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Category: Informed Choice

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). 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).

 

References:

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: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD007412.pub4/full (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: https://www.figo.org/sites/default/files/ICM-FIGO%20Joint%20Statement%20English.pdf (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: https://www.npeu.ox.ac.uk/downloads/files/mbrrace-uk/reports/MBRRACE-UK%20Maternal%20Report%202016%20-%20website.pdf  (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: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg190 (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: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/14651858.CD000007.pub2/full (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: https://www.rcm.org.uk/sites/default/files/Third%20Stage%20of%20Labour.pdf (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: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/1471-0528.14178/epdf (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: http://apps.who.int/iris/bitstream/10665/75411/1/9789241548502_eng.pdf (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.

 

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?

 

Sleep and “Self-Soothing” Roundup

Sleep and “Self-Soothing” Roundup

There is so much conflicting information out there on sleep, and so many messages you’ll hear on why having your baby “sleep through the night” is the holy grail of parenting and that if your baby isn’t hitting this milestone by (insert whatever age you like here), it’s a disaster or they’re not a good baby or you’re not a good mother or you’re allowing them to create bad habits etc. etc.  But the truth is that every baby is unique, sleep needs vary tremendously between kiddos, and learning to “sleep through the night” is a developmental milestone that you can’t really force a baby to hit before they’re ready, just like you can’t force them to sit up or crawl before they’re ready. Also, it’s important to remember that even as adults we wake up several times in a night (because we’re thirsty, or hot, or cold, or have to use the toilet, or had a bad dream, or heard a loud noise, or are stressed about something, or uncomfortable, or or or…), but the difference is that as adults we have learned to roll over, self-soothe and go back to sleep. Babies are still learning this skill.  It takes years for them to fully master it, and until they do, they often still need our help, input and reassurance to fall back asleep. Meeting a baby’s needs is not “creating bad habits”; it’s being responsive and attentive to the baby’s needs, which in the long run will create more security and independence.

Strangely enough, discussing sleep and self-soothing is a very “controversial” topic. On parenting boards and facebook groups and public forums, there are strong advocates for sleep training, using either “controlled crying”, “gradual extinction” or “crying-it-out” (CIO) methods as a way of teaching a baby to sleep through the night. There are equally strong advocates against these methods. Because every parent is exhausted (EXHAUSTED!), there is an unending market for books, sleep gurus and training methods as desperate parents (understandably) look for ways to get more sleep. And not surprisingly, the message you get from mainstream sources, news articles and “how to get your baby to sleep” books suggest that a baby who isn’t sleeping through the night by (insert whatever age you like here) is a problem that needs to be fixed. But what I am more interested in looking at is the actual science behind these differing approaches. Research into sleep, such as what Professor Helen Ball at the University of Durham is doing through the Infant Sleep and Information Source, is still a relatively new field, but there is a growing body of evidence which is beginning to refute the claims of the many (insanely popular) sleep experts and authors and gurus who recommend this or that sleep training technique.  The following is a round-up of some of these articles.   

First, Sarah Ockwell Smith has a great article on realistic sleep expectations for babies. As you can see, there is A LOT of normal variation in this, and even if one baby is ready to sleep through the night at 8 months, another baby might not be ready to do so at all. Each kiddo is unique and has different needs. 

Sarah Ockwell Smith also has a good article on what’s really happening when you teach a baby to “self-soothe”. Unfortunately, sleep training methods don’t really teach our babies to self-soothe. This is a developmental skill which they can only learn with time and maturity. Instead, it teaches a baby to stop signaling her distress. Babies are smart and they very quickly learn that if crying doesn’t bring a response, it would be better to conserve their energy instead and not use a method that doesn’t work. A study done in 2012 by Middlemiss et. al. monitored the cortisol levels (i.e. stress levels) in 25 mom+baby pairs and found that at the beginning of the study, the mom and baby were synchronised in their stress response, meaning that when the baby was stressed and signaled this to the mother, the mother responded to this with a rising cortisol level of her own. In other words, if baby was distressed, mom was distressed, and their cortisol levels were in sync. By Day 3 of the study, after using a gradual extinction sleep training method, the researchers found that the baby was no longer exhibiting stressed behaviour, but the baby was still distressed (as demonstrated by high cortisol levels). Meanwhile, because the baby was no longer signaling its distress, the mom’s cortisol levels had decreased, indicating that she was no longer in sync with her baby (at least in terms of cortisol levels).

Calm Family wrote a very detailed response to the BBC One’s recent airing of Panorama, Sleepless Britain, which addresses many of the ways “sleep issues” are portrayed in the media.

The Analytical Armadillo, another IBCLC blogger, has also written a good analysis on what happens during self-soothing, and that even though it works (and it does work), it’s not necessarily harmless.

Evolutionary Parenting looks at the science behind exposing our kids to stress, and what’s actually going on neurochemically in their brains when this happens. 

Uncommonjohn also looks at the science behind self-soothing

The Milk Meg writes about the many reasons our babies wake so frequently in the night.  

And while this doesn’t actually get into the science behind it, Mama Bean Parenting documents quite…succinctly…the many, many, many messages we receive in our society which tell us that a baby that doesn’t sleep through the night is a “problem”.

Finally, Dr. Sears has some good suggestions on ways to get more sleep without using CIO methods, as does Dr. Jay Gordon in this article. The Milk Meg also has some ideas on ways to gently night-wean breastfeeding babies.

And one final disclaimer, since I know this is an incredibly sensitive subject for many parents. I understand the desperate need, the overwhelming desire, to somehow find a way to get more sleep! We’ve all been there. Many of us are still “there”.  Parenting is exhausting, and waking frequently with our babies in the night is not at all conducive to our modern lifestyles. I absolutely get it. And I have many clients and friends who have used sleep training methods, sometimes with very good results–hell, I’ve attempted a few of these methods myself with my first son out of sheer desperation (but wasn’t able to follow through with them). I am in no way judging the reasons why parents might turn to these methods, and I have nothing but empathy for the desperate exhaustion that makes these methods seem like the only answer. Getting more sleep is a positive thing for everyone involved, and allows us to be better parents, and in our bleary, sleep-deprived states figuring out how to get more sleep seems all-consuming and anything promising a quick fix seems like mana from heaven. But it’s important that we as parents do careful research and make informed decisions before deciding on a parenting course of action. Our media and society is saturated with messages about sleep and ways to “fix” it, and nearly all of these messages usually recommend some form of sleep training. That is one side of the debate. All of the articles I have posted here are the other side. It’s important to understand both sides before making an informed choice.

As a midwife, asking “Is your baby waking regularly and feeding regularly?” is a much more supportive and useful question for new parents instead of “Is your baby sleeping through the night?”. Most likely, a normal and healthy baby who’s feeding regularly and growing well will NOT be sleeping through the night, so rather than make parents feel like there’s something wrong, it’s much better to emphasise what’s absolutely right about this scenario. And then look for other ways to support exhausted parents to sneak a bit more sleep into their lives.

It’s ALL Happening: Midwifery Seminar, Timetables, Bursary Approved!

It’s ALL Happening: Midwifery Seminar, Timetables, Bursary Approved!

It’s all starting to get very, very real! I went to my new university on Friday to attend a midwifery seminar, which they hold every 6 months or so. It was a fantastic morning listening to some very interesting speakers and topics (I’ll give you a run-down below). I also received my student timetable for the first year of the course (let’s just say….lots and lots of work ahead, and very few holidays), and yesterday I also got a notice from the NHS that my fees-only bursary has been approved. What a huge relief that is! And for the record, I am an incredibly lucky student, as I am part of THE VERY LAST COHORT of incoming midwifery students who will be eligible to receive an NHS bursary. Starting in Aug. 2017, all incoming midwifery and nursing students will have to pay for their education (to the tune of 9,000 GBP per term), whereas if you are lucky enough to begin your education under the old scheme (as I am), your fees will be covered for your entire course (i.e. 3 years worth of education). As you can imagine, there are a lot of organizations (most notably, the RCM and RCN) which were quite distressed about this change, as it may limit the numbers of incoming student nurses and midwives and destabilize the future of maternity care in the UK. I am not entirely convinced about this, as midwifery and nursing education has ALWAYS been paid for by students in the US, without detrimental effects on the number of students choosing to enter these professions (but obviously coming out with lots and lots of student debt at the end of their education, which isn’t necessarily a good thing at all). In any case, though, as an American student approaching midwifery education here in the UK, I must admit that I am absolutely floored (flabbergasted! Amazed! Delighted!) that my education will be covered by the NHS, as I would never in a million years dream of free tuition in the States for any degree. It feels completely surreal to me, especially as I spent years and years paying off my student debt from my US midwifery and nursing education. And I am counting my lucky stars that I am slipping in just under the wire and will have my fees covered, but at the same time saddened that this incredible system–a system that values a student’s time and energy, and understands that properly educated professionals require investment–is being dismantled.

I met a few of the students who will be in my course, though, as well as a few of the professors, and everyone was incredibly kind and welcoming. I even met a third year student who gave me her phone number (unprompted by me!) and told me that I could get in touch with her at any point if I needed help. What a kind thing to do, and such a wonderful example of mentoring.  All of it seems very encouraging, and is making me think (again!) that I’ve chosen the right university to study at. The atmosphere was warm, the students were engaged, and the questions being asked were perceptive, smart and on-point. I am very excited about learning here!

The first speaker at the seminar was the one and only Professor Cathy Warwick, CEO of the Royal College of Midwives (and how fantastic that she’s speaking at conferences at my university??). Her presentation was on the importance of challenging the status quo in order to better deliver personalised care to each woman, which is a core value reflected in the National Maternity Review’s Better Births policy, but is not always easy to implement when a woman’s desires for her birth clashes with the institutionalised norm. She discussed many of the common situations where care is provided based on ritual (i.e. we do it this way because we’ve always done it this way), rather than evidence of best practice (examples of these sorts of non-evidence based rituals include transferring women between wards in a wheelchair when they’re perfectly capable of walking, not allowing fathers to stay overnight in early labour, routine use of external fetal monitoring on admission, transferring women from birth settings in an ambulance regardless of the reasons for the transfer etc. etc.) Prof Warwick pointed out that delivering personalised care presents big challenges for midwives on a systemic level, but that in many situations massive system changes aren’t needed. She spoke, for example, about how you can begin as simply as removing the word “allowed” from your vocabulary (something I can 100% get behind). The woman in labour is the one in charge of her birth. As midwives, it’s our job to support and empower her, but ultimately she should be the one making decisions (in collaboration with her midwife and birthing team). Telling a woman she isn’t “allowed” to do something goes against this sentiment. Ideally, a woman should be able to do whatever she likes in labour and on the ward (within reason), so long as the risks and benefits of her choices have been fully explained to her and she has been given the opportunity to make an informed decision. It’s HER birth, after all. Prof Warwick also pointed out that in some cases, women are labeled as “birthing outside of guidelines” as if they are stubborn and intractable and taking unnecessary risks with their babies, when in fact they are successfully advocating and demanding the type of birth experience they want and are legally entitled to. A better question is: how do we support women who challenge birth conventions/ norms of institutions, and choose to birth outside of these norms? As a strong advocate for home birth, this is something I have encountered many times before, and something that independent midwives facilitate, as many women who choose independent midwifery care are doing so because the institutionalised care offered to them was not in sync with what they desired for their birth. (And I must admit, I found it incredibly encouraging to be hearing this from the CEO of the RCM, especially in light of the recent difficulties imposed on Independent Midwives by the NMC). Safety and risk is perceived differently by every woman, after all; what feels safe to one woman could feel like the definition of risk to another. Prof Warwick also spoke about the need for not only continuity of care, but continuity of carer, and was quite adamant that figuring out how to deliver this type of continuity is something that can only be done by midwives (and that most likely the way forward will be different for each individual midwife, in terms of case-loading v. shift work v. shared call), and that midwives need to be given the power and flexibility to find their own solutions.

The next speaker was Margaret Nyudzewira, a public health advocate and co-founder of the charity CAME Women and Girls Development Organisation (CAWOGIDO), who spoke to us about breast ironing. While I’ve been aware of the dangers of Female Genital Cutting (FGC, or Female Genital Mutilation, FGM) for years, and have encountered it a few times as a midwife in Brooklyn, the practice of breast ironing is fairly new to me. Strangely enough, I first learned about it just a few weeks ago when a midwife friend posted a link to a photographer’s riveting portraits of women and girls who’ve experienced breast ironing.  The practice involves using a tight elastic band, pestle, ladle, hot stone, shell, or even hot seeds or heated leaves, to massage and flatten developing breast tissue on young girls, and can lead to many serious medical complications, including chronic pain, scalding, burns, infections, cysts, abscesses, tissue damage, the inability to breastfeed, and of course psychological trauma. Breast ironing is most often done by the girl’s mother (but can also be done by a grandmother, aunt, or tribal practitioner), and comes from a place of love, or more specifically, fear for loved ones–fear of unwanted sexual attention directed towards their daughters, fear of rape or sexual assault, or fear that early marriage or teen pregnancy could education and curtail opportunities.  And similar to FGC, this practice doesn’t occur only in Central and West Africa, but in the UK (and the US) as well (although the numbers are difficult to track, and very few studies have been done on the rates of breast ironing in the UK). In Cameroon, 50% of girls on the coast, and 24% of girls nationwide, experience breast ironing.

But one of the things that struck me the most was when Ms. Nyuydzewira said quite emphatically: “It is NOT part of our [Cameroonian] culture to harm girls and young women.” And that is absolutely true. While the practice of breast ironing itself is brutal and debilitating, it’s really important to keep in mind that the practice and the culture are not exactly one and the same. As a (white) midwife approaching a cultural practice like this (which runs counter to my own beliefs, and feels very foreign to my own cultural upbringing), I think it’s crucial to come from a place of support rather than a place of judgement.  This is one of the reasons I have come to call it Female Genital Cutting over the years, rather than Female Genital Mutilation (which has our cultural judgement baked into the very name itself) or Female Genital Circumcision (which to me seems to condone the practice, on some level, and also equates it in the mind with male circumcision, which is a false equivalence), especially when I’m discussing it with women/ patients directly (I understand that more generally, in health policy and research, it is more often referred to as FGM). Some women brought up in cultures which practice female genital cutting, for example, may view FGC as no more strange to them than piercing bellybuttons or lips or eyebrows is to us, even if the implications, the actual act itself and the repercussions of it can be much more damaging to them than a bellybutton piercing.  When viewed within their culture, it may be seen as a mark of belonging and identity, a much anticipated rite of passage, a way of fitting in, a symbol of their womanhood, a manifestation of their virtue and honor, and on its most basic level, the way that vaginas are supposed to look–beautiful, even, to their eyes. On a personal level, I disagree with these assertions and find FGC abhorrent, but as an outsider to these cultures, I can’t approach a woman by telling her that she’s been mutilated as the starting point for any future conversations with her–that will immediately close her off to me and only serves to project my own cultural bias over her own.  Instead, gentleness and sensitivity is needed more than anything else. Rather than imposing my own viewpoint, I would have to elicit the woman’s own views on the topic first, and use that as the starting point for whatever would be most useful to her moving forward: education and resources if desired, medical care if needed, mental health referrals if she feels depressed or traumatised by her experience, or silence and non-judgement if she views it in a positive or neutral light (and should this viewpoint ever change, I can then step in at that point with whatever help or support is most appropriate at that time).  To me, this gets to the very heart of my own personal philosophy of midwifery care: LISTEN to women, and DON’T JUDGE. In any case, now that breast ironing is also on my radar, I will be more alert to it if/ when I ever encounter it, and in a much better place to offer sensitive care on this very complex issue. Overall, it was a difficult and disturbing presentation to listen to, but I’m glad that it was part of the seminar, as these things are really important to think about in advance of encountering them!

There were two other speakers at the seminar: Debra Sloam, Midwife and Infant Feeding Specialist from Frimley NHS Foundation Trust, who spoke about her MSc research on student midwives’ attitudes towards offering breastfeeding assistance (as suspected, I will most likely have a lot more time to help women breastfeed as a student than I will as a working midwife), and Dr. Kim Russell from the University of Nottingham, who discussed her action research on challenging midwifery barriers (real and perceived) to facilitating water births on the wards.  These were both interesting and engaging presentations, and I’m really glad I was able to attend the seminar.

Two more weeks until classes start!

 

NMC threatens Independent Midwifery again

NMC threatens Independent Midwifery again

Back in 2013, Independent Midwives (IMs) in the UK were facing a crisis: a new EU regulation was coming into effect in October of that year which would require all IMs to carry malpractice insurance (and would therefore make it illegal for IMs to practice without indemnity insurance). At the time, it was difficult to find an insurer willing to cover IMs, and given that the pool of IMs sharing the costs of insurance was small, the quotes from insurance companies at the time were prohibitively expensive. Thankfully, after several petitions, protests outside of parliament, and a long and drawn out campaign by IMUK, a resolution was found in early 2014 that enabled self-employed IMs to purchase insurance through a pooled indemnity scheme set up by IMUK itself rather than using a third-party insurance company, which allowed IMs to continue to practice legally.

However, this past Friday (the 13th, no less!), the Nurse and Midwifery Council (NMC) made a decision that the IMUK indemnity scheme does not provide adequate coverage (i.e. sufficient funds), particularly if a serious case of malpractice was ever brought against an independent midwife using the scheme. From the NMC’s statement on their website:

The NMC’s investigation found that the indemnity scheme provided for IMUK members was not able to call upon sufficient financial resources to meet the costs of a successful claim for damages for a range of situations. These include the rare cases of catastrophic injury, such as cerebral palsy. This could have the effect that mothers and babies who suffer injury through the negligence of an attending midwife are not properly compensated for their injury. (NMC, 2017)

Which basically means, that as of Friday 13th, 2017, any independent midwife using the IMUK scheme is now considered to be practicing illegally, unless they can find a different indemnity insurer to cover them ASAP.

As you can imagine, this has created quite a bit of chaos. Women who chose independent midwives for their care and have developed trusting relationships with them throughout their pregnancies are now being told that their chosen midwife can’t attend their births, and that they’ll have to find alternative arrangements, in some cases with only days to go until their due date. Even more cruelly, the NMC has specified (on Page 2 of their guidance) that IMs using the IMUK indemnity scheme will not be allowed to attend their clients’ births in any capacity, even in a non-midwifery role, which is particularly harsh given that the general standard of care during home to hospital transfers is for the IM to remain with the client in a doula/ emotional support role even as the midwifery role is transferred to NHS midwives.

In an urgent letter written to the NMC on Friday the 13th, Rebecca Schiller, CEO of Birthrights (the human rights in childbirth charity) expressed her dismay over the NMC’s decision, criticising many of the  implications of this decision:

While we are aware that some women may be able to transfer to local NHS home birth services, we are concerned about the safety implications of this. Local NHS home birth teams will not have antenatal records relating to women who book later in pregnancy and there will be a very limited opportunity for a named midwife to build a relationship. In some areas there are limited, unreliable or no home birth services at all, which may have prompted the woman to use the services of an independent midwife. Furthermore, many NHS home birth services are unwilling to support women who are making an informed choice to birth at home outside of guidelines. In these cases we believe that women will be unable to give birth at home with appropriate clinical care.

As the regulator for the midwifery profession in the UK, it’s certainly important that the NMC sets and enforces clear safety guidelines. However, the amount of indemnity coverage a midwife has does very little to ensure safety. All it ensures is that in the event of a tragedy, the affected family will be able to sue the IM who did the delivery for a larger amount than they otherwise would be able to.  As Richard Chappell at Philosophy.net succinctly summarised in his article about the decision:

NMC Chief Executive and Registrar Jackie Smith has responded with the claim that “The NMC absolutely supports a woman’s right to choose how she gives birth and who she has to support her through that birth. But we also have a responsibility to make sure that all women and their babies are provided with a sufficient level of protection should anything go wrong.”

In other words: nice as a women’s right to choose might be, what’s really important is that she can sue for many bucketloads of money (not just a few bucketloads) if anything goes wrong.

BirthRights has also questioned the timing and manner in which this decision has occurred, as it’s left many women who had booked independent midwifery care without a clear way forward.  The NMC has been particularly opaque about what amount of coverage would meet their safety standards, despite both IMUK and Birth Rights asking for clarification. For example, in the NMC’s own policy guidance on indemnity insurance, they state:

We are unable to advise you about the level of cover that you need. We consider that you are in the best position to determine, with your indemnity provider, what level of cover is appropriate for your practice. You should seek advice as appropriate from your professional body, trade union or insurer to inform your decision. You need to be able to demonstrate that you fully disclosed your scope of practice and to justify your decisions if asked to do so. (NMC, 2017, Page 3)

Therefore, they are raising an objection to the amount of coverage IMUK decided upon, while simultaneously stating that the amount of coverage can be determined by professional body, insurer or trade union (i.e. IMUK)–not exactly helpful in terms of figuring out what amount of coverage would satisfy requirements.

The NMC’s press release also implies that the NMC has been in talks with IMUK about the inadequacy of their indemnity cover since 2014 and that if their clients now feel suddenly surprised by this decision, it’s the fault of the IMs for not updating them about this issue. However, the final decision was only reached 3 days before Christmas, which left IMs and their pregnant clients scrambling for alternative care arrangements over the holiday season.  Additionally, in the NMC’s press release on their decision, they go out of their way to stress that this only affects a small percentage of midwives in the UK (approximately 80 out of 41,000 midwives), as if that makes it ok.  But this small number includes nearly every independent midwife working in the UK, and the women the IMs are caring for are as equally entitled to their chosen provider and manner of birth as any of the other women cared for by the 41,000 other midwives in the UK. As Milli Hill wrote in the Telegraph back in 2013 when the insurance coverage was first threatening independent midwifery as a profession:

If … Independent Midwifery becomes illegal, this will be a grave blow to birth freedom in the UK. The NHS will be left unchallenged, a monopoly, and a system that already seems to be over-stretched and flawed will be left to continue without an alternative for anyone to compare it to. Women who seek an different option to the mainstream will have no choice but to birth unattended, or perhaps in secret with an midwife practicing illegally. Will this really improve birth safety?

Independent Midwifery provides the gold standard of midwifery practice in the UK: trusting relationships, continuity of care, respectful, informed choice, and freedom to birth where and how the woman would like, and is therefore something that needs to be protected, even if the number of women choosing this type of care is ultimately small.

As it stands right now, talks are ongoing between IMUK and the NMC, and IMUK has filed a legal challenge to the decision, while IMs are seeking out alternative indemnity cover. The RMC has also proposed that honorary NHS contracts could be a solution for IMs in the short term.  If you get a chance, please sign this petition in support of IMUK. This post also explains more of the history of independent midwifery and the insurance issue that has come up since 2013, and of course, you can continue to follow IMUK and Birth Rights for further updates. Hopefully a resolution will be found soon!