotation will occur in a counter-clockwise direction when the contraction begins. His actions are gentle, not forceful, and they work with the mother’s expulsive efforts.
In this birth, as the sacrum is born, it is mostly transverse (normal), but somewhat posterior, to the mother’s left. The baby does not rotate to sacrum anterior, as we would expect as the arms enter the pelvis to be born. The obstetrician (Michel Odent) recognises that the mechanism has deviated from normal and immediately intervenes to restore the mechanism by sweeping down the anterior arm under the symphysis pubis, across the baby’s face.
This video is much more hands-on than a physiological approach, but it provides a good example of a normal mechanism of sacral rotation following rumping when the mother is in a supine position — and how to assist, because the midwife’s (Renata Hillman) hands are positioned to assist rotation using the bony prominences of the fetal pelvis.