Archive for the ‘Cesarean Birth’ Category

Birth By The Numbers Releases New Video – Myth and Reality Concerning US Cesareans

March 19th, 2015 by avatar

birth by numbers header

I have been a huge fan of Dr. Eugene Declercq and his team over at Birth by the Numbers ever since I watched the original Birth by the Numbers bonus segment that was found on the Orgasmic Birth DVD I purchased back in 2008.  I was on the board of REACHE when we brought Dr. Declercq to Seattle to speak at our regional childbirth conference in 2010 and since then have heard him present at various conferences around the country, including most recently at the 2014 Lamaze International/DONA International Confluence, where Dr. Declercq was a keynote speaker.  I enjoy listening to him just as much now as I did back in 2008.  You  may also be familiar with Dr. Declercq’s work as part of the Listening to Mothers research team that has brought us three very valuable studies.

Birth by the Numbers has grown into a valuable and up to date website for the birth professional and the consumer, filled to the brim with useful information, videos, slide presentations and blog posts.  This past Tuesday, the newest video was released on the website: Birth By The Numbers: Part II – Myth and Reality Concerning US Cesareans and is embedded here for you to watch.  We shared Part I in a blog post last fall.

Also available for public use is a slide presentation located in the the “Teaching Tools” section of the Birth by the Numbers website designed to provide additional information, maps, data and resources for this new Myths and Reality Concerning Cesareans video. Included in this slideshow are notes and updates to help you understand the slides and share with others.  This material is freely given for your use.

© Birth by the Numbers

© Birth by the Numbers

This video explores how cesareans impact maternity care systems in the USA.  After watching the video and reviewing the slides, here are some of my top takeaways.

1.  The common reasons given for the nearly 33% cesarean rate in the USA (bigger babies, older mothers, more mothers with obesity, diabetes and hypertension, more multiples and maternal request) just don’t hold water when examined closer.

2. Many women feel pressure from their healthcare provider to have a cesarean, either prenatally or in labor.

3. The leading indicators for cesareans are labor arrest (34%) and nonreassuring fetal heart tracings (23%).

4. The rise in cesareans is not a result of a different indications.  Dr. Declercq quotes a 20 year old article’s title that could still grace the front pages today. “The Rise in Cesarean Section Rate: the same indications – but a lower threshold.”

5. When examining the distribution of cesarean births by states over time, it is clear that those states with the highest cesarean birth rate decades ago, still remain in those spots today.

6. “We are talking about cultural phenomena when we are talking about cesareans, not just medical phenomena.”

7. First time, low risk mothers who birthed at term and experienced labor had a 5% cesarean rate if they went into spontaneous labor and did not receive an epidural.  If they were induced and received an epidural, the cesarean rate was 31%.

8. The United States has the lowest VBAC rate of any industrialized country in the world.

© Birth by the Numbers

© Birth by the Numbers

While the video is rich (and heavy) in data laden charts and diagrams, the message, though not new, is clear.  The US maternity care system is in crisis.  We have to right the ship, and get back on course for healthier and safer births for pregnant people and babies. Take a look at this new video, and think about what messages you can share with the families you work with and in the classes you teach, to help consumers make informed choices about the care they receive during the childbearing year.

Please watch the video, visit the website to view the slides and let me know here in the comments section what you are going to use from this information to improve birth.

Babies, Cesarean Birth, Childbirth Education, informed Consent, Maternal Obesity, Maternal Quality Improvement, Maternity Care, Medical Interventions, New Research , , , ,

Epidurals: Do They or Don’t They Increase Cesareans?

January 27th, 2015 by avatar

By Henci Goer

In October, Author Henci Goer wrote an article for Science & Sensibility, Epidural Anesthesia: To Delay or Not To Delay – That is the Question – examining the impact of the timing of an epidural on labor and birth.  Today Henci looks at some new research, Epidural analgesia in labour and risk of caesarean delivery which seeks to determine whether receiving an epidural at all impacts the likelihood of a cesarean delivery.  Lamaze International has a great infographic on epidurals that you also may find very helpful. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.

© J. Wasikowski, provided by Birthtastic

© J. Wasikowski, provided by Birthtastic

Let’s start with a bit of background for those of you who didn’t personally live through the early controversy over whether epidurals increased the cesarean rate. As epidurals began to achieve popularity in the late 1970s and 1980s, one researcher sounded the alarm when he and his group published a study of 714 first-time mothers showing that even after excluding women with big babies and women whose labor pattern was abnormal prior to having an epidural, epidurals remained a potent factor in cesarean rates for delayed progress (Thorp 1989). Everyone pooh-poohed his finding on grounds that observational studies can’t truly determine whether epidurals lead to more cesareans or women experiencing more prolonged, painful labors, and therefore at higher risk for cesarean, were more likely to want epidurals. The “chicken versus egg” question, they argued, couldn’t be resolved without a randomized controlled trial (RCT), and it wasn’t likely that women would agree to be assigned by chance to have an epidural or not. In point of fact, that same year saw publication of a small Danish RCT (107 women, 104 of them first-time mothers) (Philipsen 1989). It reported that having an epidural nearly tripled the cesarean rate (16% vs. 6%) for “cephalopelvic disproportion” despite no clinical evidence of CPD being a requirement for inclusion. The investigators ignored this, however, concluding only that instrumental vaginal delivery rates were similar, and epidurals provided better pain relief. In any case, the anesthetic dose was much higher than was already becoming the norm, so it could be reasonably argued that the trial’s findings wouldn’t apply to modern-day practice.

Thorp, meanwhile, took up the RCT challenge. He and his colleagues carried out an epidural versus no epidural trial in 93 first-time mothers and found that epidurals did, in fact, lead to cesareans (25% vs. 2%), not vice versa (Thorp 1993). That bit of unwelcome news precipitated a stampede to perform more RCTs, and when enough of those had accumulated, to a series of systematic reviews pooling their data (meta-analysis), of which the Cochrane review, Anim-Somuah et al. (2011), is the latest. These reached the more comfortable conclusion that epidurals didn’t increase likelihood of cesarean, and pro-epiduralists breathed a collective sigh of relief and went back, if they had ever stopped, to unreservedly recommending epidurals. (This rather sweeps under the rug the other problems epidurals can cause, but that’s a topic for another day.)

Weaknesses of the “Epidural” vs. “No Epidural” Trials


By User:Ravedave (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)

The finding that epidurals don’t increase cesareans is puzzling because they increase likelihood of factors associated with them (Anim-Somuah 2011). For one thing, they increase use of oxytocin to augment labor, which implies they slow labor. For another, more women run fevers, and it stands to reason that a woman progressing slowly who starts running a fever is a likely candidate for cesarean. For a third, the difference in fetal malposition (occiput posterior) rates at delivery comes close to achieving statistical significance, meaning the difference is unlikely to be due to chance. Persistent OP is strongly associated with cesarean delivery (Cheng 2006; Fitzpatrick 2001; Phipps 2014; Ponkey 2003; Senecal 2005; Sizer 2000). Epidurals even increase cesareans for fetal distress by 40%, although the absolute difference didn’t amount to much (1 more per 100 women). Could a difference exist and meta-analysis of RCTs fail to detect it?

A string of well-conducted observational studies over the years have suggested that they could (Eriksen 2011; Kjaergaard 2008; Lieberman 1996; Nguyen 2010), the most recent of which is a very large, very convincing study published last fall (Bannister-Tyrrell 2014). Its authors point out, as have others before them, the weaknesses of the RCTs, weaknesses serious enough to nullify their results or make them inapplicable to typical community practice (external validity).

To begin with, in most trials, substantial percentages of women allocated to the non-epidural group ended up having epidurals, and some women allocated to the epidural group ended up not having one. Since RCTs analyze results according to group assignment (to do otherwise would negate the point of random assignment, which is to avoid bias), not what actually happened, this diminishes differences between groups. In addition, trials were mostly confined to women with no medical or obstetric complications who were treated according to strict protocols for labor management and indications for cesarean delivery. Neither is the case in most hospitals. To these I would add that many trials lumped together first-time mothers and women with prior births when reporting outcomes. First-time mothers are much more susceptible to factors that impede progress, so including women with prior vaginal births can make it appear that epidurals are less problematic for first-time mothers than they really are. In addition, three of the trials were carried out in a hospital where participants were mostly attended by midwives, and cesarean rates were much lower than is common for women attended by obstetricians.

All of this means that any null results in meta-analyses of the trials can be taken with a grain of salt, any findings of significant differences probably represent a minimal value, and first-time moms may be harder hit than appears. To cite one example, Anim-Somuah (2011) reported that 5 more women per 100 having epidurals had a malpositioned baby at delivery (18% vs. 13%) in the 4 trials reporting this outcome, a difference, as I said, that just missed achieving statistical significance. But when I confined results to the two trials in first-time mothers alone in which 10% or fewer of the women in the “no-epidural” group had an epidural, the gap widened to 9 more per 100 (11% vs. 2%).

Summary of the Bannister-Tyrrell (2014) Analysis

Bannister-Tyrrell and colleagues (2014) drew their population from a database of 210,700 Australian women with no prior cesareans who were laboring at term with a singleton, head-down baby. A strength of the database was that, unlike most, it distinguished epidurals for labor from epidurals for delivery. Using a long list of factors, investigators constructed a propensity score for how likely a woman was to have an epidural, matched women according to their score, and compared results according to whether women with the same score had or didn’t have an epidural. Matched controls were found for 52,600 women who had an epidural and were found across the full range of propensity scores. Women having epidurals were 2.5 times more likely to have a cesarean (20% vs. 8%), or put another way, 12 more women per 100 having epidurals had a cesarean (absolute excess), which amounts to 1 additional cesarean for every 8.5 women having an epidural (number needed to harm). Among first-time mothers, women having epidurals were 2.4 times more likely to have a cesarean. Study authors didn’t provide cesarean rates for this subgroup, but the raw cesarean rates overall were 18% in first-time mothers versus 2% in women with prior births, so the effect on this more vulnerable population could be dire.

But there’s still more. Investigators further adjusted for confounding factors not captured in their database. These included differences in health-care settings (same state but not same city), care provider (women without epidurals are more likely to be attended by midwives), and for confounding interventions more likely with epidurals (continuous fetal monitoring). Relative risk of cesarean with an epidural remained at 2.5. Investigators then adjusted for the association between occiput posterior baby and cesarean by setting estimates of the risk ratio to exceed the strongest associations reported in the literature, and they assumed that the prevalence of severe labor pain was 3 to 4 times higher in women having epidurals. Factoring these into their statistical analysis reduced the risk ratio, but women having epidurals still were 50% more likely to have a cesarean. This means that with a baseline cesarean rate of 8% in women without an epidural, 12% of women with an epidural will have one or 4 more women per 100 or 1 more cesarean for every 25 women.

The Take-Home

At the very least we cannot assure women with confidence that epidurals don’t increase the likelihood of cesarean. For this reason and because of their numerous other drawbacks and considering that comfort measures and other strategies have been shown to be both effective for most women and free of adverse effects (Declercq 2006; Jones 2012), women may want to make epidurals Plan B rather than Plan A. That being said, whatever their choice, women can minimize their chance of cesarean—with or without an epidural—by choosing a midwife or doctor whose policies and practices promote spontaneous vaginal birth http://www.lamaze.org/HealthyBirthPractices.


Anim-Somuah, M., Smyth, R. M., & Jones, L. (2011). Epidural versus non-epidural or no analgesia in labour. Cochrane Database Syst Rev(12), CD000331. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD000331.pub3 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22161362

Bannister-Tyrrell, M., Ford, J. B., Morris, J. M., & Roberts, C. L. (2014). Epidural analgesia in labour and risk of caesarean delivery. Paediatr Perinat Epidemiol, 28(5), 400-411. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25040829

Cheng, Y. W., Shaffer, B. L., & Caughey, A. B. (2006). Associated factors and outcomes of persistent occiput posterior position: A retrospective cohort study from 1976 to 2001. J Matern Fetal Neonatal Med, 19(9), 563-568. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16966125?dopt=Citation

Declercq, E., Sakala, C., Corry, M. P., & Applebaum, S. (2006). Listening to Mothers II: Report of the Second National U.S. Survey of Women’s Childbearing Experiences. New York: Childbirth Connection. http://childbirthconnection.org/pdfs/LTMII_report.pdf

Eriksen, L. M., Nohr, E. A., & Kjaergaard, H. (2011). Mode of delivery after epidural analgesia in a cohort of low-risk nulliparas. Birth, 38(4), 317-326. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22112332

Fitzpatrick, M., McQuillan, K., & O’Herlihy, C. (2001). Influence of persistent occiput posterior position on delivery outcome. Obstet Gynecol, 98(6), 1027-1031. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11755548?dopt=Citation

Jones, L., Othman, M., Dowswell, T., Alfirevic, Z., Gates, S., Newburn, M., . . . Neilson, J. P. (2012). Pain management for women in labour: an overview of systematic reviews. Cochrane Database Syst Rev, 3, CD009234. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22419342

Kjaergaard, H., Olsen, J., Ottesen, B., Nyberg, P., & Dykes, A. K. (2008). Obstetric risk indicators for labour dystocia in nulliparous women: a multi-centre cohort study. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth, 8, 45. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18837972?dopt=Citation

Lieberman, E., Lang, J. M., Cohen, A., D’Agostino, R., Jr., Datta, S., & Frigoletto, F. D., Jr. (1996). Association of epidural analgesia with cesarean delivery in nulliparas. Obstet Gynecol, 88(6), 993-1000. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8942841

Nguyen, U. S., Rothman, K. J., Demissie, S., Jackson, D. J., Lang, J. M., & Ecker, J. L. (2010). Epidural analgesia and risks of cesarean and operative vaginal deliveries in nulliparous and multiparous women. Matern Child Health J, 14(5), 705-712. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19760498?dopt=Citation

Philipsen, T., & Jensen, N. H. (1989). Epidural block or parenteral pethidine as analgesic in labour; a randomized study concerning progress in labour and instrumental deliveries. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol, 30(1), 27-33. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2924990

Phipps, H., Hyett, J. A., Graham, K., Carseldine, W. J., Tooher, J., & de Vries, B. (2014). Is there an association between sonographically determined occipito-transverse position in the second stage of labor and operative delivery? Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand, 93(10), 1018-1024. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25060716

Ponkey, S. E., Cohen, A. P., Heffner, L. J., & Lieberman, E. (2003). Persistent fetal occiput posterior position: obstetric outcomes. Obstet Gynecol, 101(5 Pt 1), 915-920. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12738150?dopt=Citation

Senecal, J., Xiong, X., Fraser, W. D., & Pushing Early Or Pushing Late with Epidural study, group. (2005). Effect of fetal position on second-stage duration and labor outcome. Obstet Gynecol, 105(4), 763-772. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15802403

Sizer, A. R., & Nirmal, D. M. (2000). Occipitoposterior position: associated factors and obstetric outcome in nulliparas. Obstet Gynecol, 96(5 Pt 1), 749-752. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11042312?dopt=Citation

Thorp, J. A., Hu, D. H., Albin, R. M., McNitt, J., Meyer, B. A., Cohen, G. R., & Yeast, J. D. (1993). The effect of intrapartum epidural analgesia on nulliparous labor: a randomized, controlled, prospective trial. Am J Obstet Gynecol, 169(4), 851-858. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8238138?dopt=Citation

Thorp, J. A., Parisi, V. M., Boylan, P. C., & Johnston, D. A. (1989). The effect of continuous epidural analgesia on cesarean section for dystocia in nulliparous women. Am J Obstet Gynecol, 161(3), 670-675. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2782350

About Henci Goer

Henci Goer

Henci Goer

Henci Goer, award-winning medical writer and internationally known speaker, is the author of The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth and Optimal Care in Childbirth: The Case for a Physiologic Approach She is the winner of the American College of Nurse-Midwives “Best Book of the Year” award. An independent scholar, she is an acknowledged expert on evidence-based maternity care.  


Cesarean Birth, Childbirth Education, Epidural Analgesia, Guest Posts, Healthy Birth Practices, Medical Interventions, New Research, Pain Management, Research , , , , , , ,

Sarah Buckley’s “Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and Implications for Women, Babies, and Maternity Care” – A Review for Birth Educators and Doulas

January 13th, 2015 by avatar

by Penny Simkin, PT, CD(DONA)

Today, a long awaited report written by Dr. Sarah Buckley, “Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and Implications for Women, Babies, and Maternity Care” is being released by Childbirth Connection. In this valuable report, Dr. Buckley gathers the most current research and provides the definitive guide for the role of hormones in normal, natural birth.  Esteemed childbirth educator, doula and author/filmmaker Penny Simkin has reviewed Dr. Buckley’s latest offering and shares today on Science & Sensibility how childbirth educators, doulas and other birth professionals can use this information to inform parents on how best to support the physiological process of childbirth.  In coordination with this research report, Dr. Buckley and Childbirth Connection are releasing a consumer booklet geared for families and consumers as well as other material, including infographics in support of this report.  On Thursday, Lamaze International Past President Michele Ondeck will share her interview with Dr. Buckley. In that interview,  S&S readers can get the full story directly from Dr. Buckley, on just what it took to create this remarkable tome. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.

© Childbirth Connection

© Childbirth Connection


For many of us who work in the maternity field, Sarah Buckley’s fine work is well-known. Her book, “Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering” (Buckley, 2009) has provided scholarly and enlightening guidance on natural childbirth and early parenting for many years. Her 16 page paper, “Ecstatic Birth,” (Buckley, 2010) guides educators and doula trainers, who rely heavily on her explanations of hormonal physiology in childbearing, for teaching about labor physiology and psychology and the impact of care practices.

Her newest publication, “Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and Implications for Women, Babies, and Maternity Care,” (Buckley, 2015) is a gift to us all. It represents a massive scholarly effort, a review of all the related scientific literature on the topic. With 1141 references, most of which were published in recent years, Dr. Buckley’s overview provides the transparency to allow readers to trace her statements to the evidence on which they are based. She exercises caution in drawing concrete conclusions when the evidence is insufficient; she presents such information as theory (rather than fact), and points out when more research is necessary for concrete conclusions. The “theory” that undisturbed birth is safest and healthiest for most mothers and babies most of the time is impressively supported by her exhaustive review, as stated in the conclusion (Buckley, 2015):

“According to the evidence summarized in this report, the innate hormonal physiology of mothers and babies – when promoted, supported, and protected – has significant benefits for both during the critical transitions of labor, birth, and the early postpartum and newborn periods, likely extending into the future by optimizing breastfeeding and attachment. While beneficial in selected circumstances, maternity care interventions may disrupt these beneficial processes. Because of the possibility of enduring effects, including via epigenetics, the Precautionary Principle suggests caution in deviating from these healthy physiologic processes in childbearing.”

The Precautionary Principle, to which she refers, has been stated as follows:

“When an activity raises threats of harm to human health or the environment, precautionary measures should be taken even if some cause and effect relationships are not fully established scientifically. In this context the proponent of an activity, rather than the public, should bear the burden of proof. . . . It (the activity) must also involve an examination of the full range of alternatives, including no action.” (Science and Environmental Health Network, 1998).

In other words, when applied to maternity care, The Precautionary Principle states that when a practice, action, or policy may raise threats of harm to mother, baby, or family, the burden of proof that it will result in more good than harm falls on those who wish to adopt it – the policy maker, caregiver, or administrator, not on the pregnant person.

© Sarah Buckley

© Sarah Buckley

What’s new in this document and how might you use it and apply it in your classroom or practice?

This document represents the “State of the Science” regarding hormonal physiology of childbirth (HPOC). It should be the starting point for consideration of proposed changes in maternity care management and education. The question, “How might this policy, practice, or new information impact the HPOC and subsequent outcomes for mother and/or baby?” should be asked and answered about both existing and proposed interventions.

Sarah Buckley has asked and answered this question, and reveals the unintended consequences of numerous widespread practices, including scheduled birth – induced labor or planned cesarean; disturbance and excessive stress during labor; synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin); opioids and epidural analgesia for labor pain; early separation of mother from infant or wrapping the infant in a blanket to be held (i.e., no skin-to-skin contact); breastmilk substitutes, and many more. All of these practices cause more harm than good, except in unusual or abnormal circumstances.

One of the greatest contributions of this book is showing that hormonal physiology is affected by virtually every intervention –major and minor — and understanding this is the key to appropriate maternity care. The topic is complex and not nearly fully understood, but Sarah Buckley has pulled together just about everything that is now known on this topic. If you’re a maternity care practitioner or student, who wants to approach the care you give from a physiological perspective, or want information on the impact of common interventions on the physiological process, it’s all here. If you’re a researcher interested in studying some aspect of HPOC, your literature search has already been done for you and you can discover the many areas that have been insufficiently studied and plan where to go from there.

If you’re a childbirth educator seeking to give accurate information to expectant parents about how normal childbirth unfolds and how it can be altered (for better or worse) with common procedures and medications, you can learn it here. If you’re a doula who wants to understand how your presence and actions may contribute to normalcy, you can learn it here. If you’re an expectant parent who wants to make choices that maintain or improve the pregnant person and infant’s well-being, you can learn it here or access the consumer guide.

Organization of the Chapters

This book, with its numerous references, sheer number of pages, level of detail and broad scope, may seem daunting at first. However, if you take some time to familiarize yourself with the layout of the book before plunging in, you will find that the material in each chapter is arranged so that readers can explore each topic at varying levels of detail.

The book begins with a very helpful 10 page executive summary of the contents. There are then two chapters introducing concepts relevant to HPOC, and on the physiologic vs. scheduled onset of birth (induction and planned cesarean birth). The 7 chapters are organized with topics and subtopics. The first paragraph beneath the headings for each topic or sub-topic briefly and clearly summarizes the information in that section in italics, so that you can skim each topic by reading only the italicized summary. If you wish to investigate some subtopics more deeply, you can read everything included on those topics. Each chapter also ends with a summary of the entire chapter. Chapters 3, 4, 5, and 6 (Chapter 3 — “Oxytocin;” 4 —“Beta-Endorphins;” 5 —“Epinephrine-Norepinephrine and Related Stress Hormones;” ; and 6 —“Prolactin”) follow the same outline of topics and subtopics.

Using Chapter 6 (“Prolactin”) as an example, here is the outline:

  • 6.1 Normal physiology of prolactin
    • 6.1.1 Introduction: Prolactin
    • 6.1.2 Prolactin in pregnancy
    • 6.1.3 Prolactin in labor and birth
    • 6.1.4 Prolactin after birth
  • 6.2 Maternity care practices that may impact the physiology of prolactin
    • 6.2.1 Possible impacts of maternity care provider and birth environment on prolactin
    • 6.2.2 Prostaglandins for cervical ripening and labor induction: possible impacts on prolactin
    • 6.2.3 Synthetic Oxytocin in labor for induction, augmentation, and postpartum care: possible impacts on prolactin
    • 6.2.4 Opioid analgesic drugs: possible impacts on physiology of prolactin
    • 6.2.5 Epidural analgesia: possible impacts on physiology of prolactin
    • 6.2.6 Cesarean section: possible impacts on physiology of prolactin
    • 6.2.7 Early separation of healthy mothers and newborns: possible impact on physiology of prolactin
  • 6.3 Summary of all findings on prolactin

For childbirth educators: how might we use this information to benefit our students?

I especially appreciate that Dr. Buckley begins every section with a description of the relevant physiology. In order to be truly effective, we educators should do the same in our classes, to ensure that our students understand how and when their care is consistent with physiological childbearing and when (and why) it is not. “’Physiological childbearing’ refers to childbearing conforming to healthy biological processes,” (Buckley, 2015, page 11) as opposed to what many might refer to as “medicalized childbearing,” in which the physiologic process is altered or replaced with interventions and medications.

© Childbirth Connection

© Childbirth Connection

Childbirth education should be designed to allay the pregnant person’s anxiety, not by avoiding mention of potentially troubling labor situations, or minimizing concerns mentioned by the students, but rather by giving realistic portrayals of birth, encouraging expression of feelings, and dealing with them by informing, reframing, desensitizing, and strategizing ways to handle troubling situations. Following is an example of how an educator might include hormonal physiology of childbearing to teach about one critical topic – Physiologic Onset of Labor, which is Lamaze International’s First Healthy Birth Practice.

Let labor begin on its own: How to teach from the standpoint of HPOC

Chapter 2 in HPOC , “Physiologic Onset of Labor and Scheduled Birth,” details the ‘highly complex orchestrated events that lead to full readiness for labor, birth and the critical postpartum transitions of mother and baby.” (Buckley, 2015). As educators, we should try to convey this information, in simplified form, to help our students appreciate the beauty and connectedness of the whole mother-baby dyad. They need to understand the consequences of interrupting the chain of events that usually result in optimal timing of birth. Most parents (and many caregivers as well) have no idea that the fetus determines the onset of labor. Nor do they know that fetal readiness for labor (including protection against hypoxia and readiness for newborn transitions after birth) is coordinated with preparation of the mother’s body for labor, breastfeeding and mother-infant attachment. Once students have some grasp of these processes, they appreciate and want to protect them from interruption or replacement by medical means. As we know, most inductions and many planned cesareans are done without medical reason (ACOG, 2014). Out of ignorance and/or misinformation from their caregivers, parents often agree or even ask for these procedures.

While many educators know and teach about the risks and benefits of induction and planned cesarean, they often don’t convey the physiology on which the benefits and risks are based. It’s all here in HPOC, and this information may inspire parents to question, seek alternatives or decline these procedures.

Over the years, I have wrestled with the challenge of conveying this information fairly simply and concisely, and now, with the help of Katie Rohs, developed a new animated PowerPoint slide, “The Events of Late Pregnancy” (Simkin, 2013) that I use in class. You may access this animated slide and accompanying discussion points/teacher guide here.© Penny Simkin

© Penny Simkin

This is just one example of how we may shift our focus as teachers to incorporate basic hormonal physiology as a starting point. Dr. Buckley gives us a solid understanding of what is known about the key role the endocrine system plays in orchestrating the whole childbearing process, and why we shouldn’t disrupt this elegant process without clear medical reasons. If we teachers and other birth workers incorporate this information in our practices and in our teaching, outcomes will improve.

“Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing” is surely the most extensive search ever done on this topic, and is a solid guide to learning this crucial information. Encyclopedic in its scope, and multi-layered in its depth, this book will be most useful as a reference text, rather than a book to read straight through. It is pretty dense reading, but when you have a question relating to reproductive physiology or the effects of interventions, you can search for well-explained answers. The evidence-based conclusions that Sarah Buckley has synthesized from an abundance of research (1141 references!) are authoritative and must be made accessible. This is truly “State of the Science” on Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing.


Typical maternity care today has departed so far from physiology that in many cases it causes more harm than good, as borne out by Dr. Buckley’s discussions throughout the book of the impact (i.e., unintended consequences) of common maternity care practices on hormonal physiology and mother-baby outcomes. Our job is to inform expectant parents of these things and help them translate information into preparedness and confident participation in their care. If we do our job well, our students will want to support, protect, and participate in the physiological process, which has yet to be improved upon. Parents and their babies will benefit! Our thanks should go out to Sarah Buckley and to Childbirth Connection for bringing this gift to us.

In conclusion, Sarah Buckley’s “Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing” is an impressive exploration of the major hormonal influences underlying all aspects of the labor and birth process. As we understand and incorporate the knowledge included in the book, the birth process will become safer, with effects lasting over the life span.


American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and Society of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, 2014. Safe Prevention of the Primary Cesarean Delivery. Obstetric Care Consensus Number 1. Obstet Gynecol ;123:693–711.

Buckley S. Ecstatic Birth. Nature’s Hormonal Blueprint for Labor. 2010. www.sarahbuckley.com

Buckley S. 2009, Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices. Celestial Arts, Berkeley

Buckley S. 2015. Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and Implications for Women, Babies and Maternity Care. Childbirth Connection, New York

Science & Environmental Health Network. 1998. Wingspread Conference on the Precautionary Principle. Accessed Jan. 8, 2015, https://www.google.com/search?q=The+Precautionary+Principle&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8.

Simkin P. 2013, Events of Late Pregnancy. Childbirth Education Handout and Slide Penny Simkin, Inc. Seattle. https://www.pennysimkin.com/events-powerpoint

About Penny Simkin

penny_simkinPenny Simkin is a physical therapist who has specialized in childbirth education and labor support since 1968. She estimates she has prepared over 13,000 women, couples and siblings for childbirth, and has assisted hundreds of women or couples through childbirth as a doula. She has produced several birth-related films and is the author of many books and articles on birth for both parents and professionals. Her books include The Labor Progress Handbook (2011), with Ruth Ancheta, The Birth Partner (2013), and When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Sexual Abuse of Childbearing Women (2004), with Phyllis Klaus. Penny and her husband have four adult children and eight grandchildren. Penny can be reached through her website.


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A Tale of Two Births – Comparing Hospitals to Hospitals

December 9th, 2014 by avatar

By Christine H. Morton, PhD

Today, Christine H. Morton, PhD, takes a moment to highlight a just released infographic and report by the California Healthcare Foundation that clearly shows the significance of birthing in a hospital that is “low performing.”  This is a great follow up post to “Practice Variation in Cesarean Rates: Not Due to Maternal Complications” that Pam Vireday wrote about last month. Where women choose to birth really matters and their choice has the potential to have profound impact on their birth outcomes.   – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.

An Internet search of “A Tale of Two Births” brings up several blog posts about disparities in experience and outcomes between one person’s hospital and subsequent birth center or home births. Sometimes the disparity is explained away by the fact that for many women, their second labor and birth is shorter and easier than their first. Or debate rages about the statistics on home birth or certified professional midwifery. Now we have a NEW Tale of Two Births to add to the mix. However, this one compares the experiences of two women, who are alike in every respect but one – the hospital where they give birth.

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The California HealthCare Foundation has created an infographic drawn from data reported on California’s healthcare public reporting website, CalQualityCare.org. In this infographic, we meet two women, Sara, and Maya who are identical in every respect – both are the same age, race, and having their first baby, which is head down, at term. However, Sara plans to have her baby at a “high-performing” hospital while Maya will give birth at a “low-performing” hospital. “High performing” is defined as three or more Superior or Above Average scores and no Average, Below Average, or Poor scores on the four maternity measures. “Low performing” is defined as three or more Below Average or Poor scores on the four maternity measures.

Based on the data from those hospitals, the infographic compares the likelihood of each woman experiencing four events: low-risk C-section, episiotomy, exclusive breastmilk before discharge, and VBAC (vaginal birth after C-section) rates (the latter one of course requires us to imagine that Sara and Maya had a prior C-section).

First-time mom Sara has a 19% chance of a C-section at her high-performing hospital, while Maya faces a 56% chance of having a C-section at her low-performing hospital. These percentages reflect the weighted average of all high- and low- performing hospitals.

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The readers of this blog will no doubt be familiar with these quality metrics and their trends over time. Two of these metrics (low risk C-section and exclusive breastmilk on discharge) are part of the Joint Commission’s Perinatal Care Measure Set. The other two – episiotomy and VBAC are important outcomes of interest to maternity care advocates and, of course, expectant mothers.

Hospitals with >1100 births annually have been required to report the five measures in the Joint Commission’s Perinatal Care Measure Set since January 2014, and these metrics will be publicly reported as of January 2015.

Childbirth educators can help expectant parents find their state’s quality measures and use this information in selecting a hospital for birth. In the event that changing providers or hospitals is not a viable option, childbirth educators can teach pregnant women what they can do to increase their chances of optimal birth outcomes by sharing the Six Healthy Practices with all students, but especially those giving birth in hospitals that are “low-performing.”

You can download the infographic in English and en Español tambien!

About Christine H. Morton

christine morton headshotChristine H. Morton, PhD, is a medical sociologist. Her research and publications focus on women’s reproductive experiences, maternity care advocacy and maternal quality improvement. She is the founder of an online listserv for social scientists studying reproduction, ReproNetwork.org.  Since 2008, she has been at California Maternal Quality Care Collaborative at Stanford University, an organization working to improve maternal quality care and eliminate preventable maternal death and injury and associated racial disparities. She is the author, with Elayne Clift, of Birth Ambassadors: Doulas and the Re-emergence of Woman Supported Childbirth in the United States.  In October 2013, she was elected to the Lamaze International Board of Directors.  She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, their two school age children and their two dogs.  She can be reached via her website.

Babies, Cesarean Birth, Childbirth Education, Do No Harm, Evidence Based Medicine, Guest Posts, Healthy Birth Practices, Maternal Quality Improvement, Maternity Care, Medical Interventions, New Research, Newborns, Push for Your Baby , , , , , ,

Practice Variation in Cesarean Rates: Not Due to Maternal Complications

November 13th, 2014 by avatar

By Pam Vireday

Pam Vireday, an occasional contributor to Science & Sensibility reviews the recent study by Katy Kozhimannil, PhD and colleagues that examined the differences in cesarean rates between over a thousand hospitals in the USA.  Consumers of maternity care quite possibly do not realize what a significant impact their choice of facility (and provider) may have on their birth outcome.  Can you think of hospitals in your own community serving similar populations of pregnant families that have drastically different cesarean rates.  Have you considered why that might be?  Do you think that the families you work with have explored this too?  Do they even have access to this information?  Read Pam’s discussion of this recent study below.  – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.

© Patti Ramos Photography

© Patti Ramos Photography

There’s a new study out that discusses the variation in cesarean rates between hospitals in the United States. “Maternal clinical diagnoses and hospital variation in the risk of cesarean delivery: Analyses of a national US hospital discharge database” was released late last month and has received a lot of press and discussion ever since.

Practice variation is a serious problem in obstetrics (Arcia 2013). Women are often far more at risk for a cesarean in certain hospitals than in others, even when the hospitals serve the same geographical area and population (Arnold, January 2013 and August 2012).

Of course, care providers protest that some hospitals have higher cesarean rates because they serve higher-risk patients. This is a valid point, but it still doesn’t explain the wide variation in rates between many hospitals (Clark 2007).

For example, in a press release about the new study, the mother’s risk status and diagnoses did not explain the variation in cesarean rates between hospitals:

“We found that the variability in hospital cesarean rates was not driven by differences in maternal diagnoses or pregnancy complexity,” said [lead study author] Kozhimannil. “This means there was significantly higher variation in hospital rates than would be expected based on women’s health conditions. On average, the likelihood of cesarean delivery for an individual woman varied between 19 and 48 percent across hospitals.”

Other key points highlighted included:

  • Among lower risk women, likelihood of cesarean delivery varied between 8 and 32 percent across hospitals.
  • Among higher risk women, likelihood of cesarean delivery varied between 56 and 92 percent across hospitals.
  • Hospital variability did not decrease after adjusting for patient diagnoses, socio-demographics, and hospital characteristics.

This shows that practice variation in cesarean rates is real, substantive, and not just a reflection of the mother’s risk level. 

Perhaps now we can stop playing the mother blame-game when we talk about cesarean rates? (Declerq 2006, Oganowski 2011)

This study is not the first to show that the culture of a hospital, its policies, and its routine practices all help determine how likely a woman is to “need” a cesarean in that hospital.

For example, Cáceres 2013 found that even after adjusting for socio-demographic and clinical factors and including only NTSV (Nulliparous, Term, Singleton, Vertex) pregnancies, the cesarean rate varied significantly between Massachusetts hospitals, “suggesting the importance of hospital practices and culture in determining a hospital’s cesarean rate.”

In addition, a 2014 consensus statement from the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine notes, “Variation in the rates of nulliparous, term, singleton, vertex cesarean births also indicates that clinical practice patterns affect the number of cesarean births performed.”

Preventing cesareans when possible is important because while cesareans can be life-saving at times, they present more risk for maternal infection, bleeding and blood clots, and more neonatal breathing problems (Liu 2007, Visser 2014).

Notably, a large case-control study in U.K. maternity units found that delivery by cesarean was a strong risk factor for severe sepsis (Acosta 2014). Other research has found a high rate of maternal complications (Pallasmaa 2010) and poorer neonatal outcomes (Kolås 2006) associated with cesareans.

In addition, a cesarean’s potential negative effect on future pregnancies is important (Silver 2012). One American study found that the rate of an abnormal placental attachment increased in conjunction with the rise in cesarean delivery rate (Wu 2005), while a Canadian study found that a prior cesarean was associated with an increased risk for adverse neonatal outcomes in subsequent pregnancies (Abenhaim and Benjamin 2011).

Bottom line, it matters where and with whom a woman gives birth in order to lessen the risk for complications, both now and in the future.

But many women naively choose their care provider for pregnancy based mostly on convenience and location, not realizing that their chances of surgical birth may vary greatly depending on which hospital and caregiver they use (Arnold 2014, Arnold January 9 2013).

Childbirth Connection, a leading consumer education site, points out:

Research suggests that the same woman might have a c-section at one hospital but a vaginal birth if she gave birth at another, just because of the different policies and practices of those hospitals. One of the most effective ways to lower your chance of having a c-section is to have your baby in a setting with a low c-section rate.

Yet it is not always easy to find out the cesarean rates of local hospitals in some areas. For example, the health departments of Missouri, South Carolina, and Washington D.C. do not make hospital-level cesarean rates available to consumers.

Hospitals remain largely unaccountable for high cesarean rates, although we are beginning to see marginal progress in some places towards more accountability (Gentry 2014 and Dekker 2014). In the meantime, however, thousands of women are undergoing cesareans, many of which might be preventable with changes in clinical practices (Boyle 2013).

And even when a cesarean is truly necessary, there can be large discrepancies in complications afterwards between hospitals (Alonso-Zaldivar 2014). It’s not just about how many cesareans are done, but also about which hospitals have the best outcomes when a cesarean is done. Without more information, how is a woman to know which hospital to choose?

Bottom line, more transparency and accountability are needed. As the lead author of the study states:

Women deserve evidence-based, consistent, high-quality maternity care, regardless of the hospital where they give birth…and these results indicate that we have a long way to go toward reaching this goal in the U.S.

*To search for hospital-level cesarean rates in your area, see www.cesareanrates.com or the 2014 Consumer Reports article (subscription required) rating hospitals in 22 states.

Do you ever encourage your students and clients to look at the cesarean rates (and rates of other interventions which may lead to cesareans) of the hospitals they are considering birthing in.  Please share your experience in our comments section. – SM


Abenhaim, H. A., & Benjamin, A. (2011). Effect of prior cesarean delivery on neonatal outcomes. Journal of perinatal medicine39(3), 241-244. PMID: 21426242

Acosta, C. D., Kurinczuk, J. J., Lucas, D. N., Tuffnell, D. J., Sellers, S., & Knight, M. (2014). Severe Maternal Sepsis in the UK, 2011–2012: A National Case-Control Study. PLoS medicine11(7), e1001672. PMID: 25003759

Alonso-Zaldivar, R (2014, August 27). Study: Wide hospital quality gap on maternity care. Retrieved from http://www.fosters.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?AID=/20140827/GJLIFESTYLES/140809539/0/SEARCH.

Arcia, A (2013, February 3). What is practice variation in obstetrics and why should I care? Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2013/2/3/what-is-practice-variation-in-obstetrics-and-why-should-i-ca.html.

Arnold, J (2012, August 22). Practice variation in New Jersey: 27 miles and 28 percentage points. Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2012/8/22/practice-variation-in-new-jersey-27-miles-and-28-percentage.html.

Arnold, J (2013, January 9). Practice variation in East Los Angeles cesarean rates. Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2013/1/9/practice-variation-in-east-los-angeles-cesarean-rates.html.

Arnold, J (2013, January 7). Practice variation in West Virginia: 60 miles and 54 percentage points. Retireved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2013/1/7/practice-variation-in-west-virginia-60-miles-and-54-percenta.html.

Arnold, J (2014, March 13). Three miles/Cinco Kilometros. Retrieved from http://www.cesareanrates.com/blog/2014/3/13/three-miles-cinco-kilometros.html.

Boyle, A., Reddy, U. M., Landy, H. J., Huang, C. C., Driggers, R. W., & Laughon, S. K. (2013). Primary cesarean delivery in the United States. Obstetrics & Gynecology122(1), 33-40. PMID: 23743454

Cáceres IA, Arcaya M, Declercq E, Belanoff CM, Janakiraman V, Dohen B, Ecker J, Smith LA, Subramanian SV (2013). Hospital differences in cesarean deliveries in Massachusetts (US) 2004-2006: the case against case-mix artifact. PLOS One, 8(3):e57817. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0057817. PMID:23526952

Clark SL, Belfort MA, Hankins GD, Meyers JA, Houser FM (2007). Variation in the rates of operative delivery in the United States. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology, 196(6):526.e1-526.e5.  PMID: 17547880

Caughey, A. B., Cahill, A. G., Guise, J. M., & Rouse, D. J. (2014). Safe prevention of the primary cesarean delivery. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology,210(3), 179-193. doi: 10.1016/j.ajog.2014.01.026. PMID:24565430

Declercq, E., Menacker, F., & MacDorman, M. (2006). Maternal risk profiles and the primary cesarean rate in the United States, 1991–2002. American journal of public health, 96(5), 867. PMID: 16571712

Dekker, R (2014, October 29). U.S. hospitals held accountable for C-section rates. Retrieved from http://www.birthbythenumbers.org/?p=1731

DePoint, M (2014, October 22). Maternal diagnoses doesn’t explain variation in cesarean rates across US hospitals. University of Minnesota, School of Public Health. Retrieved from http://sph.umn.edu/maternal-diagnoses-doesnt-explain-variation-cesarean-rates-across-us-hospitals/.

Gentry, C (2014, May 14). FL still C-section hotspot. Retrieved from http://health.wusf.usf.edu/post/fl-still-c-section-hotspot.

Kolås, T., Saugstad, O. D., Daltveit, A. K., Nilsen, S. T., & Øian, P. (2006). Planned cesarean versus planned vaginal delivery at term: comparison of newborn infant outcomes. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology,195(6), 1538-1543. PMID: 16846577

Kozhimannil KB, Arcaya MC, Subramanian SV (2014). Maternal clinical diagnoses and hospital variation in the risk of cesarean delivery: Analyses of a national US hospital discharge database.  PLoS medicine, 11(10):e1001745. doi: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1001745. PMID: 25333943

Liu, S., Liston, R. M., Joseph, K. S., Heaman, M., Sauve, R., & Kramer, M. S. (2007). Maternal mortality and severe morbidity associated with low-risk planned cesarean delivery versus planned vaginal delivery at term. Canadian medical association journal176(4), 455-460. PMID: 17296957

Oganowski, K (2010, January 13). The C-section blame game: I’ve reached my boiling point. Retrieved from http://birthingbeautifulideas.com/?p=1245.

Pallasmaa, N., Ekblad, U., AITOKALLIO‐TALLBERG, A. N. S. A., Uotila, J., Raudaskoski, T., ULANDER, V., & Hurme, S. (2010). Cesarean delivery in Finland: maternal complications and obstetric risk factors. Acta obstetricia et gynecologica Scandinavica89(7), 896-902. PMID: 20583935

Phend, C (2013, March 5). C-Section rates vary widely between hospitals, study finds. MedPage Today. Retrieved from http://abcnews.go.com/Health/section-rates-vary-widely-hospitals-study-finds/story?id=18656847.

Silver, R. M. (2012, October). Implications of the first cesarean: perinatal and future reproductive health and subsequent cesareans, placentation issues, uterine rupture risk, morbidity, and mortality. In Seminars in perinatology (Vol. 36, No. 5, pp. 315-323). WB Saunders. PMID: 23009962

Visser GH (2014). Women are designed to deliver vaginally and not by Cesarean section: An obstetrician’s view. Neonatology, 107(1):8-13. PMID: 25301178

What every pregnant woman needs to know about Cesarean section (2012). Childbirth Connection. Retrieved from http://www.childbirthconnection.org/pdfs/cesareanbooklet.pdf.

What hospitals don’t want you to know about C-sections (2014, May). Consumer Reports. Retrieved from http://consumerreports.org/cro/2014/05/what-hospitals-do-not-want-you-to-know-about-c-sections/index.htm.

Wu, S., Kocherginsky, M., & Hibbard, J. U. (2005). Abnormal placentation: twenty-year analysis. American journal of obstetrics and gynecology192(5), 1458-1461. PMID: 15902137

A version of this post originally appeared on www.wellroundedmama.blogspot.com

About Pam Vireday

Painting by Mary Cassatt, 1844-1926. (public domain) Image from Wikimedia Commons.

Pam Vireday is a childbirth educator, writer, woman of size, and mother to four children. She has been collecting the stories of women of size and writing about childbirth research for 17 years. She writes at www.wellroundedmama.blogspot.com and www.plus-size-pregnancy.org.


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