Archive for July, 2010

Assessing Interactions Between Culture & Choice

July 29th, 2010 by avatar

[Editor’s note: This is a guest contribution about the concurrent session at the Normal Labour & Birth International Research Conference titled Assessing Interactions Between Culture and Choice. Priscilla Hall (a second year PhD student at Emory University Woodruff School of Nursing), Esther Shoemaker (a first year PhD student in the Population Health program at the University of Ottawa), and Kathrin Stoll (doctoral fellow at the Centre for Rural Health Research) each presented their research. – AMR]

Thank you Amy and readers for allowing me the great opportunity of contributing my conference analysis to Science & Sensibility.

At no other conference has choosing between concurrent sessions been so difficult. However, from the moment the schedule was posted some weeks ago I knew there was one I had to attend. Assessing Interactions Between Culture & Choice focused on today’s generation of mothers and what shapes their perceptions, experience and consequently choices about birth.

Generation Y women are today’s young mothers and will make up the bulk of midwives’ clients in the approaching years. What shapes their perspectives on pregnancy and birth? And how will their expectations impact the way they choose to give birth?

Demographics and Influences

Generation Y is loosely made up of adults born between the mid 1980s and the mid 1990s In the conference session, we reflected on what influences this generation of women:

1. This generation is extremely comfortable with technology, having craved the “toys that make the noise” including Nintendo/Sega/Xbox game consoles, mini laptops and iPods. The toys of this generation often involve one-on-one interactions with a computer rather than a friend.

2. The “Audit Society” (Power 1997) is the norm for this generation. The 1980s saw an explosion of auditing activity in UK and American society. Teachers chart performance and activities of students, employees audited their own activities for their employers and health workers began recording up to the minute activities of their patients and one another.

3. To this generation “the most desirable women aren’t women at all – they’re girls. The womanly shape, once held in esteem by the Greeks all the way up to pre-Twiggy models is seen as overweight to this generation. Smaller frames, straight figures and other pre-pubescent qualities are idealized by Generation Y women (or at least the media they consume). Not ironically, Gen Y has also been referred to as the Peter Pan Generation.

The first two in this hardly exhaustive list of predictors can help to explain how medicalized birth is quickly being assumed as the norm by today’s women. (And as Dr. Eugene Declercq of Boston University pointed out over lunch, the majority of U.S. women are satisfied with their maternity care.) In fact, as UBC doctoral candidate Esther Shoemaker points out from her mixed methods research of young women and new mothers, “Natural” birth to them does not equal “Normal” to us. Natural birth, to most of the women in her study, is synonymous with vaginal birth. Even if labor was induced, an epidural administered or forceps used, the women who gave birth vaginally experienced their birth as natural. I have witnessed this in my own Generation Y peer group of young mothers.

Further, the majority of those Shoemaker interviewed desired a vaginal birth in their antepartum interview, but also voiced an ambivalence about whether or not they actually would give birth that way when the time came. “If something happens I of course will have a c-section.” Oddly enough, perception of safety was not mentioned but the women said they would default to whatever their individual practitioner suggested.

In some cases reported, the practitioner suggested procedures to the Shoemaker participants that increased the degree of medicalized beyond what they expected for their birth. When this occurred, each of the participants changed their plans for their second birth. They either embraced the medical model completely or rejected the medical model in favor of a physiologic birth. So while they were ambivalent or passive first time mothers, they actively created their birth plans for subsequent children. The finding has important implications for today’s mothers as this was true for all Shoemakers’ participant’s whose birth experience was more medicalized than her birth expectation.

Intriguing findings in the studies:

1. Birth, to this generation, is, as UBC scholar Kathrin Stoll points out, a normal physiological process (71%), inherently risky and filled with “unavoidable complications” which necessitate technological interventions.

2. Of the women Stoll interviewed, 70% worried about how they and/or their partners would perceive their bodies during and after pregnancy.

3. According to Shoemaker, who studied what happened in subsequent births among women whose first births were more medicalized than expected, one of two extremes were common. The women would either fully embrace the medical model (e.g., plan a c-section with all the bells and whistles) or she planned to birth at home with no interventions.

The findings of this session’s speakers are all interesting and important for us as midwives, childbirth educators, and activists. When shaping our message about normal birth it is important to meet women where they are, use their language and respect their experience of the world and their bodies. How will we “market” normal birth as we are privileged to know it to the coming mothers?

About Katie Fulmer:

Like many of you, I have birth on the brain and care deeply about the health and wellbeing of our mommas. I am currently a student midwife with Illysa Foster, author of Professional Ethics in Midwifery Practice. My academic focus was Medical Anthropology as an undergrad at the University of Texas in Austin and I look forward to continuing my study of maternity and child care at the PhD level.

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Shake it up: Why we need research and activism to change maternity care

July 26th, 2010 by avatar

Last week, I attended the Normal Labour & Birth International Research Conference in Vancouver, British Columbia. With over 250 attendees from 23 countries, the conference set out to disseminate research about the nature of and optimal care for physiologic labor and birth, and to garner multidisciplinary perspectives on the implications for clinical practice, perinatal outcomes, education, management, collaboration, and policy.

I went as an agent of data dissemination. My job: to use social media (blogs, Twitter) to help make sure the conference proceedings didn’t just rattle around the four walls of the conference hotel, but got out to those in the field working to improve maternity care wherever we each are.

And I have some research I want to write about – really interesting, important research from every discipline you could imagine. But I left the three-day meeting thinking more about the (broken) link between evidence and practice than about any of the new, emerging evidence. I’ll get to the new research over the coming weeks, but first, a look at two stories that dominated the conference.

#1: Home birth on the defensive?

The plenary session by Dutch physician and epidemiologist, Simone Buitendijk, might have highlighted the unique model of midwife-led primary care geared toward planned home birth for low-risk women – a model that many birth advocates and researchers look to as a beacon of hope and reason. Buitendijk herself was co-author of the definitive study of planned home birth safety, a population-based study of over half a million births that found planned midwife-attended home birth as safe as planned midwife-attended hospital birth. And a Cochrane systematic review that came out around the same time as the Dutch home birth study provided definitive evidence that midwife-led care is superior to physician-led or shared models of care. So the Dutch have gotten it right, right? Time to celebrate and emulate? No, instead of a plenary about Dutch primary maternity care as a model to emulate, Buitendijk’s talk was a sobering call to action.

Trouble in paradise

According to Buitendijk, in spite of this evidence (or perhaps in direct response to this evidence?) a well-coordinated media campaign in the Netherlands over the past year has emphasized the dangers of home birth, pointing to an entirely different body of evidence: comparative data showing that Dutch perinatal mortality rates are higher than those in other European countries. Although only about 30 of the 1700 Dutch perinatal deaths occurred at home, and perinatal mortality at the population level is affected far more by incidence and management of preterm birth and congenital anomalies than by the labor and birth care of low-risk women with term pregnancies, the Dutch mass media have made this a story about midwifery care and home birth. The result: the rate of home birth has dipped below 25% for the first time in Dutch history.

Instilling fear in women

#2 VBAC is Back?

Eugene Declercq, who gives – hands down – the world’s most engaging and fun lectures about perinatal statistics, had the pleasure of making an 11th hour revision to his plenary talk on vaginal birth after cesarean (VBAC) thanks to ACOG, who released their new VBAC practice guidelines at 5pm the day prior. (Hat tip to yours truly for tipping him off about the new guidelines. I even got written into his plenary remarks, as the young woman with whom he had a “stimulating conversation” that led him to “stay up all night.” Har har, Gene!)

Anyway, we see in Declercq’s talk the familiar story of how VBAC rates increased briefly then plummeted in the early 2000’s as a result of new research on uterine rupture and, more precisely, an editorial by the ob-gyn editor for the New England Journal of Medicine saying that planned repeat cesarean is “unequivocally” safer than planned VBAC.

NEJM editorial

Research driving practice! That is, if the research (or overzealous interpretations of it) supports restricting practice.

Where’s the up-tick in VBAC rates when the Cochrane systematic review was published in 2004 concluding that “Planned elective repeat caesarean section and planned vaginal birth after caesarean section for women with a prior caesarean birth are both associated with benefits and harms?” The up-tick isn’t there because by then research wasn’t driving practice – ACOG guidelines calling for “immediately available” emergency obstetric care in VBAC labors were driving practice. And it wasn’t the NIH Consensus Development Conference on VBAC or the massive AHRQ systematic review underpinning the conference (i.e., evidence) that have been heralded as the beginning of the end of hospital “VBAC bans,” it’s ACOG’s (somewhat noncommittal) move away from the “immediately available” standard.

Evidence is not driving practice. Between evidence and practice there lives some kind of cocktail of power, money, activism, media, influence and serendipity (and preservatives). The relative strength of the ingredients dictates how practices evolve. Keeping with the cocktail metaphor, the VBAC plenary ended with an invitation to consumers and our advocates to shake things up – activism being the best hope for ACOG’s new guidelines to be used to drive meaningful change for the many, many childbearing women in the United States with scarred uteruses.

This all reminds me of a third plenary talk at the Normal Birth Conference – Patti Janssen’s lecture, Transforming Research into Policy: Ingredients of Influence, in which she quotes social scientist, Martin Rein.

Science does contribute

It also reminds me of Kay Dickerson of the Cochrane Collaboration who said, “We are only to get evidence-based healthcare in this country through consumer activism.”

More on Janssen’s plenary, and updates on the research, coming soon.

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Live blogging is hard

July 22nd, 2010 by avatar

My intention was to have daily round-ups of the Normal Labour & Birth International Research Conference on the blog and follow it with some in-depth pieces over the next few weeks.  But between a packed agenda, phenomenal networking opportunities, a gracious hostess who dragged me (neither kicking nor screaming) to see an international fireworks competition over the harbor last night, and jet-lag, I haven’t been able to blog one bit.  The good news is that I have about 6 months worth of blog posts I could write out of this conference. So stay tuned for some quick-hit pieces and some more depth analysis, coming soon!

In the meantime, 140-character-sized updates from the conference are constantly streaming on Twitter.

"Cascade of Normal" from Vicki Van Wagner's talk on midwifery in an Inuit region of Arctic northern Canada

"Cascade of Normal" from Vicki Van Wagner's talk on midwifery in an Inuit region of Arctic northern Canada


What is the Meaning of Normal Birth?

July 18th, 2010 by avatar

[Editor’s Note: This marks the beginning of our coverage of the 5th International Normal Labour & Birth Research Conference, taking place July 20-23 in Vancouver. Sharon Dalrymple, staff development nurse, prenatal educator, doula, and Lamaze’s first Canadian president, will present a session she developed with maternity care quality expert and Lamaze’s president-elect, Debra Bingham. They were both part of a research team that investigated how women perceive terms like “normal birth” and “natural birth” and what that means for helping them understand evidence-based information to make health and healthcare choices. There are many reasons that women’s perceptions and priorities matter in birth. One is that meaningful improvements in maternity care quality and safety are impossible without a strong consumer movement. Dalrymple’s and Bingham’s findings have major significance for “normal birth,” however we each define it.

Remember, there’s an Open Thread for conference attendees and enthusiasts to post messages. You can follow all of the updates from the conference on Twitter by following the #birthconf hashtag and find more analysis here on the blog – AMR]


For the past 50 years Lamaze International has been promoting normal birth practices in North America and more recently worldwide. Despite these educational efforts women are being over-treated more now than they have been in over 30 years. For example, 31% of women in the United States give birth by cesarean surgery. The overuse of interventions with harmful side effects when there is little or no expected benefit for mother or baby has led to worsening maternity care outcomes in the United States and many other countries. In addition, women do not get adequate information so they are aware of the excess, unnecessary risks they and their infants are being exposed to.

One of the reasons these educational efforts may not have been as effective as desired is that our conversations may not be persuasive enough or clear enough. For example, it is not universally understood or agreed upon how to define a normal birth, the differences between normal and natural birth, and which behaviors constitute a normal birth. Conversations and language affect how persuaded others are to make changes. In fact, 50 years of diffusion of innovation research tell us that for women to demand safe, high quality maternity care, we must engage in clear conversations that outline specific desirable behavior changes and show that women and babies can expect better health outcomes if these changes are made.

Lamaze International hired a public relations market research firm to conduct research and identify which messages are the most effective for persuading women to adopt normal birth practices. Online surveys were conducted among 811 women aged 16-44  and 408 Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educators.

Indeed, the research showed that the meaning of the words “normal” and “natural” was not interpreted by the women and educators the same way. For example, 36% of women felt that ALL vaginal births are “normal birth”, while 63% of Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educators defined “normal birth” to be a birth without medical intervention. Women and Lamaze childbirth educators are likewise divided when deciding if the terms “natural birth” and “normal birth” are generally similar or generally different in meaning.

Lamaze International found that the words safe and healthy are the most effective words for communicating and promoting the birth practices Lamaze has endorsed for years. Everyone wants a safe and healthy birth. Mothers are particularly motivated to keep their baby and themselves safe and healthy. Most importantly, the practices are safe and healthy.

As a result of these and other findings, Lamaze International updated our six evidence-based key practice papers in Fall 2009 to ensure women realize that these practices simplify the birth process with a natural approach that helps alleviate fears and manage pain, with the ultimate goal of keeping labor and birth as safe and healthy as possible for each individual woman. Every woman needs clinicians who promote, support, and protect these six practices:

1. Let labor begin on its own

2. Walk, move around and change positions throughout labor

3. Bring a loved one, friend or doula for continuous support

4. Avoid interventions that are not medically necessary

5. Avoid giving birth on your back and follow your body’s urges to push

6. Keep mother and baby together – It’s best for mother, baby and breastfeeding

Conflict of Interest Disclosure: The research was funded by Lamaze International.

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Read this book: How to Read a Paper

July 15th, 2010 by avatar

For childbirth educators and other birth professionals who want to learn more about how to read, understand, and critique research studies, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I just discovered the other day that a new edition has been released. I also just discovered my ratty copy of my 2nd edition has gone missing (probably because it’s a favorite to lend out from my personal library). I think I’ll buy a copy of the 3rd edition and make sure to write my name in it.

It’s 40 bucks well spent. I don’t know another author who can make research methods and statistics this engaging and clear to read.

Don’t forget our Understanding Research series, too!

How to read a paper


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