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.

 

 

Piers Morgan is wrong

I know the words “Piers Morgan is wrong” are about as remarkable as “The sky is blue” or “Winter is cold” but this time he’s excelled himself.

In brief, Lady Gaga told an interviewer that she suffered PTSD as the result of being raped when she was 19. Morgan managed a double dose of wrongness, first by casting doubt on whether she’d been raped, and then by stating that PTSD was something suffered by “soldiers returning from battlefields” (and by implication, not by people who have experienced other forms of trauma).

We should all of us, even talentless self-publicists, be aware by now that victims of sexual assault don’t tend to report it – largely because they fear not being believed. In that, they are right. Of the hundreds of children and women assaulted by Jimmy Savile, most kept the attack private. The few who did report it found themselves either ignored or accused of lying. If their reports had been taken seriously, Savile would have ended up in prison years ago, and many of his victims would have been spared. The fact that Morgan refuses to believe Lady Gaga now pretty much proves the point.

And if he knows anything at all about PTSD, he should know that soldiers are only one of the groups who suffer from it. Victims of sexual assault, people who have been in a car crash, people who have been attacked by a partner or a stranger, refugees fleeing terror, paramedics who have witnessed a violent death and, of course, women who have been through a traumatic birth can and do suffer from PTSD.

So which are the biggest groups of sufferers? Not soldiers. Rape Crisis reports that 97,000 people in England and Wales (85,000 women and 12,000 men) are raped each year. We know that about 50% of rape victims experience PTSD – that translates into nearly 50,000 people a year, so they may well represent the biggest group. But then there are also victims of domestic violence, asylum seekers and children being sexually abused. A rough estimate suggests that 2% of women giving birth experience postnatal PTSD, equivalent to about 20,000 people a year in England and Wales.

Whichever way you look at it, that’s a lot of PTSD sufferers. A huge number of people experiencing a major mental health problem that is under-diagnosed and under-treated. And what they don’t need, what they really don’t need, is an irresponsible idiot with a high media profile telling them that they’re lying about their experience and lying about their illness.

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.

At last: the NHS acts on maternal mental health

Good news: in the next five years, NHS England will create 20 new specialist treatment centres for women who suffer from mental health problems during pregnancy or after birth.

This has been a long time coming. For years the government has promised to address the poor quality of mental health care for new mothers, and finally it’s putting its money where its mouth is. Admittedly it’s not very much money – the centres will be funded to the tune of £40m, which is unlikely to cope with the scale of the problem: an estimated one in five new mothers (about 120,000 women a year) experience mental health problems.

The majority of these women suffer from postnatal depression, but a substantial minority will have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The most conservative estimate for PTSD after childbirth is 1.5% (about 10,000 women a year in England and Wales), but researchers now think that the true figure is probably double that. PTSD can’t be cured with a pill: treatment, usually trauma-focused CBT or eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR) takes several weeks, and is expensive.

Having spoken to many women suffering from postnatal PTSD, I know that it can be hard to find specialist help. It’s not unusual for women to have to wait months for treatment, during which time they suffer the stress of flashbacks, nightmares, anxiety and terror. They are often frightened to leave the house and avoid contact with other new babies, making them isolated on top of everything else. All of these things have an impact on their relationship with their baby and with their partner. It’s not surprising that ­– according to the Guardian report of the NHS’s plans – perinatal mental health problems cost the UK £8.1bn a year.

So while I welcome the new centres as a step in the right direction, much more needs to be done to make sure that women with PTSD and other mental health problems receive the support they require. Even more importantly, I would love the NHS work towards preventing these mental health problems from arising in the first place. Most women with postnatal PTSD believe that it was caused, not solely by a traumatic birth, but by the feelings of helplessness and lack of control during the experience, and by the casual and sometimes even cruel attitude of healthcare professionals looking after them.

Some of this can be addressed by better recruitment and better staff training. But the NHS also needs to adopt rigorous standards of care that hold health professionals accountable: making sure that procedures aren’t carried out on women without their consent, for example, or that women are denied necessary pain relief. In a 21st century health service, in a wealthy democracy these things shouldn’t be difficult, but the stories I hear from traumatised women about poor care show we still have a very long way to go.

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.