Surviving OB/GYN residency is like surviving boot camp. Most of the days blur together, and when you reflect on your days and nights, you can’t believe that you actually survived it. And while you couldn’t imagine doing anything else, you also couldn’t imagine doing it all over again. Along the way, down in the trenches, you make some amazing friends, meet some amazing patients, and learn the most amazing things (how to deliver babies!). There are certain practices and procedures that are drilled into your head so many times, you could repeat them in your sleep. One such practice is checking the “presenting part” on every woman admitted to the labor floor. If this part is not a head and actually a butt or a leg, you’d better move your butt back to the operating room for a C-section, ASAP!
What is a “presenting part”? Oh hello, Doctor, I am Tommy the Tush and would like to present myself to you? Sort of, but not really. The presenting part is the anatomical part of the fetus that is leading (a.k.a. closest to the pelvic inlet of the birth canal). Most babies are going to present head first, or in OB language, cephalic. When the butt or feet come first, we call this a breech presentation. Occasionally, your child can give us the cold shoulder and present with an arm, the shoulder, or the trunk. We call this a shoulder presentation. A baby that is cephalic is most often vertex, which means the crown of the head is first. This is the easiest, most common, and ideal presentation for a vaginal delivery.
Sometimes, although a baby is cephalic he or she is not vertex; a baby can be face, chin, or even brow first. Such cephalic but not vertex presentations can be challenging. Although in some circumstances, they can be delivered vaginally, they can also require a C-section. However, of all the crazy positions a kid can get themselves into, a breech is the most common and the one that shouts “C-section” the loudest and the fastest to most modern OB/GYNs. While it’s usually just a flip of the coin for whose baby will be breech and whose will not, there are some risk factors for a breech presentation: the shape of your uterus, the position of your placenta, low amniotic fluid volume, or a previous breech baby.
Old-school OB/GYNs were no joke—they could deliver a kid headfirst, feet first, hand first, or tush first. Rotating, twisting, and rearranging the presenting part was their every day. However, because data demonstrated that breech babies who were delivered vaginally had a worse outcome after they were born, these practices fell out of favor. They were performed infrequently, and just like anything you do, without practice, there goes performance. Therefore, while the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (the governing body of our specialty) does not “outlaw” vaginal delivery for a breech baby, they make a strong statement about which obstetricians should be allowed to attempt such a procedure. They explicitly state that delivery mode (vaginal versus C-section) should depend on the experience of the OB.
If your doctor feels comfortable going for it based on his or her experience, it should only be performed in a hospital that has a specific protocol specifying how this thing should go down (or out). Women who are game to try must have a clear understanding of the potentially increased risk associated with stepping up to the plate.
Why have times and opinions on vaginal breech deliveries changed more radically than our wardrobes? Because in 2000 a large international trial called the Term Breech Trial was performed. In this study, they compared how babies who were breech did following a planned C-section vs. a planned vaginal delivery. And what they found was so powerful that you have a better chance of finding a can of Tab than an OB/GYN who will perform an elective vaginal delivery for a breech baby. Mortality (both during and after delivery) and serious morbidity (seriously bad things happening) were significantly lower in the planned C-section group as compared to the planned vaginal delivery group. The findings in this study gave the red light to most OBs offering planned vaginal deliveries for breech singleton babies.
It’s important to mention that twins are a whole different ballgame and having two on your team will let you enter the vaginal delivery for a breech baby ballpark. Here are the rules…if twin A (the twin that will be delivered first) is head down and twin B (the twin that will be delivered second) is head up (breech) AND twin A is larger than twin B, let’s play ball. You can attempt a vaginal breech delivery for the second twin, a.k.a. twin B.
Before you get all bummed about your baby’s current position, take a deep breath. Most babies move all over their roomy apartment (your uterus) for the first five to six months of pregnancy. By the late second trimester, most babies will be head down and stay head down. In fact, only about 3–4% of babies will be breech by the end of their pregnancy. Your OB will check your baby’s position around 34-36 weeks. If your little one is head up, this is the time to talk about what can be done medically to turn things around. An external cephalic version (ECV) is a procedure that is often offered to women with breech babies who would like to attempt a vaginal delivery. It is usually performed at about 37 weeks. We wait until the last minute for two reasons:
First, we want to give your stubborn one as much time as possible to make the move for themselves, and second, if we are successful at moving the baby into the head-down position, we don’t want them to flip back up! Most women are candidates for an ECV, and while it won’t work on everyone, unless you need a C-section for another reason, you can consider an ECV. Women who have had other children, have a posterior placenta, and have a good amount of amniotic fluid are more likely to have success with the procedure. All that pushing, poking, and turning works about 50% of the time. The average success rate is reported in the medical literature at 58%, with a range of 35–86%. Some doctors may offer pain medication and muscle/uterus relaxers to not only make the procedure more pleasant but also increase the chance that it works.
However, you should know the procedure is not without risk. The baby may not like all the poking and prodding, and therefore, heart rate monitoring should be performed during and after the procedure. In some rare cases, an emergency C-section may be needed if the baby is really unhappy with the ECV attempt. We strongly recommend the ECV only be performed on a labor and delivery ward where actions can be taken in the event of an emergency.
Other non-Western medicine tricks include maternal position (forward leaning inversions, headstands, pelvic thrust), acupuncture, and moxibustion. The latter is a technique whereby an herbal (moxa stick) is burnt on an acupuncture point on the body. If your baby just won’t see the light, no matter how many tricks and methods you and your OB employ, don’t sweat it. C-sections can ensure your headstrong child enters the world safely on his or her own two feet!