Should we think of birth as normal, or as dangerous?

 

A few weeks ago I gave a talk to a group of health professionals about the impact of a traumatic birth on relationships. At the end of the talk, an obstetrician in the audience took me gently to task for using the phrase “when birth goes wrong”: problems such as retained placenta or postpartum haemorrhage were so commonplace, she said, that they were a routine part of the experience, rather than a sign of something going wrong. She added: “The day she gives birth is – apart from the day she’s born – the most dangerous day of a woman’s life.”

It was a striking comment, and one I’ve been thinking about ever since. There is an alternative view of childbirth, which is that it’s a “normal, physiological process”. It’s a view that’s endorsed by the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), and some NHS trusts have appointed midwives to act as “normal birth leads”, helping women to “achieve” a normal birth. Many midwives believes that an important part of their job is to support women to give birth “normally” – that is, without a caesarean section or intervention such as forceps or Ventouse. Proponents of normal childbirth would argue that an over-cautious approach to risk is in itself damaging, leading to unnecessary interventions that result in a more traumatic experience for mother and baby.

Childbirth is possibly unique amongst medical specialisms in that it is dominated by two professional groups who to some extent have competing views of what the job is about. Obstetricians see risk and danger; their job is to make sure that mother and baby come out of the process alive and, ideally, unharmed. Midwives see their job as supporting women to do what their bodies are designed to do: women have, after all, given birth for the entirety of human existence, and are therefore quite capable of doing so today.

You can see, of course, that both arguments have merit. Lots of women do have straightforward births, with minimal intervention. In the past, certainly, unnecessary medical intervention (the eagerness to induce labour, or speed it up artificially, or to give women episiotomies as a matter of routine, or to force them to give birth lying down) worked against the female body’s ability to do what it is designed to do, which is to push a baby out.

On the other hand, you can’t deny that, left to labour without intervention, things don’t always go according to plan: the baby is in an awkward position, or the birth canal is too narrow, or the baby’s shoulder gets stuck on the way out, or the placenta is retained and the woman haemorrhages.

Are women’s expectations too high? Or too low?

I hesitate to suggest there should be a happy medium, because I don’t know what a happy medium would look like. But what bothers me about all this is that women are caught in the middle of two competing narratives. Obstetricians at the talk I gave expressed the view that the reason some women find birth traumatic is that their expectations are too high: they think that they can give birth “normally”, with minimum intervention, and are then disappointed to find that that isn’t the case.

But where does that expectation come from? Not, surely, from an innate sense of hubris or over-confidence, but from imbibing the message that it’s possible to achieve a normal, problem-free childbirth by taking a positive mental attitude: if you believe in your own body’s capacity to give birth, the argument goes, then you’re much more likely to have the birth you want than if you approach it fearfully.

Thus are women caught in a Catch-22: going into birth in the hope and expectation that your experience will be “normal” means that you are more likely to be traumatised when things don’t work out as planned; going into birth with an awareness of all the potential problems and risks mean potentially that your own feelings of fear and anxiety will make the experience more difficult and painful.

And women get the blame. Women’s choices are mocked: they are “too posh to push”, for example, or they are “selfish” for wanting a home birth, free of intervention. They are naïve or silly for imagining they can give birth naturally; or they are wasting the NHS’s money by demanding a planned caesarean. A woman’s place is in the wrong, James Thurber once wrote: and if we’re talking about giving birth, then Thurber hit the nail squarely on the head.

 

 

 

 

When childbirth goes badly wrong: one woman’s account

Nilufer Atik has written a striking account of her experience of PTSD after childbirth. Atik was in labour for 53 hours, after which she was given an emergency caesarean.

But it shouldn’t have happened like that. Atik’s labour started with contractions that were “sharp and hard, beginning four minutes apart and lasting between 50 to 90 seconds each time.” The hospital – St George’s in Tooting – told her not to come in because she wasn’t in active labour. She stayed at home in increasing pain for 19 hours until eventually she could stand it no longer. At hospital:

“I was taken to a pre-delivery bay and more torturous hours passed with the contractions increasing in intensity and frequency. I cried out for pain relief and was given the powerful painkiller pethidine four times (most women are only allowed two injections) but it did little to help. With no sleep, food or water, and feeling so exhausted I could barely speak, I became fearful that, if the baby did come, I wouldn’t have the energy to push him out.”

She was eventually given an epidural, followed by a caesarean section when the baby appeared in distress. But the most remarkable part of her story is this:

“Poor Milo was in a bad birthing position with his back against mine and his head hyperextended. It meant not only that my labour was much more painful than it should have been, but I would never have been able to deliver him vaginally. His head was blocking my cervix from dilating, which was why I was having contractions for so long with no progress.”

The time that Atik spent in labour was wasted – physiologically, she wasn’t able to give birth. Why staff at St George’s didn’t realise this is an interesting question, but it may have been to do with the fact that when Atik arrived at the hospital in labour, the maternity ward was extremely busy.

Two weeks ago an NCT survey found that, in the Guardian’s words, “A chronic shortage of midwives across the UK means women in labour are left feeling unsafe and frightened or as if they are being treated ‘like cattle’ or ‘on a conveyor belt’.” It’s not just lack of midwives, it’s a lack of space: one woman even described giving birth on the antenatal ward, because there was no room on the delivery ward.

It’s been said so often that NHS services are at breaking point that perhaps nobody takes it seriously any more. But cases like Atik’s show that the seriousness and the urgency of the problem. When midwives are overworked, the quality of care for women is never going to be good enough. Women will suffer unnecessarily, as Atik did, and may as a result experience physical trauma or psychological trauma that will need treatment later on. Sometimes, babies will die.

 

 

Severe tearing in childbirth – not just a physical problem

NB I’ve edited this post in response to a comment.

A traumatic vaginal birth involving severe tearing can cause mental health problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to a new study from Hans Peter Dietz and Liz Skinner.

About 90% of women experience tearing during childbirth, but most are first or second degree tears, which are relatively mild and heal quickly. Approximately six percent of women have third or fourth degree tears that can damage the anal sphincter.

Dietz and Skinner have done a lot of work in this area, which I’ve written about before. They both feel that the problems of a difficult vaginal birth tend to be overlooked in the drive to reduce caesarean sections, which are usually perceived as more risky for both mother and baby.

The study identified 40 first-time mothers with major pelvic floor trauma and interviewed them one-to-four years after they gave birth. Just over half (22) of the women had “major obstetric anal sphincter tears.”

Of the 40 women, 35 had “Multiple symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction” causing lifestyle alteration. These symptoms included “urinary or fecal incontinence, prolapse, chronic pain, dyspareunia [painful intercourse]”.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that 27 experienced PTSD symptoms, including “poor baby bonding, flashbacks during sex, dissociation, avoidance, anxiety”.

Probably the most worrying themes to emerge from the study were the lack of awareness or communication from health professionals:

  • 36 women said there was no information provided by clinicians on potential postnatal pelvic floor morbidities
  • 36 said that there was no postnatal assessment of their injuries
  • 26 said that they experienced “dismissive reactions from poorly informed clinicians to maternal injuries. One woman said: “The midwife said that this was OK… but I knew that it was not normal… The doctors really did not understand the situation… I was in shock – devastated and unable to get any health professional to understand.”

Although the study was carried out in Australia, I’d be surprised if a UK study didn’t find something similar. I’ve now heard numerous stories about obstetric tears not being treated properly or women having their concerns dismissed as unimportant. One of the problems is that midwives often don’t see the consequences of tearing in childbirth – women are only under midwife care for 10 days after birth, so if a tear has failed to heal properly weeks, months or even, shockingly, years after birth, they’ll be dealt with by another group of health professionals entirely. So midwives may well assume, wrongly, that a tear during childbirth has healed without problems. And that may lead to an unjustified confidence that obstetric tearing isn’t a significant problem.

As I’ve already reported, the RCOG is now campaigning for better understanding of obstetric tearing in childbirth, and better care for the women who experience it. But we still have a long way to go – and In the meantime, a lot of women are suffering in silence.

Maternity outcomes matter

Some good news at the Birth Trauma Association (BTA): my colleague Maureen Treadwell is leading a collaborative project called Maternity Outcomes Matter, or MOM. The idea is to reduce the incidence of stillbirth and neonatal death (both very high in this country), and also, importantly, to reduce the number of maternal injuries – a more neglected area. Several other maternity groups are involved, and we’re delighted that James Titcombe, whose baby son Joshua died as the result of a simple but catastrophic error at Furness General Hospital, has joined the group. With the help of an initial grant of £5,000, the project will produce a report to identify some of the key mistakes that are made in labour and birth and how they can be prevented in future.

It’s a small project, but an important one. One of the things the NHS lacks is a straightforward, simple way of sharing good practice and knowledge. Mistakes are often covered up (sometimes for understandable reasons) rather than shared so that lessons can be learnt. Medical practice isn’t always based on good evidence. Among members of the BTA’s Facebook group, we hear story after story of women experiencing unnecessarily traumatic births.

Recently, as part of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ campaign to reduce third- and fourth-degree tearing in childbirth, I’ve been in touch with women whose lives have been ruined by severe tearing that has left them in severe pain and in some cases incontinent. Some injuries are so severe that they have left the woman unable to work.

In 2016, this shouldn’t be happening. So this project represents is one step on the road to making childbirth safer for both women and their babies.

To find out more, contact enquiries@ birthtraumaassociation.org.uk.

Can having an epidural in labour reduce the risk of postnatal depression?

Research has found that women who receive an epidural in labour may be less likely to experience postnatal depression. The study, by Grace Lim of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Centre, looked at the medical records of 201 women who had an epidural and had their pain assessed on a 0 to 10 scale during labour.

They calculated the percentage improvement in pain (PIP) throughout labour after a woman had an epidural. The researchers then looked at depression risk using the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) six weeks after birth. They found the higher the PIP scores, the lower the EPDS scores.

We have to be cautious about how we interpret the results. It was a small study, which hasn’t yet been published (the news story was based on a conference paper). We can’t be sure about the causal relationship. And we know that in France, where epidurals are common, PND rates are roughly the same as in the UK.

But it wouldn’t be completely surprising to find a causal relationship. One national 2014 survey found that only 63% of women received the pain relief they wanted during labour. Anecdotally, I’ve heard plenty of stories of women being denied epidurals on the grounds that it was too early in labour or too late, or that there was no anaesthetist available.

The truth is that for some women labour is agonizingly painful, and it would be strange if being left in extreme pain for hours didn’t have a psychological impact. Certainly some women with postnatal PTSD talk about the denial of pain relief as a contributing factor to their PTSD. One woman I spoke to for my book was told by her husband that during the hours of being denied an epidural, she threatened to throw herself out of the hospital window. (This is a memory that she had, perhaps fortunately, blocked out.)

Epidurals carry risks, so sometimes health professionals can be reluctant to let women have them when they ask for them. But not giving an asked-for epidural can also carry risks – something that is all too easily forgotten.

It’s time we talked about perineal trauma

Today’s Victoria Derbyshire programme had an excellent film about perineal injuries during childbirth. You can read the associated article and see the film here (it’s about 15 minutes long). Four women shared their experience of having third or fourth degree tears during childbirth, resulting for some of them in urinary or bowel incontinence.

One of the striking facts in the film was that between 2000 and 2012, the rate of severe tearing during vaginal delivery increased from 2% to 6%. Although the programme was careful to state that this was “very rare”, in practice this translates into about 30,000 women a year. This huge increase in the rate, an obstetrician told the programme, was down to three main factors: the older age at which women have their first baby; an increase in the size of babies being born; and women themselves being bigger and heavier. But this isn’t necessarily the full explanation: the increase may simply be down to better recognition of tears as a result of the implementation of standard classification.

The programme also read out text messages from viewers. What was sad was the clear variability in treatment available. Although some women said their injuries had healed, others said they had been fobbed off when they complained about their perineal injuries, or that the injuries had persisted over months and years. One of those interviewed on the programme was effectively told that it was all in her head.

The good news is that the professionals are now taking this seriously: the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have developed an intervention package to reduce tearing in childbirth. The package is really just a simple change to the recommended way in which midwives deliver the baby, which has been shown to reduce tearing. It is being piloted in a number of hospitals and will eventually be rolled out throughout England.

Nonetheless, it’s shocking that in this day and age that a problem affecting so many women isn’t talked about or even taken particularly seriously. It was clear from the programme that many doctors aren’t adequately trained to deal with perineal tears. That – as well as better care during delivery – needs to change.

A new mental health toolkit for pregnant women and new mothers

Some good news: the Royal College of General Practitioners has launched a perinatal mental health toolkit – in layperson’s terms, resources that help doctors and nurses in primary care support women who experience mental health problems during pregnancy or after giving birth.

The resources are very comprehensive, and include links to NICE guidance, links to advice on medication for pregnant and breastfeeding women and links to relevant charities and support groups such as Sands (the stillbirth and neonatal death charity) and the Birth Trauma Association.

It’s particularly good to see the RCGP recognise that mental health problems don’t exist in a vacuum. The resources include links to information about sexual violence and domestic abuse and to information about supporting refugee women.

The GP is often the first port-of-call for new mothers suffering from mental health problems such as depression and PTSD, so it’s essential that GPs have access to information about these conditions. While new mothers are now routinely screened for postnatal depression, PTSD often goes under the radar. This toolkit is, I hope, an important step towards making sure that mothers suffering from PTSD receive the treatment they need.