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Looking Back in Time: What Women’s Bodies are Telling Us about Modern Maternity Care

June 18th, 2015 by avatar

By Christina Gebel, MPH, LCCE, Birth Doula

Christina Gebel, MPH, LCCE, Doula writes a reflective post examining current birthing conditions to see how today’s practices might be interfering with the the normal hormonal physiology and consequently impacting women’s ability to give birth.  Times have certainly changed and birth has moved from the home to the hospital.  A slow but steady increase in out of hospital births is examined and Christina asks us to consider why women are increasingly choosing to birth outside the hospital – and what do hormones have to do with it? – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager

“Pregnancy is not a disease, but a beautiful office of nature.” These are the words of Victoria Woodhull, the first female candidate for President of the United States in 1872.

Lajja_gauri ancient birth art

© “Lajja gauri

The world in which pregnant women find themselves today looks a lot different than the time of Woodhull’s campaign run. For instance, hospitals didn’t become the mainstream setting for labor and delivery until the 1930s and 40s. While modern medicine has undoubtedly helped millions of women who may have otherwise died in childbirth, mothers and birth advocates across the nation are beginning to ask if we are paying a price for today’s standard maternity care. With increasing protocols and interventions, pregnancy is viewed less like the office of nature Woodhull spoke of and more like a pathological condition.

The Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing, a recent report by Sarah Buckley, systematically reviews existing research about the impact that common maternity practices may have on innate hormonal physiology in women and fetuses/newborns. The report finds strong evidence to suggest that our maternity care interventions may disturb these processes, reduce their benefits, or even create new challenges. To find out more, read an interview that Science & Sensibility did with Dr. Buckley when her groundbreaking report was released.

Let’s examine something as simple as the environment that a woman gives birth in. In prehistoric times, laboring women faced immediate threats and dangers. They possessed the typical mammalian “fight-or-flight” reaction to these stressors. The hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine caused blood to be diverted away from the baby and uterus to the heart, lungs, and muscles of the mother so that she could flee. This elevation in stress hormones also stalled labor, to give the mother more time to escape. Essentially, she told her body ‘this place is not safe,’ and her body responded appropriately by stopping the labor to protect the mother and her child during a very vulnerable time.

Today, mothers are not fleeing wild animals but rather giving birth in hospitals, the setting for nearly 99% of today’s births, where this innate response may cause their labor to stall. The sometimes frenetic environment or numerous brief encounters with unfamiliar faces may trigger a sense of unease and, consequently, the fight-or-flight response, stalling the mother’s labor. Prolonged labor in a hospital invariably leads to concern and a need to intervene, often by the administration of Pitocin, synthetic oxytocin, to facilitate regular contractions. Arrested labor could lead to further interventions up to and including a cesarean section. The fight-or-flight response may be further reinforced by these interventions, as they potentially come one after the other, in what is often referred to as the “cascade of interventions.”

This is just one example of how a woman’s body’s natural physiology can go from purposeful to working against the labor, the mother and the baby. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are both necessary in labor and delivery. In fact, at appropriate levels, these hormones support vital processes protecting the infant from hypoxia and facilitating neonatal transitions such as optimal breathing, temperature, and glucose regulation, all markers for a healthy infant at birth.

Recent data show that mothers themselves may already think what the Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing report suggests. The series of Listening to Mothers (LtM) studies, a nationally-representative survey of childbearing women, shows a shift in mothers’ attitudes towards normal physiologic birth: In 2012, 58% of mothers agreed somewhat or strongly that giving birth is a process that should not be interfered with unless medically necessary, up from 45% in 2000. According to 2013 national birth data, out-of-hospital (home and birth center) births have increased 55% since 2004, but the overall percentage is still only 1.35% of all births nationwide. While low, this shows that a small core of mothers are voting with their feet and choosing to give birth out of the hospital. Though their choice may seem extreme, they’re not alone. In the LtM data, which only surveys women who have given birth in a US hospital, 29% of mothers said they would definitely want or would consider giving birth at home for a future birth, and 64% said the same of a birth center. All this raises the question: What’s happening in a hospital that is leading mothers to consider other settings for their next birth?

One answer to upholding women’s preferences, autonomy, and the value of normal physiologic birth is a mother’s involvement in shared decision making with her provider, along with increasing access to models of care that support innate physiologic childbearing, like midwives in birth centers. Increasing access to these options may present a challenge, as demand seems to outweigh availability.

Leslie Ludka (MSN, CNM) has been the Director of the Cambridge Health Alliance Birth Center (Cambridge, Mass.) as well as the Director of Midwifery since 2008. Like other birth centers, the center has seen a steady increase in demand each year, with patients coming from all over New England. Ludka sees many barriers to having more birth centers available including finances (the reimbursement for birth not being comparable to an in-hospital birth), “vacuums in institutional comprehension” of the advantages of the birth center model for low-risk women, and the rigorous process to be nationally certified by the Commission for the Accreditation of Birth Centers (CABC), requiring “a great commitment and a lot of support by all involved.” In order to overcome these barriers, Ludka suggests marketing the safety of birth centers to the general public, sharing outcome statistics for women and infants cared for in birth centers, and educating insurers and providers about the overall benefits and financial savings of midwifery and the birth center model. With supportive policy and better understanding on the part of insurers, the public, and healthcare institutions, models like the birth center could become more plentiful, more easily meeting the demand.

Women’s bodies are sending subtle messages that our current healthcare system is, at times, not serving their needs. It’s time to respond to these messages, beginning by viewing childbirth foundationally as a life event and not first as pathology, and adapting our models of care to speak to this viewpoint. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of creating excess risk for women and newborns.

It’s been 143 years since Woodhull ran for president. We’ve made progress in getting much closer to seeing our first woman president, but with childbirth, perhaps our progress now starts with looking back in time.

About Christina Gebel

© Christina Gebel

© Christina Gebel

Christina Gebel holds a Master of Public Health in Maternal and Child Health from the Boston University School of Public Health. She is a birth doula and Certified Lamaze Childbirth Educator as well as a freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She currently resides in Boston working in public health research. You can follow her on Twitter: @ChristinaGebel and contact her through her website duallovedoula.com

Childbirth Education, Guest Posts, Home Birth, Maternity Care, Medical Interventions, Midwifery , , , ,

American Obstetrician Takes Rational Position on Home Birth

June 16th, 2015 by avatar

Neel Shah, Harvard Medical School assistant professor and practicing obstetrician, commenting in the New England Journal of Medicine Perspectives section –  “A NICE Delivery – The Cross-Atlantic Divide over Treatment Intensity in Childbirth“, agrees with new United Kingdom National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines concluding that healthy, low-risk women are better off at home or in a midwife-led unit than in a hospital under the supervision of an obstetrician. Citing a table comparing outcomes in low-risk multiparous women from the Birthplace in England data, Shah writes:

The safety argument against physician-led hospital birth is simple and compelling: obstetricians, who are trained to use scalpels and are surrounded by operating rooms, are much more likely than midwives to pick up those scalpels and use them. For women giving birth, the many interventions that have become commonplace during childbirth are unpleasant and may lead to complications . . . .

He quite reasonably adds the caveat that the guidelines apply to low-risk women only and that even these women may develop labor complications without warning, but then, responsible home birth advocates acknowledge those same two points. That being said, I can’t resist adding a couple of caveats of my own.

© Families Upon ThamesFirst, one reason why women with risk factors plan home birth, women with prior cesareans being a common example, is that doctors and hospitals deny them the possibility of vaginal birth (Declercq 2013). With their only hospital alternative being unwanted and unneeded cesarean surgery, planned home birth becomes their least, worst option. This dilemma puts their choice squarely in the lap of the medical system. Another reason is that some women have been so emotionally traumatized by their treatment during a previous birth that they reject planned hospital birth and refuse intrapartum transfer even when this may be the safer option (Boucher 2009; Symon 2010). Again, the failure and its remedy lie with the system, not the woman.

Second, if the hospital lacks 24/7 obstetric, anesthesia, and pediatric coverage and at least a Level 2 nursery, which many do, then a woman is probably no better off in the hospital in an emergency than she would be at home or at a freestanding birth center. Furthermore, most urgent situations—a baby who doesn’t breathe, excessive bleeding, even umbilical cord prolapse—can be managed or stabilized by a properly trained and equipped home birth attendant. In fact, what would be done in the hospital is no different from what would be done at home: neonatal resuscitation, oxygen, medications to stop bleeding, maternal knee-chest position and manually holding the fetal head off the cord until cesarean.

Finally, with admirable frankness, Shah notes that unlike the U.K., and to the detriment of safety, “[A]ccess to obstetric care that is coordinated among homes, birthing centers, and hospitals is both unreliable and uncommon.” And while he doesn’t cast any blame, once more, the fault lies with the system. (Just as an FYI, a model guideline for transfer of care developed by a workgroup that included all stakeholders is publically available.)

Shah concludes: “The majority of women with straightforward pregnancies may truly be better off in the United Kingdom.” True that, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Dialing back the overuse of medical intervention and cesarean surgery; respecting the woman’s right to give informed consent and refusal; implementing a culture of care that is kind, compassionate, and respects a woman’s dignity; and ensuring that out-of-hospital birth attendants can consult, collaborate, and transfer care appropriately would have two benefits: it would reduce the number of women refusing hospital birth while minimizing the chance of adverse outcomes in those who continue to prefer to birth at home or in a freestanding birth center. Nonetheless, despite the generally positive responses accompanying Shah’s commentary, rather than inspiring a wave of reform, I would lay odds that the more common reaction to Shah’s piece within the medical community will be to shoot the messenger.

References

Boucher, D., Bennett, C., McFarlin, B., & Freeze, R. (2009). Staying home to give birth: why women in the United States choose home birth. J Midwifery Womens Health, 54(2), 119-126.

Declercq, E., Sakala, C., Corry, M. P., Applebaum, S., & Herrlich, Ariel. (2013). Listening to Mothers III. Pregnancy and Birth. New York: Childbirth Connection.

Symon, A., Winter, C., Donnan, P. T., & Kirkham, M. (2010). Examining autonomy’s boundaries: a follow-up review of perinatal mortality cases in UK independent midwifery. Birth, 37(4), 280-287.

About 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.

Evidence Based Medicine, Guest Posts, Home Birth, Maternal Quality Improvement, Maternity Care, Medical Interventions, Midwifery , , , , , ,

Jazz It Up! Using Haiku Deck to Create Snappy Image-Based Presentations

March 3rd, 2015 by avatar

By Jocelyn Alt, CD(ToLabor), MBA

 My favorite way to teach is using interactive, engaging activities that get my families building community with each other, interacting with class members, actively partipating rather than passive listening and often up and out of their seats.  Sometimes, it does become necessary to use a presentation format to present a topic.  Alternately, using such a format can help reinforce one of the activities you are doing in class.  Today on Science & Sensibility, CBE and doula Jocelyn Alt shares a tool, Haiku Deck, that she uses to create interesting presentations to use in her childbirth classes.  Jocelyn reviews it here and shares some of her recent presentations. – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager.

Some of my most rewarding moments as a childbirth educator are times when former participants share stories about using skills or information during their births that they learned in class. It might be a squatting position we practiced, the benefits and risks of narcotics as pain relief that we teach using an interactive game, or the BRAIN acronym for making informed decisions (see below if you are unfamiliar with this rubric.) My team of educators and I are always looking for new ways to make our classes more engaging and memorable so that our students will have a higher likelihood of recalling the information when they need it most – during labor.

Haiku Deck – reinforcing learning

It’s been known for eons that using images reinforces learning (it’s been said so often, the adage is hackneyed: “A picture is worth a thousand words.” But it’s often true!) So I was excited when I recently found out about a tool that allows you to create beautiful image-based slide presentations in a snap. It’s called Haiku Deck. Presentations created with this program can be used in conjunction with interactive activities as an introduction or backdrop, or alongside lecture components of class.

© Jocelyn Alt

© Jocelyn Alt

Here is an example of a presentation created with Haiku Deck: Top Five Tips for New Moms. If you click on the deck and view it on the Haiku Deck site, you can also see the notes that accompany each slide. After looking at the presentation, try testing its effectiveness on yourself. How many images do you remember from it? How many of the messages do you remember? How many do you think you would have remembered if you had simply seen them presented as text in a bulleted list?

Here’s another Haiku Deck for the acronym BRAIN: Five Essential Questions for Decision-Making in Labor, which I use to teach informed decision making. Each letter of the Screenshot 2015-03-02 16.22.22acronym stands for a question laboring parents can ask themselves and their care providers when faced with a decision in labor – or at any other time for that matter. One dad said that he found it so useful, he started using it as a decision-making tool at work! The acronym stands for Benefits, Risks, Alternatives, Intuition, and Need Time. Acronyms themselves can help with recall, and reinforcing them with images can make them even more sticky.

What I like about Haiku Deck

Ease of Use – The interface is elegant and simple to use.  One great feature is the huge library of images.  You just type in a word that relates to your content, and dozens of photos come up for your use.  With one click, you can add them to your presentation.

Effectiveness – The structure of Haiku Deck forces you to be concise with your words and use images to communicate much of your message. The result is presentations that connect to people.  Many of the most popular slide decks on the large presentation posting site SlideShare were made with Haiku Deck because they draw people in and are memorable.

Accessibility – You can use Haiku Deck to make presentations in a browser on your computer or through the iPad app. Presentations are all backed up on the Haiku Deck site and can be embedded into websites and social media, so you can easily make them available to your participants to reference outside of class.

Just for fun, here’s one last Haiku Deck on the Six Signs of Labor Progression.

Screenshot 2015-03-02 16.32.49

If you try Haiku Deck in your classes, I’d love to see any presentations you develop. Drop the links in the comments section below and let us know if you found the program easy or difficult to use and a bit about your experience.

Resources

Defetyer, M. A., Russo, R., McPartlin, P. L. (2009). The picture superiority effect in recognition memory: a developmental study using the response signal procedure.Cognitive Development, 24, 265-273. doi: 10.1016/j.cogdev.2009.05.002

Foos, P.W., & Goolkasian, P. (2005). Presentation formats in working memory: The role of attention. Memory & Cognition, 33(3), 499-513.

Shepard, R.N. (1967). Recognition memory for words, sentences, and pictures. Journal of Learning and Verbal Behavior, 6, 156-163.

About Jocelyn Alt

© Jocelyn Alt

© Jocelyn Alt

Jocelyn Alt, CD, MBA, is a childbirth educator and birth doula who has been working with expecting and new parents since 2006. Jocelyn is the Founder and Director of Ohana, a birth and parenting services company with locations in Chicago and Seattle that offers childbirth classes, prenatal yoga, doulas, new parent groups, and maternity concierge services. The word ohana means “family” in Hawaiian and refers to one’s inner circle of both family and close friends. In addition to helping parents-to-be transition to parenthood, Jocelyn enjoys hiking, cycling, and hosting dinner parties. She lives in Seattle, WA.  Reach Jocelyn through her website  www.OhanaParents.com.

 

 

 

Childbirth Education, Guest Posts , ,

BABE Series: Putting the “Tee” in Teaching Fetal Positions

February 12th, 2015 by avatar

Today, in our monthly series, “Brilliant Activities for Birth Educators” (BABE), regular contributor and LCCE Andrea Lythgoe shares a fantastic, interactive idea for helping families to better understand the different positions their baby can be in and the abbreviations used to refer to these positions.  If you have a great BABE idea that you would like to share with Science & Sensibility readers, please contact me and I will be in touch with you. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility

Why I made it

With the increasing popularity of websites discussing good positioning for the baby late in pregnancy and during labor, I found that I started fielding a fairly large number of questions in my classes like “What does it mean if my baby is ROA?” or “My sister said she hopes my baby isn’t OP. What’s that?” I also noticed more care providers talking about positioning when I would attend births as a doula, and quite often I had to interpret those conversations for my clients.

TeachingTeeWithBabyOne day such a question came up in class, and in order to best answer it, I grabbed a stack of nearby sticky notes, wrote letters on them, and stuck them on my body. It worked! I could see people grasping the concept. I did it a time or two more and then began to make it a regular part of my class.

But the sticky notes had their own problems. Sometimes, they wouldn’t stick well to whatever I was wearing that day. Sometimes they stuck too well and there was that incident where I stopped at the grocery store on the way home, not realizing I still had several sticky notes all over my body, until someone pointed it out. I started thinking about other options.

How I made it

I bought an oversized cotton T-shirt that is large enough to wear over my regular clothing. I found iron-on letters at a craft store and just followed the package directions to place the letters like this:

“A” on the front of the shirt, a few inches above the hem.

“P” on the back of the shirt, a few inches above the hem

“T” on either side of the shirt, a few inches above the hem and just in front of the side seam

“R” on the right side, near the T

“L” on the left side, near the T

How I use it

I use this in the fourth night of my seven week series, just before we discuss posterior babies and the variations that position can cause during the labor process. It might also work in a discussion of the basic physiology of birth, or any time the question comes up from your students.

© Andrea Lythgoe

© Andrea Lythgoe

To prepare, I generally put the shirt on over my regular clothes before class or after the break. I also put a label on the back of the baby’s head, using masking tape and a sharpie.

First, I show the baby and point out the “O for Occipital bone” on the baby’s head. I discuss how this spot is used as a marker to identify the baby’s position, and refers to how the baby’s occiput is positioned in relation to the mother’s body.

Then I point out the letters on the shirt, explaining what each one means. I take a minute to clarify the difference between a transverse LIE and the occipital bone pointing to transverse, reminding them if they are ever confused which transverse it is, they should ask for clarification from their doctor or midwife.

I then show them the most common positions for baby to be in when labor begins and review the normal motions baby does to move through the pelvis.

I write three spaces on the board (as if we are playing hangman) and tell the class that when health care providers talk about the baby’s position as the baby moves through the pelvis, they typically use two or three letters.

The middle one is almost always “O” with a head down baby, so I fill in the middle slot with the O.

I then tell them that the last one is where the baby’s occiput (or “O”)  is relative to the pelvis. I hold the baby in an OA position and ask them which letter from my shirt would explain where the O is pointed. They easily get it and I write the A in the last space.

Then I shift the baby slightly to my left and add the modifier L to the front.

Draw another set of three blank spaces, and move the baby to LOT, and repeat the process much faster. By this point, there is usually someone in the room who is eager to fill in the blanks.

Ask for a volunteer to come up – anyone can do this. I hand the baby to the volunteer and ask them to show me the OA position on themselves. Then I ask them to show me another position, maybe ROA. If the volunteer has caught on and has the right personality for it, I’ll give them other positions to do rapid fire until they laugh.

© Andrea Lythgoe

© Andrea Lythgoe

I always end with the volunteer showing the OP position. I then transition into talking about OP babies and how some babies will spend part of labor rotating around to a position that facilitates moving down through the pelvis easier, and the discussion continues. At some point in that discussion, I turn around and hold the O on the baby’s head next to the P on the shirt, so it reads OP and reinforces visually what that means.

How Parents Receive It

Most of the time, the families start grasping the concept as I write the letters on the board in the first example, and by the time I have a parent volunteer up at the front they are all on board chiming in with answers. My favorite is when we do the rapid fire positions, and everyone is verbally helping the partner like something out of “The Price is Right.” It doesn’t always get there, but I love it when it does.

I find that as we move on to our next topics, that the parents will use the letter abbreviations to ask questions and clarify their understanding. I’m confident that they will be able to remember and understand the terms through their third trimester and into labor and have more clarity when their provider mentions the baby’s position.

Do you think that you might use this “BABE” idea in your classroom?  How would you use it?  Would you make any modifications?  How do you teach this topic in your classes? Share your thoughts in our comments section. – SM

Note/Disclaimer: The use of the acronym “BABE” (Brilliant Activities for Birth Educators) is not affiliated with, aligned with or associated with any particular childbirth program or organization.

Babies, Childbirth Education, Guest Posts, Series: BABE - Brilliant Activities for Birth Educators , , , ,

Congenital Heart Defect Awareness Week – Are You Up to Date?

February 10th, 2015 by avatar

 By Elias Kass, ND, CPM, LM

© Tammi Johnson

© Tammi Johnson

This week is Congenital Heart Defect Awareness week.  Critical Congenital Heart Defect screening can help identify and save the lives of newborns born with previously undetected but serious malformations of the heart that can significantly impact them as they transition to life on the outside.  Families can learn about the simple screening procedure in a childbirth education class and be prepared to discuss the screening with their health care providers.  Dr. Elias Kass, naturopath and midwife, shares 2015 information and updates on screening, stats on the incidence of CCHDs and how you can help spread the word on the importance of all newborns being screened. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility 

There’s a new newborn screening being implemented in many birth settings – critical congenital heart defect screening, or CCHD. What is this screening? What does it look for, and how can you educate and prepare your childbirth education students for the screening and possible results?

Critical congenital heart defects refer to heart defects that babies are born with and that require surgical intervention within the first month (or year, depending on the defining organization). About 1 in 100 babies have heart defects (1%), and about 1 in 4 of those with a heart defect have a defect so severe that it needs to be corrected immediately (0.25% of all babies) Only some of these defects will be picked up by prenatal ultrasound, and they may not show up on exam before the baby goes home (or the midwife leaves in the case of a home birth). Depending on the defect, some babies may be able to compensate with structures that were in place during the fetal period but begin to go away after the baby is born.

Fetal circulation and changes after birth

By KellyPhD (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By KellyPhD (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Because a fetus receives oxygen through the placenta and umbilical cord, there’s no need for him to send a significant amount of blood to the lungs, so a fetus has very different heart and lung circulation than they will after making the transition to life on the outside. One of the big differences (simplified for this article) is the ductus arteriosis – this is a bypass that takes blood from the pulmonary artery and provides a shortcut to the aorta, instead of continuing on to the lungs. Another big difference is the foramen ovale – this is an oval-shaped window between the right atrium and left atrium, which allows blood to bypass being pumped out to the lungs entirely. After birth, pressure changes cause massive changes in flow. Pressure increases in the left atrium cause a flap to slam shut across the foramen ovale. Blood also finds it easier to flow to the lungs, so less blood flows through the ductus arteriosus. Over the course of days and weeks, the foramen ovale seals shut and the ductus arteriosus starts to shrivel.

Typically blood being pumped out to the body is loaded with oxygen. If there are structural problems, it’s possible that this blood would be a mix of oxygenated and deoxygenated blood – there would be less oxygen available in this blood, but at least it’s getting out to the body. Sometimes those fetal structures are what allows that mixed blood to circulate. So what if the baby was really depending on those shortcuts and bypasses? And then the shortcuts and bypasses go away? These babies may look well and do fine, until the fetal structures start to go away.

This March of Dimes article describes seven conditions considered to be part of CCHD:

  1. Hypoplastic left heart syndrome (also called HLHS)
  2. Pulmonary atresia (also called PA)
  3. Tetralogy of Fallot (also called TOF)
  4. Total anomalous pulmonary venous return (also called TAPV or TAPVR)
  5. Transposition of the great arteries (also called TGA)
  6. Tricuspid atresia (also called TA)
  7. Truncus arteriosis

See page for author [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Circulation after birth [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

CCHD screening of the newborn is intended to catch babies who might need intervention, before they decompensate and their heart defects are made obvious.

The screening process

CCHD screening involves using a pulse oximeter at two locations — the right hand (or wrist), and either foot. The right arm receives its blood supply before the ductus arteriosus enters the aorta, so it’s known as “pre-ductal.” The left hand and the lower body receive “post-ductal” blood.

The pulse oximeter senses oxygen saturation by shining light through the skin. Red blood cells that are loaded with oxygen deflect light differently than red blood cells without oxygen. The opposite sensor collects the light and calculates how much was lost. By using multiple wavelengths of light, the unit can isolate arterial flow and disregard venous flow (veins return blood to the heart after the tissues have ‘used’ the oxygen the blood was carrying). For babies, an adhesive probe is typically wrapped around the hand or wrist, and then around a foot. The thin strip might be covered with a foam band to help block out the room light. Some facilities use reusable probes that are more like clips. Not all pulse oximeters are well suited for this purpose – they need to be able to sense low saturations and not be confused by an infant’s constant motion.

There are three possible results from the screening – pass, fail, and an in between, or “try again.”

If a baby’s oxygen saturation is ≥ 95% in the right hand or foot, and there is less than a 3% difference between the two readings, then she passes the screening.

For a baby whose saturations are between 90-95%, or has a greater than 3% difference between the right hand and foot, the screening test is repeated in an hour. If she still doesn’t pass or fail, she can have one more chance. If she still doesn’t pass after three tries (one initial and two retries), that’s considered a fail, and she should be evaluated.

If a baby’s oxygen saturation is under 90% in either the right hand or foot, or she didn’t pass in three tries, this is considered a fail, or a positive screening. This baby should be referred to a pediatric cardiologist who can assess her and do an echocardiogram (ultrasound of the heart), and/or other workup. Depending on her health at the time, that might mean an immediate consult, or it might mean having her scheduled for a visit soon.

In Washington state, Seattle Children’s Hospital and the other regional pediatric cardiology groups are available to talk with the clinician who has a patient with a problematic screening and help figure out when and where the baby should be seen. If there is no local pediatric cardiology group, some cardiology groups can do telemetry or read studies remotely. Before implementing screening in their practice or facility, there should be a clear process for how to obtain consultation and referral (who should be called, how to contact them, how to transmit images if able, etc). Evaluation should be arranged before the baby is discharged because a baby’s condition can deteriorate rapidly.

There are tools available to help with this algorithm. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has a flow chart to help guide the screening process, and Children’s Health Care of Atlanta has a web site and Pulse Ox Tool app to help guide providers.

When should the screening be done?

The screening should be done between 24-48 hours after birth. Before 24 hours, there is an increased incidence of false positives, but a baby who passes before 24 hours is still considered to have passed (i.e., it still “counts”). If a baby is being discharged before 24 hours, the recommendation is to do it as close to discharge as possible. For babies born at home, this screening should be done at the 24-48 hour home visit, along with the metabolic screening. For the screening to be most accurate, baby should be awake and calm, but not feeding. (Feeding causes some decrease in oxygen saturation even in normal term newborns.)

What about a failed screen?

It’s helpful to know that not all babies with a failed screen have a critical congenital heart defect. Like all screening tools, this screening has false positives. The false positive rate overall is about 1/200 (0.5%), but it falls to 1/2000 (.05%) when the screening is performed after 24 hours of age according to the FAQ on the Seattle Children’s Hospital Pulse Oximetry Screening for Newborns resource page for providers. About a quarter of the babies who fail the screening truly have a Critical Congenital Heart Defect(true positive), while half have condition that causes low blood oxygen, like pneumonia and sepsis, and a quarter are well (false positive).

Who should be screened?

All babies should be screened, unless the baby is already known to have a critical congenital heart defect, identified during ultrasounds done during the pregnancy or immediately after birth. Most states mandate screening, either by legislation or regulatory guidance. One state has an executive order. Several states, including Washington, have introduced legislation that is currently being voted on. In states without mandated screenings, most birth settings have adopted the screening, but not all. For some settings there are logistical challenges in terms of purchasing equipment (particularly independent midwives who might not have other use for the pulse oximeter, although since it was recommended to be used as part of neonatal resuscitation that has begun to change), arranging for consultation (particularly in rural areas or regions without adequate pediatric cardiology support), or logistical challenges in terms of who will do the screening and when. The Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) has recommended that CCHD screening be added to the newborn screening panel (like metabolic screening and hearing screening). The American Academy of Pediatrics also supports the universal adoption of this screening.

Cost can be a barrier in offering this screening. There is currently no procedure (CPT) code for this screening, and insurance companies are generally bundling it into the general newborn care (and not reimbursing for it as a separate service), though there are groups working to change this, since there is significant up-front investment and on-going costs in terms of probes and staff time to provide the screening. Most appropriate pulse oximeters start at $500 and the disposable probes around $3-5. Using reusable probes can decrease the cost of providing this screening.

If the hospital or midwife doesn’t provide this screening, parents can ask their pediatric provider to perform the screening at the baby’s first office visit. The goal is to catch these conditions as quickly as possible, ideally before the baby’s condition decompensates. Getting a screening a little later is better than not getting it at all.The screening is no less accurate later on.

The childbirth educator perspective

As a childbirth educator, you can share information about this quick screening test, when you discuss other newborn care procedures. You can encourage your students to ask their midwife or doctor about the screening, or ask on the hospital tour. If the hospital or health care provider hasn’t yet implemented this screening, families can ask why not, and if there’s anyone they can talk to encourage implementation. Facilities and providers should hear from families that they know about this screening and expect it as part of their newborn’s care.  Universal screening will go a long way to identifying those children who were not previously diagnosed with a Critical Congenital Heart Defect and who can begin to receive care for the CCHD as soon as possible by pediatric cardiologists.  Your childbirth class may be the only opportunity for these families to hear about and understand the importance of the CCHD screening test.

Are you already talking about this screening test for CCHD in your classes? If not, might you begin to share this information as a result of what you learned today?  Are providers and facilities in your area already offering this test as part of normal newborn screening? Do you know any families who have had this screening and their baby was diagnosed with an heart defect? Share your experiences in our comments and let’s discuss.- SM

References and Resources

March of Dimes, with general information about CCHD screening targeted towards families
American Academy of Pediatrics – detailed information about screening and implementation, targeted towards providers and facilities
Dr. Amy Schultz (a pediatric cardiologist at Seattle Children’s) frequently presents on CCHD screening – this presentation, with detailed information about critical congenital heart defects and screening, was recorded and can be streamed online

About Dr. Elias Kass

elias kass head shot

Elias Kass, ND, LM, CPM

Elias Kass, ND, LM, CPM, is a naturopathic physician and licensed midwife practicing as part of One Sky Family Medicine in Seattle, Washington. He provides integrative family primary care for children and their parents, focusing on pediatric care. He loves working with babies! Practice information and Dr Kass’s contact info is available at One Sky Family Medicine.

Childbirth Education, Evidence Based Medicine, Guest Posts, Neonatology, Newborns , , , ,

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