Breech Birth: Monitoring in Labour

This is the 2nd of 3 presentations on physiological breech labour and birth.


Alfirevic Z, Devane D, Gyte GML, Cuthbert A. Continuous cardiotocography (CTG) as a form of electronic fetal monitoring (EFM) for fetal assessment during labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD006066. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006066.pub3

Banks M. (2003.) Utilising the unborn baby’s in‐labour movements. New Zealand College of Midwives Journal, 29:6.

Martis R, Emilia O, Nurdiati DS, Brown J. Intermittent auscultation (IA) of fetal heart rate in labour for fetal well-being. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2017, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD008680. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008680.pub2

Naaktgeboren C. (1989). The biology of childbirth. In: I Chalmers, M Enkin, MJNC Keirse. (1989). Effective care in pregnancy and childbirth. Volume 2: Childbirth. Parts VI‐X; Index. New York: University Oxford Press, pp. 795‐804.

New Zealand Guiudelines Group. Care of women with breech presentation or previous caesarean section, 2004.

SOJC Clinical Practice Guideline.Vaginal dellivery of breech presentation. No.226, June 2009.

Other presentations in this series

Breech Birth: Optimal Maternal Positioning


Breech Birth: Optimal Maternal Positioning

This 10 minute presentation on breech birth looks at how maternal position affects pelvic diameters and discusses the influence midwives and medical practitioners have on position during birth.

Previous posts

(The obstetric bed: resistance in action and Active breech birth: the point of least resistance) may also be of interest in relation to this presentation.


Coppen R. Birthing positions: the evidence – what do women want? What do midwives want? Quay Books, London, 2005.

de Jonge A, Teunissen DA, van Diem MT, Scheepers PL, Lagro-Janssen AL. Women’s positions during the second stage of labour: views of primary care midwives.Journal of Advanced Nursing, 2008;63(4):347-56. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2648.2008.04703.x.

Gherman RB, Tramont J, Muffley P, Goodwin T. (2000). Analysis of McRoberts’ maneuver by x‐ray pelvimetry. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2000;95(1):43‐47.

Hodnett ED, Stremler R, Weston JA, McKeever P. Re-conceptualizing the hospital labor room: the PLACE (pregnant and laboring in an ambient clinical environment) pilot trial. Birth, 2009;36(2):59-66. doi: 10.1111/j.1523-536X.2009.00311.x.

Russell, JGB. Moulding of the pelvic outlet. Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology of the British Commonwealth, 1969;76:817–820.

Russell JGB. The rationale of primitive delivery positions. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology,1982;89:712–715. 

The Spirit of Birth Workshop: An Open Access Resource


The Spirit of Birth

In the last three decades, women in New Zealand, as in the rest of the Western world, have experienced escalating levels of intervention during childbirth and a declining ‘normal’ birth rate – the latter being recorded as 65.0% of all births in the Ministry of Health’s Maternity Tables 2013. As induction and/or augmentation of labour (51.1%), epidural anaesthesia (27.0%) and episiotomy (13.3%) are included in that rate, it is unknown how many women and babies actually experienced physiological labour and birth.

This Workshop embraces the facilitation of birth without unnecessary medical procedures. It actively promotes the restoration of physiological labour and birth as an ideal childbirth culture, and the time-honoured role of the midwife as a non-interventionist caregiver.

You will get most out of this workshop if you:

    1. Watch the Lecture movie below first as the context of the other components of the Worskhop are referred to in this. Please note, the ‘Leave a Reply’ at the bottom of this page replaces the Discussion Forums referred to in the Lectures.
    2. Take time to reflect on each of the resources and share your confusions and insights with others.

This Lecture movie runs for 25:42 minutes. Printouts of the Lecture slides and Bibliography may assist with the Lecture movie.

Movies applicable to this workshop

This 27 minute interview is with the late Marsden Wagner, perinatologist and perinatal epidemiologist who served as a Director of Maternal and Child Health for the California State Health Department, Director of the University of Copenhagen-UCLA Health Research Center, and Director of Women’s and Children’s Health for the World Health Organization. Filmed in 2010, it addresses many of the basic questions relating to the medicalisation of childbirth.

This 4 minute UNICEF movie featuring Shagufta Shahzadi, a community midwife in Pakistan, simply and effectively exemplifies many of the essential skills of the midwfe.

After watching this 6:45 minute move consider the challenges or opportunities to physiological birth in the environment in which you usually work. What changes, if any, are needed?

Podcasts applicable to this workshop

Cardiotocography versus intermittent auscultation of fetal heart on admission to labour ward for assessment of fetal wellbeing. Declane Devane from the School of Nursing and Midwifery at the National University of Ireland compares the use of intermittent ausculataion and admission CTG in this 4:15 minute podcast.

Birth hormones. This hour long podcast is an interview with Dr Sarah Buckley on labour hormones. It is a resource aimed at women.

Lecture references and/or suggested readings

Alfirevic Z, Devane D, Gyte GML. (2013).Continuous cardiotocography (CTG) as a form of electronic fetal monitoring (EFM) for fetal assessment during labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 5. Art. No.: CD006066. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD006066.pub2.

Banks M. (2009). The obstetric bed: resistance in action. Birthspirit Midwifery Journal, 4:43‐46.

Banks M. (2003.) Utilising the unborn baby’s in‐labour movements. New Zealand College of Midwives Journal, 29:6.

Begley CM, Gyte GML, Murphy DJ, et al. (2010). Active versus expectant management for women in the third stage of labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2010, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD007412. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD007412.pub2.

Buckley S J. (2015). Hormonal physiology of childbearing: evidence and implications for women, babies, and maternity care. Washington, D.C.: Childbirth Connection Programs, National Partnership for Women & Families.

Chalmers I, Enkin M, Keirse MJNC. (1989). Effective Care in Pregnancy and Childbirth. Volume 2: Childbirth. Parts VI‐X & Index. New York: University Oxford Press, p. 839.

Cheng YW, Hopkins LM, Caughey AB. (2004). How long is too long: does a prolonged second stage of labor in nulliparous women affect maternal and neonatal outcomes? American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 191(3): 933‐938.

Cluett ER, Burns E. (2009). Immersion in water in labour and birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD000111. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000111.pub3.

Cooke A. When will we change practice and stop directing pushing in labour? (2010). British Journal of Midwifery, 18(2):76‐81.

Davis D, Baddock S, Pairman S, et al. (2011). Planned place of birth in New Zealand: does it affect mode of birth and intervention rates among low‐risk women? Birth, 38:111‐119.

Dixon L. (2003). Birth in a caul: a discussion on the role of amniotomy in physiological labour. New Zealand College of Midwives Journal, 29:7‐10.

Downe S, Gyte GML, Dahlen HG, et al. (2013). Routine vaginal examinations for assessing progress of labour to improve outcomes for women and babies at term. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 7. Art. No.: CD010088. DOI:10.1002/14651858.CD010088.pub2.

Duff M. (1998). A journey in assessing labour progress. Book of Proceedings, New Zealand College of Midwives National Conference, Auckland, pp. 1‐13.

Gherman RB, Tramont J, Muffley P, Goodwin T. (2000). Analysis of McRoberts’ maneuver by x‐ray pelvimetry. Obstetrics & Gynecology, 95(1): 43‐47.

Gherman RB, Goodwin TM, Souter I, Neumann K, Ouzounian JO, Paul RH. (1997). The McRoberts’ maneuver for the alleviation of shoulder dystocia: how successful is it? American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 176(3): 656‐651.

Hiersch L, Melamed N, Rosen H, et al. (2014). New onset of meconium during labor versus primary meconium‐stained amniotic fluid – is there a difference in pregnancy outcome? The Journal of Maternal‐Fetal & Neonatal Medicine, 27:13:1361‐1367.

Hodnett ED, Downe S, Walsh D. (2012). Alternative versus conventional institutional settings for birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD000012. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000012.pub4.

Hodnett ED, Gates S, Hofmeyr GJ, et al. (2011). Continuous support for women during childbirth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Feb 16;(2):CD003766. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD003766.pub3.

Katz VL, Bowes WA. (1992). Meconium aspiration syndrome: reflections on a murky subject. American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology, 166(l:1): 171‐183.

Kroeger M, Smith LJ. (2004). Impact of birthing practices on breastfeeding: protecting the mother and baby continuum. Jones & Bartlett: London.

Lauzon L, Hodnett E. (2003). Labour assessment programs to delay admission to labour wards (Cochrane Methodology Review). In: The Cochrane Library, 4. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Leap N, Anderson T. (2004). The role of pain in normal birth and the empowerment of women. In: Soo Downe (Ed). Normal childbirth: evidence and debate. Churchill Livingstone: London, pp. 25‐39.

Letić M. (2003). Inaccuracy in cervical dilatation assessment and the progress of labour monitoring. Medical Hypotheses, 60(2): 199‐201.

Madi BC & Crow R (2003) A qualitative study of information about available options for childbirth venue and pregnant women’s preference for a place of delivery. Midwifery, 19(4): 328‐336.

Mercer JS, Erickson‐Owens DA, Graves B, Mumford, Haley M. (2007). Evidence‐based practices for the fetal to newborn transition. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 52(3): 262‐72.

Mercer JS, Skovgaard RL. (2002). Neonatal transitional physiology: a new paradigm. Journal of Perinatal and Neonatal Nursing, 15(4): 56‐75.

Mercer J. (2001). Current best evidence: a review of the literature on umbilical cord clamping. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 46(6): 402‐414.

Miller S. (2009). Are midwives more ‘at home’ at home? Birthspirit Midwifery Journal, 1, 7‐11.

Miller S. (2008). First birth at home or in hospital in Aotearoa/New Zealand: intrapartum care midwifery care and related outcomes. Unpublished Masters thesis, Victoria University of Wellington: Wellington.

Ministry of Health. (2015a). Report on maternity, 2014. Ministry of Health: Wellington. Available at:

Ministry of Health. (2015b). Report on maternity 2014: accompanying tables. Ministry of Health: Wellington.

Monen L, Hasaart TH, Kuppens S. (2014). The aetiology of meconium‐stained amniotic fluid: pathologic hypoxia or physiologic foetal ripening? (Review). Early Human Development, 90(7): 325‐328.

Muza S. (2012). The Wax home birth meta‐analysis: an outsider’s critique. Last accessed 23 February 2017.

Naaktgeboren C. (1989). The biology of childbirth. In: I Chalmers, M Enkin, MJNC Keirse. (1989). Effective care in pregnancy and childbirth. Volume 2: Childbirth. Parts VI‐X & Index. New York: University Oxford Press, pp. 795‐804.

Olsen O, Clausen JA. (2012). Planned hospital birth versus planned home birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD000352. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000352.pub2.

Phelps JY, Higby H, Smyth MH, et al. (1995). Accuracy and intraobserver variability of simulated cervical dilatation measurements. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 173(3:1): 942‐945.

Roberts JE. (2002). The “push” for evidence: management of the second stage. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 47(1): 2‐15.

Smyth RMD, Markham C, Dowswell T. (2013). Amniotomy for shortening spontaneous labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 6. Art. No.: CD006167. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD006167.pub4.

Vain NE, Szyld EG, Prudent LM, et al. (2004). Oropharyngeal and nasopharyngeal suctioning of meconium‐stained neonates before delivery of their shoulders: multicentre, randomised controlled trial. The Lancet, 364(9434): 597‐602.

Wiegers TA, van der Zee J, Kerssens JJ, et al. (2000). Variation in home‐birth rates between midwifery practices in the Netherlands. Midwifery, 16(2): 96‐104.

Zhang J, Troendle JF, Yancey MK. (2002). Reassessing the labor curve in nulliparous women. American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 187(4): 824‐828.


The Spirit of Birth

Don’t forget, become a Friend of Birthspirit to support this work.

Waterbirth Workshop: An Open Access Resource


Birthspirit’s Waterbirth Workshop

Birthspirit’s Waterbirth Workshop provides the opportunity to establish and/or enhance evidence-informed practice around the safe and effective use of water during labour and/or birth). It is designed for health professionals but it is anticipated that women exploring the waterbirth option will also find it informative.

It is suggested that the two Lectures (narrated by Dr Maggie Banks) are viewed first as the context of the other components of the Worskhop are referred to in these. Please note, the ‘Leave a Reply’ at the bottom of this page replaces the Discussion Forums referred to in the Lectures.

You will get most out of this workshop if you take time to reflect on each of the resources and share your confusions and insights with others, for example:

  • Do I offer waterbirth in my practice? If not, why not?
  • What resources do I need to make this an option for women?
  • Do I promote physiological birth to well women in my practice?
  • What skills do I need to develop to be able to support a woman during waterbirth?

Print handouts are available here – Lectures and Bibliography.

Lecture references

Banks M. (2009) Waterbirth in New Zealand: herstory and politics. Birthspirit Midwifery Journal, 1: 13-19.

Bovbjerg M. Cheyney M. Everson C. (2016). Maternal and newborn outcomes following waterbirth: The Midwives Alliance of North America Statistics Project, 2004 to 2009 Cohort. Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, 61(1): 11-20.

Burns EE, Boulton MG, Cluett E, Cornelius VR, Smith, L. A. (2012). Characteristics, interventions, and outcomes of women who used a birthing pool: a prospective observational study. Birth, 39: 192–202. doi:10.1111/j.1523-536X.2012.00548.x

Church LK. (1989). Water birth: one birthing center’s observations. Journal of Nurse-Midwifery, 34: 165–170. doi: 10.1016/0091-2182(89)90076-1.

Cluett ER, Burns E. Immersion in water in labour and birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2009, Issue 2. Art. No.: CD000111. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000111.pub3.

Dahlen HG, Dowling H, Tracy M, et al. (2013). Maternal and perinatal outcomes amongst low risk women giving birth in water compared to six birth positions on land. A descriptive cross sectional study in a birth centre over 12 years. Midwifery, 29(7):759-764.

Davies R, Davis D, Pearce M, et al. (2015). The effect of waterbirth on neonatal mortality and morbidity. Women and Birth, 28(1): S11-S12 [Abstract]. doi: 10.1016/j.wombi.2015.07.047.

Franzin L, Carlo Scolfaro C, Daniela Cabodi D, et al. (2001). Legionella – Legionella pneumophila pneumonia in a newborn after water birth: a new mode of transmission. BRIEF REPORTS CID 2001:33 (1 November) E103-e104.

Garland, D. (2006). Is waterbirth a ‘safe and realistic’ option for women following a previous caesarean section? Completion of a three year data study. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest, 16(2): 217-220.

Geissbuehler V, Stein S, Eberhard J. (2004). Waterbirths compared with landbirths: an observational study of nine years. Journal of Perinatal Medicine, 32(4): 308-314.

Harper B. (2014). Why pediatricians fear waterbirth – Barbara Harper reviews the research on waterbirth safety.

Harper B. (2006). Guideline for a safe water birth Accessed on 16 February 2017 from

Johnson J, Odent M. (1995). We are all water babies. Celestial Arts: Berkeley, California

Mercer JS, Skovgaard RL,Peareara-Eaves J, et al. (2005). Nuchal cord management and nurse-midwifery practice. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 50(5): 373-379.

Nutter E, Meyer S, Shaw-Battista, et al. (2014). Waterbirth: an intergrative analysis of peer-reviewed literature. Journal of Midwifery &Women’s Health, 59(3): 286-319.

Nutter E, Shaw-Battista J, Marowitz A. (2014) Waterbirth fundamentals for clinicians. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 59: 350–354. doi:10.1111/jmwh.12193.

Odent M. (1983). Birth under water. The Lancet, 322(8365-8366):1476-1477.

Russell K, Walsh D, Scott I, et al. (2014). Effecting change in midwives’ waterbirth practice behaviours on labour ward: An action research study. Midwifery, 30(3): e96-e110.

Sidenbladh E. (1982). Waterbabies. Igor Tjarkovsky and his work. Akademi Literature: Sweden.

Stark MA, Rudell B, Haus G. (2008).Observing position and movements in hydrotherapy: a pilot study. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, 37(1): 116-122.

Taylor H, Kleine I, Bewley S, Loucaides E, Sutcliffe A. Neonatal outcomes of waterbirth: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Archives of Disease in Childhood – Fetal and Neonatal Edition 2016;101:F357-F365.

Zanetti-Dällenbach R, Lapaire O, Frei R, et al. (2006). Water birth: is the water an additional reservoir for group B streptococcus? Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 273: 236-238.

Suggested readings, audioclips and movies


Banks M. (2009) Waterbirth in New Zealand: herstory and politics. Birthspirit Midwifery Journal, 1: 13-19 gives the historical and political context of waterbirth in New Zealand.

Nutter E, Meyer S, Shaw-Battista, et al. (2014). Waterbirth: an intergrative analysis of peer-reviewed literature. Journal of Midwifery &Women’s Health, 59(3): 286-319 provides a critical analysis of the evidence on maternal and neonatal outcomes of water birth.

Dahlen HG, Dowling H, Tracy M, et al. (2013). Maternal and perinatal outcomes amongst low risk women giving birth in water compared to six birth positions on land. A descriptive cross sectional study in a birth centre over 12 years. Midwifery, 29(7):759-764. This descriptive cross-sectional study looked at perineal trauma, PPH rates and 5-minute Apgar scores amongst well women in a birth centre who waterbirthed compared to six birth positions on land.

Johnson P. (1996a). Birth under water – to breathe or not to breathe. BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 103(3): 202-208. Paul Johnston was a Consultant Clinical Physiologist when he wrote this classic article on why healthy newborn babies do not breathe underwater.Last accessed 8 February 2017.

Harper B. (2014). Why pediatricians fear waterbirth – Barbara Harper reviews the research on waterbirth safety. Last accessed 8 February 2017. Barbara Harper’s research review on waterbirth safety. She also examines position statements from various midwifery, obstetric and paediatric organisations.

Tirumalai Kamala. Is giving birth in water bad for the development of the child’s immune system? Last accessed 17 February 2017. Tirumalai is an immunologist with a PhD in mycobacteriology.

Audio clip

This is an interview with Barbara Harper, waterbirth pioneer, midwife and owner of the Waterbirth International website. From 30 seconds to approximately 9 minutes, she discusses her personal history and beginnings with waterbirth. From 14 minutes on (after discussing her book), she talks about the growth of waterbirth, particularly in the USA.


Eloive’s movie shows waterbirth as a family experience.

Cora’s movie is a good example of uninstructed, physiological pushing.

This movie clip shows infants less than 6 months of age exhibiting the diving reflex when under water.

The birth of Ibis movie shows physiological birth, including the placenta, in a family context.

This is an oral birthstory shows waterbirth as part of the whole birthing experience.from a waterbirthing woman. Told at the Midwifery & Birth Conference in Captown in 2014.

Barbara Harper discusses waterbirth and natural birth in US hospitals. Reflect on how you can ‘normalise’ midwifery care within medically dominated hospital birthing environments.

The recorded Live Classroom movies are currently being edited and will be added to this post when available.

Don’t forget, become a Friend of Birthspirit if you can.


Birthspirit’s Waterbirth Workshop

Breech, posterior and a deflexed head! An active birth solution?

Active birth is taken as a given during birth at home. Women rarely choose to birth on a bed; rather they walk, crouch, rest on hands and knees, and sway and rock their babies out. This need to move in labour is as much a way of helping the baby to negotiate his way out as it is for his mother to work with the pain or energy of labour. I have long since been convinced that bed-birthing debilitates the baby (not to mention the woman), especially if he is sedated and has less tone due to the narcotics and epidural anaesthesia that his mother has been given. Seeing the way some breech-presenting babies pedal, lurch, shrug and squirm their way out during physiological breech birth, I am equally convinced of the importance of avoiding bed-birth so the energy breech babies can have mustered for birth can be utilised. Occasional articles (Banks 2007; Berkley & Evans, 2006; Reed, 1999; Cronk 1998) but few texts (Frye 2004; Cronk & Flint 1989; Banks 1998) demonstrate or address active breech birth. Similarly lacking are descriptions of how to resolve problems with a woman in active birth positions during physiological breech birth. A ‘stuck’ baby during vaginal breech birth is rare – one estimate being an incidence of 1 in 500 (Menticoglou 2006); another reported as a nil incidence (pers. comm, S Albrechtsen, 22 March 2006) in a large hospital which, because of its support for vaginal breech birth and women choosing to birth there, expects one vaginal breech birth every other day (Albrechtsen 2006). Despite this rare occurrence midwives (and others) often verbalise “what if he is posterior?” and “what if the breech baby gets stuck?” These are worthy questions to voice and consider as the caregiver who supports vaginal breech birth needs to have strategies to remedy these rare but serious potential problems. It can be anticipated that women will be in obstetric hospitals for breech birth, except for the out-of-hospital experience that remains undiagnosed until the baby is on the perineum or, for whatever reason, the woman does not consent to birthing in hospital. It may also be that the midwife will remain the principle caregiver to facilitate physiological breech birth in hospital, not just simply as the woman’s choice, but because there is anecdotal evidence that the midwife has been the caregiver with most expertise in vaginal breech birth in obstetric hospital settings. Thus resolving problems during breech birth sits with midwives as well as obstetricians. This article discusses posterior breech and puts forward some thoughts about remedying the (very) rare problem of a deflexed head during birth with a posterior breech presentation. It should be noted that the strategies proposed are not intended to be ‘the definitive way’ to resolve a deflexed posterior breech. Having never experienced such a problem, my workings are purely theoretical. Rather, they are offered for analysis, critique and discussion – the thoughtful exchange process.

Is posterior breech a problem in itself?

Figure 1. Posterior footing breech

Midwifery and obstetric texts alike stress the importance of keeping the baby’s back anterior following rumping (birth of the hips). The breech baby in a posterior position has at least two opportunities to turn anteriorly. This first turn of the baby’s backline from a posterior position can be visualized by examining Figure 1. The posterior position of the sacrum can be identified with this footling breech as his toes point forward towards the mother’s abdomen; his back lies against his mother’s spine. As his hips and, therefore, the bitrochanteric diameter rotate internally from a posterior to an anteriorposterior position, his feet will turn to point to his mother’s inner thigh, as in Figure 2.

Figure 2. Rotation of the hips into anterior-posterior

Figure 2. Rotation of the hips into anterior-posterior

Figure 3

Figure 3. Rumping (of an extended legs breech baby)

This internal rotation enables his hips to negotiate under the public arch and, with a baby with extended legs (Figure 3), will result in the anterior buttock being seen first followed by the posterior buttock sweeping over his mother’s perineum.

Once both buttocks have come under the pubic arch (pelvic outlet) he will have rumped and may rotate so his back is anteriorly, rather than posteriorly, positioned (Banks 1998: 13-14). Some babies will not turn anterior until a second opportunity arises. Internal rotation of his shoulders to the oblique and then anteriorposterior orientation is repeated, this time as his shoulders first enter the pelvic inlet and then come under the pubic arch. As unusual as posterior breech is, discussion with midwives indicates that, with the few incidences that do occur, it is usually the second opportunity that a baby will take to turn anteriorly so his back lies in line with his mother’s abdomen. Should a posterior position persist following birth of the shoulders, as long as the baby’s head is well flexed and there are no contraindications as for normal breech birth (Banks 1998: 13-14), the baby’s descent continues by both gravity and maternal effort, and can be assisted by positioning. For example, the woman on her hands and knees, standing and leaning forward onto a support person, a table or the back of a couch will all help maintain flexion of the baby’s head. Once the root of the nasal bone is under the pubic arch, the glabella (the flat area between the root of the nose and the upper eye socket) pivots under the pubic arch, which acts as the fulcrum. The occiput and crown sweep over the perineum with the forehead appearing last.

Figure 4

Figure 4. Forward movement of an extended legs (anterior) breech baby

In terms of the direction that the baby moves through the pelvis, it is valuable to remember that Nature’s design of the pelvis, particularly the posterior space and the pubic arch, ensures that the internal spiraling down movements of the baby through his mother’s pelvis bring him in the direction of his mother’s waiting arms.

Irrespective of presentation, whether the woman is standing, kneeling or on hands and knees, and whether baby is anterior or posterior, it should always be remembered that his direction is forward into those waiting arms and not towards his mother’s back. This forward moving direction can be seen in Figure 4 of an anteriorly positioned, extended legs breech. In contemplating ‘simple’ (sic) posterior breech, during an email discussion, of her experience as the second midwife, American home birth midwife, Carol Gautschi noted two of her three posterior breech experiences rotated spontaneously to the anterior position following rumping (Gautschi 2008).

Posterior breech with a deflexed head

It is the deflexed head of the posterior breech baby which has the potential to halt progress. In all the stories I have taken of midwives facilitating breech birth, I have only heard of two ‘stuck’ posterior breech babies. The first was a preterm baby with his head stuck at the sacral promontory of his bed-birthing mother. Once born to the shoulders the nape of the neck was not visible. He freed himself by shrugging off the position while the midwife was trying to remedy it. The baby was born promptly in good condition from that point on. In the second instance, a second twin of an active birthing mother, may not have had flexion of his head maintained by firm abdominal muscles and a well contracted down uterus following the birth of the first baby. This second twin was a deflexed, posterior breech. This deflexion resolved when the second midwife flexed the baby’s head abdominally and tucked his chin under the pubic bone. This avoided the “tricky and dangerous manouevre” (Frye 2004:967) of the baby’s chin being used as the pivotal point on the pubic arch and saw the baby born without further delay (Gautschi 2008). This intuitive action by the midwife also appears in the obstetric literature, along with description, in a bed-birthing situation. In that case, after having tucked the baby’s chin under the pubic bone, accompanying oblique pressure was applied to roll the baby’s head into a flexed position (Tunde-Byass & Hannah 2003) (similar as getting the shoulder over the pubic bone as with shoulder dystocia). Should this not be possible, it is likely the baby has a deflexed head with the occiput held on the sacral promontory and the brow held at the pubic bone (pelvic inlet). In this case he would need to be raised slightly to dislodge him from his stuck position so his head could then be flexed. To achieve this, (along with a great deal of prayer and engagement with midwifery energy!), the woman would need to assume the most open position possible – standing with a leg cocked up on the edge of the birth pool, window sill or chair (depending on her height), and leaning into the cocked leg to give maximum leverage and openness to her pelvis. Some midwives work from behind the woman who is on her hands and knees but there would be more room to move from the front with the woman standing if there is a problem like this. Equally, there is considerable value for the midwife and the woman to be able to make eye contact so, while initially not pushing until the deflexion is corrected, the woman and midwife remain totally engaged. This engagement with the woman extends to talking to the baby as the midwife works so he also ‘knows’ what to do. Working with the baby sitting in the crook of the arm, the baby’s head is lifted up and off the sacral promontory by pushing up as high over the occiput shelf (occipital protuberance) as the roomy posterior space allows.


Figure 5. Lifting baby’s head off the sacral promontory and pubic bone

Simultaneously, the baby needs to be held at the front as high as possible, which may only be at the lower jaw but could be at the level of the cheek bones, with one finger over each as in Figure 5. The midwife would be working very high in the woman’s pelvis. This is achievable as my experience of resolving a severe shoulder dystocia has shown me. It is surprisingly pain free when women know what is happening and you are working together. Once off the sacral promontory, the second midwife can (lovingly but) firmly apply oblique roll over pressure abdominally to flex the baby’s head and assist it through the pelvic inlet. The baby can be pressed towards the posterior space by continuing the cradling of his head and applying pressure over his cheek bones once he is past the pelvic inlet. It would be of doubtful value to try turning the baby anteriorly as the deflection is most likely the problem, not the fact that he is posteriorly positioned. It is likely, however, that the baby who has been stuck at some point will need ongoing assistance to maintain flexion and bring his head down the birth canal until the nasal bone is under the pubic arch. It may be that he is ‘seesaw-ed’ back and forth and down in small increments of progress in a manner similar in the way it can be necessary with a shoulder dystocia before one can reach the posterior arm. Continuing to cradle his head over the cheek bones and over the occiput, and draped over the midwife’s arm, he can be securely held until he is born and, as with any birth, placed in his mother’s arms for assessment of his wellbeing.


In the absence of neck or uterine tumors or webbing of the baby’s neck, it is most likely that an extended head has been created by manipulation or extraction of the baby, remembering that the baby’s hands up by his cheeks are important in keeping the head well flexed. The caregiver should therefore resist the temptation to bring down the baby’s arms in the absence of a specific need to do so. It should also be remembered that any vigorous handling such as, bringing down arms, may well activate the startle reflex and cause a deflexed head. In remedying a deflexed posterior breech, the with-woman space the midwife occupies is imperative to maintain. It is this cohesive working together – woman, baby and midwife which minimises (everyone’s) anxiety and uses the emotional and spiritual energy integral to midwifery practice, even when faced with such challenges. This space also utilises the innate actions that a woman can take which may lessen or remedy the problem in the first place, such as ‘sucking up’ her baby with her perineal and abdominal muscles. As with any birthing, episiotomy should be avoided to ensure the perineal floor remains responsive to the birth energy which can bring on such occurrences. Active birth ensures that intuitive movements by the woman (and baby), and intuitive actions by the midwife are not hampered by the static positioning of bed-birth and, therefore, can circumvent potential problems. Rather than being promoted as a value-free choice when birthing, active birth needs to be recognised as an important safety strategy for avoiding pelvic entrapment and bed dystocia. It is also a valuable strategy for resolving problems, if, and when, they arise.

(Figures 3-5 supplied by author. Thanks to Jenny Johnston of Te Puru for Figures 1&2, and to the women for allowing use of their personal photographs.)

First published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2009; 2: 61-64.

Active breech birth: the point of least resistance

In March 2006 I attended the first international Breech Birth Conference in Vancouver, Canada, which gathered together midwives, medical practitioners and researchers to discuss such issues as research, safety and techniques used during vaginal breech birth. Presenters came from eight different countries – Canada, Germany, Norway, Belgium, United Kingdom, Netherlands, Australia and New Zealand. It was a valuable time of exchanging ideas and heartening to meet other supporters of vaginal breech birth equally committed to growing and maintaining the skills necessary to support women during the experience. The multi-disciplinary programme meant accessibility to different approaches as well as an international flavour.

One workshop I attended was on symphysiotomy – the surgical division of the fibrocartilaginous symphysis pubis and its reinforcing ligaments by way of a scalpel blade through the mons pubis. This technique is an obstetric strategy to allow birth of the often dreaded – but rarely occurring – head entrapment of the breech baby, which the presenter noted occurs probably once in every 500 breech births when cephalo-pelvic disproportion has been excluded (Menticoglou, 2006). As gruesome as it sounds, it was actually very affirming for me as it re-emphasised the importance of the woman’s position for giving birth to her breech baby to avoid, what I term, ‘bed dystocia’.

Bed dystocia occurs when the baby’s progress is halted, due to:

  1. Reduction of the woman’s lumbar spine curvature (lordosis).
  2. The backward tilting of the pelvis.
  3. Entrapment of the sacrum by maternal weight.

All of these factors can occur with lying on a firm bed. These changes mean the brim of the woman’s pelvis is less accessible to the baby’s after-coming head (or shoulders in cephalic presentation), most particularly, if the woman is in the stranded beetle position (lithotomy). Equally, the antero-posterior diameter of the woman’s pelvic outlet is reduced as her sacrum is hampered in moving outwards.

The iatrogenic or practitioner-induced cause of and corrective strategies for bed dystocia have clearly been demonstrated by Gherman and others (Gherman, Tramont, Muffley & Goodley, 2000). Their radiological examination of pelvic diameters of women at least 37 weeks pregnant, studied the dorsal lithotomy position as well as during the McRoberts’ manouever (hyperflexion of the woman’s legs onto her chest). The authors note “McRoberts’ maneuver does not change the actual dimensions of the maternal pelvis, it straightens the sacrum relative to the lumbar spine, with a cephalic rotation of the symphysis pubis sliding over the fetal shoulder” (Gherman et al, 2000, p. 45). Thus the manouevre is a correctional technique used to release the entrapped sacrum held by the woman’s weight on the obstetric bed.

Russell’s 1969 study of pelvic x-rays of 96 women in the last trimester of pregnancy in both the dorsal and sitting positions identified the gains that can be made to increase all pelvic diameters by positional changes (Russell, 1969). Further, the ‘primitive’ birthing positions such as upright positions with the hips abducted – as in a supported squat – “considerably increases the outlet measurement of the pelvis” (Russell, 1982). Equally, the forward tilting of the pelvis slides the innominate bones forward and down to increase the anterior-posterior diameter of the inlet. This tilting forward of the pelvis is a movement an active breech birthing woman intuitively takes as she pokes out her buttocks. Depending on when she does it, this can effectively help the baby’s head into the pelvic brim, roll the baby’s head down into the posterior space or precipitates the action of the face sweeping over the perineum as the pubic arch acts as a fulcrum for the baby’s head (Banks, 1998).

The 28 percent increase in the pelvic outlet – 1cm in the transverse diameter and 2cm in the antero-posterior diameter (Russell, 1982) of active birthing is greater than that which is normally achieved by symphysiotomy, which, primarily, increases the transverse diameters by 1cm (Menticoglou, 1990). While medicine describes symphysiotomy as part of “the obstetric arsenal” (Bjorklund, 2002), women giving birth to their breech babies can feel comforted that the midwifery approach of utilising active birthing positions will not wage war on their bodies and incapacitate their babies’ descent. Instead it facilitates breech birth with both woman and baby as active participants to optimise maternal pelvic diameters and the birth of the baby’s after-coming head.

Citation Reference  Banks M. Active breech birth: the point of least resistance. New Zealand College of Midwives Journal, 2007, 36, 6.

A breech reflection

This post written by Australian home birth midwife Sue Cookson (RM) was originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2010; 6: 65-67. Updated 30/12/15.

Mother and Child by Ron Mueck. Available at

Mother and Child by Ron Mueck. Available at

Thirty-one years ago on a hot December morning I gave birth to my second daughter. It was a rather unusual birth which began with membranes rupturing and a foot entering my vagina. Within an hour, two blue feet were at my vaginal opening where they stayed for a further two hours before she made her appearance. Contractions were regular but mild with the baby periodically retracting one foot and kicking off against my vaginal wall. Then, when in her ‘perfect position’, she descended. The descent took seven minutes from the umbilicus to the completed birth of the head. The birth was a pain free experience except for the uncomfortable extraction of both her arms by my doctor, as shown in the photograph below. It has taken me 26 years to understand the reason for that minor assistance with my birth.

I have been attending homebirths in Australia for 28 years but breech births did not really come my way until recently. I have supported a few women over the years to birth breech babies vaginally in hospitals, have had one undiagnosed homebirth breech in my practice, and attended two other homebirth breeches as second midwife. They were all good breech births. In 2009 I was involved in the launch of the DVD ‘A Breech in the System’ which documents a woman’s journey to give birth vaginally to a breech baby in an Australian hospital, where I was the supporting midwife.

Last year also brought me the stories of five breech deaths, with the babies being born in different settings across three different countries. These babies were all alive during the process of birth but once born, breathing was not established. From the umbilicus to the birth of the head, these babies took 13, 13, 15, 17 and 19 minutes.

The stories of these breech deaths really concerned me. It raised the fear of breech birth, which for me was – ‘what would I do if I couldn’t assist the baby through alive and well and, even though I had birthed my own breech baby vaginally, did I have the knowledge and skills to deal with the ‘unknown’ of breech birth?’ I decided to explore the teachings around breech birth and ask some experienced practitioners for their wisdom.

I began by contacting Maggie Banks, midwife from New Zealand and author of Breech Birth Woman Wise, and Andrew Bisits, obstetrician from Newcastle, Australia who has specialised in vaginal breech births for the past decade. I also consulted texts by Anne Frye 1 and Bruce T. Mayes 2. My questions were:

  • What constitutes need for intervention in a breech birth;
  • Is there a specific time limit for breech birth from the umbilicus to the completed head birth; and,
  • What is the management to encourage descent and delivery of the breech baby if needed?

Frye’s extensive text examines the question of timing and she states, “both the medical and midwifery literature are rather spotty when it comes to the all important question of the timing…[from the birth of the umbilicus to the birth of the head]”.3 She cites well-known references which nominate a range from 3-5 minutes to 5-10 minutes to “the parameter rests entirely upon the condition of the baby”.4 Mayes, however, declares that 20 minutes may be a safe limit although most babies will be born within 10 minutes.5

This is all rather confusing. Is it three minutes, or 10, or 20? My initial training with John Stevenson suggested 5-10 minutes if the baby was previously uncompromised, so respecting a time frame similar to shoulder dystocia. But what does ‘rests entirely on the condition of the baby’ mean? So the baby is born to the umbilicus, the heart rate is less than 80 beats per minute, colour is pale but pink, baby cycles so has tone and reflexes, how long do we have? One midwife who lost a baby, said the baby was alive and cycling two minutes prior to its birth (and death), another said she knew the birth was ‘taking too long’ and the baby died prior to the shoulders presenting. How quickly can a baby move into a comatose state and not recover, or were these births true stillbirths?

Communication with Maggie Banks about my queries brought me back to true midwifery mode; if descent is slow at any time either during the body’s descent or the head birth “change the mother’s position”. Of course, just like we would for a shoulder dystocia! I could feel my head and heart accepting the simplicity of her answer. And the reflection by Maggie on the time frame – “maybe 10 minutes, but definitely led by baby’s condition”.

Andrew Bisits’ response; only intervene in a breech birth “if the baby is bradychardic leading up to the birth of the backside and body; if there are clear delays with the delivery of the shoulders or the descent of the body”, “time from umbilicus to head should be no more than five minutes, absolute maximum of 10 minutes” and to encourage progress “our most overlooked ally with these births is effective suprapubic pressure; it is the most effective surrogate for a contraction”. And so these comments provided me with clear parameters and a different management for the head birth if required.

As happens, I have attended six vaginal breech births in the past six months – six in 26 years, then six in six months! One of these included a very precipitous birth where I was called when the membranes ruptured after an irregular early labour followed by three strong contractions. I was called again eight minutes later and told the feet were born. I stayed on my mobile and drove the seven minutes to the birth to find an arm arrested behind the baby’s head and inhibiting descent. There had been perhaps two contractions in this position and, by the time I was in the house and assisted the arm through, which was really tight and difficult, it had been possibly 10 – 11 minutes from umbilicus to head birth. That baby was deeply shocked, was resuscitated and had a first breath at five minutes. She was breathing regularly by 10, with Apgars of 2, 4 and 5 at 1, 5 and 10 minutes respectively, and was transferred by ambulance. She was in a coma for 50 minutes, but then recovered fully with no expected ongoing morbidity.

Another breech baby was born on the floor of a hospital with the obstetrician on his knees. The woman was in a knee-chest position for most of the descent, then moved her torso to be more upright for the actual birth. The baby came through to the neck in about four minutes then we waited ‘for the next contraction’. When I quietly reminded the obstetrician that there may not be another contraction and the mother could simply ‘let her baby out’, he replied that he wanted to wait until the next contraction. The baby’s colour was going off and her tone dropped so I leant forward and asked the woman to ‘release’ her baby, which she did. The baby was moderately shocked and the obstetrician wanted to cut the umbilical cord and remove the baby for resuscitation. The woman refused to allow him to cut the cord but scooped up her newborn and carried her to the trolley, cord attached!

The next breech was in the shower in a hospital, a 36-weeker. He was a complete breech that converted to a double footling breech. He came through from umbilicus to underarms in about five minutes but then hung with his right shoulder visible but no arm presented. It was the end of a contraction – should I wait for another or should I release that arm? I chose to release the arm, thinking of the time frame already used, making the decision to decrease the possibility of taking ‘too long’. The left shoulder then presented and at the end of that next contraction there was still no arm, so I assisted that through as well. The head came through with a ‘release’ by the mother, so the birth was completed in 8-9 minutes from umbilicus, and the baby had Apgars of 9 and 10.

My most recent homebirth, another undiagnosed breech, was a second baby. This labour and birth was very intense compared with the woman’s first birth, and due to the intensity I asked her to do some asynclitic moves to try to bring the baby down (still expecting a vertex baby and assuming the baby was stuck at the brim). She ended up on hands and knees with her left leg extended, which afforded good progress. The baby was a frank breech and this position gave him the room he needed to move into the pelvis. He descended, rotated on the perineum and then came flying through in about one minute – my job then became to slow his head birth as much as I could.

And so my recent birth experiences which followed my desire to gain more knowledge and so reduce my fear around vaginal breech, have given me the answer about my own breech birth. Did my doctor need to extract her arms? I know that he did what he believed that he needed to do. She was moderately shocked at birth and needed some resuscitation. I am very thankful that I did not have a more compromised baby and did not have to undergo transfer or special care procedures.

Importantly, my belief that breech birth is a ‘variation of normal’ has been fully supported. I now feel confident in understanding both normal progress in breech births as well as the management of difficulties in breech births. As a midwife I have no doubt that we need to be as hands off as practical, but I am a firm believer that we need to have our ‘hands ready’, together with our knowledge, skills and intuition, to assist a breech baby through in its perfectly good time.


1. Frye A. Holistic midwifery, volume II, care during labour and birth. Labrys Press: Oregon, 2004.

2. Mayes BT. A textbook of obstetrics. Australasian Publishing Company: Sydney, 1950.

3. Frye A. Op cit; p. 946.

4. Ibid; pp. 946-947.

5. Mayes BT. Op cit; p. 568.


‘Knowing’ the unknowable: pregnancy testing and the gentle art of uncertainty

Front Cover Photo - Issue 3

Untitled stoneware by Louise Hood of Tokoroa, New Zealand

This post written by Cecil Tamang (RM, BM) was originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2010; 2: 40-42.

I once ran across a greeting card which sums up my thoughts about the confirmation of pregnancy. On the front was a picture of a baby and the words “the world’s first 100% accurate greeting card pregnancy test”. Inside was written, “Step 1: Pee on this card. Step 2: Throw this card away. Step 3: Wait for 9 months. If you have given birth, you were pregnant.” While the instant and highly accurate results of technological pregnancy confirmation are undoubtedly useful in some situations, I feel that the elements of uncertainty and time inherent in an inner ‘knowing’ of pregnancy may play an essential role in the process of becoming a mother. Much has been written about the use of technology to offer screening and diagnostic testing in pregnancy, and where women’s knowledge of their bodies and their babies stands in relation to this external voice. The widespread use of technological pregnancy confirmation is inseparable from the greater epidemic of technological testing in pregnancy. I wish to raise the possibility that exclusive reliance on such technological ‘knowing’ may limit our opportunity to engage in the inner process of change and growth that is part of becoming a mother. I explore these ideas within the context of my own experience as a mother, through issues that arose during my two pregnancies. What follows is therefore to be received as one woman’s story; I have undertaken no research to gauge the attitudes of other women on this subject, nor am I privy to the dynamics which underlie their attitudes or motivate their actions.

My daughter was conceived with intention during the first month of inviting a child to our family. I knew I was pregnant when I missed my period. A few weeks into the pregnancy my partner went overseas for several months. Shortly after he left, when I was about six weeks pregnant, I began to have spots of bleeding. Sometimes the blood was bright red, sometimes brown. It was never much, just enough to require a pad.

I felt shattered. My dreams seemed to be dissolving, and I found myself nearly overcome with sadness and self-pity. Being a conscientious student midwife, I immediately went to my textbooks and ascertained that I was experiencing what could be classified as a ‘threatened miscarriage’. I was aware that I could approach a midwife or GP to check the levels of my pregnancy hormones, or even to arrange to view the baby by ultrasound scan. I had the possibility of ‘knowing’ whether my baby was alive or dead, but I felt unequal to facing that knowledge. Firstly, even if tests were to reassure me that my child appeared to be thriving, they would not necessarily be able to explain my bleeding, or guarantee the healthy continuation of my pregnancy. On the other hand, if testing were to confirm that my child was in fact dead, and my body was simply taking its time to pass the little body and tissues, I thought my heart would break. Without the support of my partner, I felt vulnerable to the harshness and inevitability of such a diagnosis, and chose not to pursue any testing. In choosing not to try to ‘know’, I found gentleness in uncertainty. Hope and despair could co-exist side by side. On the days when the bleeding was brown, I felt buoyed by hope that my child was healthy. When the spotting returned to red, I would become sobered again with the possibility that she was dying or dead.

I slowly moved away from seeing this as my journey alone; it was the destruction of my dreams of motherhood that were causing me the most pain. For my child, the stakes were higher: it was a matter of living or dying. Over a period of weeks, I came to know that this was her journey. I felt acceptance of the possibility that she might die, while still allowing myself hopes of her wellbeing. I came to love and accept her on her terms.

The spotting continued, with occasional clear days, for more than six weeks. After the initial shock wore off, and it became clear that nothing was happening fast, I began to relax more. Finally, when I was nearly twelve weeks pregnant, I began experiencing nausea and vomiting. I cannot express how I welcomed these signs of pregnancy! Finally, when I was nearly fourteen weeks pregnant the spotting stopped altogether, but by that stage I was confident of my baby’s wellbeing by virtue of vomiting and pronounced breast changes. My pregnancy continued normally, and, aside from daily vomiting until twenty weeks gestation, was a joy. I gave birth at home to a gorgeous healthy baby girl.

After nearly three years of breastfeeding my daughter, I began to experience occasional and erratic spotting over a period of about six weeks. I assumed (rightly) that my body was finally preparing to ovulate and menstruate again. After such a long time without a fertility cycle, the possibility of conception felt abstract. I was interested in using the fertility awareness method to prevent pregnancy, but was preoccupied, and did not bother to resume charting my fertility signs. Nothing followed that initial period of spotting. At first I thought nothing of it, assuming that my hormonal balance had simply swung back towards lactational amenorrhea. Ever so slowly, however, the idea began to grow that I might be pregnant. While my partner and I were both keen to have another child at some stage, I had just qualified as a midwife, and had a strong desire to work for several years before taking a break for a new baby. I was horrified to even think that I might be pregnant, so fixed were my plans. Despite my internal anguish in supposing the possibility of pregnancy, I had no desire to confirm or refute that possibility using a pregnancy test (though I was carrying some in my own kit!). I recognized that abortion was not an option for me, and adoption was not an option for my partner. There was therefore nothing that I would be ‘doing’as a result of ‘knowing’ of the pregnancy.

Mirroring the experience of my first pregnancy, I found comfort in uncertainty. Once again, hope and despair lay together within me, this time attached to opposite outcomes. I prayed not to be pregnant, and dreaded to find myself so, which would require a rearrangement of my so-precious plans. Over a period of several weeks I began to see the situation in a new way. I was forced to acknowledge the hypocrisy inherent in my resistance to the possibility of pregnancy; I was so determined to spend my time helping other people welcome their babies with gentleness and love, that I was unable to find it within myself to do so for my own child! As I firmly believe that babies in the womb are affected by their mothers’ emotional state, I could not deny that, if I were indeed pregnant, I would wish to protect my child from such a hostile reception. I began to find myself wanting to offer the best I could manage for what was still, up to this point, a hypothetical child. I had finally accepted the idea of this child, and within a few days I began to experience nausea and fatigue. The hypothetical became real – I knew I was pregnant. A healthy pregnancy flew by, and I gave birth at home to a beautiful baby boy.

I do not pretend that my adjustment and acceptance of the pregnancy was entirely smooth, and new pockets of resistance surfaced through the pregnancy, and even after the birth. But my fundamental agreement to do my best for this child supported me, and I acknowledge those challenges as part of my relationship with my son. Some might argue that, had I taken a pregnancy test when I first conceived the possibility of pregnancy, my emotional adjustment might have been faster. With sure ‘knowledge’of pregnancy, perhaps I would have seen my child’s perspective sooner and willingly relinquished my resistance. Perhaps such a scenario would support some women’s inner processes, but for me emotional change occurs in its own time. Had I been sure of my pregnancy before my attitudes had time to evolve, I suspect my anger and frustration would have been magnified and directed at my child. By avoiding a technological confirmation of pregnancy, I believe I was subconsciously protecting my son from an experience of total and unalloyed rejection.

Several commonalities run between these two very different pregnancy stories. In each, the state of not ‘knowing’ allowed the time and space for emotions to change and new awareness to grow. In both cases physical signs confirmed my pregnancies once the intense period of emotional upheaval was resolved. I stand in awe of the process that allowed me time to feel, before I could not help but ‘know’. I value my experiences in the early stages of both pregnancies for offering me greater self-knowledge, and helping to prepare me for the task of mothering. I fully acknowledge that every woman’s path is different, but I wonder how much of our inner journey we deny by turning immediately to technology to bring knowledge of our pregnancies.

Leaving well alone in the third stage of labour

In this review of newborn and maternal physiology following birth, Dr Sarah J Buckley focuses on the importance of supporting the newborn’s transition by delayed, or no, umbilical cord clamping. 

The third stage of labour, delayed cord clamping or, simply, non-interventionist birth?

The third stage of labour, delayed cord clamping or, simply, non-interventionist birth?

The third stage of labour is a powerful and mysterious time; more important than we acknowledge and more complex than we know. These thirty minutes or so, which begin as the mother births her baby and finish as she births her baby’s placenta, are usually uneventful compared to the drama of labour and birth, leading many (including many care providers) to think that the birth is already completed. However, enormous changes are happening in the brain and body of mother and baby, all of which are crucial for their survival in the short, medium and long-term. The substantial contribution of the third stage to species survival predicts that evolutionary investment will be high, with substantial sophistication incorporating multiple systems and adjustments.

For the mother, the major adjustment is the shift from pregnant to non-pregnant and especially the sudden separation of her baby’s placenta, which has been intimately associated with her cardiovascular system for the duration of her pregnancy. As the baby’s placenta peels off her shrinking uterine wall, rather like a postage stamp peeling off a deflating balloon, she must seal the blood vessels on her side so that her uterine blood supply, flowing at one-half to one litres per minute, will not haemorrhage from the torn vessels.

This physiological miracle is accomplished by the mother’s uterine muscle fibres, which begin to contract and retract immediately after birth forming “living ligatures” that tighten like a purse-string, kinking and sealing off each maternal arteriole. The uterine contractions that provoke this life-saving haemostatis are triggered by surges of oxytocin, released in a crescendo from the new mother’s pituitary as she gives birth. Ongoing maternal pulses of oxytocin are released as she gazes at and touches her baby, and as her newborn massages, licks, and finally suckles her breast Matthiesen et al (2001). Maternal oxytocin levels peak around the time of placental expulsion Nissen et al (1995) and, in all mammals, oxytocin plays a major role in switching on instinctive mothering behaviour at this time Nelson & Panksepp (1998).

Other hormonal systems are also active in the new mother’s brain and body to adapt her to her new maternal role. These include beta-endorphin, the body’s natural opiate and a hormone of attachment, which peaks at birth: adrenaline and noradrenaline, which are elevated in the minutes after birth and ensure that both mother and baby are wide-eyed and alert at first contact (noradrenaline is also a hormone of attachment) Nelson & Panksepp (1998); and prolactin, which reduces stress and augments maternal behaviour Grattan  (2001) likely also beginning its role as the major hormone of breastmilk synthesis during and soon after labour and birth.

Postpartum elevations of these hormones, which are even higher and more sustained within the brain than levels measured in the bloodstream Gimpl & Fahrenholz (2001),ensure the devoted maternal care that will optimize offspring survival through to reproductive maturity, and that will be replicated by female offspring with their own young Pedersen & Boccia (2002).Newborn and maternal hormone elevations in the hour following birth also ensure an optimal start to breastfeeding, as initiated by the baby and supported physiologically, hormonally, and behaviourally by the mother Buckley (2009).

For the baby, the major changes during third stage involve the respiratory and cardiovascular systems. These two immediate adjustments, both crucial for survival, are interrelated and both require the extra volume of blood that Mother Nature provides for an optimal newborn transition.

An ongoing supply of oxygen is a physiological necessity, and so, beginning at birth, blood is rerouted away from the placenta (which is reducing its oxygenating capacity) and towards the newly-functioning lungs. Over this time, the pulmonary blood flow increases from 8 percent of foetal cardiac output to 40 percent in the newborn, with this extra blood filling the alveolar capillaries, where oxygenation takes place.

Newborn circulatory rerouting involves the closure of the shunts from umbilical cord to liver and heart, (ductus venosus); from right to left atrium (foramen ovale) and from pulmonary trunk to descending aorta (ductus arteriosus), most of which are aimed at supporting the new pulmonary circuits.

Other major roles of the placenta, chief waiter in the “hotel de womb”, must also be performed by the newborn kidney, liver, gut, and skin. These newly-functioning organs, whose vascular beds were relatively unfilled in-utero, also require extra blood for optimal perfusion and function.

Mother Nature’s superb design for this time involves a gradual redistribution of blood in the minutes after birth, adding up to a substantially-increased blood volume in the newborn, compared to the foetal, body. This haemotological top-up, known as the placental (or placento-foetal) transfusion, comes from blood that is temporarily held in the placenta and is transferred to the newborn in several stages.

According to Dunn (1984), during the baby’s final passage through the mother’s lower vagina, pressure on the cord obstructs the low-pressure umbilical vein, which prevents blood returning from placenta to baby and results in an increased blood volume within the placenta. (The higher-pressure artery is not affected, so that blood can flow from baby to placenta but not back again).

This placental back-log may help to delay placental detachment by making the placenta more rigid. Delayed detachment gives the newborn an ongoing source of oxygenated placental blood that is an important back-up, especially if the baby is slow to breathe. Observations that the first five or so newborn breaths are not effective in gas exchange Ullrich & Ackerman (1972) and that placental respiration continues at normal efficiency for at least 37 seconds after birth Marquis & Ackerman (1973),  underline the importance of this back-up system for all newborns.

As the baby emerges, pressure on the umbilical vein is released and the bolus – around 66 mL – of warm, oxygenated, pH-balanced blood that was back-logged in the placenta enters the baby’s circulation Dunn (1984). This occurs within seconds of birth, as evidenced by two studies in which weight gain (reflecting incoming blood) has been continuously recorded from birth Diaz-Rossello (2006).

This placental transfusion, also called the placento-foetal redistribution, is augmented by the new mother’s third stage contractions, which compress the in-utero placenta and so push blood towards the baby. Between contractions, blood can return from baby to placenta through the umbilical vein, which closes later than the artery, and which can transport blood in either direction. This transfusion takes place over several minutes, with the majority of blood transferred within three minutes of birth.

The final amount of blood that is transferred from placenta to newborn can vary from 54 to 160 mL Usher et al (1963), implying that different babies have different circulatory needs and also suggesting that newborns can self- regulate their final blood volume. This may happen through adjustment of umbilical vein flow or other means: Gunther (1957), who continuously recorded newborn weight after birth, showed a reduction in weight (therefore a transfer of blood back to the placenta) during a crying episode, likely due to increased systemic pressure.

The average newborn blood gain following the placental transfusion is around 100ml. Diaz-Rossello  (2006), who also recorded newborn weight gain showed a final average weight gain of approximately 100g; equivalent to 100ml of blood. This is around one-third of the total blood volume of an average term newborn (300-350 ml), and so represents a major circulatory contribution.

This blood is also rich in protein and nutrients (containing, for example, the equivalent iron in 100 litres of breastmilk Zlotkin (2002)); in red cells (delayed clamping increases red cell numbers by up to 60% Yao et al (1969)) and in haematopoietic stem cells, which will migrate to the bone marrow and differentiate into various blood and immune cells. The deliberate withholding of newborn blood for so-called “cord blood banking”, which involves taking all or most of this 100ml, has no discernable benefit to the baby Diaz-Rossello (2006) and we have not investigated the harm that may result from deprivation of newborn stem cells Buckley (2009).

The extra blood volume, as well as its components, is also important for an optimal transition. Mercer’s model of neonatal transitional physiology Mercer & Skovgaard (2002) demonstrates the importance of adequately filling the pulmonary capillary networks that surround each alveoli and which, when filled with blood, make the alveoli erect, even before lung inflation. According to studies by Jaykka (1957), the pressure needed to inflate the lungs is substantially lower when the pulmonary vascular beds are pre-filled and the alveoli are erect.

The placental transfusion also aids the clearance of the fluid that fills the foetal lungs, which is optimized by the high levels of plasma proteins associated with a full placental transfusion. Good levels of plasma proteins ensure that the blood colloid osmotic pressure (COP) is high enough to pull the more dilute lung fluid across the alveolar membrane and into the blood stream by osmosis. Both volume and COP effects will optimize newborn lung function, and may be compromised by early clamping.

The baby whose cord is clamped immediately after birth, especially within the first ten to twenty seconds, will lose not only the nutrients, stem cells, and red cells, but also the extra blood volume and will be hypovolemic, to a greater or lesser extent Dunn (1984). Diaz-Rozello (2006) comments, “For the neonate, it is as if 25% of its volemia is bled into the placenta (p. 559).”

Recent randomized controlled trials of early versus delayed cord clamping have highlighted the extra risks of iron deficiency and anaemia in infancy associated with early clamping, compared with a delay of even 30 seconds. A 2007 meta-analysis, published in JAMA, suggests that early cord clamping increases the risk of anaemia by five times at one to two days; and doubles the risk at age two to three months, compared to late-clamped babies. In this analysis, early clamped infants also had lower iron stores at six months Hutton & Hassan (2007).

Concerns about jaundice are often raised in relation to delayed cord clamping. After birth, any red cells that are excess to newborn requirements will be broken down, with red cell haeomoglobin being converted to water-soluable biliverdin and eventually to fat-soluble bilirubin. Higher numbers of red cells associated with delayed clamping are therefore likely to cause some degree of jaundice, which occurs among all newborn mammals and is probably an important and deliberate postnatal adaptation. Bilirubin is a potent antioxidant that can protect newborns from the sudden “hyperoxia” that occurs with the transition from low oxygen levels in the womb to high levels on exposure to room air Sedlak & Snyder (2004a).

This “beneficent” role of bilirubin Sedlak &, Snyder (2004b) was confirmed in a 2008 study Shekeeb Shahab et al (2008), which showed that mild to moderately jaundiced newborns have better antioxidant status than less jaundiced babies, which deteriorates when phototherapy is used to reduce bilirubin levels.

Note that studies do not show an excess of severe jaundice (such as would cause kernicterus, or brain damage) in babies who have had late clamping. Two recent reviews, including more than 1000 late-clamped babies, both concluded that phototherapy or exchange transfusion for jaundice were no more common among late-clamped compared to early-clamped newborns Hutton & Hassan (2007); van Rheenen et al (2006).

Jaundice is also mentioned as an outcome in the recent Cochrane review of the timing of umbilical cord clamping McDonald & Middleton (2008). The reviewers concluded that jaundice requiring phototherapy may be increased with delayed clamping: this conclusion is counter to the two reviews mentioned above, and is critiqued in detail elsewhere Buckley (2009).

Similarly, concerns that “overtransfusion” from delayed clamping will make the blood of healthy newborn babies too thick (polycythemia) and cause “hyperviscosity syndrome”, where extremely  viscous blood cannot flow through the small vessels, are not based on good studies Mercer & Skovgaard (2002). As the authors Hutton & Hassan (2007) of the JAMA review conclude:

“Delaying clamping of the umbilical cord in full-term neonates for a minimum of 2 minutes following birth is beneficial to the newborn, extending into infancy. Although there was an increase in polycythemia among infants in whom cord clamping was delayed, this condition appeared to be benign (p. 1241).”

Although the above discussion is generally focused on healthy term newborns, it is important to note that premature babies are at even greater risk from early clamping, because the preterm placenta is relatively larger relative to the body and holds more blood to be transferred to the baby. Cochrane guidelines are unequivocal about the importance of delayed clamping in premature newborns Rabe et al (2004).

Compromised newborns may especially need the blood and oxygen that the placental transfusion provides. Ironically this group is especially likely to have their cord clamped early and be taken away for resuscitation, often because resuscitation facilities are further than a cord-length away. UK obstetrician Andrew Weeks advocates allowing compromised newborns at least one minute for placental transfusion, and comments: “In these days of advanced technology, it is surely not beyond us to find a way of keeping the cord intact during the first minute of neo­natal resuscitation Weeks (2007, p. 313).”

Similarly, babies born by Caesarean are very likely to miss their placental transfusion: Weeks recommends that surgical staff “wait a minute” before clamping the Caesarean baby’s cord, with the baby kept warm on the mother’s legs Weeks (2007).

Thankfully, international studies and guidelines are beginning to acknowledge harms from early clamping and promote a normal neonatal transition. Weeks concludes: “There is now considerable evidence that early cord clamping does not benefit mothers or babies and may even be harmful.” and recommends a delay of three minutes, with the baby on the mother’s abdomen Weeks (2007). The UK RCOG has also acknowledged possible harms of early clamping on infant iron status Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2008), and comment “It is increasingly difficult to justify routine early cord clamping, especially for preterm births Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (2008, p. 3).”

A recent joint statement by the International Confederation of Midwives and the International Federation of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians, as part of the Safe Motherhood project International Confederation of Midwives & International Federation of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians (2004) also advocates that the baby’s cord should not be cut until pulsation has ceased. (The role of oxytocics, which are still advocated under this new form of “active management”, is discussed elsewhere Buckley (2009)).

A physiological transition for mother and baby would, to my mind, exclude the cord clamp altogether, with the cord cut only after the mother has birthed her baby’s placenta, at which time very little blood is spilled with cord cutting. Non-severance of the cord (lotus birth Buckley  (2005, pp. 40-43); Rachana (2000)) is another way to ensure a full physiological transition for mother and baby.

In conclusion, we can trust Mother Nature’s superb design for mothers and babies in third stage, as well as in birth. For healthy mothers and babies, for Caesarean newborns, for premature babies and for babies who require resuscitation, an optimal transition can be supported by leaving well alone in the third stage of labour.


Drying and shrinking umbilical cord and placenta with Jacob's lotus birth

Drying and shrinking umbilical cord and placenta with Jacob’s lotus birth

This post  was originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2009; 1: 29-34. Sarah J Buckley is a New Zealand-trained General Practitioner, mother of four homeborn children and author of the internationally-acclaimed book Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering. She lives in Brisbane, Australia.