Student Midwives Need More Exposure to Continuity

Student Midwives Need More Exposure to Continuity

(I wrote this post for the Continuity Matters campaign being run by the very inspiring Michala Marling–something which is very dear to my heart, and the gold standard for midwifery care.)

What if I told you that there was a new, magic intervention that was guaranteed to lower the rate of epidurals, cesarean births, instrumental deliveries, preterm births, miscarriages and even neonatal deaths? Sounds too good to be true, right? This intervention is so miraculous, though, that not only does it reduce all of those risks above, but it also increases the likelihood of having a normal, uncomplicated vaginal delivery. It even shortens the duration of labour, and women across the board not only feel more positive about their births, but also more satisfied with their care in general. Sounds incredible, right? If you were a pregnant woman, you’d definitely want to make sure that you received this intervention, right? You would be clamouring to get your hands on it!

But here’s the rub—this intervention already exists. It isn’t new—it’s been studied for decades, and all of the evidence is quite clear. It’s even something that the RCM and RCOG both agree on! The magic intervention? Relational continuity with your health care provider during your pregnancy, labour, birth and postnatal period. That’s it. Continuity of care and carer. Meaning that every time you have an antenatal appointment, it’s with the same midwife. When you go into labour, the midwife you know and trust is the one supporting you at your birth, and she continues to care for you during the first several weeks after the delivery as you weather the normal postnatal ups and down during your transformation into a mother. Continuity of care and carer. That’s all we need for better outcomes across the board. That’s the magic bullet.

And women don’t just need this, but midwives need this as well. Study after study has shown that when midwives are able to provide continuity of care to women (known as case-loading midwifery here in the UK), there is less burn-out, more job satisfaction  and more autonomous practice. Continuity of care is the one magic intervention which will improve maternity services across the board, in all areas, for women AND midwives. It really is that simple.

Except that it’s not. Very few NHS trusts provide a case-loading model of care for their maternity services. In fact, unless you’ve hired an independent midwife or a private midwife through a company like Neighborhood Midwives, chances are good you won’t receive continuity of care in your NHS trust. Which means that the majority of women in the UK aren’t receiving this amazing, life-changing, magical intervention. Because of this, increased continuity of care is a priority in both Midwifery 2020 and the Better Births Initiative.

I first experienced continuity of care as a brand new midwife working in Brooklyn with some of New York City’s most vulnerable women who were attending a Medicaid-only public hospital for their care. It wasn’t complete continuity of care and carer, but it was pretty close. In the antenatal clinic, when you did an initial booking visit with a woman, she would then follow-up with you for all of her future visits (assuming she was appropriate for midwifery care; any women in need of obstetrical care were transferred to the obstetrical team). Which meant that as her pregnancy progressed, you really got to know her, even though you only had 15 minutes per visit. In many cases, towards the end of the pregnancy, when you were seeing her on a weekly basis, you knew her so well that you recognised her name on sight, and knew all of her history without needing to consult the notes. You knew her birth plans, her hopes and desires for her birth, as well as her concerns and fears. You often also knew the names of her older children that she always brought with her to the visits, and in many cases, you knew her partner too. You could greet her with a familiar smile, answer her questions, and pick up conversations that you had left off the week before. It also meant that there was time for the relationship to grow and for trust to develop between you. In some situations, this meant that as she got to know you, she would finally feel comfortable enough to confide in you about domestic violence, substance misuse or other issues going on in her pregnancy—things she hadn’t been comfortable discussing at the earlier visits, and things she probably would never have mentioned if she was seeing a different provider for each antenatal appointment.

It wasn’t a perfect system by any means—the visits were still too short, and while there was continuity in the antenatal and postnatal setting, there wasn’t continuity on labour ward, which meant that we worked shifts on labour ward and delivered whoever happened to be in labour that day, rather than being called in for our own clients when they went into labour. However, sometimes, when I was lucky, one of the women I’d cared for in the antenatal clinic would be in labour during my shift, and then I was able to provide her with complete continuity. The look of joy lighting up her face when I would first come into her room as she laboured was always priceless—and it was a look of joy that was always mirrored in my own face as well, since it was an absolute pleasure to be able to care for women that I knew well and had formed a relationship with. In fact, many of my clients would inquire about my schedule during the weeks around their due date, and in some cases would try their best with acupuncture and spicy food and lots of sex to go into labour on the same days as my shifts.

I also had an opportunity to provide complete continuity of care briefly during a 5-month stint as an independent home birth midwife in Brooklyn. I was a younger midwife joining the established practice of an older midwife who had been providing continuity of care on her own for years. Unfortunately, she and I never really gelled as a team and the partnership was very short-lived, but the experience of providing care for women that I had an opportunity to really get to know well during (luxurious!) hour-long antenatal visits at their homes was indelible. As each woman approached her due date, at each visit, there was growing anticipation leading up to the birth, and when the phone call finally came that she was in labour, my first thought was often excitement and joy for her, rather than disappointment that I would have to leave my warm bed or whatever activity I was currently doing. This made the on-call slightly easier to bear, despite the fact that it was pretty brutal (we had to take on six births a month in order to be able to cover our salaries and our indemnity insurance, which, trust me, is A LOT of work in a month). I missed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s that year, and was sometimes away from my 1 year old son for up to 30 hours at a time. It wasn’t sustainable, but the continuity did provide enough joy to almost (almost) balance it out.

I was also lucky enough to be on the receiving end of continuity of care with both of my pregnancies. With my first pregnancy in the States, I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to have a home birth, so this automatically meant that we were going to have to seek out private midwifery services, since home birth is not provided in the US through any hospital-based system. My husband and I interviewed several midwives providing private services and finally settled on a two-midwife team that lived fairly close to us, and who seemed to click with us on every level. Over the course of my pregnancy, my visits were split between the two of them, so that I had an opportunity to get to know both very well, and by the time I went into labour, I felt equally comfortable with both of them. These two midwives took turns with the call, meaning that one of them would always be available by phone at any point in my pregnancy, and while I didn’t have to avail myself of their on-call services much during the pregnancy (except for one really bad case of the flu around 20 wks), it was a tremendous comfort to know that I could speak to my midwives at any point, whenever I felt like I needed them. It was also a tremendous comfort to know that when the big day finally arrived, it would be someone who knew me and my pregnancy well who would be picking up the phone to answer that call. And thank goodness for that! My first labour was a 56 hour marathon, during which time I lost hope on several occasions. However, because I knew and trusted my midwives and had a relationship of trust and respect with them, I believed them when they told me that things WERE progressing, that everything was normal, that we didn’t have to transfer to the hospital (in my labour-haze I had determined that hospital augmentation, or possibly cesarean birth, was the only way I was going to deliver). If I hadn’t known them and trusted them as much as I did, I don’t know that their words would have carried as much weight with me at a time when I was seriously doubting my ability to give birth. And lo and behold, they were right: 56 hours later, I did indeed give birth in my living room, surrounded by this loving circle of support!

With my second pregnancy, here in the UK, I was really excited by the fact that home births were a service provided by the NHS, and something that wasn’t viewed as inherently risky or completely crazy—what a relief to be in a country that valued evidence, had a thriving midwifery presence, and a long history of midwifery care as the norm for all pregnant women! However, when I began to inquire into what the NHS home birth service looked like in my trust, I was very disappointed. Yes, the NHS would absolutely support my desire to have a home birth, but the majority of my care would be provided at the antenatal clinic at the hospital, following the usual schedule (and since I was a multip, this meant fewer visits with midwives than I would have been having as a primip). I would meet the community midwifery team for the first time at 28 weeks for one visit, and then again at 36 weeks, but this meant that I wouldn’t have much of a chance to get to know them at all, or even meet everyone on the team. Since there were 6-8 midwives on the team, chances were good that when I did go into labour, a complete stranger would be answering the call and coming to our house. I also learned that sometimes if the ward was very busy, the on-call community midwives were asked to come help out on the ward, and that when I went into labour, if the community midwife was on the ward at that moment, she would ask me to come to the ward for my birth. Not ideal! Even though it was absolutely within my right to put my foot down and insist that the midwife come attend me at home instead, the thought of having to make a decision like that while in labour (and to selfishly pull a midwife away from a busy ward where she was caring for other women) filled me with dread. Having had a taste of true continuity of care, it’s hard to settle for anything less than that the second time around. So in the end, we decided to hire an independent midwifery team for our second birth as well, and he was born in our downstairs loo into the loving hands of our midwives, whom we had gotten to know and adore through 9 months of unhurried antenatal visits in our home. It was expensive, but we were lucky enough to be able to afford it, and to my way of thinking, it was worth more than every pence we paid for it, especially when my son became very sick with a bout of viral meningitis on Day 5 and we ended up in the hospital with him—being visited daily by our independent midwives, whose familiar faces and support made such a difference to us during such a stressful time in our lives!

Giving birth with someone you know and trust is transformative, and it makes perfect sense: labour strips you down to an incredibly vulnerable place, by necessity, and it’s much easier to remove your armour and surrender to that vulnerability when you’re surrounded by people you trust. Additionally, labour is hormone mediated, which means that the more relaxed a woman is, the more easily the hormones of labour can unfold, without cortisol (a stress hormone) blocking the effects of the love hormone oxytocin (which is responsible for uterine contractions, among many other things). Women are incredibly sensitive and perceptive when they’re in labour; even small levels of anxiety are sometimes enough to disrupt contractions. Many women experience this when they first transfer to the hospital, discovering that their labour, which was booming along in the comfort and safety of their home, suddenly stalls over the journey and admission to the hospital. Continuity of care can help buffer these effects, though. When a woman is with a team that she knows and trusts, the message her labour brain receives is one of safety and security, rather than stress and anxiety, and this encourages the labour to progress without intervention (and is probably one of the reasons that continuity models have higher numbers of spontaneous vaginal deliveries, and lower numbers of augmentation, instrumental deliveries and cesarean births).

Therefore, with all of this in mind, I was really excited to learn that continuity of care would be part of our learning experience as a student midwife, and I envisioned myself giving care to women as part of the community midwifery team and getting to know them over the months of their pregnancy. However, I quickly learned that in the trust that I’m working at, continuity of care is the exception and not the rule. While a new case-loading model for high-risk women is going to be trialled at our trust over the next year, at the moment, the hospital-based antenatal care is often done by a different midwife at each visit—often midwives who are part of the same community midwifery “team”, but still different midwives. In some situations, there is antenatal continuity, especially in smaller satellite clinics which are run by the same midwife every week, but at the main hospital this is not often the case. And unfortunately, there is no continuity between the antenatal team and the labour ward team. When a woman finally goes into labour and comes to Labour Ward, she is greeted by brand new midwives she’s never met before, who are then tasked with the difficult job of building rapport and learning about the woman’s history and birth plans on the spot, while she’s in labour, which isn’t exactly the ideal time to be doing this crucial relationship-building. (For the record, though, the labour ward midwives work exceptionally hard at immediately building trust and rapport with the women when they come in, and are often able to provide exemplary care in spite of this significant hurdle—kudos to them! It’s not an easy task at all!). Additionally, the home birth on-call schedule is shared between the entire community midwifery department, which again means that when a woman calls to say she’s in labour, the community midwife who attends her birth will most likely be someone she’s never met before. If the woman is lucky, she might be cared for in the community by the same midwife for each of her postnatal visits, but again it’s common for different members of the same community team to visit her on different days, depending on which days they’re working.

As a student, we’re required to case-load at least one woman every year of our education, but our programme defines case-loading pretty loosely: one antenatal visit, caring for the woman in labour, and then one postnatal visit is all that’s required, although we’re certainly welcome to see the woman/ family more often than that if we can manage it (and if our schedule allows!). Even this minimal requirement is difficult to achieve, though, because we’re not allowed to give the women we’re case-loading our mobile number due to privacy/ confidentiality/ legal issues. Which means that it’s really hard to know exactly when she goes into labour! There are brightly coloured stickers which we put on the outside of the woman’s chart which have our contact details on them, in the hope that the midwives will call us when she arrives in labour at the hospital, but this doesn’t always happen. In fact, I case-loaded four women antenatally, each of whom I was lucky enough to attend two antenatal visits with, but I was never called by Labour Ward when they arrived in labour (despite the stickers on the front of their charts with my name and mobile number on them)— so I missed their births. In the end, to fulfill the requirement for case-loading in my programme, I “case-loaded” a woman who I saw once in triage in early labour, who was then sent home (this counted as my antenatal visit), who then returned to the hospital later that day and was admitted in labour. I attended her birth and helped catch her baby, and then saw her the following day on the postnatal ward (which counted as my postnatal visit). This isn’t exactly true case-loading or continuity of care, by a long shot! But if you’re a student in a trust where true case-loading doesn’t exist, this might be the best you can do in a less-than-ideal situation. If I hadn’t already experienced case-loading in a professional capacity as a midwife in the States, or as a pregnant woman receiving it, I’m not sure I would understand that continuity of care looks a lot different to what is being offered in my trust. Which is by no means suggesting that the care women are receiving in this trust is bad care–on the contrary, I think it’s very GOOD care, all things considered–but it’s not true continuity of care, and there’s plenty of room for improvement in that regard.

Continuity of care is meant to be an integral part of the student experience, but unfortunately it’s nearly impossible to ensure that students are exposed to this model of care. I’ve spoken to many students who have had the blessing of experiencing true continuity of care—Michelle Marling, the author of the Continuity Matters campaign, was lucky enough to discover this early in her student experience, which she has written about before. Once you’ve had a taste of the joys of continuity of care, it’s a lot harder to settle for anything less! But if you’re never exposed to true continuity of care as a student, you never learn that there is another model of care out there. You never learn to treasure it, to seek it out, to make it happen, to fight for it if necessary. You grow up in the system as it stands, learning how it works, growing confident in your skills and competence within that system, and all the while never know that other options exist. And it all boils down to a chicken-and-egg sort of question. If student midwives aren’t exposed to continuity, they won’t want to provide that type of care. They won’t clamour for creating continuity models in their trust, they won’t be keen to sign up for case loading teams, they won’t want to provide that type of care—and then, less of that care will exist, and even fewer students will be exposed to it. And around and around it will go. This is how systems are perpetuated, and why creating systemic change is always so challenging.

Thankfully it does seem like the message of continuity is starting to seep into the system, with the RCM, RCOG, Better Births and Midwifery 2020 all promoting it (and even the World Health Organization recommending it in their most recent intrapartum guidelines). My fingers are crossed that the high-risk case-loading trial at our hospital will be a rousing success, and we can start to roll this type of care out for low-risk women as well. The evidence speaks for itself. What’s more difficult to combat is the perception that case-loading is too difficult, that case-loading midwives never have down-time or chance to see their families, and that case-loading leads to burn-out. In part, I think burn-out occurs because not enough midwives want to case-load (in part because they weren’t exposed to it), which means that too much pressure is put on the few midwives who do. If the work of case-loading is spread out over many midwives, in small teams or in buddy systems, the work is much more manageable (but again, this is easier said than done in a system that’s already 5,000 midwives short). (Better births tries to help prevent this by suggesting caps for case-loading teams, putting a ring-fence around their work so that they can’t be pulled to different units, and allowing the midwives to manage their own schedule and diary.) Nevertheless, despite these challenges, this is the future I long for: a world where all women can receive true continuity of care and the many benefits associated with it, and all case-loading teams are staffed robustly enough to allow each midwife the important down-time and off-duty she needs to recharge her batteries and return to work refreshed and ready to give her all again. This is the case-loading dream! But if students aren’t exposed to this type of care, how will we know to shoot for it?

Lions and Tigers and Tenaculums, oh my!

Lions and Tigers and Tenaculums, oh my!

Happy new year! You’re negligent, itinerant blogger here. My apologies for being too tired to blog much lately. However, I’m coming up for air (hopefully) as I am now *drumroll*…three weeks away…from being a year TWO midwifery student. Yes, you heard me right: Year One is nearly over, and I have survived!

I wanted to update all of you on what’s been going on in my clinical placement the last few weeks. I finished my postnatal rotation, and I’m now two weeks in to a three week rotation through the Early Pregnancy Unit, Sexual Health, Outpatient Gynaecology and Uro-gynaecology. It’s been fascinating so far! But it’s also reminded me about how much of my practice I’ve been losing since moving here. Here in the UK, midwives only work in maternity, for the most part, and only with pregnant women (for the most part). However, in the US, well-woman gynaecology is within the scope of practice for Certified Nurse Midwives/ Certified Midwives, and doing pap smears, treating UTIs, STIs, discussing the pros and cons of different methods of contraception (and prescribing said contraception), inserting intrauterine devices (IUDs) and managing complaints ranging from heavy periods to painful sex to bleeding between periods was all well within the range of midwifery care. Which isn’t to say that as a midwife you always knew what to do for every issue, but you generally had a good idea of how to at least start to manage the case, when to refer to a gynaecologist, and what tests would be useful/ needed prior to that visit with the gynaecologist. It was never my favourite part of the job (pregnancy and birth was always my favourite part), but I don’t think I ever realised how much I missed it until now.

The Early Pregnancy Unit (EPU) is a very somber place. The waiting room is small, the faces in the waiting room are tense, and a huge amount of discretion and sensitivity is required. This is where women come when they’re having spotting, bleeding or pain in early pregnancy and there are concerns about whether a miscarriage has occurred or not. In many of the cases, everything is fine, and the couple can be reassured. But 1 time out of 5 (statistically, at least), a miscarriage has occurred and the woman and her partner are now faced with heartbreaking choices about how to proceed–whether to wait for the miscarriage to pass spontaneously on its own, or whether to opt for medical or surgical management. There are also concerns about ectopic pregnancies in the EPU, which is when the embryo implants outside of the womb rather than in the womb (this occurs most commonly in the fallopian tubes–called a tubal pregnancy–but can also more rarely occur in other places like the ovary, in the abdomen or even in the cervix). Ectopic pregnancies can be very dangerous, particularly if the growing embryo ruptures, which can cause severe bleeding, shock and even (very rarely) death. It’s a medical emergency when this happens, and if a pregnancy is confirmed by urine pregnancy test but no embryo is visualised in the womb on ultrasound, then it’s assumed to be an ectopic until proven otherwise, since you really have zero chances to miss an ectopic. The level of care that the women received at this unit was incredible, despite the sadness. The amount of follow-up was also breathtaking, and the team was able to move very quickly to provide urgent sonograms for pregnant women presenting in A&E with bleeding and pain . Every woman was tracked, every lab result was tracked, every beta-HCG drawn was placed in a book to be checked on at a later date, and every ongoing case was discussed weekly at a multi-disciplinary team meeting. To be honest, I enjoyed my time in this unit, despite the sadness, and was able to listen, offer tissues, take bloods and explain warning signs to be watching out for etc.

After EPU came Sexual Health, and this is something I also enjoyed very much. The caseload was incredibly varied–anything from people coming in for a routine check-up to those presenting with specific complaints (burning, itching, discharge, smells, lumps or bumps etc.) to routine medical management for HIV positive patients to people seeking post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) or pre-exposure prophylaxis (PREP), both designed to help prevent HIV transmission after (or before) unprotected sex. The staff was very welcoming, and the clinic I was in was huge and able to manage nearly all of their results on site, even staining their own slides to look for clue cells, monilia, gonorrhea, trichomoniasis etc. We would prepare our own “wet-mount” slides in the US sometimes, and would look at them under the microscope to diagnose trich versus bacterial vaginosis versus yeast etc., but staining slides to look for gram positive or gram negative microbes was something I had never done or seen before, and it was fascinating. I’ve got to admit, though, it was a bit surprising to be taking care of men in a clinical setting again–the last time I had male patients was way back in 2003, when I was training as a nurse!

After Sexual Health, though, I was thankfully plunged back into womens’ health care again as part of my outpatient gynaecology rotation, and to be honest, I think outpatient gynaecology has been my favourite rotation so far. When you think about it, pregnancy and childbearing is an incredibly important part of a woman’s life, but it’s just a small piece of her total healthcare experience. Gynaecology spans the woman’s entire life, and encompasses everything from contraception needs to menstrual issues to peri-menopause/ menopause, and everything in between. This includes hysteroscopies, hysterosalpingograms, polyps, fibroids, cysts, prolapses, dysfunctional uterine bleeding, abnormal pap smears, colposcopies, menopause, vulvar issues, painful sex (dyspareunia) and even sub-fertility/ trying to conceive. It was really heartening to see many of the practitioners taking time to listen to women, explain how their bodies work, discuss their symptoms and options, and in many cases reassure women about what was going on, and why it might be going on. I was also able to observe one of the doctors through her day surgery case load, and it was fascinating to be in the main ORs in the hospital with the OR staff, where I found the experience to be quite different from being in an OR during a cesarean. For one thing, the staff was so efficient at their jobs that they had the entire process laid out like a precision science, with the next woman being wheeled into the OR for anaesthesia prep only a few minutes after the previous woman had left. All of the women were put under general anaesthesia as well, which was also very different from cesareans, which are normally done under epidural or spinal anaesthesia. It was also amazing to watch how relaxed the anaesthesiologists were! There is a point between when the woman has been put to sleep but is not yet intubated during which time she’s not really breathing on her own, and I kept watching with baited breath, waiting for the intubation to occur and then the chest wall to begin to rise and fall again, but the anaesthesiologists always appeared so calm through this entire process. And once she was intubated again and they were using an ambu-bag to ventilate her, again there was never any sense of panic or urgency to it. It made me reflect on how different general anaesthesia (GA) is on Labour Ward. If a woman is under GA during a cesarean, it’s usually because something has gone very wrong and there was no time to put in an epidural. GA is used during cesarean births when seconds literally matter, and in those situations, there is often a palpable sense of urgency and stress through the entire thing. And the same applies to ventilation–I have only ever seen it in the context of resuscitation, which is never a calm or relaxed situation. It was really eye-opening to observe routine GA, with calm, workday efficiency surrounding it, rather than barely-controlled panic.

One more week of outpatient clinical placement ahead of me, and then….I am more or less done for Year One! And I promise I’ll find some time to write a few more blog posts soon!

Options for the Third Stage of Labour

Options for the Third Stage of Labour

I just finished a MASSIVE (29 page whopper!) of a research paper on the management of the third stage of labour, so of course it’s only right and proper that my new, shiny and very-up-to-date knowledge of the subject should be shared here.  I’ve found this topic incredibly interesting because…guess what? The management of the third stage of labour is handled very differently here in the UK than it is across the pond! (Shocker–NOT! After all, this is why I’m back at university–for this sort of thing exactly, right? Right??) Basically, there are two different strategies for managing the third stage of labour: active management, and expectant management (don’t worry–I’m going to get into the nitty-gritty of exactly what all of this means below). Here in the UK, active management is the norm, whereas in the US (at least in the hospitals where I was working), expectant management was the more common practice. I’m still not entirely sure why this is the case–the research on this has been around for awhile, but clearly the two countries have taken very different approaches to it. (Obviously, the follow-up to all of this should be looking into the history of why this occurred, but for now, I’ll just stick to the research and leave that for a different post). Also, interestingly, because of the prevalence and preference for active management here in the UK, many women at low risk of postpartum haemorrhage aren’t being offered true informed choice about the different management strategies available to them–in fact, researchers have found that many women at low risk of haemorrhage don’t even know they have a choice in the matter (again, see below for more on this)! Which all just goes to show that there is a desperate need for women, midwives and doctors to be better educated on this topic, and to understand and be able to support physiologic (i.e. expectant) third stage management. Which brings me to my research paper.

So, without further adieu…

The third stage of labour is the time from the birth of the baby up through the delivery of the placenta, followed by control of bleeding. The placenta is a miraculous and highly evolved organ which is created during the pregnancy and then expelled afterwards. (Just let that sink in for a moment: during pregnancy your body creates and grows a whole new organ solely for nourishing and sustaining a baby, and then, after pregnancy, this brand new organ is disposed of, just like that; talk about amazing!) It acts as a life-support system for the baby, providing an interface for maternal and fetal blood which allows for gas exchange, as well as letting hormones and nutrients pass to the baby. The placenta also provides a barrier for the baby, helping to keep out toxic chemicals, substances and pathogens. It even acts like a gland, producing hormones such as oestrogen and progesterone that sustain the pregnancy, and helps to metabolize various substances that the baby’s tiny, immature liver isn’t ready for yet. The placenta is so good at its job that it keeps maternal and fetal circulation completely separate (this is how babies are able to have different blood types from their mothers, or how a mother can be HIV positive while a her baby remains HIV negative)! And then, after the birth of the baby, this miraculous life-support system peels away from the uterine wall and slips out through the vagina, while meanwhile the uterine muscle fibers clamp down on the open blood vessels and prevent the woman from bleeding to death.

More specifically (in clinical speak), after the birth of the baby, a rush of oxytocin encourages the myometrium (the muscle layer of the uterus–another miraculous and highly specialized part of the body) to contract and reduce in size. As the uterus shrinks around the placenta, the placental bed separates from the uterine wall, and the woman will usually experience a cramp or feel an urge to push, combined with other clinical signs that placental separation has occurred, such as a small gush of blood, a lengthening of the cord, or the uterus rising in the abdomen and becoming globular and round rather than discoid. In physiological management, the placenta is birthed by maternal effort alone. Afterwards, the myometrium continues to retract around the placental site, creating ‘living ligatures’ around the torn blood vessels and ensuring haemostasis (Baker, 2014, pp. 191). An intricate cascade of hormones assists this process, led mostly by oxytocin, beta-endorphins and prolactin (Buckley, 2004). These hormones provide a blueprint for placental separation, maternal and infant bonding, control of bleeding and the initiation of breastfeeding (Buckley, 2004).

The two main management strategies available in the third stage of labour are Expectant Management of the Third Stage of Labour (EMTSL) and Active Management of the Third Stage of Labour (AMTSL) (and no, I’m not making these acronyms up–this is actually how it’s referred to in the literature!). Interestingly, there are NO universally recognised protocols available for either strategy (and arguing over exactly which protocol is superior is the raison d’etre for most of the research on this topic). However, in general, EMTSL tends to utilise a ‘hands-off’ approach that allows the placenta to deliver spontaneously, by maternal pushing effort alone. The aid of skin-to-skin contact, gravity or nipple stimulation can encourage delivery, and early cord clamping, controlled cord traction (CCT) or administration of prophylactic uterotonic agents (i.e. drugs which cause the uterus to contract) are not employed. In contrast, AMTSL involves the routine administration of uterotonic agents after the birth of the baby, and then early cord clamping and CCT to deliver the placenta. These strategies pertain to routine management and not emergency situations where uterotonic agents are administered as a treatment for postpartum haemorrhage (PPH).  And in fact, once you get into it, the evidence on this subject is pretty murky. Reams and reams of papers have been written on various types of active management. Studies comparing the timing of uterotonic administration (should it happen with the birth of the baby, after the birth of the baby, or even after the delivery of the anterior shoulder of the baby but before the entire baby is out), the types of uterotonic agent used (carbetocin versus syntocinon versus syntometrine versus misoprostyl) and other parts of active management (early cord clamping v. delayed cord clamping–and if delayed, for how long?–controlled cord traction v. no CCT, uterine massage v. no uterine massage etc. etc.) is what fills most of the literature on this topic.

The reason so much research has been devoted to various management options on this is because postpartum haemorrhage (PPH) is a real and very serious risk. On a global level, PPH is the number one killer of pregnant women, responsible for 25% of all maternal deaths worldwide, particularly in developing countries where access to medical care and decent nutrition is hard to come by (which leaves women aenemic and much more vulnerable should a heamorrhage occur).  Similar to AMTSL and EMTSL, there is no universal definition of PPH, but many guidelines define it as blood loss greater than 500 mls from the genital tract. The most common cause is uterine atony (ineffective uterine contraction), followed by trauma to the vaginal tract (such as lacerations), retained tissue in the uterus (such as retained membranes or placental lobes) or coagulation disorders (WHO, 2012; RCOG, 2016). However, it’s also worth noting that these definitions are not always helpful. For example, 500 mls is equivalent to a blood donation, and is often an amount of blood loss that women can tolerate well, especially women who live in developed countries, have good nutritional status and who aren’t aenemic (Goer and Romano, 2013). Many of these studies would be BETTER studies if they looked at clinically important outcomes, such as symptoms like dizziness, weakness or tachycardia (fast heart rate), or the clinical need for a blood transfusion, rather than surrogate outcomes such as blood loss. Also, a lot of the studies use Estimated Blood Loss (EBL) as their clinical indicator, which is a visual estimate of how much blood has come out; not surprisingly, EBL varies significantly from provider to provider and is a notoriously inaccurate way of measuring blood loss, particularly as blood is often mixed with amniotic fluid after a delivery, and the amount often looks like more than it really is (Yoong et. al., 2010; Lilley et. al., 2015).

Global guidelines universally recommend AMTSL as the preferred management strategy in the developing world (WHO, 2012; ICM/ FIGO, 2014), which makes a lot of sense given that postpartum haemorrhage is such a risk. In the UK, guidelines also recommend AMTSL in all situations, but acknowledge that if a woman at low-risk for PPH requests EMTSL, she should be supported in that choice (NICE, 2014; RCOG, 2016; RCM, 2012). The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines encourage counseling low-risk women on both management strategies, but recommend AMTSL over EMTSL to help prevent PPH. These guidelines are based on a recent Cochrane Review (Begley et. al., 2015) and the earlier Cochrane Review which preceded it (Prendiville et. al., 2000). However, there is some research which suggests that for women at low-risk of PPH, expectant management may actually produce lower rates of postpartum haemorrhage than active management (Fahy et. al., 2010; Dixon et. al., 2013). These studies are observational studies rather than the randomised control trials (RCTs) used in the Cochrane reviews, but they are well done and hold up under scrutiny.  Nevertheless, over half of all maternity units in the UK still advise AMTSL for all women regardless of risk status (Rogers et. al., 2012) and most practitioners in the UK are more familiar and comfortable with AMTSL than EMTSL (Farrar et. al., 2009; Downey and Bewley, 2010). This has led some authors to question whether women at low-risk of PPH are being offered a true informed choice regarding management options (Selfe and Walsh, 2015), and this is something that my clinical experience in the UK so far would confirm.

The Cochrane systematic review by Begley et. al. (2015) provides some of the strongest evidence on this subject, based on the fact that it’s a meta-analysis which pools together the results of several RCTs and then does further statistical tests in order to provide a larger sample size and greater statistical power. This particular meta-analysis uses seven RCTs examining AMTSL versus EMTSL in hospital settings, for a combined sample size of 8,247 women. The maternal outcomes of interest were severe and very severe PPH (blood loss greater than 1000mls and 2500mls respectively), blood transfusion requirement, maternal mortality, and maternal haemoglobin (Hb) levels less than 9g/dl at ≥ 24 hours postpartum. The authors found that overall AMTSL significantly reduced the rates of PPH, the need for blood transfusions and low maternal Hb. However, for women at low risk of PPH, AMTSL offered no statistically significant reduction in PPH (although there was still a reduction in the need for blood transfusions). Additionally, AMTSL has several disadvantages, including maternal hypertension, nausea and vomiting, increased postpartum pain (afterpains), an increased chance of returning to the hospital after discharge due to postnatal bleeding, and a decrease in newborn birth weight due to early cord clamping. The authors concluded that for women at low risk of PPH, the benefits of AMTSL may not outweigh the disadvantages of it, and advised that low risk women should be counseled on both options and allowed to make their own choice.

There were several strengths to this meta-analysis. Because of the large sample size, the study was able to provide statistically significant results with 95% confidence intervals and low p-values, which indicates that the findings were likely due to the experimental treatment (in this case AMTSL) and not due to chance. However, there was a large degree of heterogeneity between the RCTs analysed, meaning that the populations and experimental treatments being compared were quite different, and therefore may have prevented a true comparison between the outcomes. Only three of the RCTs limited their sample to women at low risk of PPH; the four remaining studies included women regardless of their PPH risk status, which may have introduced a selection bias that weighted the results in favour of AMTSL. Additionally, the studies varied significantly in terms of uterotonic agent used, route of administration (intravenous versus intramuscular), timing of cord clamping, use of uterine massage, and EMTSL protocol observed. Finally, among the seven trials analysed, four of them reported that many women in the EMTSL group received prophylactic uterotonic agents (rates varied from 2.5% to 38% among the studies), which again weakens the findings as many of the women in the EMTSL group were treated with the AMTSL protocol.

In contrast, two retrospective cohort studies examined EMTSL in more detail and found that PPH rates were lower than AMTSL when used in a holistic midwifery model (Fahy et. al., 2010; Dixon et. al., 2013). Fry (2007) and Hastie and Fahy (2009) have both proposed that EMTSL is more than merely a “hands-off” approach during the third stage, but also involves guarding and facilitating normal physiology in all aspects of care. Hastie and Fahy (2009) named this ‘holistic psychophysiological care’ as it considers all aspects of a woman’s experience, including her environment, and is a more sophisticated approach to EMTSL than the limited definition employed by Begley et. al. (2015). This approach requires a physiological labour and birth, a private and warm environment, uninterrupted skin-to-skin and suckling after delivery, plus waiting until the cord stops pulsing before cutting it. Furthermore, a trusting and respectful relationship between woman and midwife is necessary. In their qualitative descriptive study interviewing midwives who were expert at EMTSL, Begley et. al. (2012) found that midwives skilled in this management approach intuitively provided this type of care, with themes of watchful waiting, guardianship and trust in the woman and the process emerging from their study.

Fahy et. al. (2010) designed a retrospective cohort study to evaluate the effectiveness of ‘holistic psychophysiological care’. Using data from the computer-based Midwives Data Set in Australia, the study compared women at low risk of PPH in a tertiary-care hospital receiving AMTSL to women at a midwife-led unit (MLU) receiving EMTSL. At the hospital, women received 10 IU syntocinon intramuscularly within one minute of birth, followed by CCT and then uterine massage, whereas at the MLU, midwives were taught how to facilitate ‘holistic psychophysiological care’ as described by Hastie and Fahy (2009) above. The study found that 11.2% of low-risk women in the hospital setting experienced PPH (defined as ≥ 500 mls blood loss) versus 2.8% at the MLU (95% Confidence Intervals).

These findings were quite rigorous and trustworthy, as they excluded all women in both settings who were at higher risk of PPH. They also used a stronger definition of EMTSL and eliminated women who received mixed management from the EMTSL cohort. The results from this study also provided data from an MLU setting, whereas Begley at. al. (2015) only looked at hospital settings; this provides greater generalisability and transferability to other settings (Rees, 2011). However, the retrospective design prevented complete control over all of the interventions. The data set also used EBL rather than measured blood loss, which could contribute to inaccurate measurements (Yoong et. al., 2010). Additionally, the authors noted that ‘holistic psychophysiological care’ is hard to achieve in all settings due to the extent of its definition, and may be difficult to apply outside of an MLU or home.

The findings in Dixon et. al. (2013) confirmed the findings of Fahy et. al. (2010). Dixon et. al. (2013) designed a population based retrospective cohort study using data from the New Zealand Maternity and Midwifery Provider Organisation (Dixon et. al., 2009; Davis et. al., 2012). It compared 17,514 low-risk women who received AMTSL (51.9%) to 16,238 low-risk women who received EMTSL (48.1%) over a five-year period. Midwives provided continuity of care to all women from booking to six-weeks postpartum, and women could choose to deliver either at home, an MLU or a hospital. Therefore, the midwives in this database practiced in all settings depending on the woman’s history and preference, and were familiar and comfortable with both AMTSL and EMTSL strategies. Similar to Fahy et. al. (2010), the authors found that AMTSL resulted in higher rates of blood loss than EMTSL, regardless of setting (6.9% v. 3.7%, Confidence Intervals 95% and 94% respectively). Women who received AMTSL were also three times more likely to have a retained placenta (0.7% AMTSL v. 0.2% EMTSL, p<0.0001). Women in hospitals were more likely to receive AMTSL, and also experienced the highest levels of blood loss, while women at home were more likely to receive EMTSL, and had the lowest levels of blood loss.

Dixon et. al. (2013) was also quite rigorous and trustworthy. They defined the populations carefully and excluded all women at high risk of PPH. They also had a very large sample size (32,752 in total) and provided data from a wide range of settings, collected by midwives who worked in a variety of settings and were comfortable facilitating both management strategies. Limitations to this study included its retrospective observational design and the use of EBL rather than measured blood loss. There may have also been other confounding factors not accounted for, as women who choose to give birth at home or in a MLU may differ in health, lifestyle or philosophy from women who choose a hospital setting.

So what does all of this mean?? It means that for women at low risk of PPH, who have good nutritional status and (more importantly) a NORMAL, PHYSIOLOGIC birth, expectant management is probably safer than active management, and has a lower rate of PPH, especially when provided in a holistic midwifery model and occurring in a calm, private and undisturbed setting, such as a home or birth centre. However, let’s be honest here….how many women experience normal, physiologic birth in a hospital, without an epidural, or syntocinon to augment contractions? Labours that started spontaneously, without induction? Waters that broke spontaneously, rather than artificially? The sad, grim statistic is that only about 25% of all births occur in this manner…the remaining 75% have been fiddled with in some way. Which means that for the majority of women, AMTSL probably IS the superior choice. Midwife Thinking sums this up far more eloquently than I ever could in her excellent blog post (which I just linked to, and which I highly encourage you to read). She also concludes that for most women, AMTSL is most likely the better option, given how rare true physiologic, undisturbed birth is.

Interestingly, though, my (completely anecdotal) experience in the US counters this somewhat. In the States, the third stage was most often handled in a physiologic manner, although with a few aspects of AMTSL thrown in for good measure. For example, in the hospitals in Brooklyn where I was practicing, pitocin (syntocinon, i.e. artificial oxytocin) was not given until after the placenta was delivered (usually intravenously). The practitioner awaited signs of placental separation, and then, once the signs were visible, gentle cord traction was used to facilitate the delivery (which isn’t quite right for true physiologic management, which should be entirely hands-off until the delivery has occurred). Pitocin given prior to the delivery of the placenta was only used in cases of PPH, and often accompanied by manual removal of the placenta in those situations. The received wisdom behind waiting to give pitocin until after delivery of the placenta was to prevent placental entrapment (i.e. the uterus contracting around the placenta and preventing it from being delivered), but the research on AMTSL doesn’t back this up, as active management regularly employs uterotonic agents before placental separation, and placental entrapment rarely occurs. We generally used physiologic third stage management on the majority of women regardless of whether their birth had been induced, or whether augmentation was used, or whether they had an epidural or not, and I don’t believe our rates of PPH were significantly higher because of this (although it’s worth noting that the US ranks 47th globally in terms of maternal mortality as of 2014, whereas the UK ranks 38th).

If you’re planning a birth in the UK, though, keep in mind that expectant management is a valid option for you, particularly if you’re at low risk of haemorrhage, and you’ve had a normal, physiologic birth. My experience so far has shown that this conversation rarely happens during the antenatal period, unfortunately, and options are most often mentioned after the birth of the baby. Sadly, I have seen “informed choice” offered like this: “Would you like the shot that will bring the placenta more quickly, or do you want to wait for the placenta to separate and push it out yourself?”  That’s not at all what I would call informed choice! Midwives in the UK are more familiar with active management, and tend to prefer it (Rogers et. al., 20120; Farrar et. al., 2009), and as the research by Selfe and Walsh (2015) demonstrates, many women don’t even realise they have a choice in the matter. But you do! And it’s well within your rights to ask for expectant management, as per the latest NICE guideline. If you’re looking for more information on this, I’d highly recommend the Association for Improving Maternity Services (AIMs) publication on this, which you can purchase here (Birthing Your Placenta).



Baker, K.C. (2014) ‘Postpartum haemorrhage and the management approaches in the third stage of labour’. MIDIRS Midwifery Digest, 24(2), pp. 191-196.

Begley, C.M., Gyte, G.M., Devane, D., McGuire, W. and Weeks, A. (2015) Active versus expectant management for women in the third stage of labour. [Cochrane Systematic Review] Available at: (Accessed: 25 September, 2017)

Begley, C.M., Guilliland, K., Dixon, L., Reilly, M. and Keegan, C. (2012) ‘Irish and New Zealand midwives’ expertise in expectant management of the third stage of labour: The MEET study’, Midwifery, 28(6), pp. 733-739.

Buckley, S. (2004) ‘Undisturbed birth—nature’s hormonal blueprint for safety, ease and ecstasy’, Midirs Midwifery Digest, 14(2), pp. 203-209.

Davis, D., Baddock, S., Pairman, S., Hunger, M., Benn, C., Anderson, J., Dixon, L. and Herbison, P. (2012) ‘Risk of Severe Postpartum Hemorrhage in Low-Risk Childbearing Women in New Zealand: Exploring the Effect of Place of Birth and Comparing Third Stage Management of Labor’, Birth: Issues in Perinatal Care, 39(2), pp. 98-105.

Dixon, L., Fletcher, L., Tracy, S., Guilland, K., Pairman, S. and Hendy, C. (2009) ‘Midwives Care During the Third Stage of Labour: An Analysis of the New Zealand College of Midwives Midwifery Database 2004-2008’, New Zealand College of Midwives Journal, 41(10), pp. 20-25.

Dixon, L., Tracy, S.K., Guilliland, K., Fletcher, L., Hendry, C. and Pairman, S. (2013) ‘Outcomes of physiological and active third stage labour care amongst women in New Zealand’, Midwifery, 29(1), pp. 67-74.

Downey, C. and Bewley, S. (2010) ‘Childbirth practitioners’ attitudes to third stage management’, British Journal of Midwifery’, 18(9), pp. 576-582.

Fahy, K., Hastie, C., Bisits, A. Marsh, C. Smith, L., and Saxton, A. (2010) ‘Holistic physiological care compared with active management of the third stage of labour for women at low risk of postpartum haemorrhage: A cohort study’, Women and Birth, 23(4), pp. 146-152.

Farrar, D., Tuffnell, D., Airey, R. and Duley, L. (2009) ‘Care during the third stage of labour: a postal survey of obstetricians and midwives in the UK’, BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 10(23), pp. 1-9.

Fry, J. (2007) ‘Physiological third stage of labour: support it or lose it’, British Journal of Midwifery, 15(11), pp. 693-695.

Goer, H. and Romano, A. (2013) Optimal Care in Childbirth: The Case for a Physiologic Approach. London: Pinter and Martin.

Hastie, C. and Fahy, K. (2009) ‘Optimising psychophysiology in third stage of labour: Theory applied to practice’, Women and Birth, 22(3), pp. 89-96.

International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) and International Federation of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (FIGO) Joint Statement (2014) Misoprostol for the treatment of postpartum haemorrhage in low resource settings. Available at: (Accessed: 16 October 2017)

Jangsten, E., Mattsson, L-Å., Lyckestam, I., Hellstram, A-L. and Berg, M. (2011) ‘A comparison of active management and expectant management of the third stage of labour: a Swedish randomised controlled trial’, BJOG: An International Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology, 118(3), pp. 362-369.

Knight, M., Nair, M., Tuffnell, D., Kenyon, S., Shakespeare, J., Brocklehurst, P. and Kurinczuk, J.J. (eds.) on behalf of MBRRACE-UK. (2016) Saving Lives, Improving Mothers’ Care – Surveillance of maternal deaths in the UK 2012-14 and lessons learned to inform maternity care from the UK and Ireland. (Confidential Enquiries into Maternal Deaths and Morbidity 2009-14). Available at:  (Accessed: 26 September 2017)

Lilley, G., Burkett-st-Laurent, D., Precious, E., Bruynseels, D., Kaye, A., Sanders, J., Alikhan, R., Collins, P.W., Hall, J.E. and Collis, R.E. (2015) ‘Measurement of blood loss during postpartum haemorrhage’, International Journal of Obstetric Anesthesia, 24, pp. 8-14.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (2014) Intrapartum Care for Healthy Women and Babies. (Clinical Guideline CG190). Available at: (Accessed: 22 September 2017)

Prendiville, W., Elbourne, D., McDonald, S. (2000) Active versus expectant management of the third stage of labour. [Cochrane Systematic Review – withdrawn in 2009 due to publication of new Systematic Review] Available at: (Accessed: 21 October 2017)

Rogers, C., Harman, J. and Selo-Ojeme, D. (2012) ‘The management of the third stage of labour—A national survey of current practice’, British Journal of Midwifery, 20(12), pp. 850-857.

Rees, C. (2011) An Introduction to Research for Midwives. London: Churchill Livingstone.

Royal College of Midwives (RCM) (2012) Evidence Based Guidelines for Midwifery-Led Care in Labour: Third Stage of Labour. Available at: (Accessed: 22 September 2017)

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) (2016) Prevention and Management of Postpartum Haemorrhage. [Green-top Guideline No. 52] Available at: (Accessed: 11 October 2017)

Selfe, K. and Walsh, D.J. (2015) ‘The third stage of labour: are low-risk women really offered an informed choice?’, MIDIRS Midwifery Digest, 25(1), pp.66-72.

World Health Organization (WHO) (2012) WHO recommendations for the prevention and treatment of postpartum haemorrhage. Available at: (Accessed: 27 September 2017)

Yoong, W., Karavalos, S., Damodaram, M., Madgwick, K., Milestone, N., Al-Habib, A., Fakokunde, A., and Okolo, S. (2010) ‘Observer accuracy and reproducibility of visual estimation of blood loss in obstetrics: how accurate and consistent are health care professionals?’, Archives of Gynecology and Obstetrics, 281(2), pp. 207-213.


The Nautilus Shell

The Nautilus Shell

I wrote this yesterday, for a dear friend’s Mother Blessing, and I thought I would share it here as well (with her permission):

I give you two beads, shaped like a nautilus shell. The nautilus is very special—it’s one of the oldest known fossils on our planet, but it also tells the story of growth and maturation. It starts as a very small shell to protect the animal inside. Then, as the sea creature outgrows the first small chamber, it has to create a new, slightly larger shell to accommodate its slightly larger body, which it adds to the front of its old shell like an extension on a house. This is how the Nautilus grows, spiraling around and around with each new addition. The Nautilus is all about growth and evolution, and to my mind, the perfect metaphor for becoming a mother.

Your entire world is about to change. Very soon you’re going to find that you’re too big for your old self, and you’ll have to grow and change to accommodate this new person you’re about to become. Growth is inevitable. But every time you spiral around your center, the newer parts of you will strengthen the older parts of you. You will feel lost for awhile—awkward and clumsy, uncomfortable in your new role. You will mourn who you used to be, before you were a mother—we all do, now and then. But gradually you will get used to your new self and how much bigger you’ve become—and how much stronger you’ve become—and how much more beautiful you’ve become. And to your baby, you will be his entire world. His ENTIRE world. And you will grow as big as you need to be, to be the mother that he needs. But at the very center of your larger shell, the person you’ve always been will still be there, too. And at some point, you’ll realize she hasn’t gone anywhere. She will wait for you to find her again, and you will. You will be both—your new, larger self, and your older, smaller self. And you will love him so much. And he will love you like you are his entire world. Because you will be.

I wish you every blessing as you start out on this new adventure. I wish you health, and happiness, but more than anything else, I wish you time. The time goes too quickly—everyone will tell you this. So many people will tell you this that it will actually become annoying. Of course, of course, it goes too quickly, cherish every moment! They will say things like that—old ladies on the bus and aunts and grandparents and random strangers in waiting rooms—and you will think to yourself that there are moments you don’t want to cherish. It’s hard, to be a mother. It’s so unbelievably hard. The old ladies forget this part of it, I think. The work is invisible, and often unappreciated, and not valued by our society, and the worry will etch lines into your face and make your heart feel like a stone, sometimes. There is always so much to get done, and never enough time to do it in. And the days can feel like months, and the months can feel like years. You will wish for the time to go faster—we all do, sometimes.

But at some point you will look back and realize it did pass in the blink of an eye (because it does that, as well; it’s both interminable and lightning quick at the same time). So my wish for you is that every now and then, not always and not constantly, but moments here and there, you can catch the time and hold it with both hands, for just a second. I wish that for you there will be time to do nothing for an entire afternoon except hold him. There will be time to let him fall asleep on your chest. There will be laundry to do, and meals to prepare, and groceries to buy…but there will be time to ignore all of that, and curl up on the bed with him and take a nap together, just the two of you. There will be time to sniff his warm little head, and kiss his nose, and stroke his feet. There will be time to make him laugh. To tickle him and play peek-a-boo. Time to go on walks together, just the two of you, to push a buggy down the street on cold, blustery days, and balmy summer days. Time to look at the leaves in the trees, to watch the way the sunlight catches them or the wind shakes them—he will be fascinated by things like this—and time to do nothing but watch him watching the leaves.

This is what I wish for you. There will be so much to get done, and so many new concerns. But I wish you pockets of time. Little moments, caught here and there.

I wish you lots and lots of time.

Healing from a Miscarriage

Healing from a Miscarriage

Miscarriages are so incredibly common.  Statistically, 1 in 5-7 pregnancies will end in miscarriage, although many might occur before a woman even knows she’s pregnant. I’ve personally had two.  And I’ve midwifed many women through a miscarriage.  In fact, I’m pretty sure if we all started talking about our miscarriages just a bit more, we’d be astounded by how common this is, and how many sisters all around us have been through it, or are going through it.  But that’s just it…NO ONE talks about it. Which is why it’s important to bring it up, especially during Baby Loss Awareness Week. Tonight I’m going to light a candle as part of the Wave of Light in honour of International Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day.  It’s so important that we share these stories. These babies were alive, no matter how briefly. They mattered to us. And our lives will never be the same because of it.

It is hard to talk about.  I’ll certainly give you that.  I can’t speak for anyone else’s experience, but for myself there has always been some element of lingering guilt attached to it: if only I’d taken better care of myself, or been less stressed out, or hadn’t gotten into that one argument, or had gotten more sleep.  As if I had had any control over it in the first place.  It’s hard to accept that most miscarriages happen for no good reason at all.  Or actually, perhaps they happen for the very best reason possible.  If you stop to think about it, a miscarriage is the body’s way (or nature’s way, or God’s way, or the Goddess’s way, or [insert spiritual belief of choice here]’s way) of ensuring that more often than not healthy babies are carried to term and delivered.  Think of all of the miraculous, amazing steps which have to go perfectly right in order to form a baby.  If even one of those steps goes wrong in those early weeks, the implications for a living child could be devastating.  While a miscarriage can be absolutely harrowing, I do believe it’s kinder than the alternative.  And those early steps are pretty complex.  It’s not surprising that something goes awry from time to time.

But this is cold comfort.  And since it’s so rarely talked about, knowing what to do to recover and heal after a miscarriage is very rarely discussed. As a provider I’ve often searched for a resource or a guide to give to clients to help them ground themselves afterwards. And as a woman who’s been through it, I’ve found myself staring off into space afterwards, hands on a suddenly empty belly, wondering to myself: what happens next?  I think the answer to that question is so incredibly personal, for each and every woman.  But I did find this fantastic post by Maisie Hill which is certainly worth sharing: How to Recover From a Miscarriage.  It’s worth a read, even if this has never happened to you, if only to allow you to better support a friend or sister who does have to endure this.  And for everyone else who has had to walk this path, what helped you heal afterwards?

If we all start talking about our own experiences just a bit more often, we’ll stop feeling so alone.




How has it gotten to October and I have published nothing for all of September on this site?!?  The time is flying, and to be perfectly honest, I am slightly overwhelmed. Being a student is HARD. Being a mom is HARD. Being both of those together is VERY hard. And let’s not forget trying to be a good spouse, friend, sister and all the rest…there’s too much to get done every day, and not enough hours in a day. We’re currently on placement again now, working in the clinical setting, but in two weeks I have an in-class debate to research and prep for, plus a research activity due which involves critiquing a research study and then sharing it with the class. The first week in November our second 15-page(-ish) assessment is due, which I have started researching but have not yet written a single word for. We also have our Year 1 exams in December, focusing on anatomy, physiology and the role of the midwife, which I have started studying for, but again…this is not something you can do in a single cram session the night before. So, yeah, that’s the homework front. Add to that 12 hour work-days, not seeing my kids for entire days at time (because if I’m doing a day shift, I leave in the morning before they’re awake and come home once they’re asleep) and using my days off to try to desperately make it up to them with quality time…and also using my days off to try to get on top of the mound of homework. This student midwife business is definitely not for the faint of heart!

Clinical placements have been challenging for lots of reasons. The work is fabulous, and it has been such a joy to be attending births again, and particularly births in the lovely midwifery-led unit/ birth center that is part of the hospital where I’m at. But it’s been painful to realise how many of my skills I have lost during the long break I took over the last 4 years where I wasn’t working as a midwife. Things that used to come very easily to me are now things that I am grappling with again. Is that really the right position of the baby I’m feeling on abdominal palpation? Is the baby vertex or breech? Is that the baby’s back? Are those the feet and hands? Is that cervix 7 cm dilated, or 8? What is the estimated fetal weight? I used to be really good at this stuff…now I find myself in the dark with it a lot more, much like I was during my first student experience. Muscle memories that have been forgotten and need to be retrained into hands again. How to press just so on the doppler to be able to angle it upwards into just the right position to find the fetal heart. How to get the monitor straps to be able to hold the tocometer/CTG in the right place. (Annoyingly, the straps are very new to me; in the US the women wore an elastic band over their bellies and you just had to slip the monitors underneath the band and they were magically held in place, without too much fiddling involved. We did have straps, too, for occasional use, but again, they were a different design and not at all like the straps in my new trust, which I think require some fancy angling and folding and tying tricks to get them to be angled/ placed correctly, of which I have by no means mastered yet!)  And don’t even get me started on the hospital policies, the documentation, the pro formas that have to be filled out. The new computer system.  There are even things that I murmur and say during deliveries: “Good job”, “you’re doing great”, “you’ve got this” which sound so American to my ears now. My mentor more often says “well done” instead of “good job”. Tiny things like this which I wonder about, and I wonder if my American-ness is helpful in labour, or if I was speaking better British-English, would that be more reassuring? It’s all new. So in SO MANY ways I feel like a complete novice at this again.

But that’s the part that sits uncomfortably with me. I had gotten used to feeling competent after years as a midwife in the US. I knew the system, I knew how my hospital’s policies worked. I knew exactly what documents needed to be filled out, and how to document correctly.  Feeling competent had become part of my identity. Feeling incompetent again is painful. I have to keep reminding myself that I am a first year student, because I AM. There is so much I don’t know. And in fact, there is a term for what’s been happening to me. It’s called being deskilled, or deskilling: losing skills which I had had in the States and had taken for granted, and needing to re-learn these skills again from scratch. Not fun in any way whatsoever! And in some regards, there are even bad habits I had picked up which I need to un-learn as well. And completely new skills which I never had in the first place, like using a Pinard’s stethoscope or estimating how many fifth’s palpable the baby’s head is in abdominal exam. In the States we would say the baby was engaged or floating, but never had to document exactly how engaged (3/5ths engaged, 1/5th engaged etc.) the baby was.

I was painfully reminded of this awhile ago when I experienced my first true emergency as a student on labour ward. A woman had been brought in by ambulance in booming labour, and was barely into a side-room before the baby had been delivered. And then she began to seize afterwards. The emergency bell was pushed in her room, everyone ran in to help (including my mentor), and I was out on the fringes trying to be helpful but not actually able to do very much. Whatever was called for from inside the room, I was one of the task-rabbits running to get it. I put out the overhead hospital-wide emergency call to bring the larger team to the room, which I had never done before, and didn’t even know what room the patient was in without asking another midwife about it. I got a screen to cover the door for privacy. I brought a table and emergency trolley to the room.  Which is helpful, a bit, but that was about as much as I could do, and I was conscious that if this had happened in my old hospital in the States, I would have been in the room, in the thick of it, being a lot more helpful.  And it was scary. In my 6 year career in the US, I had never seen a full-blown seizure like that. I hope I never do again, any time soon.

Midwifery is a highly-skilled job. It takes years to master the skills necessary to do it well. And years of training and experience in a particular setting to know all of the ins and outs of the job. And I am just at the very start of this journey again, deskilling and re-skilling again.

Private Midwives in the NHS

Private Midwives in the NHS

The Sunday Times published an article recently about private midwives attending births at NHS hospitals: “Mothers Take Own Midwives Into NHS Hospitals”. This is definitely becoming more common, especially now that NHS trusts are inviting it to happen by contracting with companies like Neighbourhood Midwives and Private Midwives:

Ten NHS trusts have signed partnership deals allowing one private company to book rooms in their hospitals and centres for women to give birth helped by a private midwife. The mother then pays the company.

I can understand why this is happening, but I have mixed feelings about it. On the one hand, many trusts are under severe financial pressure, with midwifery shortages and hiring freezes, and literally not enough staff to care for the number of pregnant women in their trust. Creating an option for some of that responsibility of care to be taken up by private midwives helps to ease the burden on their over-stretched service. Renting out rooms and equipment to private midwifery companies also generates more money for cash-strapped trusts, so you can see the appeal. We also know, by overwhelming evidence, that continuity of carer produces better outcomes across the board, from shorter labours to fewer cesareans to better neonatal outcomes, as well as increased satisfaction reported by both women and midwives alike. At the moment, though, continuity of carer is hard to come by in the NHS, but is something that private midwives are much better at providing, so it makes a lot of sense that women who are able to are choosing private midwives because this is the type of care they desire.

In 2016, in response to the Kirkup Report which investigated the tragic failures at the Morecambe Bay NHS Trust, NHS England announced a new scheme to give women more options in choosing their maternity care provider, ostensibly as a way to address the shortfalls which led to the Morecambe Bay tragedies, as well as increasing women’s ability to have a named midwife or case-loading midwife (i.e. to have continuity of care and continuity of carer). This scheme is currently being tested in several NHS trusts, called “Maternity Choice and Personalisation Pioneers”, and basically amounts to women being given a £3000 “birth budget” and then allowing them to choose where and how to spend their money–either on NHS services or private services which contract with the NHS, exactly as described in the Times article above. Which all sounds very good on the surface, but I’m worried that this is just a way to privatise the NHS through the back door. As soon as you begin to allocate personal budgets to women, you’re pulling funds away from the general NHS pot, which is already operating on a shoestring and severely underfunded. If more money is diverted to private midwives and organisations providing private care, there will be less and less available for NHS, which has expenses (such as providing and maintaining actual physical hospitals) not accrued by private companies, who would be using the NHS facilities.  Also, it runs the risk of pulling low risk women (and their funding) out of the NHS pot, which leaves less money available for women with more complicated pregnancies, who would have to rely on NHS services if they weren’t a good candidate for low-risk private midwifery care.  There is a lot of thoughtful commentary out there on why a £3000 birth budget might not be such a good idea. For one thing, in some areas (such as London), £3000 wouldn’t fully cover the costs of hiring a private midwife, and my understanding is that the NHS has put provisions in place which would prevent women from taking the NHS budget and then supplementing it with their own money in order to purchase more expensive care. Also, women using these birth budgets can only use them on private midwives who have been contracted by the NHS, which means that they couldn’t use the budget to help pay for the services of a self-employed independent midwife working outside of the NHS. And in fact, the fate of the self-employed independent midwife (i.e. a private midwife who works outside of the NHS, and works for herself rather than being employed by a private company, such as Neighbourhood Midwives) is very uncertain at the moment anyway, thanks to an incredibly obtuse decision by the NMC (but that’s a conversation for a different day, certainly).

In my mind (and on my wish-list) is the option where the NHS is fully funded, the shortage of 5,000 midwives in the NHS is filled, and women are given true informed choice about the type of care and services they would like to have, including case-loading and one-to-one midwifery care, i.e. continuity of care and carer.  This is something the NHS has struggled to provide, and something that women are clamoring for.  When there is a shortage of midwives and a budget crisis, I suspect there isn’t enough staff to truly provide that kind of care in numbers that aren’t overwhelming to the individual midwife. I’ve already spoken to many NHS midwives in my very brief tenure so far who have discussed how they used to case-load, but over time found it to be too exhausting, so they switched to a different modality. Or about how home birth services that provided case-loading care gradually disappeared when the core midwives who were part of the team became burned out or fed up or too exhausted to continue, and no new midwives wanted to take on the role. Imagine how different a service like that would look if it was staffed in such a way that a midwife could personally attend…I dunno…20-35 births per year, tops, and truly give each woman the fullness of her time and energy and attention through their entire antenatal/ labour/ postnatal journey, while still feeling like she had down-time and time for self-care and time to see her family. Imagine what maternity care in a world like that would look like!

But I know well enough that this is wishful thinking. I’m not sure what the right solution is here. Women want (and absolutely deserve) individualised, unhurried care from the same midwife throughout their pregnancy, birth and postnatal period–and rightly so! If this can’t be provided by the NHS, I understand why women would try to seek out that type of care privately, and also why the beleaguered NHS might think that contracting private midwives to provide it is a good idea. But I also know that there are thousands and thousands of excellent NHS midwives who also long to be able to provide that type of care in the first place, and if they could work in a system that allowed for case-loading and continuity of carer in a humane model that didn’t require each individual midwife to completely drain herself dry, there would be no need to contract private midwives in the first place.  Where do we go from here? It will be very interesting to see how these birth budgets are working out in the pioneer trusts, and whether they can actually create the kind of change their creators are hoping for.



Holding Space

Holding Space

Recently, a good friend of mine, Elizabeth Purvis, who works in a magical, nurturing, life-coaching space (she would term it manifesting, I’m pretty sure) posed a very simple, but pithy, question: “What does it mean to hold space?”  And just this very evening, I was tagged in a post giving compliments and shout-outs to beloved midwives, and the idea of holding space bubbled to the surface again in my response. I’m taking it as a sign that the Universe is telling me I really need to write a thing or two about this idea of holding space, so here goes!

What DOES it mean to hold space for someone?

In one of the best articles I’ve read about this to date, the author, Heather Plett, defines it in this way:

[Holding space] means that we are willing to walk alongside another person in whatever journey they’re on without judging them, making them feel inadequate, trying to fix them, or trying to impact the outcome. When we hold space for other people, we open our hearts, offer unconditional support, and let go of judgement and control.

Heather then goes on to explain eight things which a person does when they’re “holding space” for someone, including giving people permission to trust their own intuition and wisdom, only giving as much information as the person can handle, ensuring that they keep their power through the process (or in other words, not taking their power away from them), keeping our own ego out of it, making them feel safe enough to fail, giving guidance and help with humility and thoughtfulness, creating a container for complex emotions, fear, trauma etc., and allowing people to make different decisions and have different experiences than we would choose for ourselves.

Which means, to my way of thinking, that midwives are the original space holders! (And, for the record, although I am writing this post with midwives in mind, holding space at a birth is in no way the sole purview of midwives! Doulas, nurses, doctors, partners and family members can also be exemplary space holders! The pictures for this post are taken from my first labour, and the woman seen in each of these photos–watching, murmuring, encouraging, pouring water over me, massaging hour after endless hour–was my good friend and beloved doula, Kristen, who held space for me like no one’s business through fifty. six. hours. of labour. I would have been lost without her, and still to this day cannot thank her enough for what she did for me.)

Holding space is what midwives do, day in and day out. When I read a woman’s birth plan, I’m always very conscious of the fact that I’m holding a woman’s hopes and dreams in my hand, which is no small thing to be entrusted with. We all know that birth plans don’t always go according to plan, but as a midwife you’re a facilitator, keeping the woman’s desires and expectations foremost in your mind while helping her to navigate the journey that she’s on. You’re the guide, the translator, the sherpa. You can read the environment and terrain, you have a map, and as you’re traveling with her, your job can include any of the following: reassurance, support, course correction, managing expectations, cheerleading, nonverbal cues, preventing interruptions, creating silence, actively listening, validating, explaining, teaching and demonstrating.  If the birth veers away from the hopes and dreams and expectations, the manner in which you support a woman through the transition has a resounding, life-long impact on her. Research has demonstrated this again and again: if care is delivered in a compassionate and respectful way, if a woman feels like she was listened to and was part of the decision making, if true informed consent is given, then the woman can come away from a birth still feeling empowered and whole even if none of it went according to “plan”. If respect is lacking, if imbalanced power-dynamics are at play, if decisions are made without input, if actions occur without explanation afterwards (not to mention thorough, supportive debriefing), then a woman often comes away from her birth feeling disappointed (at best) or traumatised (at worst). And we know these feelings carry into the immediate postpartum period, which not only increases the risk of postnatal depression, but also shapes the woman’s identity as a mother, and impacts her agency and her belief in herself, which in turn has a knock-on effect on her children as well. Again, no small thing to be entrusted with! Doing this well means choosing your words very carefully. Planting seeds without being proscriptive. Breaking news at just the right moment, in just the right way, without overwhelming the couple. It’s constantly walking a tight-rope, a balancing act of myriad pushes and pulls–energy levels, personalities, non-reassuring fetal heart tracings, medical realities, hospital policies, staffing levels. It’s knowing that every room in the birthing center is full, so best not to mention the birthing tub that she can’t have. When you start to think about the complexities, it all begins to feel quite daunting, and yet the best midwives I know feel like their work is a calling rather than a job, and love their work so fiercely that (almost) they would do the work for free (and to be honest, I think this is something the NHS is well aware of, and takes advantage of to the fullest, which is not a good thing by any means).

And you’re holding space not just for the woman, but for the partner as well, who is on their own journey from partner to parent, and often needs encouragement and guidance on how to better hold space for the woman too.  It’s hard to watch someone you love going through pain and doing something so difficult, and this can sometimes make partners feel helpless, scared and even guilty.  I’m sure many other birth workers can speak about births they’ve been at where the partner wasn’t holding space in a helpful way, and how a simple word–maybe try rubbing her like this…I don’t think she can answer those questions right now…why don’t you sit here and then she can lean back against you in between contractions…would she like a sip of water [handing water bottle to partner, so that they can then offer it to the woman]…speaking in whispers if peace and quiet is called for…demonstrating through your own example how best to support her–can make a big difference in a partner’s ability to more optimally support their loved one. And then, of course, there are those moments when the love is so beautiful and present in the room that you feel privileged just to be able to witness it, and no input from you is even needed. I can think of many such moments at births which even now can bring tears to my eyes when I recall them. A toddler telling her mother that she’s doing great. A partner making his girlfriend laugh in between contractions which otherwise have her crying in pain.  A husband telling his wife that her vulva is every bit as beautiful now as it was before the difficult repair she just had (I kid you not, this is actually something I overheard at a birth; talk about knowing just the right thing to say at just the right moment!).

Holding space as a midwife means creating an environment where the woman in labour feels safe, able to do or say whatever she wants, growl or pace or moan in whatever way feels right, but also an environment where she feels protected and contained (and hopefully in such a way that this protection and containment is invisible and completely non-intrusive). If I’m doing my job well, I’m the safety net, the life-guard on duty, watching and observing but for the most part doing very little.  If I’m doing my job well, I can create an environment where the woman feels free to listen to her body, to follow her own instincts and labour in the way that seems best to her, ideally supported by her partner and support team more than by me.

Holding space also means seeing the big picture for the woman. She is lost in her labour, moving from one contraction to the next, unable to see in front of her, or behind her. It means supporting her in the moment when she is convinced that she can’t do it–even when you know she still has a long way ahead of her, and things are only going to get harder. It means telling her, sometimes again and again, after every contraction, that yes, she can do it. Yes, she IS doing it. Yes, she can. Yes, she IS. It means having faith–faith in the woman’s body, faith in normal birth, faith in her strength, in her perseverance, in her ability to push her baby out–and holding that faith for her even in the moments she she has lost her faith. It’s like shining a torch for her, a light in the distance that she can walk towards, a voice calling her when she’s lost in the maze of labour. It’s knowing that YES, she can do it, and never wavering in that belief, even when she is convinced that she can’t. You can’t do the work for her, but you know that she can do the work for herself. You give her the gift of that faith, and when the woman does climb the impossible mountain that she was convinced she couldn’t climb, afterwards she feels like she can do anything. The faith you held for her becomes a truth that she believes about herself. That is what you’re holding.

Holding space is also protective. Birth is wildly unpredictable, and uncontrollable. Birth plans don’t always go to plan. Hopes and desires for specific outcomes can be trampled. The baby sometimes has very different ideas about the manner in which s/he would like to be born! And sometimes there are true emergencies which require quick, focused action with very little time for communication until after the fact. Sometimes holding space is about preserving a woman’s dignity through the chaos. Sometimes it’s about literally giving her something to hold onto–a hand as you race back for an emergency cesarean, a familiar voice that she can hear through the beeping machines and commotion. Holding space means giving a woman time to grieve and process (after the fact) and a warm, non-judgemental listening ear to allow her to debrief. Postnatal listening and letting a woman tell you her birth story (and sometimes she needs to tell it over and over) can help her to understand and contain the experience.

Which brings me back to two of my favourite quotes about midwifery (and about holding space), from the Tao te Ching, written by Lao Tzu in 5th Century BC China:

The midwife completes her work by doing nothing. She teaches without saying a word. Things arise and she lets them come. Things leave and she lets them go. Creating, not possessing. Working, yet laying no claim. And when her work is done she forgets about it, and it lasts forever.


Imagine that you are a midwife.  You are assisting at someone else’s birth.  Do good without show or fuss.  Facilitate what is happening rather than what you think ought to be happening.

If you must take the lead, lead so that the woman is helped yet still free and in charge.  When the baby is born, the woman will rightly say: “We did it ourselves”.

What does holding space mean to you?


The Pinard Stethoscope

The Pinard Stethoscope

So here’s something that will be pretty mind-boggling for my UK readers: in the US, the Pinard stethoscope doesn’t really exist, at least not in any of the midwifery circles I travelled in.  NO ONE used it.  I’d never seen one or even heard of it until I moved here and started midwifery school (in fact, the only mention I can find of it in any of my American midwifery books–including my American midwifery textbooks–is a brief mention of it on page 112 in Ina May Gaskin’s Birth Matters, where it’s called the Pinard Horn rather than the Pinard stethoscope).  So you can imagine my surprise when I discovered that here in the UK, the Pinard stethoscope is a beloved midwifery tool, so much so that it serves as the logo for the Association of Radical Midwives, and beautiful wooden models are often given to newly qualified midwives as graduation gifts. Nearly every UK midwife owns a Pinard stethoscope–many of them even own several–and if that doesn’t convince you of its importance, it’s one of the first things Jenny pulls out of her midwifery bag during her visits on Call the Midwife.

All of this was news to me, though, as the closest thing we have to the Pinard stethoscope in the US is a fetoscope, which looks like this:

And you can see America’s most famous midwife, Ina May Gaskin, using a fetoscope here:

However, when I brought my American-style fetoscope to antenatal visits to show to my mentor, she was rather shocked, as she’d never seen one before. We then spent the afternoon experimenting with the Pinard stethoscope v. the fetoscope for auscultation of the fetal heart. I found that I could hear the fetal heartbeat more clearly with the fetoscope, while she preferred the Pinard. Go figure! But it was a very interesting experiment, and generally the pregnant women who so graciously allowed us to practice auscultation on their beautiful bellies were amused by the whole thing.

Since I knew virtually nothing about the Pinard stethoscope, and since as a student here in the UK we’re required to become proficient with its use as per the standards for pre-registration midwifery education (NMC, 2009), I thought it would be a good topic to write about for my first midwifery school essay assignment (which, interestingly enough, are called “assessments” here, rather than “essays”, just for the record). So, having written 15 pages on the subject now, and having tried my hand at it multiple times in the clinical setting, I have a bit more of a clue with regards to this ancient and much-revered midwifery tool, which I’m going to share here (you lucky devils, you!).

The Pinard stethoscope is a small 6-8” hollow, funnel-shaped tube often made of wood, metal or plastic, with the larger end placed against the woman’s abdomen and the auscultator’s ear placed against the smaller end (Harrison, 2004). In pregnancy, the Pinard stethoscope can be used from approximately 24 weeks onwards to auscultate the fetal heart during antenatal visits, and can be used in labour as a tool for intermittent auscultation (Johnson & Taylor, 2016). The very first monoaural stethoscope was invented in 1819 René Laennec, and was basically a long wooden tube which the auscultator would place against the patient’s chest wall, with his/her ear placed against the other end (although who’re we kidding…in 1819, it was most likely a man’s ear on the listening end).  Prior to Laennec’s invention of the monoaural stethoscope, fetal auscultation was performed by the examiner placing his (or her) ear directly against the woman’s skin and listening through her abdomen, a practice which required a large degree of intimacy between patient and practitioner, and which (you can imagine) may have been particularly discomfiting to 19th Century sensibilities (Montagu, 2008; Blincoe, 2005). The Laennec stethoscope afforded a measure of distance between patient and practitioner, helping to preserve the dignity of both, and in 1821, Laennec’s colleague, Jacques Kergaradec, applied the newly invented stethoscope to fetal auscultation for the very first time (Pinkerton, 1969). John Creery Ferguson brought fetal auscultation to the British Isles after studying in Paris with Laennec and Kergaradec, where the practice quickly took root at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin, gradually spreading to the rest of the UK from there (Pinkerton, 1980; Harrison, 2004). The Laennec stethoscope underwent modifications by Holh in 1834, and was finally refined by Adolfe Pinard in 1896 into the current model (Harrison, 2004; Dunn, 2006). The Pinard stethoscope transmits fetal heart sounds more clearly through the long bore of the tube than the more ubiquitous binaural stethoscope which we commonly see slung around practitioner’s necks, which is one of the reasons it still remains in use as a modern obstetric tool today (Montagu, 2008). And, since the advent of the Midwives Act in 1902 here in the UK, proficiency with the Pinard stethoscope been taught to midwives in the United Kingdom for over a century now.

So why use a Pinard stethoscope? What are the advantages to it, versus the more common doppler (which uses ultrasound technology)? And how does Pinard use slot into general antenatal and intrapartum care here in the UK? Good questions, and as luck would have it, this was exactly what I was writing about in my essay!

At its most basic level, the rationale underpinning fetal auscultation is to confirm the presence or absence of a fetal heart rate (FHR) and to assess fetal well-being (Johnson & Taylor, 2016). According to the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE) Guidelines (sort of the US’ NIH equivalent), there is limited benefit from routine FHR auscultation during antenatal visits, particularly in the presence of fetal movement, since “auscultation of the fetal heart may confirm that the fetus is alive but is unlikely to have any predictive value, and routine listening is therefore not recommended” (NICE, 2008). Nevertheless, NICE supports antenatal FHR auscultation if the mother requests it, and for better or worse, FHR auscultation has become an expected and routine part of antenatal care these days–I couldn’t imagine an antenatal visit in which a mother didn’t want to hear her baby’s heartbeat (once the pregnancy had advanced to the point that this is possible). In labour, FHR auscultation is recommended throughout in order to monitor fetal well-being and the fetal response to contractions (Johnson & Taylor, 2016). The NICE Intrapartum Care for Healthy Women and Babies Guideline (2014) recommends intermittent auscultation every fifteen minutes in the first stage and every five minutes in the second stage for all low-risk women in labour, with continuous cardiotocography (CTG–i.e. electronic fetal monitoring, in US speak) used only in high-risk women, or in situations where intermittent auscultation reveals a non-reassuring FHR pattern or other emerging risk factors (NICE, 2014).

The use of the Pinard stethoscope as a primary tool for fetal auscultation is supported by both NICE and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM). In its 2012 guideline on intermittent auscultation in labour, the RCM recommends that the Pinard stethoscope be used to initially auscultate the FHR before switching to hand-held Doppler or CTG (i.e. electronic fetal monitoring) in order to ensure that the fetal heart is being recorded accurately (RCM, 2012).  This is because unfortunately the Doppler is capable of picking up “artifact” and doubling or halving the maternal heart rate by mistake, and in many tragic situations Doppler ultrasound can falsely reassure both parents and practitioners that the baby is alive and well, when in fact that’s not the case (and many UK stores recently banned the sale of hand-held dopplers to customers because of this very thing).  Using a Pinard stethoscope first to confirm the presence of the fetal heart helps to limit this mistake, and in fact, the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency here in the UK has issued an advisory on CTG which calls for the Pinard stethoscope to be used initially and at any other point when a change in FHR or concern in labour arises, in order to prevent monitoring the wrong heart beat (MHRA, 2010).  NICE also specifies that either the Pinard stethoscope or Doppler ultrasound be used for the initial assessment of a woman in labour, rather than CTG, and that the Pinard is a valid tool for intermittent auscultation throughout labour (NICE, 2014).

There are many advantages to using the Pinard stethoscope. First of all, as mentioned above, the Pinard stethoscope allows the midwife to listen to the FHR directly, unlike Doppler technology which uses ultrasound technology “to evaluate changes in sound waves caused by the direction and velocity of blood flowing through vessels and the heart” (Blincoe, 2005) and which can sometimes get it wrong and pick up the maternal heart rate by mistake.  Many experienced practitioners also find that they are able to hear not only variability with a Pinard, but also differences in tone and rhythm which can be ascribed to differences in individual babies (ARM, 2000; Wickham, 2002a; Cronk, 2002), and in fact there have been reports of midwives being able to pick up congenital heart defects through the subtle changes in rate they were able to detect with the Pinard (ARM, 2000). The Pinard stethoscope may also help support the woman in her role as the expert on her baby (Young, 1999; Montagu, 2007). “The current fashion for selling Dopplers to pregnant women implies that artificial monitoring is in some way protective; instead, it disempowers women and casts implicit doubt on their ability to be conscious of their own baby’s well-being through …awareness of the baby’s movements” (Montagu, 2008, p. 3). In other words, we should all be working harder to support and empower women to feel like THEY are the experts on their babies (because they are) and reaffirming again and again that the biggest predictor of fetal well-being is fetal movement. If you can’t hear the FHR because the baby is moving too much–no problem! You know that the baby is absolutely fine, in that situation (although, unfortunately thanks the to the pressures of litigation, as a midwife these days you would still have to find and record the fetal heart rate, otherwise your care will be deemed sub-standard, and certainly wouldn’t hold up in a court of law).  The low-tech Pinard stethoscope exemplifies the art and essence of midwifery care, and is particularly valuable in the developing world where resources are more limited (Mahomed et. al., 1994). Similarly, there will always be women in the developed world who will decline ultrasound technology, and since it’s imperative that midwives respect a woman’s choices as per the NMC Code (2015) and the Better Births Initiative (National Maternity Review, 2016), the Pinard stethoscope offers a much needed alternative to the Doppler!

However, in practice, the Pinard stethoscope has several disadvantages as well.  First, it’s not easy to use in labour, particularly if the woman is moving around or assuming different positions, such as on hands and knees (Blake, 2008; Harrison, 2004). Second, the Pinard stethoscope can only be used from 24-28 weeks onward, whereas the Doppler can detect the FHR as early as 10 wks (Blake, 2008), which is a big advantage to the Doppler in many women’s books, since naturally many women want to hear their baby’s heart beat as early as possible. There is also concern that accurate FHR auscultation can only be achieved by a highly-skilled practitioner who is expert with the tool, and that the average user is not as accurate (Blake, 2008)–and I can certainly attest to that, as the Pinard stethoscope is quite tricky to use in the beginning.  Additionally, a randomised control trial (RCT) comparing Pinard stethoscope to Doppler or CTG found that the Pinard was the least successful in identifying abnormal FHR patterns (Mahomed et. al., 1994). You can’t use the Pinard stethoscope in the water, which means if you’re monitoring a woman with Pinards alone, she’d have to get out of her birth tub every time you needed to listen, which isn’t very practical.  Finally, women have reported that the use of the Pinard stethoscope in labour is more uncomfortable than the Doppler, particularly if you can only use the Pinard while she’s on her back; additionally, you sometimes have to press quite firmly with the Pinards in order to be able to hear the FHR, which again can be very uncomfortable in labour.  Overall, studies have shown that women tend to prefer Doppler or CTG monitoring instead of the Pinard stethoscope, as being able to hear the heart themselves provides them with more reassurance (Garcia et. al., 1985; ARM, 2000).

And in practice, what is it actually like? Well, rather tricky. It took me several tries with it before I could finally hear the fetal heart. It’s often a very faint sound, and in many cases I don’t really “hear” it at all, but instead almost “feel” it against my ear as a vibration, something which Mary Cronk has written about as well (Cronk, 2002). It also requires that you’re SPOT ON with your abdominal palpation, as you really have to be right on top of the fetal heart in order to be able to hear it (whereas the Doppler is a bit more forgiving, and can allow you to pick up the heart rate even if you’re not exactly in the right location).  This means that the Pinard is a lot more difficult to use in situations where the baby is fully engaged, breech or posterior, as well as in situations where it’s difficult to determine the baby’s position due to the mum having a higher BMI. On the flip side, however, because precise abdominal palpation is a prerequisite skill for using the Pinard stethoscope, many midwives will use the Pinard to help confirm that their assessment of fetal position is correct, and sometimes see this as an advantage to its use (Cronk, 2002; Montague, 2008; Wickham, 2002a).

All in all, there’s something really special about the Pinard stethoscope, and I’m very glad that I’ve had the opportunity to learn how to use it.  I like it because of its historical significance, as well as its low-tech simplicity. I also like that there’s a real art to its use that only comes from experience and continued skill development. To me it represents a true skill that must be learned and practiced many, many times in order to attain mastery, and is something I’ll have to continue to practice and refine for the remaining years of my career.  Now that I’m on my rotation in the Birthing Center, I’ve been relying on the Doppler more, particularly as we’ve been using the pools a lot and it’s impossible to use the Pinard in a pool, but I would absolutely like try the Pinard in labour as well. I would like to someday be as comfortable and proficient with the Pinard as I am with the Doppler–it’s worth aspiring to, at any rate!



Association of Radical Midwives (ARM). (2000) ‘Hearing Variability’, Midwifery Matters, (84) [no page numbers].

Blake, D. (2008) ‘Pinards: out of use and out of date?’, British Journal of Midwifery, 16(6), pp. 364-365.

Blincoe, A. J. (2005) ‘Fetal monitoring challengs and choices for midwives’, British Journal of Midwifery, 13(2), ppp. 108-111.

Cronk, M. (2002) Me and my Pinard’s. Midwifery Matters, (94), pp. 3-4.

Dunn, P.M. (2006) ‘Adolphe Pinard (1844-1934) of Paris and intrauterine paediatric care’, Archives of Disease in Childhood, Fetal & Neonatal Edition, 91(3), pp. 79-85.

Garcia, J. et al. (1985) ‘Mother’s Views of continuous electronic fetal heart monitoring and intermittent auscultation in a randomized controlled trial.’ Birth, 12(2), pp. 79-85.

Harrison, J. (2004) ‘Auscultation: the art of listening’, RCM Midwives, 7(2), pp. 64-69.

Johnson, R. and Taylor, W. (2016) Skills for Midwifery Practice. 4th Edition. London: Elsevier.

Mahomed, K., Nyoni, R., Mulambo, T., Kasule, J. and Jacobus, E. (1994) ‘Randomised controlled trial of intrapartum fetal heart rate monitoring’, British Medical Journal, 308(6927), pp. 497-500.

Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) (2010) Fetal Monitor/ Cardiotograph (CTG) – Adverse Outcomes Still Reported. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2017)

Montagu, S. (2008) In defense of the Pinard. Midwifery Matters, (118), pp. 3-4.

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (2008) Antenatal Care for Uncomplicated Pregnancies. (Clinical Guideline CG 62). Available at: (Accessed: 19 May 2017)

National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) (2014) Intrapartum Care for Healthy Women and Babies. (Clinical Guideline CG 190). Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2017)

Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) (2009) Standards for pre-registration midwifery education. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2017)

Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) (2015) The Code. Available at: (Accessed: 15 May 2017)

Pinkerton, J.H.M (1969) ‘Kergaradec, Friend of Laennec and Pioneer of Foetal Auscultation’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 62(5), pp. 477-483.

Pinkerton, J.H.M (1980) ‘John Creery Ferguson: Friend of William Stokes and pioneer of auscultation of hte fetal heart in the British Isles’, British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 87(4), pp.257-260.

Royal College of Midwives (RCM) (2012) Evidence Based Guidelines for Midwifery-Led Care in Labour: Intermittent Auscultation. Available at: (Accessed: 11 May 2017)

Wickham, S. (2002a) ‘Pinard wisdom: tips and tricks from midwives (Part 1)’ Practising Midwife, 5(9), pp. 21.

Wickham, S. (2002b) ‘Pinard wisdom: tips and tricks from midwives (Part 2)’ Practising Midwife, 5(10), pp. 35.

Young, G. (1999) ‘The case for community-based maternity care’, in Marsh, G. and Renfrew, M. (eds.) Community-based Maternity Care. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 7-26.

Safe Co-Sleeping

Safe Co-Sleeping

Unfortunately, there is a very sad article making the rounds on Facebook and several of my news feeds at the moment about a 7 week old baby who tragically died while bed-sharing with his mother. I don’t want to minimise this terrible loss in any way whatsoever, and I completely understand this mother’s desire to share what happened to her child with others as a way of trying to prevent such a tragedy from occurring again (and I can’t even imagine her heartbreak she must be feeling).  However, a lot of the information in this article is not evidence based, and it’s piling a whole lot of fear onto the words “bed sharing”, which isn’t helping when there’s already so much fear and misinformation out there in the first place. (I’ll put a link to this article at the bottom of this post so you can read it for yourself if you want).

First, the article doesn’t mention if this mum made a deliberate choice to co-sleep with her baby, and had therefore baby-proofed her sleep environment with that in mind, or if instead she had accidentally fallen asleep with her baby in her bed. We know that accidentally falling asleep with a baby in an unsafe sleep environment is much more dangerous than making the sleeping environment safe, and planning on sleeping with your baby in your bed. The mum doesn’t say that she was co-sleeping or bed sharing. She says that she fell asleep with her baby, and the baby slipped off the breast.  These are two very different scenarios.

We don’t know if this mum was exclusively breastfeeding or not. The recommendations we do have make it very clear that co-sleeping should only be done in an exclusively breastfeeding relationship. Even one or two bottles of artificial baby milk a day can put babies into a deeper sleeping pattern that is harder for them to rouse from, and it also weakens the mum’s instinctual awareness of her baby in bed with her.

Waking up repeatedly to breastfeed a baby and accidentally passing out from exhaustion in a chair or on a couch is actually much more dangerous for your baby than deliberately planning on co-sleeping safely with them.  There are hormones released during breastfeeding which are designed to help both you and your baby to fall asleep, so it’s very common to nod off while breastfeeding. It’s better to plan for this occurrence to happen in a safe environment, rather than fighting against sleep (and most likely losing the battle) propped up in a chair or on a couch.

Also, the title of the article itself makes it sound like *breastfeeding* was the reason that this baby died, when actually it wasn’t the breastfeeding, it was unplanned bed sharing. In reality, all the evidence we have tells us that exclusively breastfeeding is some of the best protection we have against Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).

The article keeps linking to a article as evidence, saying things like “experts have found…”. Unfortunately, are not experts on co-sleeping, bed sharing or breastfeeding. Professor Helen Ball and Dr. James McKenna are experts on co-sleeping.

And finally, we need to remember that co-sleeping is not a “trend”. Parents aren’t doing this because it’s cool. They’re doing this because it’s the biological norm for our human species, and the way that we’re supposed to feed our human babies. It’s also the best way to get more sleep as an exhausted new parent, IF you’re exclusively breastfeeding, and IF you make the sleeping environment safe.

So how do you safely co-sleep?

In a nutshell: you need to be exclusively breastfeeding, make sure the mattress is firm and not something you sink into, and that any cracks between the headboard and wall are packed with rolled up towels or clothing so there are no gaps. Duvets and pillows need to be kept well away from the baby (including snoozepods and snugglers and sleep positioners), and the baby should zipped into a sleep sack rather than swaddled, with their head uncovered (and their arms free) The temperature of the room should be about 18 degrees Celsius, and the baby should be dressed appropriately so that they don’t overheat. The baby needs to have been born at term, and should be placed on his/her back to sleep. And obviously, mum and dad both need to be nonsmokers and sober.

Want better evidence than my word alone? Professor Helen Ball’s research from Durham University is one of the best places to start. She has a fantastic website you can visit which talks more about where babies sleep, and how to make their sleeping environment safe.

La Leche League has a check-list you can use as well, called The Safe Sleep 7.  La Leche League also has great article called Safe Sleep and the Breastfed Baby.

Dr. James McKenna, director of the Mother-Baby Sleep Laboratory at the University of Notre Dame, also has an excellent guideline on how to make the sleeping environment safe.

And finally, if you are an exhausted new parent who is combination feeding (i.e. breastmilk and artificial baby milk) and wanting to co-sleep but unable to do so because of these guidelines, putting the baby in a side-car cot that attaches next to the bed (so that they have their own separate sleeping environment while still being very close to you) is a good option, or else a bassinet close to your bed. You could also look into using a baby box in your bed with you, which research from Finland is supporting (although if you’re going to use a baby box, there shouldn’t be any extra padding, blankets, bumpers or pillows with the baby, just a baby and a zippered sleep-sack).

(And finally, the article in question can be found here.)