Lessons from a midwife becoming a mother. Or, how does a medieval Spanish bridge, two poodles and a purple hose relate to ‘career enhancement’?

This post written by Heather Wallace was originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2010; 5: 33-36.

A midwifery stitch

A midwifery stitch

Last year I returned to clinical practice after an extended maternity leave of almost five years. I was concerned that I would be completely out of touch and that my time out from the workforce would result in big black gaping holes in my practice and knowledge base. However I was pleasantly surprised to discover that on return to work as a midwife, rather than be jeopardised, aspects of my practice have actually been enhanced by my labouring/birthing/mothering journey—growth and enrichment as a woman has ultimately resulted in growth and enrichment as a midwife.

Three personal journeys of labour and birth for ‘Heather the Woman’, three ‘key’ lessons for ‘Heather the Midwife’! I share these with you now—with a little bit of ritual, myth and magic around the edges!

It all began with the unification of Europe. My husband Rod and I were driving and camping our way around Western Europe in the early stages of the creation of the European Union. We reached Portugal and discovered that on one stretch of road one was likely to be met by carts being pulled by donkeys, while just around the corner a mammoth vertebrae of freeway awaited completion—Portugal, it seemed, was being hauled into the EU via the Auto strata. This complete overhaul of the Portugese roadways resulted in our trusty atlas being entirely inaccurate, leading to the barney of all barneys between navigator (me) and driver (Rod), and then a long stony sulky silence. To pass the time while not speaking to one another, I read the Spanish Lonely Planet in great detail, and discovered that our drive out of northern Portugal would take us over the border, into Spain and very close to a tiny village with special midwifery significance. Speaking again, we made our way to A Ramallosa, where a medieval bridge spans a deep green river. Legend has it that for hundreds of years women at about 12-14 weeks gestation would visit the bridge, bring offerings to the stone deity in the centre, and ask for a safe and easy passage through labour and birth. It is a beautiful bridge, with its image echoed in a blue and white tiled mural in the centre of the village. I crossed the bridge, made an offering in the centre, asked for a blessing, had my photo taken by Rod and we then continued on our way. But myth, magic and ritual are powerful and often enduring phenomena!

Lesson 1Trust the process

A Ramallosa bridge http://www.baiona.org

A Ramallosa bridge

Years later, Rod and I were delighted to discover that I was pregnant. We promptly adopted two standard poodle puppies to “practise” being grown up and responsible. I ‘booked in’ to the Birth Centre of the large public hospital where I was working at the time, plus had ‘shared care’ with an Obstetrician—just in case! I had a Glucose Tolerance Test and Group B Strep swab—just in case, and was quite compliant and unquestioning when the Obstetrician said an emphatic no to birth in water. Having what felt like hundreds of people say to us during my pregnancy “Ohhhh—a midwife married to a doctor—you’re going to have a terrible time in labour” helped to prompt me to do everything I could to optimally prepare for my labour, with lots of yoga and aqua-aerobics. And not to forget—I had crossed that medieval bridge!

My waters broke in the late afternoon of a July winter’s day. There were no contractions. “Right” said Rod “Time to walk”, so gathering poodles we set off along the beach, assuming we were at the beginning of a 24 hour process. Let’s just say that a five kilometre beach hike did a much better job than a truck load of syntocinon, and by the time we got home things were ‘established’. Not wanting to get too excited, conscious of the ‘text book labour’ times described during our education plus the sentiments from all the ‘doubting Toms’, both Rod and I tried to play down the significance of what was happening. Also, I didn’t want to turn up at the Birth Centre and have my friends and colleagues tell me I was only 1cm dilated with a posterior cervix! I tried describing to Rod the ‘anal cleft’ line in an attempt to determine what my cervix was up to. Rod found some kind of line (in hindsight, a knicker-crease), pronounced “two centimetres” and I retreated to the bath. Half an hour later having bowel pressure and having to drop to the ground in ‘child’s pose’ to get through each contraction, still not believing that this was actually labour and worried about being sent home, Rod bundled me into the car and we were off to the Birth Centre. An hour later, in the bath, cared for by a supportive and wise midwife, (the Obstetrician was thankfully detained at a hospital around the corner!), I breathed my baby out of my body and became a mother. As I scooped up my slippery, warm, wet baby, any doubts about the abilities of my body disappeared, and I knew that my body was made for birthing.

Lesson 2Respect the uterus.

A couple of years later it was time for labour number two in a new city at a new Birth Centre. Again, waters broke with no contractions, so off we all went along the waterfront for a ‘kick-start labour’ walk.  With my body slower to come to the party this time around, I called the hospital to let them know what was going on (that is, SROM with no contractions) and what I was planning to do about it (that is, walk!) Unfortunately the midwife (who I did not know) was not happy about a “multi” lurking in the community with ruptured membranes—heavens, my baby could drop out on the footpath! She was all for me being admitted for monitoring and Syntocinon. Thankfully I had become less compliant this time around, plus more ‘trusting of the process’—oh—and don’t forget that bridge! During her lecture on infection, safety, what’s best for baby etc, she let slip that my favourite midwife was starting work at 9pm—suddenly I had a time frame! I bid the unknown midwife farewell, settled back and waited, and yep—at 8.55pm, my contractions started! It wasn’t long before Rod was not happy with me lurking at home, so it was off to the Birth Centre, into the bath and then oh my goodness—the power, the intensity, the ferocity of my labour! Whereas with my first labour I had felt my mind and body work in unison and harmoniously, this time around there seemed to be a real ‘power imbalance’ between the two, with my uterus totally calling the shots. Three hours later I was scooping my baby up out of the water onto my chest for “that” million dollar feeling, Rod was sending the ‘birth announcement’ text message—“No drugs, no doctors, no stitches, no worries”, and I was feeling a little like the Pony Express had travelled down through my pelvis and then turned around and trampled right over the top of me!

Lesson 3There’s no place like home

With pregnancy number three, I gave up on compliance all together and chose to birth my baby at home. I also resumed my yoga practice, had a friend coach me in some visualisation and meditation, and so ‘returned to the breath’. I felt ready to have my baby at 38 weeks, but had to stall for a couple of days due to Rod having ‘Man Flu’. Finally, it was time. I am nothing if not predictable—waters broke—no contractions—poodles—ocean—walk! Filling the birth pool was an exercise requiring metres and metres of purple hose, two hot water systems and a lot of yelling! Rod was running around hooking the hose up to various taps while I was supposed to be filling the pool. However, because I was bent over the edge of the pool engaging with pelvic rocking and breathing through my contractions, I wasn’t entirely focused on where the end of the hose I was holding was or how much I was sloshing the water over the side. Minor flooding, running out of hot water before the pool was filled and then Rod smashing a window while trying to manoeuvre the hose around some outdoor furniture, all contributed to the “this wouldn’t happen in a hospital” atmosphere! Finally I could get in the pool, breath and let my body do its thing. Things were hotting up—I was working hard, breathing hard and I felt as though I was using every ounce of ‘mental stamina’ to stay focused and effective. As I was reaching what felt like a crescendo, I opened an eye to see Rod bending down toward me and I felt such relief, as I assumed he was reaching down to talk me through my contractions and help me chant the special mantra we had devised together for this very point of my labour—what a lucky woman I was to have a partner so ‘in tune’ with what I was up to and just knowing when I needed that extra bit of encouragement and support! As his lips grazed my ear and I waited for those special words, he said “I’m just going to chop the wood”! Needless to say that was not the mantra! He went and chopped the wood, I got on and birthed my baby! Although it has been nicknamed the ‘Faulty Towers of Home Births’, in all seriousness, to have had the opportunity to birth at home and all that that entails, has been a most empowering, rewarding and enlightening experience.

Personal labour and birth journeys now complete, mothering and midwife journeys—works in progress!

Post script

Later this year I will be returning to the ‘Bridge of Good Labour’ in A Ramallosa. This time, I will take my three water babies with me. I aim to share with them the significance, myth, magic and ritual associated with the bridge, and as a result how it fits in to their personal stories. In the centre of the bridge I will give thanks for my birthing experiences and blessings, and then I’ll cross that special bridge—a little bit older, a little bit wiser, with a whole lot more water under than a decade ago! A woman and a midwife, enriched by becoming a mother.

Pre-natal screening: my internal turmoil

A midwife’s belief in a diverse society, and her knowledge of the joys a child with Down syndrome can bring, is reflected upon in this post by Kim Porthouse. She addresses the ‘burden’ that can arise in ensuring informed choice for women in relation to Down syndrome screening. Originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2009; 2: 14-19.

With every booking visit I battle with an internal dilemma; the issue of discussing pre-natal screening fills me with trepidation.  I am a midwife in my second year of Lead Maternity Carer (LMC) practice. I am also the mother of two sons, one of whom (Brendon, pictured below) has Down syndrome.  In this article I discuss how being Brendon’s mother impacts on my practice as a midwife.

PrenatalScreeningInnerTurmoil1-3In 1994 I was pregnant with my first son at the age of 32. I had initially decided on ‘shared care’ between my doctor and a midwife but I later changed to midwife-only care.

Routine pre-natal screening – Nuchal Translucency (NT) scan and Maternal Serum Screening (MSS2) –  were not on the radar then. However, my doctor, who had also had her children in her 30s, was very keen that I should have an amniocentesis to check for chromosomal abnormalities, particularly Down syndrome. She informed me that, as I was older, I was at higher risk. When I asked about these risks, she told me that at my age I had about a 1:450 chance of having a baby with Down syndrome and that amniocentesis had a 1:100 chance of miscarriage. (I have since learned that the chance of having a baby with Downs at 32 is actually about 1:650.) She also told me of her amniocentesis with each of her children; it had been a simple procedure which gave her such peace of mind. If mine came back positive, I could be offered a termination. She told me that it was recommended for all women aged 37 years and over but she thought it should be offered more widely.

I had been fortunate that about 10 years previously I had worked for the Intellectually Handicapped Society (IHC) for a few months, therefore Down syndrome was something I had come across and about which I had an understanding. I knew that if my baby had Down syndrome I could love it. I guess that was all I needed to know. I also knew that termination was not an option that I could go through with and I would not put my pregnancy at such a high risk of miscarriage. I therefore declined amniocentesis. My first son Chris was born and he was ‘normal’.

Three years later at the age of 35, I was pregnant with my second son; it had taken me 15 months to fall pregnant. A good friend of the same age was pregnant with her first child. She told me she was having an amniocentesis and would terminate if there was anything wrong. I found it amazing that she could be so black and white. I found her fear of disability astounding. This made me consider the issue again for myself. My risk of having a baby with Down syndrome was now 1:350 and the recommended age for amniocentesis had recently been lowered to 35. However, I quickly decided that this test was still not right for me and I could not risk miscarriage of this much wanted baby. My second son Brendon has Down syndrome.

Nothing could have prepared me for the griefthat consumed me with the news of Brendon’s Down syndrome. It was like a physical pain in my chest; my hopes and dreams were shattered, and I didn’t think I would ever stop crying. I felt I was being punished for wanting another child when my husband would happily have stopped at one (he had two other older children). I felt isolated, alone and different. I felt like a failure.

When told Brendon had a heart defect, I didn’t feel much about this at first; I couldn’t get past the words ‘Down syndrome’ but over the next couple of days it all sunk in and my concern grew. My baby had a life threatening condition. Somehow Down syndrome didn’t matter so much anymore – what was most important to me was that my baby lived! I was still hurting, still upset and feeling very cheated. I was scared of all the unknowns but I became increasingly aware that I wanted my child no matter how he was packaged. Deep inside I knew I could live with Down syndrome. Deep inside I believed this child has a right to life – after all, that was all part of the decision not to have amniocentesis. I began to know my grief was about shock, and about the loss of what was expected rather than about ‘what is’.

Brendon was so sick that at first I was only allowed to hold his hand. He was also very agitated. After three days they finally let me hold him. As I held him and we looked at each other, his jerky movements began to ease and he became totally calm. I could feel my own tension draining from me as I felt him relax. As Brendon fell asleep in my arms, I could finally let all my maternal emotions flow out to him. This was a turning point for me; I knew he needed me, and I was besotted. Although there was still sadness, the healing process had begun. (It is vital women get to hold their child as soon as possible after birth. Both mum and baby need time to be as one. The midwife needs to be the protector of this and, even when the baby is very sick, she needs to find a way to bring mum and baby properly together.)

PrenatalScreeningInnerTurmoil4-6For 11 years now Brendon has been the source of such immense pride and joy. He has enriched my life in ways I never would have imagined, and he has touched the lives of many in such a positive way. Mostly Brendon is easy to live and get along with. Yes, my life has been changed by Down syndrome. Yes, life has seemed hard at times, and there have been some frustrations and difficulties. The hardest thing, however, is individual and societal attitudes to disability and the non-acceptance of such diversity. I am blessed to have my son, and I have no regrets. At times normal children are challenging to parent and provide their fair share of frustrations; these are just different than those of a child with Down syndrome. Who has the right to say which child is a worthy challenge and which one is not?

Since having Brendon I have met so many amazing families. We all share the story of grief and deep sadness at the births of our differently-abled children. However, we all also share the stories of great happiness and enrichment that our children have bought us.

I am so frightened by the way people view disability and think that it can only bring hardships. I worry about how people make decisions about screening based on their fear of the unknown, and how they believe they wouldn’t cope. My experience is that people cope and rise to the challenge and generally find their life enhanced by their child.

I am also frustrated by the focus of screening out children with Down syndrome. To me, it implies that having a child with Down syndrome is a really bad thing, which it is not; it is simply different. The implication is that if a child has Down syndrome (or Spina bifida, our other widely screened for condition) that these children’s lives are not worthwhile and that they have nothing to offer to society or their families. I find this implication offensive. Many people with disability grow up to hold jobs and be active, contributing members of society. Perhaps if women choosing amniocentesis for a positive screen were offered the opportunity to receive information and/or contact from the New Zealand Down Syndrome Association (NZDSA), they could be well informed about living with Down syndrome and consider all their options whilst waiting for a result.

Screening does not diagnose normality; it only measures specific markers, which are used to calculate and provide a risk analysis. There is a belief that if women screen for Down syndrome and have a negative test then their child will be normal.

So many people do not seem to realize that there is a diverse range of disability and, conversely, ability. Most conditions cannot be screened for and normal karyotyping (determining the appearance of individual chromosomes) provides no guarantee. For example, I know a family who had normal karyotyping on amniocentesis and yet, when the child was born, she had a structural abnormality of the brain that meant she was severely disabled.

I know I am not the only midwife with a child with Down syndrome, and I cannot speak about how others feel on this issue, but these experiences and thoughts contribute to my internal turmoil. In one corner is my personal story, my own feelings about termination, my passion for the rights of children with disability, my belief in a diverse society and my knowledge of the joys and love a child with Down syndrome can bring. In another corner is my sadness at society’s non-acceptance of this diversity, and the hardships parents can face because of that non-acceptance.

In yet another corner is the feeling that I, more than anyone, absolutely have to offer every woman pre-natal screening, not because I think it is a good thing but because I have a child affected by the condition for which screening is available. What if I didn’t discuss it and then someone had a child with Down syndrome? It wouldn’t be long before they found out I have a child with Down syndrome – after all, my family is featured in a ‘We Welcome Your Baby’ pack and DVD produced by NZDSA. Would I then be accused of not fully informing women of their choices, of deliberately not offering screening, or, of influencing their decisions?

I have to be so careful of the language I use, and not present this issue with bias. I’m sure every midwife has a bias on whether she thinks screening is better or worse for society. I wonder, though, how many feel the same pressure to phrase the issue in a non-biased manner? How many midwives even think about how their language and presentation might influence a woman’s decision?

I feel I have to keep the fact that my child has Down syndrome a secret, in case people would feel uncomfortable about choosing to screen and feel unduly influenced by this. I hate to deny this facet of my child’s existence; I am proud of my son and I do not apologize for his Down syndrome and yet, as a midwife, I feel compelled to hide it from the families with whom I work.

Whilst I absolutely believe that women need to make their own decisions whether to screen or not, and not be led by the health professional, why do I feel I have to present such a neutral front? When women ask me what I think, why do I feel I can’t share my view in case it is interpreted as trying to influence them? It may be that my story may affirm their own feelings rather than challenge them, yet I can’t take that risk. I allow women to make decisions based on preconceived ideas of Down syndrome. I ask myself – why is it I feel I cannot talk about the positive aspects of parenting a child with Down syndrome? After all, couldn’t this information be given as part of fully informing women about Down syndrome along with medical descriptions of disability?


Snijders (1998, pp. 343); NICE Guidelines, 2003, in Pairman et al (2006, p. 594); Meylan (2007) [hyperlink]; Schuchter et al. In: Irving (2004, pp. 18-21)

Sometimes I am offended when women say they want to screen because they wouldn’t want one of ‘those’ children. I want to ask them if they know and have firsthand experience with any of ‘those’ children, and what is it about ‘those’ children that is such a problem. I want to tell them of Brendon and that my life is not ruined by him; my life is good. However, I just nod and say okay and fill out the forms. I feel such relief when someone chooses not to screen.

Application to Midwifery

The Ministry of Health (MOH) has provided funding for NT scans within the Section 88 Notice MOH (2007). It has funded MSS2 screening with the recommendation that NT should not be used in isolation but in conjunction with MSS2 – one combined result being provided to women.

There is, however, debate as to the robustness of these screening tools and whether they meet the criteria for introduction. Tests should be simple, sensitive, cost-effective and reliable, and there should be effective, acceptable and safe treatment Irving (2004, pp. 18-21).

The MOH has placed an expectation on LMC’s to offer these screening tools to women. Currently in New Zealand midwives receive no training on how to counsel women about pre-natal screening. Nor do midwives receive any training or advice on counselling the women and their families that receive positive screen results. Should we as midwives even be offering women screening if we haven’t had such training?

Midwives are autonomous practitioners. We need to ask ourselves why we should include this screening in our practice – is it just because it’s available, or, are we obliged to offer it because New Zealand women have the right to be fully informed? If as a profession we believe we must offer screening then there is a need to take responsibility for ensuring midwives are provided with adequate education and training. Midwives must be provided with the accurate, objective information with which women can be fully informed. Women need to be given information that provides a balance of perspectives so that they have the power to make informed, not just emotive, decisions. As a profession we also have a responsibility to ensure that there is nationwide consistency regarding what screening is available and what is offered to women. We should be ensuring that when screening is offered that women are offered the most accurate options available.

When considering this issue we must ask – what is the MOH motivation for wanting screening introduced, and, is it about what is ‘good’ for society? The main motivation is most likely about money – screening to prevent Down syndrome is probably cost effective to the health and education sectors. If the MOH expects us to offer screening then perhaps LMC’s should expect the MOH to fund adequate training programmes. Perhaps the New Zealand College of Midwives could seek funding from the MOH for this purpose and assist the implementation of a national education programme on screening, which could also include other screening issues such as HIV.

In summary, I see the challenge for midwifery is to be informed, objective, and balanced in the presentation of this issue. Midwives need to be respectful of the sensitivity of this issue and of individual views; pre-natal screening is a highly personal, emotive and culturally sensitive arena. In all reality pre-natal screening for Down syndrome is here to stay. I hope my story has highlighted there are two sides to this issue and that it will encourage midwives to examine their own feelings, as well as their discourse when talking to women.



The story that got midwives and obstetricians talking together

A multi-disciplinary hospital meeting to air issues raised by women’s feelings of dissatisfaction with obstetric consultations for breech-presenting babies is discussed by self-employed midwives Margaret Gardener and Jenny Crawshaw. Originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2010; 5: 63-67. References updated March 2014.

TheStoryThatGotMidwivesAndObtetriciansTalkingTogetherSmallThe New Zealand Guidelines Group’s NZGG (2004) Care of women with breech presentation and previous caesarean section aims to provide accurate evidence-based information to health practitioners, pregnant women and their families about care with breech-presenting babies. The Guideline, containing summaries of the evidence that has been published on risks and benefits of either caesarean or vaginal breech birth in one document, can make it easier to weigh up risks and benefits and make decisions on the ‘mode of delivery’.

The tertiary care unit in Otago, New Zealand, despite this Guideline, does not have any policies for offering and providing breech birth. Women are told that if they come into the birthing unit in labour, there will not necessarily be skilled clinicians on call at the time to provide care and, therefore, the safest option would be a caesarean section. Women planning a vaginal breech birth are also informed that the lack of experience or even exposure to breech birth amongst the clinicians at the hospital can be a significant factor in the standard of care they will receive there.

It is apparent that consultations that take place at the hospital ANC are not inclusive of the New Zealand Referral Guidelines Ministry of Health (2012) as breech presentation is not accepted as only an antenatal consultation. While it is not listed in Guidelines as requiring a labour and birth transfer of care, there is an obstetric assumption that breech presentation is an abnormal presentation and, as such, care is handed over. When the woman ‘fits’ within the criteria for a vaginal breech birth according to the algorithm, the NZGG recommends that an obstetrician be informed of the onset of labour and when active pushing commences but the woman’s LMC midwife continues with her care NZGG (2004, pp. 17-18). If labour progress slows or there is a concern regarding the mother or baby, a consultation is, of course, sought.

There is an emerging women-led trend that has been precipitated by the repercussions of the Term Breech Trial (TBT) Hannah et al (2000), that is, the dis-ease around vaginal breech birth. This article discusses the process started at Dunedin Hospital of trying to resolve women’s expressed feelings of being dissatisfied and feeling unsafe to birth their breech babies in hospital following ANC consultations, as Amy’s above story reflects, and to ease the tension felt by midwives who support women’s choices during breech birth.

What choices do women make?

Women will make a variety of choices when fully informed and cognisant of their options with their breech babies, even with the same information:

    • Some are happy to accept the option of an elective caesarean section;
    • Others comply to a caesarean, but feel they have been bullied or have no real choice;
    • Some women wish to continue with a planned vaginal birth within the hospital setting;
    • A subset of the women who wish to hospital birth feel they have no choice but to birth at home because of the conditions stipulated during a consultation in ANC (for example, compulsory epidural); and,
    • A few women choose to birth their breech babies at home as a first choice.

It is the group of women who would ideally plan a hospital vaginal breech birth who are the most disadvantaged following the TBT trial. Most are highly motivated and well informed. The attitude they encounter is contrary to providing an atmosphere where they can birth physiologically in the hospital environment. If there is a perceived lack of compliance to a planned caesarean section, women are advised to return to ANC to try and procure the choice that is recommended to them.

Amy’s experience of the obstetric consultation process and the issues generated around the choices made available to her provided the challenge needed to look at what is actually going on for women birthing their breech babies. Amy was angry about her second antenatal consultation where she feels several sections of the Code of RightsHealth and Disability Commissioner (1996) were breached.

When the Clinical Director was notified of this, she was concerned about the pathways that had led to Amy feeling that she was unable to safely birth at the hospital, stating “the hospital had failed this woman and [it] could do better for the woman choosing the path less travelled”. The Clinical Director went on to suggest a multidisciplinary meeting to discuss vaginal breech birth in the area.

The multi-disciplinary meeting

The multi-disciplinary meeting was well attended by obstetricians, registrars, and LMC and hospital midwives and went into extra time to accommodate the lively discussion. The meeting was skilfully mediated by the Clinical Director and all parties were given the opportunity to speak without being shouted down or demeaned.

The Clinical Director presented a summary of research that has dictated practice over the past 20 years. An LMC midwife presented an account of the journey a woman takes with her midwife when a breech presentation is confirmed, and the Code of Rights and the conflicting messages given to women. A hospital midwife presented her experience of breech births from early in her career where a breech presentation was viewed as a variation of normal to the present day where breech presentation is seen as an abnormal presentation. A speaker from the Ethics Department presented different ethical theories from the mother’s, baby’s and practitioner’s perspectives.

There was a wide range of experience from obstetricians in the room who had attended many breech births to practitioners who had never seen a vaginal breech birth. Few, either midwives or obstetricians, had attended a breech birth over the last year or two. The midwives who had attended breech births had done so in the community. It appeared that some of the more memorable births the experienced obstetricians had attended were breech births where the outcomes were poor.

A discussion ensued on safety and position for birth. All the obstetricians felt safer if a woman had an epidural and birthed in lithotomy. Most of the midwives felt safer with active birthing and birth in an upright position. One obstetrician did acknowledge that an epidural may mask some problems where a caesarean section was indicated. One midwife pointed out that the women who chose to birth vaginally in today’s environment were well informed and generally were choosing a physiological birth and the women who were prepared to have an epidural and lithotomy position, as a first option, would probably have chosen caesarean section.

The group was then asked to indicate if they were ‘comfortable’, ‘moderately comfortable’ or ‘very uncomfortable’ in ‘conducting’ a breech birth. The experienced obstetricians fell mainly into the comfortable category. Most of the other participants were either moderately comfortable, (but prefaced this with needing more experience), or they were very uncomfortable. Obstetricians who had recently qualified talked of very limited experience, and the accompanying limited confidence. Some of the more experienced obstetricians verbalised reluctance to the point of refusal to attend vaginal breech birth.

At the conclusion of the discussion there were divergent views from supporting woman to have a vaginal breech birth to only supporting an elective caesarean section. While caesarean section is now seen as a relatively safe operation, the midwives were concerned about the implications for future caesarean section. One talked about it as being seen as an “easy option” now but, for the woman with a subsequent pregnancy and requesting a vaginal birth after caesarean (VBAC), she is subjected to an often unpleasant consultation where she is informed of the increased risk of uterine rupture and strict criteria to “ensure the safety of mother and baby”. The language in these consultations varies but the words “dangerous” and “death of your baby” is used, and the ability to practice active birthing is reduced. A lot of the obstetricians present were surprised about this observation. The concerns around VBAC are already being discussed in another forum at the tertiary unit.

There was acknowledgement that a service in the environment at the tertiary unit is not conducive to women who choose vaginal breech birth, but all acknowledged that the best place to birth a breech baby was in hospital with experienced practitioners. How to gain the experience was another point of discussion, and all acknowledged that working with models, though not ideal, was a first step in gaining confidence for the real situation. A couple of options were aired:

    • A breech squad made up of experienced practitioners who would be on call for any breech births and take over the care of the woman until after birth; and,
    • An experienced practitioner being on call for any breech birth who would work alongside the LMC.

What was not discussed is who is best to attend vaginal breech births. The underlying feeling was that an obstetrician should be involved and present for the birth, usually ‘conducting the delivery’. However, one registrar who had only been in the country and area a very short time said she couldn’t understand, if the woman didn’t want the doctor involved, but she wanted to birth at the hospital, why the midwife and the woman didn’t just shut the door and not involve obstetricians at all. This comment was met by a mixture of stunned silence and nervous laughter, as the last time that happened, an unexpected adverse outcome resulted in the midwife, woman and family being subjected to a process that ended in a High Court action where the midwife was eventually acquitted of manslaughter.

The meeting ended with a plan for nominated obstetricians and midwives to get together to take the matter further. The option of having consumer input was tabled.

Where to from here?

The PROMEDA study Goffinet et al (2006), which showed no difference in perinatal mortality or serious neonatal morbidity between labour and planned caesarean section, concluded that in places where planned vaginal delivery is a common practice and when strict criteria are met before and during labour, planned vaginal delivery of singleton foetuses in breech presentation at term remains a safe option that can be offered to women.

The Society of Obstetrics and Gynaecology in Canada clinical guideline Vaginal delivery of breech presentation Kotaska et al (2009) states that spontaneous or assisted breech vaginal delivery is acceptable when certain criteria are met. Apart from Quebec, “where a significant number of physicians still offer breech vaginal delivery” Lalonde (2009, p.483), obstetricians in Canada are looking at how to make vaginal breech birth safe,and that safety includes issues of consent. As Kotaska (2009, p. 553) states:

Even using the Term Breech Trial alone as a basis for a consent discussion, the current practice of ‘not offering’ women a trial of labour while providing ready access to caesarean section is coercive, especially given the equivalency of long-term neonatal outcome. To offer only caesarean section is ethically and legally difficult to justify if a reasonable alternative is available.

Some women in New Zealand are choosing to birth outside a hospital environment as obstetricians are unwilling to compromise their stance on elective epidurals and birth in lithotomy positions. Discussion and a way forward will be challenging for all parties. However, the SOGC SOGC (2009, pp. 563–564) guideline offers a process:

21. In the absence of a contraindication to vaginal delivery, a woman with a breech presentation should be informed of the risks and benefits of a trial of labour and elective caesarean section, and informed consent should be obtained. A woman’s choice of delivery mode should be respected. (IIIA)

22. The consent discussion and chosen plan should be well documented and communicated to labour-room staff. (IIIB)

23. Hospitals offering a trial of labour should have a written protocol for eligibility and intra-partum management. (IIIB)

24. Women with a contraindication to a trial of labour should be advised to have a caesarean section. Women choosing to labour despite this recommendation have a right to do so and should not be abandoned. They should be provided the best possible in-hospital care. (IIIA) 

All participants of the multi-disciplinary meeting did see the increasing caesarean section rate, now sitting between 32–35 percent in Dunedin, as worrying. One way of reducing this may be to support women to birth vaginally with breech babies but the skill level needs to be increased to meet any unexpected outcomes.

This then follows on as to who is the best practitioner to provide care for women birthing their breech babies vaginally. Obstetricians see a breech presentation as an abnormal presentation, where they need to be fully involved. They also find it challenging to be called in at the last minute for an emergency situation. Midwives see a woman birthing her baby needs to be encouraged to use upright birthing positions and non-medicated coping mechanisms with the obstetrician called only if there is a problem with mother or baby. Development guidelines and protocols will help to clarify these issues.

The woman is the centre of this discussion and has the Code of Rights to support the care she should receive, including being treated with respect and having services provided in a manner that respects her dignity and independence, making informed choices and decisions without coercion and harassment after being given the information in a way she understands. She also has the right to refuse services, and to be provided with a second opinion if the practitioner cannot meet her requests.

The challenge for the group is how best to meet the needs of women planning a vaginal breech birth. Not all women will comfortably sit within set guidelines and these women have the right to have services provided with reasonable care and skill in a manner that minimises the potential for harm and to have co-operation among providers to ensure quality and continuity of services. She has the right to choose who will provide her care and who will be present.

As a result of the TBT there are now only a small number of practitioners experienced with vaginal breech births. How best to utilise these skills is a challenge that will need commitment from these practitioners and some creative solutions so they do not become burnt out. Handing over care to a specialised ‘squad’ may have some merits but does not resolve the problem of practitioners gaining skills in vaginal breech births to assist with an imminent birth with an undiagnosed breech. The woman has the right to consent, (or withhold consent), to student involvement and a student can be defined as anyone in a learning situation. With the small number of women birthing vaginal breech babies there are limited opportunities to be involved in this care. The woman should not be subjected to having many practitioners present for her birth; she is protected under the Code from having to ‘agree’ to other practitioners being present for ‘the greater good’.

Many midwives in Dunedin are committed to moving this process forward but the Clinical Director of Obstetrics and Gynaecology has now left and so some of the impetus has gone.

Perhaps it is time to seriously consider Lalonde’s (2009, p. 484) relevant question in a guest editorial accompanying publication of the SOGC Guideline: “Will it be obstetricians and gynaecologists offering this, or, since many hospitals are not offering breech vaginal delivery, will women rely on midwives to do so?”.

A yesteryear peek at midwifery and mothering

Archives New Zealand is a treasure trove for those wanting to find out about times gone by. I found two jewels from the Weekly Review series which used to be shown as ‘shorts’ at the movies (or more correctly the cinema or picture theatre) prior to the feature film.

The first records the work of district nurse (read: also a midwife) on the East Coast in 1946. It starts 3 mins 30 secs into the reel and runs till the end.

EastCoastDistrictNurseEast Coast District Nurse: Te Araroa on East Cape is the main town in one of the wildest and inaccessible parts of New Zealand. But the grey car of the district nurse is seen even on the roughest roads and riverbeds as she does her rounds serving the local population which is 90% Maori. She often completes journeys on horseback. The nurse makes sure that bad cases of tuberculosis are isolated in separate accommodation. She is active in maternity care and, at the local school, she helps bath the children. One of her jobs is to make sure that disabled children get proper surgical boots. She lectures in mothercraft and arranges cheap and healthy lunches for school children. After work, she runs a pre-natal clinic in her own home. Once a month she sets out on horseback for a tiny school many miles up the coast where she inspects teeth and tonsils and makes sure the children are adequately clothed. This is 1946 but district nurses in areas such as this have all the spirit that the pioneers ever had” (Weekly Review No 257, 1946).

The second film records the opening of the Plunket rooms in Miramar, Wellington, in 1944 – a time of hats, gloves, stockings and high heels for new mothers. This item starts at 1 min 25 secs into the reel and is about 3 minutes long.


Miramar, Wellington, Opens New Plunket Rooms: A brass band heralds in the opening of the Miramar Plunket Rooms, said to be the best in the country. Local MP Robert Semple speaks to the crowd. The District Plunket Nurse holds weekly clinics and babies get regular check ups including getting their weights and heights recorded. Miramar has many young families and the new mothers pack out the under-cover pram park and the new waiting room. In the pre-school room, older children get health check ups” (Weekly Review No 143, 1944).

Waterbirth in New Zealand: herstory and politics

This post was originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2009; 1: 13-19. Updated and revised 3 March 2014

Using deep warm baths in labour is a common strategy that many home birth midwives have used for at least three decades in New Zealand to promote relaxation and comfort for labouring women. Such use of water has been recognised as integral to promoting physiological birth, irrespective of whether or not the woman actually plans to birth in the water. In recent years it has become more available to hospital birthing women, with some hospitals having purpose built pools installed.


Waterbirth represents a past and present struggle to practice midwifery in a society that embraces technology and medical interventions throughout the childbearing continuum—a value system which poses threats to the midwifery profession (and childbearing women) in New Zealand in the year 2009.

The first waterbirths in New Zealand

There is little documentary evidence of using water at the time of birth in the traditional practices of Maori in New Zealand. It was common, however, for babies to be born on beaches in the Te Kaha area Binney & Chaplin (2011), Irwin & Ramsden (1995), and Makereti (1986) records the use of water to facilitate birth of the whenua (placenta) when it was delayed.

Estelle Myer humanitad.org/team/37/

Estelle Myer

The first of the modern water births, believed to be the first in the Southern Hemisphere, occurred at Estelle Myer’s Rainbow Dolphin Centre in Northland’s Tutukaka, on 17 March 1982. The baby’s mother, Suzanne had read an article on waterbirth in the New Zealand Women’s Weekly nearly two years previously. It described the underwater birth experiments of Igor Charkovsky, the Russian proponent of waterbirth. A second article in the same magazine in late 1981, when Suzanne was again pregnant, affirmed her desire to waterbirth. Though she had not contacted Estelle, Suzanne drove her house bus and three children up to Tutukaka intent on birthing in water. They found Estelle was away in Australia, so they camped out to await her imminent return Anonymous (1982a).

Estelle was not a midwife—the media labelled her ‘an Australian dolphin researcher’ Anonymous (1982a). Having an affinity for dolphins and whales, she reported they would turn up wherever she went in the world.


Such was this affinity, Estelle planned to set up a research programme on waterbirth at National Women’s Hospital based on the work at Pithiviers of well-known doctor, Michel Odent. Estelle has enlisted Michel’s support and, reportedly, he was prepared to come in July 1982 to supervise the start of the programme Anonymous (1982b). It had been planned that a birth would be attended by representatives of National Women’s and Whangarei Hospitals, but that baby was born at exactly nine months—a week earlier than anticipated Anonymous (1982a).

In the meanwhile, Suzanne was attended by Estelle, friends, a midwife and a nurse. Baby Zhan, weighing 3.6 kilogrammes, was born in the bath, in a posterior position—Suzanne’s second persistently posterior baby—after two and a half hours of labour. This much publicised birth caught the imagination of the local people and a Whangarei retailer offered a spa pool for the next waterbirth Anonymous (1982c).

A third waterbirth again made headlines, this time in the Auckland Star, being featured on the front page of its home delivery edition. While the waterbirth was planned to have occurred in Wellington Hospital, the mother-to-be came to Auckland when she was a week ‘overdue’ to farewell her brother overseas. When her labour started, she contacted Estelle whom she had met at a seminar in Wellington. Estelle directed her to an address in Castor Bay where the woman gave birth. There was trauma to her perineal tisues, which was repaired by the attending midwife. The woman was encouraged to rest and recover by the midwife, but she was taken out of the midwife’s care by her mother to a motel, where North Shore Hospital was contacted. She was taken to National Women’s Hospital Anonymous (1982d).

So what do these early waterbirths, that happened nearly 30 years ago, have to do with midwifery in New Zealand then, and now?

The context of the 1980s waterbirths

While ‘being a midwife’ keeps us focused on the individual woman, it does not exist in isolation outside the context of our wider society. It is this context that provides the greatest challenges to maintaining the ‘normality’ of midwifery, and indeed, impacted on the aftermath of the above births.

In the early 1980s, waterbirth focused attention on home birth and the practice of the domiciliary midwives who provided planned home birth services. During this time, the Maternity Services Committee (MSC) of the Board of Health had been reviewing “the problem of domiciliary midwives” Henderson (1980)8 for three years. That ‘problem’ was the rising consumer voices of the women’s health movement that had focused on maternity issues from at least 1974, and the Auckland Home Birth Association, which had established in 1978. The number of home births, rather than disappearing as had been predicted, had been increasing from 1974 onwards Department of Health (1979) when Carolyn Young and Joan Donley, two Auckland domiciliary midwives, had commenced practice.

The New Zealand Obstetrical and Gynaecological Society (NZOGS) was strongly opposed to home birth. In 1977, the Society urged the (then named) Department of Health to explain how it could substantiate payments to domiciliary midwives Bashford (1977). NZOGS knew it could not stop the demand from women for a home birth service, and indeed, any attempt by it to do so would “no doubt stimulate even more vociferous demands” from women. However it knew where it could control the rising home birth numbers and it did so, recommending to the Department of Health that they control the activities of midwives and (general practitioners) who provided the service. This “proper control”, it was proposed, would be best exercised through each local Hospital Board to ensure enforcement of “rigid requirements” McCrostie (1978).

The National Executive of the New Zealand Nurses Association (NZNA) and the Midwives and Obstetric Nurses Special Interest Section of NZNA, complicit in controlling domiciliary midwives, provided the MSC with the format for doing so. It submitted its Policy Statement on Home Confinement in February 1980 Midwives Special Interest Section (1980). This Policy Statement became embedded in The Mother and Baby at Home: The Early Days, which resulted from the MSC review. The report recommended such a degree of ‘proper control’ over domiciliary midwives that an amendment to the Nurses Act 1977 was introduced into Parliament in September 1983. This increased the powers of the Medical Officer of Health so he could suspend a domiciliary midwife from practice for “suspicion of unhygienic practice” (amongst other things). And the example the Department of Health gave?—if she proposed “to deliver a baby in an unhygienic situation, for example, a swimming pool” Department of Health (1983, p. 32).

Waterbirth today

In the intervening years, rather than disappearing, waterbirth has gone from a novel to a firmly established strategy for gentle birth and dealing with tension and pain in labour. Initially it was very embodied in the context of birthing at home where low technology strategies are commonplace.

As the popularity of waterbirth has grown amongst consumers, midwives have increased their awareness of it, some facilitating its growth by incorporating portable birth pools as part of their kit. Waterbirth now no longer needed to be elaborately planned by having expensive pools constructed where no suitable tub already existed. In recent years it has also become available in hospital settings as many have pools available in the labour wards.

To date, no comprehensive national data is available as to waterbirth rates, and how women and midwives utilise pools and baths during birthing. The Midwifery and Maternity Providers Organisation MMPO (2013) reported on 51.9% (n=32,083) of births registered in New Zealand in 2011 from the pool of 61,823 babies born (live and stillborn) during 2011 (p. 9). It recorded a 28.2% use of water for the relief of labour pain and a 7.1% waterbirth rate (p. 36) in the practices of its 866 LMC midwife members (p. 9). Individual practice or facility audits report a 65–75 percent pool use in labour Banks (1998); Cassie (2002) and between 25% Fenton (2002) and 38% Banks (1998) actual waterbirth rates.

The relationship between the rate of waterbirth and the place of birth is significant—the higher the level of obstetric specialist presence, the lower the rate of waterbirth. In the above mentioned MMPO reporting, waterbirth occurred for 21.9% of babies born at home, 21.2% of those born in primary care facilities, 4.8% in secondary care hospitals, and 2.3% in tertiary care hospitals MMPO (2013, p. 36).

The influence of the obstetric environment is not mitigated even when there appears to be tacit support for waterbirth, as in Denmark, for example. Some obstetric hospitals there have an ‘official waterbirth programme’ but only between 0.03% and 3.5% of babies are born in water in these hospitals compared to 4.0%–35.0% of births at home or in small maternity facilities Uller, in Lawrence Beech (1996, pp. 119-129).

What is clear from anecdote in this country is that where hospital ‘authorities’ do not condone waterbirth, or downplay its existence in their facilities ADHB (2011), it does still occur, sometimes under the guise of ‘hydrotherapy’, with interested midwives sometimes acting as self-appointed data collectors.

The context of waterbirth today

What has remained similar today to the maternity services of the 1980s is the culture of an illness model of childbirth, which embraces obstetric hospitals as appropriate environments to celebrate the birth of a baby. Once in labour, the majority of women in New Zealand move from their familiar homes into these (often) unknown environments where the nature of the childbirth continuum is not recognised.

Labour is treated as a distinctly separate entity – a health crisis, which, as a medical model of birth would have us believe, requires a different set of beliefs and behaviours. This is illustrated in the philosophical shift that occurs with the use of drugs in labour. Women, urged to avoid all social and recreational drugs during pregnancy, receive in labour unknown quantities of nitrous oxide and narcotics, along with at least 24.9 uses of epidural anaesthesia per 100 births (excluding the 23.6% of babies born by caesarean section) MOH (2012). It is as if the potential harm of drug use that exists in pregnancy suddenly dematerialises in labour, some intrinsic factor protecting the woman and her unborn baby. Yet epidurals are known to increase instrumental births and caesarean section for foetal distress, cause fever and urinary retention, and aspects of opioid use remain unstudied. As Jones et al (2012) summarised in their overview of systematic reviews:

despite concerns for 30 years or more about the effects of maternal opioid administration during labour on subsequent neonatal behaviour and its influence on breastfeeding, only two out of 57 trials of opioids reported breastfeeding as an outcome.

Implicit in obstetric hospitals is the dominance of medicine (obstetrics, and in recent years, paediatrics). This dominance is maintained by a society which accepted introduction of invasive and inappropriate technologies into routine obstetric practice without adequate testing, and which accepts continued use, despite well known detrimental effects, as exemplified by Electronic Foetal Monitoring. It is also this same society which fails to see the paradox in medicine’s demand for “more evidence on safety of waterbirth before it is offered routinely” Nguyen et al (2002).

Clinical guidelines

Obstetric hospitals cater for large numbers of women and various disciplines of caregivers. Order and control of resources (equipment, staff and the facility) are maintained through Policies, Protocols and Clinical Guidelines (the latter subsequently referred to as Guidelines). These are imbedded in the strategy of ‘risk management’ of each institution.

The professed purpose of a Guideline is to indicate professional health care that would be appropriate to consider in a particular circumstance. The degree of ‘guidance’, as well as the care that is recommended for any particular situation, varies throughout New Zealand as hospital Guidelines are locally determined. It is these documents that declare the philosophical underpinnings of birth in hospitals – both as to what care is available, and ‘the way we do it here’. They usually reflect locally determined obstetric practices rather than evidence-informed midwifery practice and, therefore, lack understanding of how to nurture physiological birth.

Two aspects of this guiding of care during pool use in labour are discussed below. These are the ways in which Guidelines can define ‘normal’ labour care and their ability to create pathology.

1. Clinical guidelines as an agent to define ‘normal’ labour options

Exclusion criteria for pool use in labour are often foetocentric and are frequently without any evidence-informed rationale for exclusion, for example, prolonged rupture of membranes. These criteria deny well women the known physical support of water immersion, valuable in a twin pregnancy, as well as the comfort producing qualities for all women, including those with breech presenting babies or where babies are ‘too large’ or ‘too small’, as well as those labouring after previous caesarean section.

If Guidelines are interpreted as prescriptive of care, they are a very effective tool to rigidly control practitioners (midwives) and women. This interpretation is evident when women and midwives are heard to say ‘I had to …’ or ‘I was not allowed to …’. The informed decision-making process is negated as care is seen to be mandatory and unable to be declined or omitted. Care becomes unresponsive to the needs of the individual woman, effectively controlling her and her birthing experiences and, if based on obstetric practices, transforms midwifery practice into a medical model of care. Thus midwives must recognise the potential that Guidelines steer them away from providing individualised care if they have an uncritical acceptance of them.

Many midwives cite the unwritten power of Guidelines as the reason they embrace them. As I have previously written:

It is common to hear ‘Guidelines are for the consideration of the wise and the adherence of fools.’ This innocuous representation does not hold true to midwifery experience. A great deal of power is given to Guidelines in case and practice reviews, auditing and disciplinary proceedings. This impacts on how far a midwife can ‘stray’ from the dominant medicalised culture of birth Banks (2001, p. 35).

2. Clinical guidelines as a pathologising agent

The unborn baby is dependant on his mother for effective heat dispersal. The woman must therefore be surrounded by a comfortable temperature or be able to sweat if she needs cooling. If deeply immersed in overheated water, she will be unable to disperse heat because the mechanism for efficient heat loss for her, and therefore her baby, is overridden.



Tachycardia in unborn babies has been created by adherence to a Guideline which defined optimal water temperatures as 37°C–38°C. Since the mid 1990s, a new optimal water temperature, between 36°C–37°C Deans & Steer (1995), has been commonly adopted in hospitals. Like its predecessor, it disregards the fundamental problem that there is no optimal water temperature for all labouring women. It must be individually determined, and is dependant on many variables, for example, the woman’s circulation, metabolism and adipose tissue covering. Meanwhile, the tachycardia of the unborn baby of an overheated woman can lead to a diagnosis of ‘foetal distress’, which precipitates the Cascade of Intervention that may ultimately lead to caesarean section.

Guidelines are written for the care of the masses and do not acknowledge individual difference. When a Guideline is applied prescriptively, it has the potential to become a pathologising agent in an otherwise well-woman experience. Such pathology has occurred when a guiding optimal water temperature has been prescriptively applied.

Keeping midwifery ‘normal’

Midwifery, by its very with-woman definition, determines our position for treating each woman as an individual, with each of her childbirth experiences also being individual. Within this, pregnancy, labour and birth, and mothering merge one into the other, despite such things that divide the continuum into modules (for example, payment structures) and into discrete phases (for example, medicine’s stages of labour).

A tension exists in providing a well-woman service to women in labour in a practice setting that anticipates pathology in birthing. To be able to keep the practice of midwifery ‘normal’ in obstetric hospitals, the midwife needs to continue providing care that is woman-centred, rather than institution-centred. This requires her to consider the validity of each individual Guideline as they apply to the individual woman. Her questioning will lead her to ask:

  • Is this Guideline evidenced-informed?
  • Which discipline’s evidence informs it?
  • Does it include midwifery evidence?
  • Does it promote ‘best practice’?
  • Does it promote and protect the potential for physiological birth?
  • Will it activate a Cascade of unnecessary Intervention?
  • Is it appropriate for this individual woman?

Consideration of these issues aids the midwife’s discussion with the woman so the latter can make an informed decision, and therefore, give or withhold her informed consent to the care specified in the Guideline.

A Guideline may also embrace an illness-orientated task that is incongruent with caring for well-women. One such practice is the routine taking of all women’s temperatures in physiological labour. Whether it is Guideline-driven or has simply been rolled over from a task of nursing, the value of its routine use in well-woman, non-intervened-with labour and birth care is, at best, dubious.

To suggest that we extol a woman to check her temperature or that of her bath with a thermometer throughout pregnancy would raise a smile. Common sense tells us that we do not take our temperatures in the absence of illness and that we feel the warmth of water with our hands. Yet this common sense appears to leave the hospital labour scene, as all women, rather than just those exposed to invasive technologies, become subject to temperature taking—their own and that of their pool water.

While at first glance it may appear to be insignificant as to whether or not a thermometer is used to establish water temperature, it is argued here that it is the seemingly insignificant and the minutely small ‘tasks’ that midwives do that embody what we believe about birth. The above strategy adapts the medicalised belief of ‘no birth is normal except in hindsight’ to ‘no woman is well except in hindsight’. It exhibits the same incongruous behavioural state of compartmentalising labour as a separate entity within the childbearing cycle. It also insidiously undermines women’s (woman’s and midwife’s) own ways of knowing and common sense. Thermometers can be viewed as a ritual tool to create pathology by way of tight boundaries of what is ‘normal’, in the same way as routine vaginal examinations created the tight boundaries of what is considered ‘normal’ cervical dilation or progress. These tight boundaries precipitate intervention as any ‘aberration’ is seen as needing correction, while the act itself is not considered as potentially disturbing the altered headspace (and therefore, the physiology) of the birthing woman.

Within our professional body, the New Zealand College of Midwives (NZCOM), we need to be aware that Consensus Statements, while using a different process for development, can be equally erosive of individualised midwifery care, and simply mimic Guidelines. NZCOM’s Consensus Statement, The Use of Water in Labour and Birth NZCOM (2002),has turned the very ‘ordinariness’ of soaking in warm water into a complex issue. It states a need for “careful documentation … of maternal and water temperatures … and the approximate surface area of the woman’s body submerged” (p. 1). While maternal and water temperatures can easily be assessed without a thermometer, the intention is that one should be used as evidenced by suggesting that a woman’s temperature needs to be lowered if it rises above 1°C of her baseline. It would be interesting to know at what point(s) one records the degree of skin submersion of the ever-changing surface area of a labouring woman in motion.

It is important to recognise that such a specific Consensus Statement can be used against midwives in the same manner as Guidelines are currently used. While purporting to be evidence-based, that evidence reflects the environment of the studied (hospitals) where “thermozeal” Anderson (2004), the propensity to test water temperature, is prevalent in the midwife(ly) tasks during waterbirthing. This activity, however, is not a feature of waterbirthing at home, where unnecessary disturbance to labour is minimised. Gauging water temperature is done with the hand, while the woman’s temperature is assessed by means which include touch, pulse rate, skin colour and eye brightness. The knowledge that body temperature is equally affected by factors such as hydration, energy levels, strength of labour, and diurnal and nocturnal body rhythms, is also utilised. These are effective assessment strategies as shown by the lack of babies who experience problems with tachycardia, as well as the lack of labouring women who are overheated. Thus, midwives practising in the woman’s home are unlikely to adopt other than their usual practices, which may leave them vulnerable to censure because of a Consensus Statement which is inappropriate to all practice settings.

The challenge for midwifery today, with most power given to the medical hierarchy of evidence in punitive forums and obstetric environments, is to (continue to) value the midwifery knowledge which is gained when women experience non-interventionist birthing. Anecdotal experience indicates that as midwives are directed to change practices by investigatory bodies, they can be ‘forced’ to deny the midwifery knowledge developed by attending women in physiological birthing – its difference unacceptable in forums using obstetric knowledge of intervention-laden, managed birth as the benchmark.

In recent years, many midwives have responded to the challenges to ‘prove the safety’ of using water in labour by auditing, testing and measuring many aspects of the experience. It could be argued that these strategies are evidence-gathering exercises that are used to silence critics and, therefore, ensure availability of waterbirth in hostile environments. While we cannot control those professions that continue to behave as if midwifery was a subordinate profession, midwives can determine their own research agenda and the manner in which they undertake midwifery enquiry. It should be recognised that attempts to appease critics may focus on a medicalised experience if research questions and study protocols anchor the enquiry to the typical, medically-managed birth. It will not give a picture of how women use water during physiological birth unless physiological birth is the benchmark. Equally, if auditing is pre-dominantly used as a tool to assess and ensure Guideline compliance then it will not increase midwifery knowledge about ‘what happens during the use of water in physiological labour’.


In 1998, I reviewed the last 100 births in my home birth practice to gauge the level of pool use. A birth pool was made available to 98 women, of which 79 chose to use this availability. In labour, 65 actually used the pool and 38 women birthed in it. Those who did not end up using the pool either birthed before it was ready or were not drawn to water in labour Banks (1998). The temperatures of both the water and the women were assessed in the manner usual for home birthing, and no woman was overheated, nor did any baby experience tachycardia.

If the experiences of women are not manipulated by the caregiver’s non-critical compliance with Guidelines, and women are left to determine the most comfortable water temperature for themselves, the water temperature range is 28°C–38°C, with most choosing water between 28°C–32°C prior to birth Muscat, in Lawrence Beech (1996, pp. 77-81), findings which others are also observing Geissbuehler et al (2002). Equally, when women are free to use a birth pool as they wish, the majority will do so before they are five centimetres dilated and most will go on to birth in the pool or get out when in advanced labour Haddad, in Lawrence Beech (1996, pp. 96-108).

Over one hundred years on from midwifery registration, the threat to physiological birth is more present than ever. While our society may appear to value intervention and technology in childbirth, the tenet to midwifery practice has remained unchanged—midwifery is about supporting women in the natural birthing process in the absence of problems. While birthing at home moderates (if not negates) challenges to the autonomy of woman and midwife, the ‘authority’ to dominate over women and midwives, is potently present in obstetric hospitals. It should be recognised that, while midwifery practice is affected if the midwife assumes a subordinate role, no such authority to control midwives has been given to medicine by the women of New Zealand. The midwife has been given a social (and legal) mandate to practice autonomously, ensuring she is not a sub-ordinate practitioner who defers to self-promoting medical authority. To ensure that the midwife’s autonomy is effective, she must resist embracing mechanisms that change her care from woman-centred to hospital-centred care. This can only be done by critical consideration of Guidelines as to their evidence-informed foundation. If they prove to be so, then well and good. If not, then the midwife is duty bound to inform the woman that the Guideline is not evidence-informed, and therefore, inappropriate midwifery care.

The first midwife of the 1980s paid dearly for supporting women who chose waterbirth. She was dismissed from her employment at Dargaville Hospital Dominigue (1982) and paid the ultimate price for a midwife – her name was taken off the Register Donley (1986, p. 106). While devastating in its timing, as discussed previously, the gift this midwife gave to women and midwifery was the pioneering of an option which is cherished by those of us who support women to waterbirth. This unnamed midwife needs to be honoured for that pioneering, which promoted physiological birth, despite the significant consequences of censure and persecution from those who felt threatened by her strong, focused midwifery spirit. In her wake, other midwives, also exhibiting that same determination to practice woman-centred midwifery in a medicalised world, have ensured that immersion in warm water during labour and waterbirth have become tangible realities for what must be thousands of women and babies in New Zealand in the years that have followed.



Lead nipple shields

An interesting donation to Wise Woman Archives Trust Inc. was received from midwife Sue Bogaard of the Bay of Plenty. As alarming as it seems today, these lead nipple shields were probably still in use until at least the early 20th Century, being “recommended by the most eminent medical men for the prevention and cure of sore nipples”. Today lead is recognised as a toxic heavy metal and all skin contact with it, or ingestion of it, should be avoided.

                                                                                                                                                                                         Lead nipple shields                                                                                                                                                                             Wise Woman Archives Trust Inc

Lead nipple shields
Wise Woman Archives Trust Inc

Do you have any further information about the use of these?

When three stages just aren’t enough…

In this post, originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2010; 5: 19-22, Avon Lookmire, now a registered midwife, discusses how the current ‘stages of labour’ do not reflect women’s experiences of labour, and she shares her ideas of how the process may be reframed.  

Earth birth, by Judy Chicago. 1983 http://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/feminist_art_base/archive/images/376.1559.jpg

Earth birth, by Judy Chicago. 1983

Midwifery knowledge comes from many places, but often the most valuable knowledge comes directly from birthing women. As a student midwife, I am lucky enough to have a sister, hapu (pregnant) with her second baby, who challenges my midwifery knowledge and keeps me honest and woman-centred.

Like me, my sister Leith is a compulsive writer, and recently presented me with the first draft of her “birth musings” (a nice variation on a ‘birth plan’). From among the many pages, one part in particular stuck with me: she described how during her first birth, the model of ‘the three stages of labour’ disempowered her immensely, and disregarded her long and arduous journey. She wrote:

 I think I really wanted to be told I was amazing and that my labour was progressing super well. The language around birth is enormously unhelpful here. It’s not easy to celebrate progress and ‘go with’ the process of birth when you’re defined as ‘at the start’ for hours and hours (“first stage”). I didn’t realise at the time, but one of the biggest messages I got from my preparation for Juna’s birth was that I was aiming for 10cm dilation and nothing important or interesting would happen until then. In that context, examinations to estimate dilation are almost inevitably disheartening … Perhaps I’d like to re-language this birth, with a more sensible range of stages to reflect the work I am doing birthing my baby … Perhaps Avon and I can break labour down into a dozen or so meaningful stages with images to help me visualise these and work with my body?

Meaningful stages of labour? I had never before considered it, but she had a good point. Still, consumed by midwifery study and practice, I filed this challenge away for a less busy time. Soon after, however, I was dutifully working my way through the ‘learning outcomes’ of Biosciences for Midwifery when I was confronted with the question “Define the three stages of labour”. It seemed like fate. Were there really concrete stages of labour that could be defined?

I started reading through the relevant section of my textbook, but Leith’s challenge was pulling at me. I paused and pulled out a scrap of paper and idly wrote along the top ‘The Many Stages of Labour’.

Still half pretending to read the required section, I started to jot down all the stages of labour that are not given names or status within midwifery. They came surprisingly thick and fast, so obvious yet so unspoken. After adding a number of stages I returned to the title and used a little arrow to add another word, so that it read: The Many (Glorious!) Stages of Labour.

The many glorious stages of labourThat night I presented them to her, and she loved them. There were so many to choose from! She could try out a new one every hour, or more! In particular, though, she noticed that these were things she could do, so that the stages of labour became not just something ‘nature’ or obstetrics imposed upon her, but something she could be an active part of.

The three stages of labour seem to be one of those pieces of midwifery knowledge that remain central to the way we talk about birth, despite having limited usefulness or validity. Other contributors to this journal have pointed out, for example, the inaccuracy of recording ‘full dilation’ or ‘beginning of second stage’ based on when the midwife performed a vaginal examination rather than when a real change in stage took place within the woman Wickham (2009). Similarly, Walsh (2007, p. 35) argues that “the division of the first stage of labour into latent and active is clinician-based and not necessarily resonant with the lived experience of labour”.

So one has to ask: why would we come up with a system of describing labour that does not accurately portray what is really taking place? Furthermore, if the three stages model of labour is “clinician-based”, is it actually useful to clinicians such as midwives in practice?

It seems that the ‘three stages’ model of labour has its roots in the mid-twentieth century when the ‘active management’ of childbirth became commonplace in hospitals Banks (2000, p. 39). In order to apply the strict time limits that were deemed to characterise ‘normal’ labour, discrete beginning and endpoints were needed, and hence labour was “compartmentalised” into stages Banks (2000, p. 39).

Many aspects of the ‘active management’ of labour have been challenged, for example, breaking of the amniotic waters removes an important protection mechanism for the baby from intense contractions, and increases the risk of infection, particularly in combination with frequent vaginal examinations Romano & Lothian (2008); Dixon (2003).  The practice of defining the second stage by cervical dilation so that the midwife can direct the woman to push, while simultaneously limiting the time for which she will be ‘allowed’ to do so, has been critiqued by many authors Wickham (2009); Sutton (2000); Walsh (2000),  yet this is the essence of the three stages model of birth. While it gives the impression of objectivity and order, it is really highly subjective, even manipulative.

The three stages model of birth has its foundation in the belief that the expert knows best. Thus, as Leith noted:

Pregnant women are led to doubt their right to say when they are ‘in labour’. There doesn’t seem to be any clear-cut definition, and women are gently mocked by health professionals and loved ones if they are brave or foolish enough to make the judgement themselves.

 Walsh describes this phenomenon as a way in which midwives balance what women tell them against what is expected and acceptable within the obstetric model of birth Walsh (2007, p. 35). To put this more bluntly, midwives ignore or misrepresent women’s descriptions of labour so that their labours can be fitted into a pre-defined model, which is then further reinforced as being ‘normal’! Miller (2009).

It seems hard to imagine any benefit of this system to birthing women, whose lived experiences are swept aside and replaced by ‘expert’ measurements of what ‘really happened’. Furthermore, the three stages of labour seem to have little practical use to midwives unless they are following a strict ‘active management’ approach to labour. Indeed, it appears that significant effort may be expended by midwives in their attempts to fit all births into an acceptable obstetric box.

Therefore, this alternative set of stages is presented, not as a definitive list, but as a starting point for a change in consciousness regarding labour progress. As Leith so eloquently described, the stages we use to describe labour should be meaningful, and should reflect their power, their intensity, and their challenge. There is so much scope for detail and meaning when describing the life-changing process of birth, surely we can do better than ‘one, two, three’!

In conclusion, as a home birth mother-of-two and student midwife, I do feel that my perspective shifts and alters as I learn new things and adopt a midwife’s point of view. This is inevitable – perhaps essential – but also limiting if there is not a corresponding pull towards a birthing point of view providing a healthy counter-tension. I am so grateful to Leith for giving me this new perspective on the stages of labour, and for reminding me about the importance of words.

Insights through the murk of meconium-stained liquor

Originally published in Essentially MIDIRS 2011; 2(9): 47-49. Revised

As I compiled the statistics of my home birth practice covering a 22 year period many of the individual instances of how my knowing developed became definable – the watershed moments which influenced my ongoing practice. This post elaborates two such moments during the care of one woman, relating to both meconium-stained liquor (MSL) and as to how I position myself with women.



This began with a phone call from the husband of a woman I will call Arlene informing me, “the waters have broken and they’re slightly cloudy.”

Exploring ‘slightly cloudy’ revealed a picture of meconium-stained liquor in early labour which warranted an immediate visit to Arlene, now at term with her first baby. I contemplated the unknowable as I drove to her home nearly 25 years ago – was this baby just one of the nearly 9-12 percent of babies who pass meconium in labour Katz & Bowes (1992); Paul et al (1989)? Would he ‘escape’ meconium aspiration syndrome (MAS)? Meconium-stained liquor had always been written in red on the ubiquitous Delivery Suite board as a flag reminding all that this baby ‘needed’ a paediatrician at birth in what had beome a ‘high risk’ labour. It was this culture that I had initially brought with me when I commenced home birth practice in 1989. As I drove to her home, I was comforted by the knowledge that Arlene was well and her baby was moving but I felt disappointed at the thought that I would be recommending transfer to hospital from her planned home birth.

The towel which Arlene had used to mop up the liquor showed heavy, fresh meconium-staining; her pad exhibited fresh smudges. Palpating her abdomen, her baby, who had been in an LOP position at our last visit 5 days earlier, was now ROL with his head not yet fixed in the pelvis. Listening to the heart beat indicated a baby who was coping well with labour, which was now well established. As part of the routine assessment I had used when attending women in hospital, and which I used early in my home birth practice (though soon abandoned), I performed the ritual vaginal examination. This revealed a very posterior, closed and thick cervix; I could only just tip the baby’s head with my finger. This information did not tally with the strength and frequency of Arlene’s contractions; her cervix had not ‘caught up’ with the labouring she was doing.

Following this assessment and some discussion, I recommended that we transfer to the obstetric hospital so I could “monitor the baby closely and suction him at birth”.

“Can’t you do that here?” she enquired.

“Well – yes – I can,” I responded. I was skilled in intermittent auscultation, and over 2 years working in a neonatal intensive care unit prior to midwifery registration had honed my suctioning skills.

“Then, I don’t want to go to the hospital!”

Arlene would birth at home nearly 9 hours later, her baby having rotated progressively into an LOA position prior to birth. Throughout labour, the baby had continued to move and his heart tones, the rate of which never missed a beat, were punctuated with early accelerations as the contractions started, with a return to his normal baseline heart rate following contractions. The release of the meconium had been an early labour incident only, perhaps as a stress response to his head being firmly pressed while pivoting on an initially ‘unyielding’ cervix; by the time of birth there was only faintly stained, old meconium present. I had suctioned him once his head was born over the perineum, again simply following the ritual used in the obstetric hospital from which I had recently departed. Baby had excellent Apgars and required no further ‘treatment’. Arlene was aware of what his normal breathing pattern should be and would contact me if she had any concerns about his breathing, which did not occur.

Getting to grips with meconium-stained liquor

As has repeatedly happened over the decades following an ‘out of the ordinary’ practice experience, I began a ‘watching brief’ of the literature, this time on meconium-stained liquor. By 2009, midwifery colleagues around New Zealand reported that the practice of oro- or naso-pharngeal suctioning of newborns was no longer a routine treatment for MSL, but this was 5 years after publication of the Vain and colleagues’ Vain et al (2004) large randomised controlled trial (n=2514) concluding that suctioning does not prevent MAS; the change had coincided with the 2009 instructional message Vain et al (2009) to desist from the practice. This was nearly two decades after the Linder et al (1988) prospective study of 572 vigorous newborns with MSL determined no benefit and, indeed, harm to newborns in suctioning under view, a finding supported by Paul et al (1989), and a decade after meta-analysis confirmed the lack of evidence in suctioning vigorous newborns to prevent MAS Halliday & Sweet (1999). I had also found a lack of evidence to support which equipment to use – bulb syringe or DeLee suction Locus et al (1990), yet penetrating suction catheters which damaged delicate mucous membranes and initiated bradycardias following stimulation of the vagal nerve continued to be used in my region, and babies continued to be suctioned on the perineum despite a lack of difference to the incidence of MAS shown between late or early suctioning Falciglia et al (1992). No correlation was found between consistency of meconium and MAS Trimmer & Gilstrap (1991) in the early 1990s, yet, as mentioned previously, routine suctioning to prevent MAS did not appear to change in New Zealand hospitals till 2009. It was as if a routine intervention could effectively be introduced immediately with no or minimal evidence to support it but an intervention could only be withdrawn after decades of papers being published indicating a lack of benefit or actual harm relating to the intervention.

A year of tracking this early literature after Arlene’s labour and seeing how little of the evidence was incorporated into the ‘routine’ care of meconium exposed infants was the initiator for me to no longer rely on protocols or guidelines but to instead search out the evidence myself. As a result, my own practice changed. That year coincided with me starting to value my own midwifery experiences as another valid form of evidence. I witnessed babies coughing on the perineum and meconium-stained liquor draining freely from babies’ mouths and noses prior to birth and it made me further question the value of suctioning in the presence of meconium in an otherwise normal labour.

I also stopped recommending transfer to hospital with MSL in the absence of abnormal heart tones, though, for the majority of the time, there was no real option of transfer as the membranes tended to rupture with the onset of spontaneous pushing or following birth of the baby’s head. I came to believe that this timing was probably the result of avoiding unnecessary vaginal examinations in labour and, therefore, avoiding exposure of the amniotic membranes to synthetic substances, such as latex or vinyl, which may weaken them.

A practice that also changed was the other thread to Arlene’s story.

Securing my withWoman position

During Arlene’s labour her decision to remain at home sat well with me but this incident happened prior to the return of midwifery autonomy in New Zealand in September 1990. It was a time when midwives were required to have a medical practitioner over-see their practice, including domiciliary midwives, as homebirth midwives were then known. This was an in limbo time when midwives did not have access agreements to provide services in hospital and the very few of us who practised in homebirth did so with varying degrees of support or obstruction from hospital staff Banks (2007).



With Arlene’s declining hospital transfer, I had felt in a tricky position. While the general practitioner was comfortable with the refusal to transfer, he did not practise obstetrics in the local hospital and I knew he would not experience the fallout if transfer was needed later in labour. Rather than seeking instruction on what to do, I wanted to try to temper the criticism of my practice that would eventuate from the staff at the obstetric hospital. I wanted to engender support for myself from an obstetrician. The fallout from transfer was costly for both midwives and the women they cared for with horizontal violence being a common occurrence in transfer situations Banks (2007). I discussed my plan with Arlene, and she supported my proposed action.

Explaining the situation to the midwife in charge of the Delivery Suite and the on-call consultant obstetrician, I was instructed to continue recommending transfer to hospital throughout the labour. If Arlene continued to decline transfer I should, the obstetrician advised, get the general practitioner to accept responsibility if the advice was not accepted.

This ‘advice’ was unacceptable on three levels. Firstly, to repeatedly recommend transfer to hospital throughout the labour when Arlene had made her decision was – in real terms – a bullying tactic to ensure she acquiesced and made the ‘right’ decision – “informed compliance” Stapleton et al (2002) in action. Avoiding that process was one of the major reasons why many of the women I cared for chose to birth at home. As I felt it was unethical to revisit that decision unless some new factor arose which required reconsideration of her decision, I could not, and did not, comply. Secondly, I knew Arlene did not make this decision lightly; she embraced the responsibility for that decision in the same way as she made every other decision on nourishing and caring for herself (and, therefore, her baby) in pregnancy. It was made with her baby’s welfare uppermost in her mind. And finally, I had left behind the deference to medical practitioners on non-medical matters when I left hospital employment. I could not defer responsibility for my midwifery practice to a medical practitioner even if I wanted to, which I did not.

So, Arlene’s labour was the catalyst for significant changes in my practice. I became a continuous student of wide-ranging literature, contemplating content and context and incorporating it into my practice when it was appropriate and robustly conducted. This would, at times, give rise to midwifery care that was counter to the care recommended in the local hospital protocols. As a result of this positioning, Arlene’s labour proved to be my first and my last attempt to seek support for myself in orthodox obstetric fora.

The obstetric bed: resistance in action

Originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2009; 4: 43-46. Revised


Bedbirthing has predominated in Western countries reputedly since it gained acceptance after Louis XIV’s mistresses birthed in bed; the king covertly watched from behind a curtain Glasscheib (1963, p. 91). American anthropologist, Wenda Trevathan, reports that a minority of cultures prefer to lie during birth; of 159 cultures, 47 prefer sitting, 44 kneeling, 26 squatting, 17 semi-reclining or in a hammock, 16 lying down and 9 standing Rosenberg & Trevathan (2002). This low preference for lying down or semi-reclining during birth, except when in a birth pool, has also been my own and other home birth midwives’ experiences. Yet, the obstetric bed remains commonplace in maternity facilities in New Zealand despite evidence that walking and upright positioning in labour shortens labour and women are less likely to use epidural anaesthesia Lawrence et al (2009).

I have constantly observed the intuitive movements women in labour make to exaggerate their spinal curvature which, as we know, is already increased in late pregnancy from the non-pregnant state. This observation, amongst other things, has led me to believe that obstetric beds should be viewed as hazardous furniture that hinder women’s intuitive movements during labour and birth, and that we need to recognise the role obstetric beds play in bed dystocia.

What Is bed dystocia?

Bed dystocia is the entrapment of the woman’s pelvis against the unyielding metal base of the obstetric bed and its thick PVC covered mattress, which combines to prevent progressive descent of the baby. This may occur for two reasons. Firstly, weight bearing applies direct pressure on either the ischial tuberosities (sit bones) and/or the sacrum when sitting or lying down. Secondly, semi-reclining and supine positioning tilts the pelvis backwards to reduce the accessibility of the pelvic brim to the baby’s shoulders, in particular.

Distinguishing bed dystocia from shoulder dystocia

Bed dystocia is distinguishable from shoulder dystocia in both how the baby is freed from a ‘stuck’ position and the responses of the woman when she is not receiving epidural anaesthesia.

Shoulder dystocia will require vigorous rocking by the birth attendant of the baby’s shoulder up, over and off the pubic bone if stuck at the brim, and/or facilitated birth of the posterior arm and/or turning of the baby’s shoulder through internal rotation – the latter two actions applying also if the baby is stuck in the mid pelvis. During shoulder dystocia the non-medicated and (normally) uninstructed woman will be agitated. If off the bed and on her hands and knees, she is likely to shift her weight from one knee to another, arch her back and/or swing her hips in exaggerated rocking movements from side to side. She may also lift one knee up and out to the side as a forerunner to her attendant’s instructions and actions, or push over her pubic bone in an attempt to dislodge the baby’s shoulder herself.

In the case of bed dystocia, once the cause of the problem (the backward tilt or neutral position of the pelvic brim and sacral weight bearing on the hard bed surface) is removed, the problem will resolve. This is achieved by turning the woman onto her hands and knees or by using the exaggerated stranded beetle position (hyperflexion of the woman’s legs onto her chest in a back-lying position). As Gherman and others have clearly demonstrated through x-ray pelvimetry of women who were at least 37 weeks pregnant, this McRoberts’ manoeuvre, which employs hyperflexion of the legs, does not change the actual dimensions of the woman’s pelvis; the position straightens the sacrum relative to the lumbar spine, and the symphysis pubis slides over the unborn baby’s shoulder Gherman et al (2000). It is a correctional technique used to release the entrapped sacrum held by the woman’s weight on the bed against a firm mattress and bed base.

It is the widely variable reported incidence of ‘shoulder’ dystocia (0.2 – 3.0 percent of all vaginal births Gherman et al (2006), along with the effectiveness of the McRoberts manoeuvre alone as a correctional technique in 42 percent of ‘shoulder’ dystocia cases Gherman et al (1997), which may give the best clue as to the real cause of the ‘stuck’ baby.

Intuitive positioning

The woman in a forward leaning position, whether that be on all fours or leaning, for example, on the edge of the birth pool or over the kitchen table almost universally uses the floor as her ‘anchoring’ surface (Figures 1-3), including when she is in the birth pool.

ObstetricBedResistanceInAction1-3HThis forward leaning accentuates the spinal curvature and opens the angle of the pelvic brim as the pelvis is tipped forward to enable the baby’s head to enter the pelvis if it has not already done so prior to labour, and enables his shoulders to pass through the pelvic brim.

Women are intuitively drawn to exaggerate this spinal curvature as labour progresses. While this can be achieved by a hanging squat with her partner’s support, as in Figure 4, I have seldom observed women intuitively use this position. Perhaps they feel freer to ‘hang’ when they are not worried about others bearing their weight, or perhaps getting into a partner-supported hanging squat requires conversation at a time in labour when many women do not use language to communicate.

Once she deepens her squatting action (Figures 5 and 6) she begins to deploy the leverage that her upper legs (femurs) exert on the hips to widen the mid pelvis and flatten the pubic arch. In each of these positions the brim of the woman’s pelvis remains tilted forward and all diameters of the mid pelvis and pelvic outlet are increased Russell (1969), (1982); Michel et al (2002).

ObstetricBedResistanceInAction4-6HWomen who are working hard to deal with ‘bony’ pain in labour as baby moves through the pelvis, intuitively adopt positions such as the ‘exaggerated runner’s start’ (Figures 7 and 8), leaning one way or the other to increase leverage on the hips (Figure 9) and widen both the mid pelvis and the pubic arch.

ObstetricBedResistanceInAction7-9HWomen on the floor do these intuitive movements without consideration of either falling off a bed with their (sometimes) sudden movements, or that they will run out of surface area to place their knees and feet wide apart. The midwife, having witnessed this primal drive to move in labour that non medicated women exhibit, will have no doubt about the inherent dangers of the obstetric bed.

Rhetoric and resistance

During my time as a student midwife in the late 1980s it was common to hear the expression “You can swing from the chandeliers if you want!” during the ‘booking in’ visit at the obstetric hospital. This comment was intended to imply support for woman-led positioning in labour and birth. The hospital lacked chandeliers, and it also lacked any furnishings to support active labour and birth. Rather than birth pools and balls, hanging ropes, floor mattresses and comfortable couches, the layout of the room had an obstetric bed centrally placed, a nightingale table on roller wheels straddling the bed, a standard issue hospital locker beside the bed and a vinyl armchair in one corner. In short, a hospital room by any description, designed for the sickness model of care with an incapacitated ‘patient’ lying in bed.

The obstetric bed remains entrenched in maternity facilities, whether that is an obstetric hospital, a midwife run or midwife owned and operated facility. As long as obstetric beds remain in the birth space, women will continue to be given a very strong, unspoken message that beds should be used for labour and birth.

Resistance to ‘normalising’ the birth space is as prevalent in midwives as it is in nursing and obstetric staff, even when managers of primary care facilities try to create more appropriate spaces for labouring women. In Elaine Hodnett and colleagues’ Hodnett et al (2009) Canadian study of ‘ambient clinical environments’, the first three hospitals the researchers approached to be in the study refused to participate because the usual obstetric bed would be replaced with a double floor mattress, large pillows and a birth ball. In one of the two teaching hospitals which did participate, “considerable resistance” was encountered from senior nursing staff who “strongly objected” to the trial. The authors surmised: “Although lip service is paid to the benefits of upright positions, freedom of movement, and ambulation in labour, many staff members seemed certain that the bed was the safest place to be…” Hodnett et al (2009, p.166).

Midwifery rhetoric frequently supports women’s choice of birth position but the reality can be very different. Regina Coppen (2005) surveyed 66 UK midwives on their views on birthing positions; these midwives worked in a facility with 2000 births per annum (p. 80). The midwives identified the most frequent position for birth as recumbent or semi-recumbent on the bed and, most frequently, cited woman’s preference as the reason for this (p. 102). However, in her discussion on the findings, Regina notes:

 “… the evidence suggests that midwives were more likely to deliver in a position that reflected their own preference than one that reflected the woman’s preference … and that, irrespective of how much collaboration, cooperation or discussion took place, midwives’ preference for birthing positions appeared to supersede women’s own preferences during the second stage of labour” (p. 169).

Continuity of carer does not necessarily ensure that women’s choice of birth positions will be influential. de Jonge et al (2008) used six focus groups in the Netherlands to study the views of 31 independent midwives on position during birth. These midwives practised in different parts of the country in rural, semi-urban and urban areas, providing primary care at home or in hospital. These researchers found women often gave birth in the midwife’s preferred position, which was dependant on the midwife’s exposure to different positions in her training and practice, the midwife’s knowledge and skill, her routine practice and the amount of her experience.

Creating a safe birthing space in maternity facilities

Being active, rather than reclining on an obstetric bed during labour and birth, is a central concept of the natural childbirth movement. One could well have expected that for all but the very small minority of women whose poor health precludes them from being active in labour, the obstetric bed would certainly have disappeared from hospitals and that it would be absent in primary maternity facilities. Instead obstetric beds remain standard issue in these environments for women who are well and who have the potential to experience labour and birth as a healthy life phase.

Maternity facilities are the ‘homes’ of the midwives, doctors and nurses who work in them, despite the fact that there may be considerable instruction to the woman to ‘make yourself at home’. Locked cupboards and secret coding systems on doors do not give free access to food and equipment as a woman would have in her own home. Social conditioning prevents overt ownership of the environment, and instructional messages about keeping doors closed, the cleaning and replacing of equipment, fire drills (and so on) clearly signify this is a public space controlled by an authority other than the woman. Any attempt to remove the obstetric bed can be treated as a major transgression, as my own recent experience showed.

In our role as facilitators of the physiological birth process, midwives need to examine the environment that they provide for women during birth. Intuitive positioning is not supported in the hospital or birthing unit environment where, rather than reflecting home furnishings, an environment of sickness and incapacity is replicated. Midwives need to take a proactive stance and ensure that at least 85 percent of any facilities’ rooms reflect home furnishings. Until midwives permanently relegate the obstetric bed to the hazardous goods lock up and replace it with home-like furnishings – sofas, divans and floor mattresses – the obstetric bed will continue to be seen as appropriate birth furniture.

Special thanks to Niki Carroll and the late Bruce Cleland for the generous gift of photographs taken the week prior to the waterbirth of their daughter Amber Lily at home, as planned.

Series photographer: Tony Banks

The FTPs of caesarean section

Originally published in Birthspirit Midwifery Journal 2009; 4: 25-30. Revised.

The artwork in this post was historically available at http://cesarean-art.com. As the artist did not engage in dialogue, permission was unable to be sought to reproduce this previously freely available work. It is intended that the context in which the illustrations have been reproduced will be seen as honouring the artist’s journey which spoke to my thinking about Nadine (as I call the woman of this post).


When Nadine gave birth at home to her second baby, a daughter, she fulfilled a dream of natural childbirth and immediate, uninterrupted in-arms mothering. Her first labour had ended with her son born by caesarean section after she was transferred to hospital from a planned home birth. Nadine’s notes recorded the diagnosis of “dysfunctional uterine activity resulting in failure to progress” as the rationale for caesarean section.

FTP1-3Having worked with numerous women who have been given this Failure To Progress (FTP) label in their previous birthing, my experience has shown that this abbreviation more often than not actually reflects a caregiver’s Failure To be Patient when the notes are perused. While the permanently scarred uterus that results with caesarean section is lifelong, the emotional scarring of the ‘failure to progress’ label is frequently one that never lets go of the woman until she has experienced birth on her own terms. Nadine’s second birth, a waterbirth at home, was accompanied by a noticeable restoration of her faith in her ability to give birth – faith that had been ruptured by her previous experience. Both these births and the issues that impacted on Nadine’s first labour and birth are addressed in this story.

I first met Nadine after a public meeting to celebrate Home Birth Awareness week in New  Zealand at which I had spoken on Giving Birth in a Caesarean Culture. Nadine had approached me afterwards asking if I thought she could give birth at home, despite having had a caesarean. So began the unravelling process of her previous birthing. I explained that it was important to spend time exploring her childbirth history and the physical healing process, going over her notes and weighing up the advantages and disadvantages of both the hospital and home environments for birthing. The latter would help in her decision-making and hearing her story and reading the hospital notes would enable me to answer her question. We arranged to meet in a fortnight and when we did so, she was six weeks pregnant.

Within a very short period of time Nadine determined she would birth at home. She had devoured Artemis Speaks Koehler (1984) and Silent KnifeWainer Cohen & Estner (1983), two valuable classics for women as they come to terms with having had a previous caesarean section. While I fulfilled my obligation in my funding contract and discussed obstetric consultation with Nadine, she did not agree to visit an obstetrician. Her exploration and our discussions meant she understood the nature of the different birth environments and what that meant for her labouring and birthing.

Nadine started labour spontaneously at 40 weeks and five days from a sure last menstrual period date – the same gestation as with her first baby. She gave birth at home just over 48 hours after labour started, after 14 hours of established labour. Her contractions came every 3-6 minutes once it was established and she lost all cervical pain 4 ½ hours before she birthed. Nadine used the shower in labour and then the birth pool for the last 4 ½ hours.

The baby’s head was no longer palpable above the brim 2 ½ hours prior to birth, which is when she started spontaneously pushing with most contractions. Her baby continued to move regularly throughout labour and, when I listened with a Pinard’s stethoscope, the heart beat was always fine. As Nadine started to push, the heart beat was heard centrally, just above her pubic bone. As her labour was progressive throughout there was never a need to examine her vaginally in the 10 hours I attended her – so I didn’t.

Nadine gently birthed her baby with uninstructed pushing after about 2 ½ hours of pushing. She was a woman who smiled and quietly talked to her baby as she birthed and gave me unprompted progress reports about how far down her baby was, when she slid back, when she stopped sliding back and when the full stretch came on her perineum.

She delighted in touching her baby’s head frequently as she was being born.

FTP4-6She gave birth in the pool and lifted her baby up immediately into her arms with that smile for her baby that only a mother can give – and the little ‘hello’.

The placenta came 10 minutes later when Nadine stood up to get out of the pool.

Her baby started breastfeeding within ¼ hour after birth and bed shared with her (and her husband and first child).

Nadine had many quiet smiles in the weeks that followed. This baby weighed 7lb 4oz (3290gm) at birth which was 4.5oz (130gms) heavier than her first. (Both these babies were appropriate for Nadine’s size – she is a tiny woman.) The baby piled on weight and at six weeks weighed 10lb 6oz (4710gms), which amounted to a 47 percent increase on her birth weight.

Nadine’s birth by caesarean section with her first child had transformed her. She told me she had an unremarkable school career and had left school with the feeling that she was “dumb”, and she felt unsupported as she grew up in her family, which extended into her birth choices. Even though her father had been born at home her family did not support home birth. She had, however, gained a real sense of valuing herself through completing an arts course at the Polytechnic and her jewellery making was something at which she excelled. The other thing that she believed she could succeed in doing in her life was giving birth, and she had cared for herself wonderfully in her first pregnancy in preparation for that. Her Caesarean section took that belief away.

So what happened with her first birth?

Nadine had been well throughout her pregnancy. That labour started with spontaneous rupture of membranes (SRM) in the late afternoon and, when she called her midwife to attend the next morning, Nadine was contracting every four minutes.

Sandra, as I call the midwife, could not palpate the baby’s head at all so she examined her vaginally; Nadine was 8cm dilated with a fully effaced cervix; her baby was cephalic-presenting and had descended to Station 0 at 6.45am. With the arrival of the midwife, Nadine’s labour spaced out and she was given four doses of Caulophyllum in the next half hour.

Three and a half hours later (10.20am), Nadine was encouraged to stimulate labour through movement even though she was shaky and sleepy. At lunchtime (12.20pm) Nadine had an anterior lip of cervix on vaginal examination, which was pushed back over three contractions; it slipped back again. The baby’s head was determined to be at Station 0 to -1. Though the baby was LOA, Nadine was encouraged into a left lateral position and she was given four doses of Gelsemium, (possibly to encourage the remainder of the cervix to retract). One and a half hours later (14.05pm) another vaginal examination showed no change and Nadine was transferred to hospital.

Nadine did not want pain relief – she knew about the effects of drugs on her baby – but she was given an epidural following an ‘informed compliance’ Kirkham (2004); Pilley Edwards (2005) process – and her labour was augmented with an intravenous infusion of Syntocinon. The epidural anaesthetic effect was patchy, but the drug was effective enough to give her a pyrexia of ‘unknown’ origin (37.8°C) within 2 ¼ hours and she was started on intravenous antibiotics.

Nadine had another three vaginal examinations over the next 4 ½ hours by which stage her cervix had closed down to be 7cms dilated as it was oedematous, and a caesarean section was performed. Her baby had a gastric aspirate, blood tests and an arterial gas and cord pH done. That baby weighed 6lbs 15 ½oz (3160gm) at birth.

This all too familiar story of Failure To Progress also had parallel FTPs for the midwife.

Sandra was a new midwife and Feeling Tender in Practice. She had gone immediately into self employed case-loading practice in the community following graduation, which bears testament to the strength of her educational programme.

However, Sandra was not well supported by the profession. She was mentored by a midwife carrying a high caseload; Sandra paid for this mentorship – and excessively. Half of her income went to the midwife which meant Sandra was experiencing Financially Tough Pressure in her ability to maintain an income to support her family while also paying off her considerable student loan. To meet her financial obligations Sandra cared for six women a month.

Sandra was exhausted, not only during this birth but also in her practice. The mentoring midwife was also Sandra’s practice partner and, as her mentor had gone on holiday, Sandra was caring for her mentor’s caseload as well as her own. She had been in self-employed practice for less than a year but she was Far Too Pooped to continue. Sandra had made a decision to stop her caseload and work in the hospital on rostered shifts.

This exhaustion of months was compounded by attending Nadine from early morning until after midnight when the baby was born. Such was the lack of collegial support in the hospital that Sandra received no relief from the hospital staff. It is unknown if she asked for assistance but, in the first decade of direct entry midwifery in New Zealand, midwives who were educated through that means Felt Totally Persecuted when frequently told of the benefits (sic) of the nurse-midwife route to midwifery. Such attitudes may well have placed an additional burden of forced independence onto Sandra’s shoulders, though this lack of collegial support in hospital was also felt by many other self-employed midwives who came to midwifery through the nursing route.

By the time Nadine was transferred to hospital her membranes had been ruptured for 14 hours. At the time of this labour the hospital had an expectation that women would have intravenous antibiotics and an augmentation of labour after 12 hours of SRM. While such guidelines are seldom evidence-informed, midwives can feel unable to avoid this instruction From The Pulpit in obstetric facilities. A motivating force ensuring compliance in these environments frequently comes from the midwife’s heightened Fear of Traumatic Prosecution, which, most commonly, is initiated by hospital authorities. Those midwives that do challenge evidence-lacking guidelines frequently experience Fingers That Point if there is an untoward outcome, despite a lack of causal link. The gossip, rumour, derogatory or denigrating remarks and sarcasm that can result leaves the midwife feeling alone and isolated.

Caesarean recipe

Caesarean recipe

The story of Nadine’s first birth was all too familiar – a whole series of events combined into the ‘perfect storm’ of caesarean section. There were many points within the midwifery care during that birth that would almost certainly have been influential in the end result but perhaps none is likely to have been as potent as the lack of support that this new midwife experienced.

Many midwives readily recognise the circle of support needed for women in labour. But how conscious are we of the importance and influence of the many concentric circles of support needed around the midwife (and woman) that enable healthy childbirth to unfold – the circle of mentoring, the circle of practice partners, the circle of hospital midwifery and, when necessary, the circle of obstetrics?

Perhaps the last of the FTPs of (at least) Nadine’s caesarean section rests with the wider midwifery (and obstetric) community through the Failure To Participate in supporting Sandra, which existed. The lack of engagement in this space had a consequence for Sandra, who actually left the profession within 10 years, when, potentially, because of her age, she could have had many decades of midwifery practice before her.