Posts Tagged ‘epidurals’

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 , , , , , , ,

Non-Drug Pain Coping Strategies Improve Outcomes

July 17th, 2014 by avatar

 Today, contributor Henci Goer reviews a recently published study in the journal Birth, that compared the outcomes of births in women who received non pharmacological pain management techniques with women who received the “usual care” treatment.  The researchers found that maternal and infant outcomes were improved.  Take a moment to read Henci’s review to get a glimpse at the results and her analysis.- Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager

© Patti Ramos Photography

© Patti Ramos Photography

In 2012,  the Cochrane Database published an overview of systematic reviews of forms of pain management that summarized the results of the Cochrane database’s suite of systematic reviews of randomized controlled trials (RCTs) of various pain management techniques. Reviewers reached the rather anemic conclusion that epidurals did best at relieving pain—no surprise there—but increased need for medical intervention—no surprise there either—while non-drug modalities (hypnosis, immersion in warm water, relaxation techniques, acupressure/acupuncture, hands on techniques such as massage or reflexology, and TENS) did equally well or better than their comparison groups (“standard care,” a placebo, or a different specific treatment) at relieving pain, at satisfaction with pain relief, or both, and they had no adverse effects (Jones 2012). Insofar as it went, this finding was helpful for advocating for use of non-drug strategies, but it didn’t go very far.

Fast forward two years, and we have a new, much more robust review: Nonpharmacologic approaches for pain management during labor compared with usual care: a meta-analysis. Its ingenious authors grouped trials of non-drug pain relief modalities according to mechanism of action, which increased the statistical power to determine their effects and avoided inappropriately pooling data from dissimilar studies in meta-analyses (Chaillet 2014). The three mechanisms were Gate Control Theory, which applies nonpainful stimuli to partially block pain transmission; Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control, which administers a painful stimulus elsewhere on the body, thereby blocking pain transmission from the uterine contraction and promoting endorphin release in the spinal cord and brain; and Central Nervous System Control, which affects perception and emotions and also releases endorphins within the brain.

Overall, 57 RCTs comparing non-drug strategies with usual care met eligibility criteria: 21 Gate Control (light massage, warm water immersion, positions/ambulation, birth ball, warm packs), 10 Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control (sterile water injections, acupressure, acupuncture, high intensity TENS), and 26 Central Nervous System Control (antenatal education, continuous support, attention deviation techniques, aromatherapy). Eleven of the Central Nervous System Control trials specifically added at least one other strategy to continuous support. More about the effect of that in a moment.

Now for the results…

Compared with Gate Control-based strategies, usual care was associated with increased use of epidurals (6 trials, 3369 women, odds ratio: 1.22), higher labor pain scores (3 trials, 278 women, mean difference 1 on a scoring range of 0-10), and more use of oxytocin (10 trials, 2672 women, odds ratio: 1.25). Usual care also increased likelihood of cesarean in studies of walking (3 trials, 1463 women, odds ratio: 1.64).

Compared with Diffuse Noxious Inhibitory Control strategies, usual care was associated with increased use of epidurals (6 trials, 920 women, odds ratio: 1.62), higher labor pain scores (1 trial, 142 women, mean difference 10 on a scoring range of 0-100), and decreased maternal satisfaction as measured in individual trials by feeling safe, relaxed, in control, and perception of experience.

We hit the jackpot with Central Nervous System Control strategies (probably because female labor support, which has numerous studies and strong evidence supporting it, dominate this category [19 labor support, 6 antenatal education, 1 aromatherapy]). As before, usual care is associated with more epidurals (11 trials, 11,957 women, odds ratio: 1.13), more use of oxytocin (19 trials, 14,293 women, odds ratio: 1.20), and decreased maternal satisfaction as measured in individual trials by perception of experience and anxiety. In addition, however, usual care is associated with increased likelihood of cesarean delivery (27 trials, 23,860 women, odds ratio: 1.60), instrumental delivery (21 trials, 15,591 women, odds ratio: 1.21), longer labor duration (13 trials, 4276 women, 30 min), and neonatal resuscitation (3 trials, 7069 women, odds ratio: 1.11).

© Breathtaking Photography http://flic.kr/p/3255VD

© Breathtaking Photography http://flic.kr/p/3255VD

The big winner, though, was continuous support combined with at least one other strategy. Usual care in these 11 trials was even more disadvantageous than in central nervous system trials overall with respect to cesareans (11 trials, 10,338 women): odds ratio 2.17 versus 1.6 for all central nervous system trials, and instrumental delivery (6 trials, 2281 women): odds ratio 1.78 versus 1.21 for all central nervous system trials.

The strength of the data is impressive. Altogether, Chaillet et al. report on 97 outcomes, of which 44 differences favoring non-drug strategies achieve statistical significance, meaning the difference is unlikely to be due to chance, while not one statistically significant difference favors usual care. And there’s still more: benefits of non-drug strategies are probably greater than they appear because on the one hand, “usual care” could include non-drug strategies for coping with labor pain and on the other, many institutions have policies and practices that make it difficult to cope using non-drug strategies alone, strongly encourage epidural use, or both.

The reviewers conclude that their findings showed that:

Nonpharmacologic approaches can contribute to reducing medical interventions, and thus represent an important part of intrapartum care, if not used routinely as the first method for pain relief…however, in some situations, nonpharmacologic approaches may become insufficient…the use of pharmacologic approaches could then be beneficial to reduce pain intensity to prevent suffering and help women cope with labor pain…birth settings and hospital policies . . . should facilitate a supportive birthing environment and should make readily available a broad spectrum of nonpharmacologic and pharmacologic pain relief approaches. (p. 133)

No one could argue with that, but a persuasive argument alone is unlikely to carry the day given the entrenched systemic barriers in many hospitals. States an anesthesiologist: “While there may be problems with high epidural usage, in the presence of our nursing shortages and economic or business considerations, having a woman in bed, attached to an intravenous line and continuous electronic fetal monitor and in receipt of an epidural may be the only realistic way to go” (quoted in Leeman 2003). The Cochrane reviewers concur, writing that using non-drug strategies is “more realistic” (p. 4) outside of the typical hospital environs.

So long as this remains the case, attempts to introduce non-drug options are likely to make little headway. As Lamaze International’s own Judith Lothian trenchantly observes:

If we put women in hospitals with restrictive policies—they’re hooked up to everything, they’re expected to be in bed—of course they’re going to go for the epidural because they’re unable to work through their pain. . . . I go wild with nurses and childbirth educators who say, . . . “[Women] just want to come in and have their epidural.” I say, “And even if they don’t . . ., they come to your hospital, and they have no choice. . . . They can’t manage their pain because you won’t let them.” (quoted in Block 2007, p. 175)

Success at integrating non-drug strategies will almost certainly depend on addressing underlying factors that maintain the status quo. Can it be done? You tell us. Does your hospital take a multifaceted approach to coping with labor pain? If so, how was it implemented and how is it sustained?


Block, Jennifer. (2007). Pushed: The Painful Truth About Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.

Chaillet, N., Belaid, L., Crochetiere, C., Roy, L., Gagne, G. P., Moutquin, J. M., . . . Bonapace, J. (2014). Nonpharmacologic approaches for pain management during labor compared with usual care: a meta-analysis. Birth, 41(2), 122-137. doi: 10.1111/birt.12103 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24761801

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. doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009234.pub2 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/2241934

Leeman, L., Fontaine, P., King, V., Klein, M. C., & Ratcliffe, S. (2003). Management of labor pain: promoting patient choice. Am Fam Physician, 68(6), 1023, 1026, 1033 passim. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14524393?dopt=Citation

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 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.  

Childbirth Education, Doula Care, Epidural Analgesia, Guest Posts, Maternity Care, Medical Interventions, Newborns, Research , , , , ,

Peanut Balls for Labor – A Valuable Tool for Promoting Progress?

April 8th, 2014 by avatar

 Today, Andrea Lythgoe, LCCE and doula, takes a look at the peanut ball as a tool for promoting labor progress for women resting in bed or with an epidural.  Many more facilities are making this new tool available to laboring women. Childbirth educators will benefit by understanding how to teach peanut ball use to families in the classroom and those professionals who attend births will want to know about the benefits and proper usage as well. Andrea shares the research that is available along with the personal perspectives of those who have used them firsthand. – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.


Most experienced peanut ball users recommend either the 45 cm or 55 cm sized peanut ball. The size is measured from the floor to the tallest point on one of the larger ends. Because it will be used between the legs to open up the pelvic outlet, you don’t want it to be as large as the balls that are used for sitting and swaying. As I learned about the peanut ball, I found that many moms who did not like the peanut ball in labor felt it was too big. For this reason, I chose to purchase and use the 45 cm sized ball, which is the size used in the photos that accompany this article.

The peanut ball is most commonly used when mom needs to remain in the bed, whether because of epidural use, complications, or simply because mom is exhausted. There are two main ways in which peanut balls are used, with plenty of room for variation. The first is with mom in a semi reclined position, one leg over the ball, one leg to the side of the ball. The ball is pushed as close to mom’s hips as is comfortable. As the ball can have a tendency to slide away from the mom, a rolled up towel can be used to hold it in place. This position seems to be most commonly used to promote dilation and descent with a well-positioned baby.

The second common use is with mom in a side-lying or semi-prone position, with the peanut ball being used to lift the upper leg and open the pelvic outlet. The ball can be angled so that the leg hooks around the narrower part, or aligned with both mom’s knee and ankle resting on the ball. Mom’s comfort level is key to knowing the right placement. Most women who used this position used it to help rotate a posterior baby to a more favorable position for delivery.


© Maternal Focus

The Research

There is not much research out there on the use of the peanut ball. In my search, I found one study, presented as a poster presentation at the 2011 AWHONN Convention. Tussey and Botsois (2011) randomized 200 women (uncomplicated labor with an epidural) into two groups. One group used the peanut ball in either the semi Fowler’s position (bottom photos) or the sidelying position (top photos), switching sides every 1-2 hours. The sample size was small, but the results were very promising. The first stage of labor was shorter by an average of 90 minutes, and second stage was roughly half as long (43.5 min in the control group, 21.3 min in the peanut ball group). The use of vacuum and forceps was also lower in the peanut ball group. There were no serious adverse events reported in the study. This looks very promising, and I will be watching for more studies on the peanut ball in future years.

Many have speculated that the more upright semi Fowler’s position might also be helpful in preventing the increase in operative deliveries seen with epidurals (Anim-Somuah (2011), but a recent Cochrane Review found insufficient evidence to demonstrate a clear effect. (Kemp, 2013) A similar review looking at the benefits of upright positions in moms without an epidural did show some benefit. (Gupta, 2012)

Since it is known that babies in an Occiput Posterior (OP) position can increase the length of second stage and the rate of operative delivery (Lieberman, 2013; Caseldine, 2013) the reports of posterior babies turning when the peanut ball is used may be a big reason for its effectiveness.

The Mother’s Experience

Jennifer Padilla, a mom who used the peanut ball in labor, described to me her experience with using the ball to rotate her posterior baby after 20 hours of labor. She had an epidural that did not take as well as she would have liked, and still found the peanut ball in the side lying position to be comfortable enough to take short naps. She said it took 1-2 hours with the peanut ball to rotate her baby, but that once the baby rotated to an anterior position, she was ready to push.

In preparing for this article, I read through over 30 online birth stories that included the peanut ball and noticed a few common themes:

Maternal Preferences and Positioning

Moms who were unmedicated preferred upright positions to the peanut ball nearly every time. Even when they used it and felt it was beneficial, the comments were not very positive. For example, one mom described it like this:

Being positioned on the peanut ball was excruciating, I couldn’t see straight and was howling in agony. I wanted to push it away and jump up but I could feel it working.

Moms with an epidural liked the peanut ball almost universally, except for a few instances where moms complained it “made their butt go numb” when using it in the semi-Fowler’s position. Some commented that it was difficult to sleep when needing to switch the ball from side to side. Most moms described switching every 1-2 hours, some as frequently as every 20 minutes. (Women with epidurals usually switch side to side with the same frequency, even without the epidural.) One mom felt that using it semi-prone made her feel “undignified” and she wished her nurse had kept her covered with a sheet while lying in the position.
Some birth stories described moms leaning over the peanut ball, straddling the peanut ball, or using it in the shower in some capacity, but the vast majority used the ball in a side lying or semi prone position, with the reclined semi Fowlers a distant second.

Epidural Experiences

None of the moms who had an epidural reported any troubles with the epidurals losing effectiveness on one side while using the peanut ball, though several nurses I spoke with expressed concern that this would be a problem. More than a few moms who had an epidural said that they asked to stop using the peanut ball because of pressure in their back that turned out to be complete dilation.

Effect on Labor Progress

A few moms reported some pretty dramatic results:

A Doula’s Perspective

I spoke with Heidi Thaden-Pierce, a doula and CBE in Denton, Texas. She has been using the peanut ball with her doula clients for a while now, and she says women are very receptive to the idea. Many of them have already discovered that sleeping on their sides with a stack of pillows between their knees is very comfortable. The peanut ball replicates this and doesn’t slip and slide around as much as a stack of pillows can.

In her experience, most unmedicated moms will get up and get active in other positions over using the peanut ball, but “if a mom is needing some rest then we’ll tuck her into bed with the peanut ball because it’s comfortable and helps keep things in good alignment.” She also will occasionally use it while mom is on the bed on all fours as a place to rest mom’s upper body that is not as high as a regular birth ball. This can be nice if mom is more comfortable with her hips slightly higher than her shoulders.

Whenever I bring the ball to a hospital birth, I do explain what it is to the nurse and ask if there is any reason we should not use it. If a mom needs to labor in a certain position or there are concerns with the baby then I want to make sure that the peanut ball isn’t going to be in the way. I think it’s important that the mom’s care team be aware of and comfortable with the use of the peanut ball, so I make sure we talk about it before we try it at the birth.

The L&D Nurse’s Perspective

Carly Trythall, a nurse at the University of Utah Hospital in Salt Lake City, has worked with the peanut ball for labor in two different hospitals in her career as a nurse. She has mostly used the ball in the side lying position for helping to shorten labor. She said that most of her patients have been “accepting and eager” to try the ball and find it very comfortable. She finds that the ball is “most beneficial for moms who are not able to change positions frequently and utilize gravity (i.e. women with epidurals).”

The peanut balls are new to University Hospital; Carly was integral to introducing their use there, and she continues to work to educate patients and nurses about the balls and their use. Some providers have expressed a little resistance to their use, thinking it wouldn’t be beneficial for moms, but as they have gained experience, that is changing.

The Childbirth Educator’s Perspective – Teaching With The Peanut Ball

Because the effects of the peanut ball seem to be most pronounced in moms who use epidural anesthesia, teaching it in conjunction with epidural use seems the most logical. I teach techniques and support for moms with epidurals just after we learn the mechanics of an epidural and the benefits and risks of an epidural. This is where I recently integrated teaching about the peanut ball into my classes. Because I have a limited number of balls to work with (one peanut ball and one elliptical shaped ball of similar proportions) I can’t have all the moms practicing with the ball at the same time. I break up the group into smaller groups of 2-3 moms and partners, and have the other groups working on other epidural support activities while each group has a chance to practice with the peanut. We allow enough time for every mom who wants to experience the 2 main positions with the peanut to try them. I warn them the week before to be sure they wear comfortable loose clothing that they will be able to freely move around in as we practice.
We practice with mom trying out both of the main uses of the ball:

  1. Semi-sitting position (Semi Fowler’s) with one leg over the birth ball and one leg open to the side. In the absence of a hospital bed in the classroom, I use a traditional birth ball or mom’s partner sitting against the wall for moms to recline against as we practice this position.
  2. Side lying or semi prone with the peanut ball between the legs. We experiment with different positions to find a variation that is comfortable, reminding the parents that what they like now may not be the one they like in labor.

We also brainstorm possible ways to do these positions in the event there is not a peanut ball available.

Carly Trythall said that, as a nurse, she wished that women were learning more about the peanut ball in their classes: “I would like for moms to be taught the benefits of using a peanut ball during labor such as assisting with fetal rotation and descent by widening and opening the pelvis (great for OP babies), shortening the active phase of labor (because baby is in a more optimal position) and shortening the pushing phase of labor.


While there remains much to be learned about the efficacy and circumstances in which the peanut ball might be most useful, the peanut ball appears to be a promising technique for laboring women, in particular those who have a posterior baby and/or need to remain in bed. Teaching this technique in your childbirth class can help women go back to their care providers and birth places informed about another option that is becoming more and more widely available.

Are you teaching about peanut balls in your childbirth classes?  Are you seeing the balls in use in your communities?  Have you had personal experiences either as a birthing mother or a professional with the peanut balls?  Please share your experiences and information in the comments below so we can all learn about this new labor tool to help promote vaginal birth.- SM

To learn more about peanut balls:



My thanks to the University of Utah Labor and Delivery unit for the use of their room for the photos included in this article.


Anim-Somuah M, Smyth RMD, Jones L. (2011) Epidural versus non-epidural or no analgesia in labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 12. Art. No.: CD000331. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000331.pub3

Carseldine, W. J., Phipps, H., Zawada, S. F., Campbell, N. T., Ludlow, J. P., Krishnan, S. Y. and De Vries, B. S. (2013), Does occiput posterior position in the second stage of labour increase the operative delivery rate?. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, 53: 265–270. doi: 10.1111/ajo.12041

Gupta JK, Hofmeyr GJ, Shehmar M. (2012) Position in the second stage of labour for women without epidural anaesthesia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 5. Art. No.: CD002006. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD002006.pub3

Kemp E, Kingswood CJ, Kibuka M, Thornton JG. (2013) Position in the second stage of labour for women with epidural anaesthesia. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD008070. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD008070.pub2.

Lawrence A, Lewis L, Hofmeyr GJ, Styles C. (2013) Maternal positions and mobility during first stage labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD003934. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003934.pub4.

Lieberman, E, Davidson, K, Lee-Parritz, A, Shearer, E (2005) Changes in Fetal Position During Labor and Their Association With Epidural Analgesia. Obstetrics & Gynecology. 105(5, Part 1):974-982.

Overcoming the Challenges: Maternal Movement and Positioning to Facilitate Labor Progress.
Zwelling, Elaine PHD, RN, LCCE, FACCE
[Article] MCN, American Journal of Maternal Child Nursing. 35(2):72-78, March/April 2010.

Childbirth Education, Guest Posts, New Research, Research, Uncategorized , , , , , ,

Does Epidural Analgesia Predispose to Persistent Occiput Posterior?

February 14th, 2013 by avatar

Photo by Patti Ramos Photography

In my January Science and Sensibility blog post, I answered the question “Can We Prevent Persistent Occiput Posterior?” but because it wasn’t relevant to the study that prompted the post, and the piece was already long, I didn’t look at the role of epidural analgesia. Let me now rectify that.

All five studies examining the relationship between epidural analgesia and persistent occiput posterior (OP) find an association between them. Three studies compared women with an epidural versus no epidural according to whether they had an OP baby at delivery and found that 4 to 10 more women per 100 having an epidural had an OP baby at delivery (Cheng, 2006; Lieberman, 2005; Sizer, 2000). The other two compared women with an OP baby at delivery according to whether they had an epidural and found that 13 and 27 more women per 100 with a persistent OP baby had an epidural (Fitzpatrick, 2001; Ponkey, 2003).

Their results, however, aren’t sufficient to convict epidurals because we can’t tell whether having an epidural led to persistent OP or more painful and prolonged OP labor led to having an epidural. Investigators in one of the five studies argued for OP labor coming first on the grounds that while epidurals were more common in women with an OP baby at delivery than in women with an OA baby at delivery (74% vs. 47%) at their institution, a rise in epidural use from 3% in 1975 to 47% in 1998 had, if anything, decreased the hospital’s overall rate of persistent OP (4% vs. 2%) (Fitzpatrick, 2001). This must mean that as epidurals became more freely available, women having difficult OP labors were more likely to opt for one. Epidurals were the result, not the cause, of persistent OP. On the other hand, we have some corroborating evidence for their guilt. For one thing, back pain is thought to be a major reason why women with OP babies are more likely to want epidurals, but it turns out that back pain isn’t unique to OP. Serial sonograms reveal that virtually identical percentages of women laboring with an OA baby report back pain (Lieberman, 2005). For another, three of the five studies took into account other factors associated with difficult labor such as labor induction, labor augmentation, and birth weight and still found that epidurals were an independent risk factor for persistent OP (Cheng, 2006; Lieberman, 2005; Sizer, 2000).

Nevertheless, evidence from observational studies isn’t strong enough to close the case. As I noted, observational studies can determine association but not causation. In addition, investigators may not be able to identify all the confounding and correlating factors that affect outcomes. For a more definitive answer, we need experimental studies. This brings us to randomized controlled trials (RCTs), in which participants are randomly allocated to one form of treatment or the other, and to meta-analysis of RCTs, in which statistical techniques are used to pool data from more than one trial.

The Cochrane systematic review of epidural versus no epidural in labor pools data from four RCTs (673 women overall) that reported on persistent OP (Anim-Somuah, 2011). Five more women per 100 assigned to the epidural group had a persistent OP baby, but meta-analysis found that the difference just missed achieving statistical significance. The risk ratio was 1.4, meaning a 40% increased risk of persistent OP in women assigned to the epidural group compared with women assigned to the no-epidural group, but the 95% confidence interval ranged from 1.0 to 2.0, meaning a 95% probability that the true value lies between no increase (ratio of 1:1) and double the risk (2.0). However, a problem with the RCTs of epidural versus no epidural is that substantial percentages of women assigned to the no-epidural group actually had epidurals, but, as is prescribed in RCT data analysis, they were kept in their original group. In two of the four trials (204 women), though, 10% or less of women assigned to the no-epidural group had epidurals. If we calculate the excess rate of persistent OP in these two trials, we find that the gap widens to 9 more women per 100 with epidurals having a persistent OP baby. We don’t know whether this difference would achieve statistical significance, but the fact that the excess is in the same range as reported in the observational studies (4 to 10 more per 100) gives confidence in its validity.

Patti Ramos Photography

We also have two studies that suggest that the timing of the epidural may matter. One, of 320 women, reports that, after controlling for age, induction of labor, and birth weight, initiating an epidural at fetal station less than zero (above the ischial spines) resulted in 16 more women having a persistent OP or occiput transverse (OT) baby compared with initiation at 0 station or greater (at or lower than the ischial spines), an excess that rose to 20 more per 100 in first time mothers (Robinson, 1996). The other study analyzed outcomes in 500 first-time mothers according to whether an epidural was administered early (at or before 5 cm dilation), late (after 5 cm dilation), or not at all (Thorp, 1991). Seventeen more women per 100 in the early group had a persistent OP or OT baby compared with women in the late-epidural group, and 12 more had a persistent OP or OT baby compared with the no-epidural group, but rates were similar in women in the late and no epidural groups.

Taken all together, we may not have absolute proof of epidural culpability in predisposing to OP, but if I were on the jury, I would vote them “guilty as charged.”

Take home: Even without certainty, the precautionary principle dictates recommending to women desiring an epidural that they use other measures to cope with labor pain until they enter active labor and until it seems clear that positioning and activities are not putting a slow labor on track.

What do you tell your clients, students and patients about the impact on fetal positioning in labor and birth?  Will having this information change what you say?  Let us know in the comments section.


Anim-Somuah, M., Smyth, R. M., & Jones, L. (2011). Epidural versus non-epidural or no analgesia in labour. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews(12), CD000331.

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. Journal of Maternal Fetal and Neonatal Medicine, 19(9), 563-568.

Fitzpatrick, M., McQuillan, K., & O’Herlihy, C. (2001). Influence of persistent occiput posterior position on delivery outcome. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 98(6), 1027-1031.

Lieberman, E., Davidson, K., Lee-Parritz, A., & Shearer, E. (2005). Changes in fetal position during labor and their association with epidural analgesia. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 105(5 Pt 1), 974-982.

Ponkey, S. E., Cohen, A. P., Heffner, L. J., & Lieberman, E. (2003). Persistent fetal occiput posterior position: obstetric outcomes. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 101(5 Pt 1), 915-920. 

Robinson, C. A., Macones, G. A., Roth, N. W., & Morgan, M. A. (1996). Does station of the fetal head at epidural placement affect the position of the fetal vertex at delivery? American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 175(4 Pt 1), 991-994.

Sizer, A. R., & Nirmal, D. M. (2000). Occipitoposterior position: associated factors and obstetric outcome in nulliparas. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 96(5 Pt 1), 749-752.

Thorp, J. A., Eckert, L. O., Ang, M. S., Johnston, D. A., Peaceman, A. M., & Parisi, V. M. (1991). Epidural analgesia and cesarean section for dystocia: risk factors in nulliparas. American Journal of Perinatology, 8(6), 402-410.

Childbirth Education, Epidural Analgesia, Evidence Based Medicine, Guest Posts, informed Consent, Medical Interventions, Pain Management, Research , , , , , , ,

It Takes a Professional Village! A Study Looks At Collaborative Interdisciplinary Maternity Care Programs on Perinatal Outcomes

September 19th, 2012 by avatar

The  Canadian Medical Association Journal, published in their September 12, 2012 issue a very interesting study examining how a team approach to maternity care might improve maternal and neonat aloutcomes.  The study, Effect of a collaborative interdisciplinary maternity care program on perinatal outcomes  is reviewed here.

The Challenge

Photo Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/jstownsley/28337593/

The number of physicians in Canada who provide obstetric care has declined in past years for reasons that include increasing physician retirement, closure of rural hospitals, liability concerns, dissatisfaction with the lifestyle and a difficulty in accessing maternity care in a variety of settings.  While registered midwife attended births may be on the rise, midwives in Canada attend less than 10% of all births nationwide.   At the same time as the number of doctors willing or able to attend births decline, cesarean rates are on the rise,  causing pressure on the maternity care system, including longer hospital stays both intrapartum and postpartum, which brings with it the associated costs and resources needed to accommodate this increase.

The diversity of the population having babies in many provinces is increasing, presenting additional challenges in meeting the non-French/English speaking population, who are more at risk for increased obstetrical interventions and are less likely to breastfeed.

The Study

In response to these challenges, the South Community Birth Program was established to provide care from a consortium of providers, including family practice physicians, community health nurses, doulas, midwives and others, who would work together to serve the multiethnic, low income communities that may be most at risk for interventions and surgery.

The retrospective cohort study examined outcomes between two matched groups of healthy women receiving maternity care in an ethically diverse region of South Vancouver, BC, Canada that has upwards of 45% immigrant families, 18% of them arriving in Canada in the past 5 years.  One group participated in the South Community Birth Program and the other received standard care in community based practices.

The South Community Birth Program offers maternity care in a team-based shared-care model, with the family practice doctors, midwives, nurses and doulas working together .  Women could be referred to the program by the health care provider or self refer.  After a few initial standard obstetrical appointments with a family practice doctor or midwife occur to determine medical history, physical examination, genetic history, necessary labs and other prenatal testing, the women and their partners are invited to join group prenatal care, based on the Centering Pregnancy Model.  Approximately 20% of the first time mothers choose to remain in the traditional obstetric care model.  10-12  families are grouped by their expected due date, and meet for 10 scheduled sessions, facilitated by either a family physician or midwife and a community nurse.  Each session has a carefully designed curriculum that covers nutrition, exercise, labor, birth and newborn care, among other topics.  Monthly meetings to discuss individual situations and access to comprehensive electronic medical records enhanced the collaboration between the team. Trained doulas, who speak 25 different languages, also meet with the family once prenatally and provide one on one continuous labor support during labor and birth. The admitting midwife or physician remains in the hospital during the patient’s labor and attends the birth.

After a hospital stay of 24-48 hours, the family receives a home visit from a family practice physician or midwife the day after discharge. Clinic breastfeeding and postpartum support is provided by a Master’s level clinical nurse specialist who is also a board certified lactation consultant.  At six weeks, the mother is discharged back to her physician, and a weekly drop in clinic is offered through 6 months postpartum.

The outcomes of the women in the South Community Birth Program were compared to women who received standard care from their midwives or family practice physicians.  Similar cohorts were established of women carrying a single baby of like ages, parity, and geographic region, and all the mothers were considered low risk and of normal body mass index.

The primary outcome measured was the proportion of women who underwent cesarean delivery.  The secondary outcomes measured were obstetrical interventions and maternal outcomes (method of fetal assessment during labor, use of analgesia during labor, augmentation or induction of labor, length of labor, perineal tramau, blood transfusion and length of stay) and neonatal outcomes (stillbirth, death before discharge, Apgar score less than 7, preterm delivery, small or large for gestational age, length of hospital stay, readmission, admission to neonatal intensive care unit for more than 24 hours and method of feeding at discharge).


There was more incidence of diabetes and previous cesareans in the comparison group but the level of alcohol and substance use was the same in both groups.  Midwives delivered 41.9% of the babies in the birth program and 7.4% of babies in the comparison group.

When the rate of cesarean delivery was examined for both nullips and multips, the birth group women were at significantly reduced risk of cesarean delivery and were not at increased risk of assisted vaginal delivery with forceps or vacuum.

Interestingly, the birth program women who received care from an obstetrician were significantly more likely to have a cesarean than those receiving in the standard program who also received care from an obstetrician.  More women in the birth program with a prior cesarean delivery planned a vaginal birth in this pregnancy, though the proportion of successful vaginal births after cesareans dd not differ between the two groups.

The women in the community birth program experienced more intermittent auscultation vs electronic fetal monitoring and were more likely to use nitrous oxide and oxygen alone for pain relief and less likely to use epidural analgesia (Table 3).  Though indications for inductions did not differ, the birth program women were less likely to be induced.  More third degree perineal tears were observed in the birth program group but less episiotomies were performed.  Hospital stays were shorter for both mothers and newborns in the community program.

When you look at the newborns in the birth program, they were at marginally increased risk of being large for gestational age and were readmitted to the hospital in the first 28 days after birth at a higher rate, the majority of readmissions in the community and standard care group were due to jaundice. Exclusive breastfeeding in the birth program group was higher than in the standard group.


The mothers and the babies in the community birth program were offered collaborative, multidisciplinary, community based care and this resulted in a lower cesarean rate, shorter hospital stays, experienced less interventions and they left the hospital more likely to be exclusively breastfeeding. Many of the outcomes observed in this study, especially for the families participating in the South Birth Community Program are in line with Lamaze International’s Healthy Birth Practices.  There are many questions that can be raised, and some of them are are discussed by the authors.

Was it the collaborative care from an interdisciplinary team result in better outcomes?  Was there a self-selection by the women themselves for the low intervention route that resulted in the observed differences?  Are the care providers themselves who are more likely to support normal birth self-selecting to work in the community birth program? Did the fact that the geographic area of the study had been underserved by maternity providers before the study play a role in the outcomes? Did the emotional and social support provided by the prenatal and postpartum group meetings facilitate a more informed or engaged group of families?

I also wonder how childbirth educators, added to such a model program, might also offer opportunity to reduce interventions and improve outcomes  Could childbirth educators in your community partner with other maternity care providers to work collaboratively to meet the perinatal needs of expectant families?  Would bringing health care providers interested in supporting physiologic birth in to share their knowledge in YOUR classrooms help to create an environment where families felt supported by an entire skilled team of people helping them to achieve better outcomes.

Would this model be financially and logistically replicable in other underserved communities and help to alleviate some of the concerns of a reduction in obstetrical providers and increased cesareans and interventions without improved maternal and newborn outcomes? And how can you, the childbirth educator, play a role?


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Harris, S., Janssen, P., Saxell, L., Carty, E., MacRae, G., & Petersen, K. (2012). Effect of a collaborative interdisciplinary maternity care program on perinatal outcomes. Canadian Medical Association Journal, doi: DOI:10.1503 /cmaj.111753

Ontario Maternity Care Expert Panel. Maternity care in Ontario 2006: emerging crisis, emerging solutions: Ottawa (ON): Ontario Women’s Health Council, Ministry of Health and LongTerm Care; 2006.

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