Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Sharing the Skills: Supporting birth without the use of vaginal examinations

I have struggled to write this particular post for the past week or so; do I reference, don't I reference. Am I trying to be the 'expert'?  Is this formal, informal.  Argh - round and round I go!  Until a colleague reminded me this is a BLOG post, meaning it's an informal piece of my opinion (see disclaimer thingy).    and breathe........

I can still remember the first Vaginal Examination (VE) I preformed as a student midwife.  I remember two things mainly:

1. I had no idea what on earth I was feeling!

2. That this was a very invasive procedure.

Many units have a 4-hour guideline for VEs to asses the progress of labour; this routine assessment has no real evidence to support it and is still of unproven value in routine midwifery care, despite being recommended by NICE (it is important to acknowledge, that NICE states women should be offered a VE).  VE's can be a very helpful tool in understanding a labour when perhaps midwifery intervention may support the woman in keeping her labour normal, when clarity around labour progress is appropriate, and / or if it will affect the plan of care.  When used as the marker for progress in labour only, VEs can cloud the midwives understanding of what is happening in the woman's birth story and cause the woman to doubt her own body.

The art of Midwifery is the 'big picture', and it is through many different signs that a midwife may recognise where a woman is in her labour.  This awareness is not 'taught', but learnt: learnt from the women as you observe undisturbed birth, learnt from sitting and quietly absorbing the behaviours unfolding in front of you, and learnt from not starting from a place of 'knowing best'.  As a result of this, the thoughts below are not a 'check list' of progress in labour, simply prompts to help you consider the physiology of what may be unfolding before you.  Remember also that all women are different, and every woman and birth can unfold in a way that is unique for them.

Let us consider then, alternative ways of recognising a labour that is progressing:

How low can you go?
When I was a student midwife, I heard the wonderful Jane Evans speak on Breech birth.  In her talk, she described how women get 'closer the the ground' as their labour progressed.  In labour, as those powerful surges increase in intensity, the woman finds it harder to be upright and conserves her energy by moving into positions that bring her down - usually into the all fours, or leaning over a sofa etc.  As a guide, the closer she is to the ground and needs to stay 'grounded', the further along in her labour she is likely to be.

Those wonderful noises
Experienced midwives can often tell where a women is in a labour from those lovely noises she omits; Liz Nightingale wrote an excellent article in Midirs on noises in labour which is well worth getting your hands on. Women, under the influence of Oxytocin in labour, start to withdraw into themselves.  Talking and conversation dwindles (and so too should birth workers!), but the woman will naturally start to moan and groan through those surges; those noises come from deep within her and she has little control over them.

The 'purple' line
If you google this term you will find lots of excellent blogs reflecting on this phenomena, pictures on what you may see and so forth.  My favourite post is in Birth Without Fear which is beautifully written: just read that for a great explanation on the purple line.  I love the purple line; once you recognise it you can't fail to notice it.  Just wish bottoms came with a little gauge - you know, when it's this height the cervix is x-cms etc!

This is a woman who smiled
most of the way through her labour!
Sense of humour failure
When the woman is no longer smiling, then we are in serious business (except for those women who are having serene, orgasmic births - they smile a lot).  Humour can really help a woman in labour as it can ease tension.  If you follow her guide however, the more serious she becomes the less she may appreciate wise-crack jokes from her supporters, and the more likely her labour is advancing well.

It's all a bit sticky down here
Around 8-9 cms, women will discharge a sticky, blood-stained mucousy plug as the cervix really opens. Yay!  Even better still, as the cervix becomes fully open, the waters will spontaneously release if they have not done so already.  There is NO NEED to do an ARM if a women is 9 cms and membranes are intact (and yes I have seen midwives do this, because otherwise how will the baby get out?).

Cold Feet
As the uterus continues to work beautifully, the blood circulation will move more and more towards to uterus: this is why women get cold feet as labour progresses.  A German midwife (when I was a student) also taught me that the heat will move 'up the woman's' legs.  At around 5 cms, the heat will start from just above her knees, 8 cms the thighs feel cold, at 9cms, only a small amount of heat is left at the top of her thighs.  We used to have guessing games by gently placing a hand on the woman's thighs to see 'where she was'.  It doesn't always work, but is gentle and non-invasive.  Use the back of your hand to gently asses the coolness of the legs.

Pushing on through
Why, oh why, oh why on earth do some midwives feel the need to 'confirm' the onset of second stage with a VE?  Really?  As a woman moves into second stage, she will start to make grunting / expulsive noises.  These will intensify as the baby moves further down, triggering further expulsive urges.  The woman's body will start to 'open' as the rhombus lifts.  The purple line will be highly visible and prominent.  She will probably poop.  All of this will happen either quickly (as with the foetal ejection reflex), or for the vast majority of women, s-l-o-w-l-y!  Women can tell when they are 'moving' their baby and will often remark they can feel the baby moving down.  If after a period of time of strong expulsive urges, there are no external signs of descent, then a VE may be appropriate.  That time depends on the whole clinical picture.  And No, 10 minutes is not long enough.

There are many other ways of recognising progress in labour without the use of VEs (and please do share them); these are the ones I use to help me recognise that labour is progressing without needing me to 'do' anything other then keep the mother and baby safe and hold the space for the birth.  Observing the woman in a non-invasive way (i.e. not staring at her and 'drinking tea intelligently') normally enables the midwife to sense if something is not 'quite' right and provide the appropriate care to help the mother birth her baby as she needs to.  And this is usually herself.

Midwife angela 

“There is no other organ quite like the uterus. If men had such an organ they would brag about it. So should we” ― Ina May Gaskin

Wednesday, 1 January 2014

New Year Pop

A few months ago, a little add popped up on my computer.  I clicked it away without a thought.  A little later it popped up again; again, I clicked it away, thinking nothing of it other than it 'being annoying'.  A few days later, sure enough the advert appeared again.... and again.... and again.  I 'quickly' clicked them away and carried on with my work.  Slowly, over time, these adverts became a regular part of my day, and I stopped really thinking about them.  Just methodically removed them and carried on with my tasks: pop - click - pop - click - pop - click (getting the picture).  (If you are wondering what this has to do with midwifery - bare with me, it will make sense.)

Two weeks ago, my computer needed an overhaul; those annoying little ads had grown so much, that I could no longer log on to my blog (hence no posts for a while), I could not move on the internet without being directed to sites I did not wish to visit  (er, no I do not need Viagra thank you) and my working time at the computer ground to a halt.

Reflecting on this (and here is the midwifery link) made me think about how small interventions in midwifery practise have become a routine part of our care.  Let's take the vaginal examination (VE) for example; these are now so routine that we no longer even see them as an intervention, and yet, they can interfere so much in a woman's birth that they can slow and grind a labour down to a halt (see what I did there?).

As midwives, we are considered 'autonomous practitioners'; this means that we work to evidence base and to the woman's needs.  There is no evidence to support routine vaginal examinations and whilst they can help understand the progress in labour, most women find them invasive and unpleasant.  Encouraging the woman to 'pop' onto the bed, the 'quick' VE, the repeat of this process at routine intervals, in my opinion, slowly interferes with the midwives care and her understanding of 'normal' progress in labour, and most significantly affects the woman's trust in her body, until eventually the labour grinds to a halt and needs an overhaul (or caesarean) - just like my computer.

This year I have been blessed to attended 15 women in labour: only 6 of those women required a VE to support plans around their labour and birth.  I promised to 'share the skills' previously, but the problems with my computer jaded my work, distracted me from writing and prevented me for being 'with computer'.  Yet it took a real crisis before I addressed and faced up to the problem: it was just easier to keep pushing the problem away.  Sound familiar?

2013 has been a year of facing up to a huge problem: the demise of Independent Midwifery.  Over the past 12 months, I have been involved in the odious task of campaigning to save IMs, to save my livelihood, to save choice for women and to save a group of midwives who believe in true autonomy.  It was a problem I did not want to face up to: it is a problem that many midwives are not facing up to, and it is a problem that the Government does not wish to face (I think they hope we will all  just go away).

If midwifery is to remain a strong profession, then we need midwives to have the choice to work independently.  As we enter 2014, I feel optimistic and positive that this year will herald a change for Midwifery and that midwives will reclaim their profession.  I feel confident that I will be able to continue to practise in a way that supports women without the routine use of interventions, and that working in this way will not 'grind to a halt'.  And mostly, I look forward to not campaigning anymore - but rather to getting back to what I love most.  Being 'With Woman'.

What will your 2014 pop-up for you?