Monday, March 9, 2009

Breech Vaginal Birth is NOT an Emergency

This blog was written by a blogger friend. It was so good, I asked if she would mind me posting it here. Thanks Emily ( for letting me share this with my readers!

In my continuing crusade to shoot down OB myths, this week I am tackling breech vaginal birth. This post has taken a lot longer to write than I thought it would. At first I thought I was having trouble with the amount of information available about it, but that isn't the problem. The problem is that I can't really understand why breech vaginal birth is considered an emergency in the first place. Sure, I know that there are risks associated with breech vaginal birth, but I just can't shake the idea that babies are born breech all over the world with little fanfare or issue. Nevertheless, obstetricians continue to look for more and more excuses to avoid the topic entirely by just cutting the babies out. So, in the interest of being thorough, here is some food for thought.

According to this article, "Vaginal breech deliveries were previously the norm until 1959 when it was proposed that all breech presentations should be delivered abdominally to reduce perinatal morbidity and mortality." Typical of obstetric mentality, instead of looking at the cause of morbidity and mortality in the first place, they chose to focus on the correlative factor instead - that many babies who presented breech had a high rate of injury or death. But as far as I know, no one thought to ask if medications, managed, or instrumental delivery could have contributed to those injuries or deaths.

Fast forward to today, and more than 90% of all breech births in the U.S. are delivered by c-section. This has happened largely because of a study that was done in 2000 by Hannah, et al, that shows a higher rate of perinatal morbidity and mortality associated with breech vaginal birth, as compared to planned c-section. Consequently, the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) has systematically condemned breech vaginal birth, and it is no longer offered as a choice to women today. Henci Goer does a good job here of explaining why the conclusions of that 2000 study are not valid.

However, the ACOG has a history of picking and choosing those studies that support its own position. They also prefer to ignore any studies not done in the United States, as those studies are often contrary to American obstetric practics. For example:

A study out of Sweden in 2003 in the European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology showed no difference between elective cesarean vs. planned vaginal birth for term breech deliveries.

Another study actually published with the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology in 2006 examined planned breech delivery in France and Belgium, and found no discernable difference in outcome with more than 8,000 breech patients studied.

A different study from France in 2002 and published in European Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology and Reproductive Biology looked at more than 500 patients and found no difference in outcome.

The International Journal of Gynecology & Obstetrics published a study in 2004 from the United Emirates which found no clear difference in breech vaginal vs. cesarean, but did find more maternal morbidity associated with cesarean section.

The Malaysian Journal of Medical Sciences, published a study in 2007, which concluded, "Most of the perinatal mortality was due to IUD, congenital abnormality and prematurity and there
were no perinatal death related to mode of delivery or due to birth trauma."

and there have been other studies to support these findings.

Danell Swim writes in her article, A Breech of Trust,
So I ask you, what are the United States hospitals doing wrong for their vaginal breech deliveries?

It is NOT that cesarean section is safer for breech deliveries in this nation, it is that vaginal breech is more dangerous in this country. US hospital policy and procedure are killing more breech babies than their European counterparts.

And to remedy the situation, it’s been recommended that nearly all babies in a breech presentation be delivered via cesarean section. This is despite the study published with the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology that discovered that France and Belgium are able to safely deliver them vaginally, and safely.

So rather than teach our doctors how to safely deliver a breech baby, the ACOG's answer to the breech problem is to simply take them by c-section at term.

This article describes how best to safely deliver a breech baby. Included in the highlighted points are:

  • Spontaneous onset anytime after about the 37th week.
  • No augmentation if labour is slow or there is poor progress - caesarean section.
  • Mother encouraged to assume positions of choice during the first stage.
  • Fetal heart listened to frequently with a Pinard stethoscope or a hand held Doppler Sonic aid using ultrasound.
  • Food and drink encouraged, but remembering that women in strong progressing labour rarely want to eat.
  • Membranes not ruptured artificially.
  • Vaginal examinations restricted to avoid accidental rupturing of the membranes.
  • If, and when spontaneous rupture occurs conduct a vaginal examination as soon as possible.
  • Second stage by maternal propulsion and spontaneous expulsive efforts guided by the attendant if judged appropriate.
  • Mother encouraged to be in an all-fours position.
  • No routine episiotomy.
  • Third stage without chemical or mechanical assistance, usually managed according to woman's wishes.
Of that list, tell me how many of those are likely to occur in a medically managed birth in a US hospital today?

The most dangerous aspect of this trend is that American health care providers are losing, or have completely lost, the art of safely delivering breech babies. While some doctors may envision a 100% c-section rate for breech births, that will never be possible. The World Health Organization (WHO), in this publication about planned c-section for breech says,
It will be impossible to deliver all term breech pregnancies by caesarean section. The systematic review showed that 9% of women with breech presentation still have a vaginal breech delivery because the mother may insist on vaginal delivery, breech labour may be precipitate, or special situations such as the second fetus in twins. It is therefore imperative to continue providing expertise in vaginal breech delivery to all the intrapartum care providers.

This atmosphere of fear and foreboding surrounding breech births is leading women to choose dangerous options to avoid having a breech baby at all costs. The current recommendation is to attempt an external cephalic version (ECV), in which the care provider attempts to turn the baby from the outside into a head-down position. But ECV is not without risks. According to this publication:
The largest review which included 44 studies and 7377 patients found the most common complication of ECV to be transient fetal heart rate abnormalities (5.7%). The risk of placental abruption, emergency cesarean section, vaginal bleeding, and perinatal mortality were less than 1 percent combined. Because of the risk of alloimmunization, Rhogam is recommended for non-sensitised Rh negative women following ECV. There currently is not enough evidence from randomized controlled trials to assess complications of ECV.
In addition, in order to perform an ECV, tocolytics such as terbutaline, and epidural anesthesia are sometimes used. The risks of epidural anesthesia are well-documented. Risks of terbutaline to the baby include fetal tachycardia, hyperinsulinemia, hyperglycemia, myocardial and septal hypertrophy, myocardial ischemia. Terbutaline not only does not have FDA approval but the FDA disapproves of its use as a tocolytic.

ECV is only successful 50-60% of the time (various sources). When ECV is unsuccessful, the only other option is to schedule a planned c-section for some arbitrary date. The problem with this is that breech babies can and do turn, up to, and even during labor. So planning a c-section may be taking a baby even before it is ready to be born, and without giving it a chance to get itself into a favorable position.

It is clear to me that breech birth, while carrying some risk, is not unreasonably dangerous in itself. The danger lies in breech birth in a highly managed hospital setting. For this reason, I would suggest that if a woman plans to birth in the hospital in the U.S, and her baby is breech, she should plan to have c-section. In fact, if a woman is planning a hospital birth and her baby is breech, she probably won't have a choice about it. If she does not want to have a c-section, she should stay home. But she should know a c-section for breech is not necessary! In fact, I don't even believe any undue concern should be attributed to breech presentation, especially if one has a midwife who is experienced and skilled in delivering breech babies.

If you find yourself pregnant, approaching term, and your baby is breech, please try these suggestions for gently encouraging your baby to turn. If you want to avoid unnecessary surgery, start now looking for a midwife who is experienced in breech delivery. Don't schedule a c-section - allow baby all the time it needs to turn itself. You can visit to learn how to tell whether your baby is head-down.

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