Posts Tagged ‘media’

One in Three Suffers Posttraumatic Stress Disorder: A Look Behind the Headlines

August 21st, 2012 by avatar

by David White, MD CCFP, Associate Professor, Dept of Family & Community Medicine, University of Toronto

Dr. David White reviews the study “Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms: The Uninvited Birth Companion” that made news headlines earlier this month.  This post,  is part two of a two part series. (Read part one here, where Penny Simkin discussed how the media created sensationalistic headlines from the study.) Dr. White demonstrates how important it is to go to the source,  and evaluate the study design for oneself.  I appreciate Dr. White sharing his  summary and review of the research behind the study. – SM


Creative Commons Image by Horia Varlan

The dramatic headline caught my eye: “One in Three Post-Partum Women Suffers PTSD Symptoms After Giving Birth: Natural Births a Major Cause of Post-Traumatic Stress, Study Suggests.”[i] As a family doctor who provides maternity care, I was both puzzled and alarmed. Where were all these women? Each year, I care for about 50 women through pregnancy, birth and post-partum. Am I failing to recognize the 16 or 17 who develop PTSD? Are they suffering without proper care?

The article claimed “Of the women who experienced partial or full post-trauma symptoms, 80 percent had gone through a natural childbirth, without any form of pain relief.”

On reflection, I became skeptical. So I read the original research paper.[ii] To their credit, the authors acknowledge, “Controversy remains whether childbirth should be included under the definition of a traumatic event that meets the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.” Unfortunately, their own study is so riddled with problems that it can only add confusion.

First, there is the matter of selection: 102 women agreed to participate, 89 completed the two assessments. There is no mention of how many women were approached, or how many women had births at the hospital during the study period. So there is no way to assess possible selection bias. Suspicion is warranted when a crucial methodological detail is omitted.

Then there is the issue of diagnostic criteria. The diagnosis of PTSD requires that the symptoms last more than one month and cause significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning (both DSM-IV-TR and ICD-10). The researchers administered their survey instrument within a few days of birth and again at one month post-partum. The latter just barely meets the criterion for duration. And could there be a cuing effect from administering an initial questionnaire within a few days of birth?

The findings report “full PTSD”, “partial PTSD” and “PTSD symptomatology”. However the tool used by the researchers, a self-administered questionnaire called Posttraumatic Stress Diagnostic Scale (PDS®), indicates only whether someone meets the DSM diagnostic criteria or not.[iii]

Now to the analysis, which piles questionable analysis onto this shaky diagnostic platform.  “For processing the data we needed to select a group large enough to be statistically significant but homogenous enough to offer meaningful results.” So they lump together those missing one or two symptoms with those who actually have PTSD. The justification for this methodological legerdemain is that others have done it. They reference a study by Stein, Walker et al[iv] that is considerably more careful. It differs substantially in that it used telephone interviews, a different assessment tool and analyzed full and partial PTSD separately.

The results are reported in a way that even makes it difficult to determine what group they are analyzing. Is it the “full PTSD” (3) + “Partial PTSD” (7) = 10? No, it is 3 (“full) + 4 (“missing 1 or 2 symptoms”) =7. But look at Table 2, showing 5 in the row labeled “PTSD”. Table 3 has it back up to 7.

Table source: http://www.ima.org.il/imaj/ar12jun-02.pdf

The terminology for the groups seems variable. At times it is “PTSD group”, at others it is “women with PTSD symptoms” and the Tables simply apply the label “PTSD.”

Terminology problems continue: “control group” is used regularly to denote those who did not manifest PTSD symptoms, an odd usage for a study in which there is no intervention or randomization.

While studying Table 2, check out the mode of delivery: Natural 45, Cesarean 42 (20 elective), Instrumental 2. That indicates a Cesarean section rate of 47%. Could this be a biased sample?

More fun with numbers: the text reports that 80% of women with PTSD symptoms reported feeling very uncomfortable in the undressed state: Table 3 shows 3 out of 7 reporting this.

Table source: http://www.ima.org.il/imaj/ar12jun-02.pdf

And the figure that 80% of those with PTSD had gone through natural labour? It appears to come from Table 2, showing that 4 out of 5 women in the “PTSD” group had “Natural” childbirth. I scoured the tables and text in vain to find why the PTSD group is 5 in Table 2 and 7 in Table 3.

The definitions of mode of delivery should be more precise. The authors describe natural births as “non-interventional” but we really don’t know about analgesia use in this group. This matters, because they found “A significantly smaller number of women who developed PTSD symptoms received analgesia during delivery compared to the control group.” For this to make sense, it is essential distinguish vaginal births with and without effective pain relief.

This definitional and analytic fog leads to the conclusion that a lot of women have PTSD symptoms following birth. The authors don’t trouble themselves to explain why their numbers don’t square with the excellent community-prevalence study in the references, in which “The estimated prevalence of full PTSD was 2.7% for women and 1.2% for men. The prevalence of partial PTSD was 3.4% for women and 0.3% for men.”4

This study brings discredit to an admittedly difficult field, one in which researchers must address the criticism of medicalizing normal life experiences.

I’m a GP, not an expert in PTSD. But I think I can recognize “significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning.” The important issue for practitioners is whether we identify and help those at risk and who need assistance. Screening for post-partum depression is important. Adding a simple open-ended question such as “tell me about your birth” is likely to yield much more benefit in practice than this study.

I appreciate Dr. White’s analysis and wonder how many other professionals bothered to examine the research behind the headlines, in order to come to their own conclusions about the study design, assumptions and findings.  What do you think of this research?  Did you understand the terms being used or how the results were determined?  Do you think any journalists who wrote the sensational headlines took the time to look at the study themselves?  It is always important to be a critical thinker for yourself, examine the information and ask questions.  Sometimes, the research does not match up with the front page news, or the study may not have been well-designed.  Please share your thoughts, questions and comments here, with Dr. White, Penny Simkin, myself and Science & Sensibility readers. – SM


[i] American Friends of Tel Aviv University (2012, August 8). One in three post-partum women suffers PTSD symptoms after giving birth: Natural births a major cause of post-traumatic stress, study suggests. ScienceDaily. Retrieved August 14, 2012, from http://www.sciencedaily.com­ /releases/2012/08/120808121949.htm

[ii] Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms: The Uninvited Birth Companion, Inbal Shlomi Polachek, Liat Huller Harari, Micha Baum, Rael D. Strous: IMAJ 2012; 14: 347–353, accessed at http://www.ima.org.il/imaj/ar12jun-02.pdf

[iii] The actual PDS® tool can be downloaded at (for a price): http://psychcorp.pearsonassessments.com/HAIWEB/Cultures/en-us/Productdetail.htm?Pid=PAg510&Mode=summary

A useful review of the PDS® is at: http://occmed.oxfordjournals.org/content/58/5/379.full.pdf+html

[iv] Stein, M. B., Walker, J. R., Hazen, A. L., & Forde, D. R. (1997). Full and partial posttraumatic stress disorder: Findings from a community survey. The American Journal of Psychiatry, 154(8), 1114-9. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/220491145?accountid=14771

A useful overview of PTSD at


A review of research issues in PTSD following childbirth:

Pauline Slade: Towards a conceptual framework for understanding post-traumatic stress symptoms following childbirth and implications for further research. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology (January 2006), 27 (2), pg. 99-105, accessed at http://resolver.scholarsportal.info.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/resolve/0167482x/v27i0002/99_tacffucaiffr

About David White

David White is a community-based family doctor in Toronto and Associate Professor of Family & Community Medicine at the University of Toronto. (DFCM, U of T). He currently serves as the Interim Director of UTOPIAN, the practice-based research network comprising all teaching sites affiliated with the Department of Family & Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.

He obtained his medical degree and completed residency in Family Medicine at the University of Toronto. He began clinical practice in 1977 at Sioux Lookout, working at the Zone Hospital and flying into remote First Nations villages in northwestern Ontario. In this setting he began a long-term affiliation with U of T. On returning to Toronto in 1980, he joined the Family Medicine Teaching Unit at Toronto Western Hospital, and later moved to Mount Sinai Hospital. In 1999 he was appointed Chief of Family & Community Medicine at North York General Hospital (NYGH).

His current academic activities include clinical teaching in his community office and in obstetrics, research in health care delivery, and mentoring of junior faculty. Contact Dr. White

Childbirth Education, Depression, Evidence Based Medicine, Guest Posts, Maternal Mental Health, Maternity Care, New Research, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression, PTSD, Research, Uncategorized , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Natural Childbirth – A Major Cause Of Posttraumatic Stress Syndrome?

August 16th, 2012 by avatar

By Penny Simkin, PT, CCE, CD(DONA)

In a two part series examining the recent research that stated that natural childbirth is a major cause of  Posttraumatic Stress Disorder,  our guest bloggers, Penny Simkin and Dr. David White, look at how the media may be sensationalizing the topic and reviews the published article to help understand more about what the research revealed.  Enjoy this blog post and the second part on Tuesday, August 21 to gain great insight into the statements made by the researchers. – SM

It has happened again. Yet another study of a hot topic in maternity care – this time, “natural childbirth,” which the authors define as “childbirth without an analgesia or without an epidural” – has been picked up by online and print media, and passed on to their audiences, with twists sensationalizing the material and adding fuel to the belief that natural childbirth is traumatic. Such articles bear provocative titles or subtitles, such as “Natural Births a Major Cause of PTSD”; “Having a Baby Like Being in a Terror Attack”; and “Is Natural Birth Connected with Post-Traumatic Stress in New Moms?”  Additionally, social media sites have begun discussing these frightening reports, most of which do not accurately present the study findings.

photo licensed under creative commons by megyarsh

The study causing the stir is “Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms:  The Uninvited Birth Companion” (1), which was published in the Israel Medical Association Journal in June, 2012 but was picked up and disseminated widely only in early August. There are two major problems with this study:

  1. The misinformation and selective reporting by the media (it was attention from the media that led to my seeking the original paper to confirm the accuracy of the media statements; and
  2. The quality of the study itself (from design to interpretation of the findings to its validity).

In today’s blog post (part one of a two part series on this research article,) I will try to clarify some of the misinformation published in the media and analyze the harm done by these reports.  In part two, to be published on Science & Sensibility next Tuesday, David White, MD, masterfully analyzes deficiencies with the study itself.

At the beginning of the study, 102 women (a convenience sample) volunteered to participate in two surveys – one given within the first two to four days after birth and another at one month after birth. 89 subjects completed both surveys and were included in the results. The purposes of the surveys were to detect the prevalence of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder(PTSD,) and to identify associated risk factors before, during, and after birth. Because of the small sample size inconsistency in both reported numbers and terminology, and other factors (to be discussed in Part Two), any conclusions should be viewed with skepticism about the study’s external validity and applicability beyond the group studied.

And yet, despite these issues, the big media push has thrust this study into the limelight, giving it much more visibility and influence than it deserves. Most of the media accounts that I have read emphasize the finding that natural childbirth (meaning vaginal birth without pain medications) was the major cause of PTSD. In this study, there was an extremely high rate of cesarean birth (53%). Another finding reported by the media was that being accompanied during labor had no impact on the rate of PTSD. Neither of these findings was accompanied by statistical evidence.  These and other findings of the Israeli study are contrary to those of numerous other studies and reviews of satisfaction with childbirth, PTSD after childbirth, and the role of pain vs suffering during labor (2-4). Close examination of the details of the Israeli study design and reporting is called for, even though the damage has already been done by the media. Please see Part Two of this blog on Tuesday for this careful analysis.

Participants were questioned about the prevalence of PTSD symptoms after birth, and also about the presence of pre-pregnancy, intrapartum, and postpartum factors that are known to be associated with post-birth PTSD. Natural birth was highlighted by the media because of the report that 80% of the 7 women who developed PTSD (5 women) did not receive pain medication. In fact, many media reports state that these women either chose or opted for natural childbirth without pain relief. On careful inspection of the original paper, nowhere does it state that the women chose natural birth, but rather that “… fewer women who developed PTSD symptoms received an epidural and there was a great incidence of PTSD symptoms in women who did not receive an epidural.” It is possible that an epidural was not available to the women (which could be traumatizing if they had wished to have one).

Furthermore, these women had numerous other factors that are associated with PTSD. Before accepting natural birth as the major cause of PTSD after childbirth, please check the table below for these other factors, which were as prevalent, or nearly so, as lack of pain relief as a cause of PTSD. As you can see, for example, 80 percent of the women with PTSD also had discomfort with being undressed; previous mental health problems in previous pregnancy or postpartum; and complications, emotional crises, and high fear of childbirth in their current pregnancy.  All these factors have been reported in many studies to be instrumental in the development of PTSD (2-4).

Selected PTSD Risk Factors (with large differences in incidence between the two groups)

Existing before the study pregnancy P Value PTSD (n=7) No PTSD (n=82)
Psychiatric or psychological treatment P=0.157 60% (n=4) 29.8% (n=24)
Body image (uncomfortable in undressed state) P=0.014 80% (n=4) 27.7% (n= 22)
Existing in previous pregnancies      
Traumatic birth experience p=0.012 60% (n=4) 15.5% (n= 12)
Sadness, blues, or anxiety during or after pregnancy p=0.038 80% (n=4) 33% (n= 26)
Existing in current pregnancy      
Complications during p= 0.016 80% (n=4) 28.6% (n=25)
Emotional crises during p= 0.06 80% (n=4) 23.8% (n=21)
High fear of childbirth p= 0.021 80% (n=4) 30% (n= 27)
“A significantly smaller number of women who developed PTSD received analgesia during delivery compared to the control group” * p=0.000 No numbers or % given No numbers  or % given
Mothers’ Feelings in Labor & Birth     No PTSD (n=80)
Felt danger to their life or health p=0.001 71.4% (n=5) 20.7% (n=17)
Mild discomfort with undressed state p=0.029p=0.029 57.1% (n=4) 87.7% (n= 70)
Major discomfort with undressed state 42.9% (n=3) 12.3% (n= 10)
Support during labor      
No relationship between PTSD and being accompanied by someone or the extent of support received. No numbers or percentages were given.

*  This statement was all that was given to support “evidence” of natural birth as a cause for PTSD.

In spite of the flaws of this study, the authors offered some valuable conclusions, pointing out “the importance of inquiring about previous pregnancy and birthing experiences and the need to identify at-risk populations and increase awareness of the disorder.” Despite the shortcomings of their study, this advice is on target, as has been confirmed over and over again in the literature on traumatic birth.

In conclusion, this study was given much more publicity than it deserves, and as such has done more harm than good in understanding PTSD after childbirth. Our lesson: Recognize that many media outlets look for sensational and shocking material to attract readers, and will manufacture it if it doesn’t exist. Go to the source and think for yourself.

As educators and  birth professionals, how do you deal with students, clients and patients sharing what they read in the media, that may have been sensationalized?  What is your response?  Have you had to field questions about this recent study?  How do you respond?  Did you come to your own conclusions about this study?  Please come back on Tuesday to read a wonderful review of this research by Dr. David White and continue the discussion. – SM


1. Polachek I, Harari L H, Baum M, Strous RD, (2012) Postpartum Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms: The Uninvited Birth Companion. Israel Medical Association Journal 14: 347-353

2. Alcorn K L,  O’Donovan A, Patrick J C, Creedy D and Devilly G J. (2010). A prospective longitudinal study of the prevalence of post-traumatic stress disorder resulting from childbirth events. Psychological Medicine, 40, pp 1849-1859 doi:10.1017/S0033291709992224

3. Alder J, Breitinger G, Granado C, Fornaro I, et al. 2011. Antenatal psychobiological predictors of psychological response to childbirth. Journal of the American Psychiatric Nurses Association 17(6): 417-425. doi: 10.1177/1078390311426454

4. Simkin P, Hull K. 2011 Pain, Suffering and Trauma in the Perinatal Period. Journal of Perinatal Education 20(3): 166-175.

For more information visit the PATTCh Resource Guide.

About Penny Simkin

Penny Simkin is a physical therapist, childbirth educator, doula, and birth counselor. She is author or co-author of many books and articles on maternity related topics for both professionals and the public. She is a co-founder of DONA International, and of PATTCh (Prevention and Treatment of Traumatic Childbirth), and is also a member of the Editorial Board of the journal, Birth.

Childbirth Education, Depression, Guest Posts, Maternal Mental Health, Perinatal Mood Disorders, Postpartum Depression, PTSD, Research, Social Media, Uncategorized , , , , , , , , , , , ,

“Instructor Has A Clear Bias Toward Breastfeeding!”

August 3rd, 2012 by avatar

This post is part of a blog carnival in honor of World Breastfeeding Week.  Honored to participate- SM

As it is World Breastfeeding Week and National Breastfeeding Month, my Google alerts, Facebook feeds and favorite blogs have been swirling with statistics, information, celebratory tidbits and fascinating facts about breastfeeding, locally, nationally and internationally.

In recognition of those people who support women who breastfeed, organizations are offering free access to journals and other resources during International Breastfeeding Week, including the International Lactation Consultant Association’s free offer to download the quarterly, peer-reviewed Journal of Human Lactation,  the US Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health offering a free Breastfeeding Action Kit and the American College of Nurse Midwives’ Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health offering free access to a past journal edition chock full of breastfeeding information.

Creative Commons Photo by ODHD

I think back to the breastfeeding relationship with my own two children, recalling my personal difficulties, struggles, trials, pain and tribulations that I slogged through while establishing a positive breastfeeding relationship with my first born and proving my own personal theory that we should always have our second children first!  Remembering and appreciating the people who helped me to not give up, despite many setbacks, including many, many lactation consultants, my childbirth educator, my pediatrician, my local La Leche League support group, my partner, friends and family.

There has been a lot of press lately about expectations for women around breastfeeding.  Several months ago, Time Magazine had an article entitled “Mothers’ Milk” with a cover picture chosen specifically for its provocative nature.  Recently, the American Academy of Pediatrics passed a resolution advising pediatricians not to provide formula company gift bags, coupons, and industry-authored handouts to the parents of newborns and infants in office and clinic settings.  Nationwide, hospitals and two states (Rhode Island and just last month, Massachusetts) have banned the distribution of formula samples and bags, an action proven to increase breastfeeding rates. Even the Mayor of New York City, Mayor Bloomberg was getting in on the act recently, with his city’s “Latch On NYC” campaign that limits access to formula by hospital staff among other things.

Most recently, I read a piece by Jane E. Brody, in the Personal Health section of The New York Times,  titled “The Ideal and the Real of Breastfeeding,” where Brody referenced a Scottish study, “A serial qualitative interview study of infant feeding experiences: idealism meets realism.” (Hoddinott, Craig, Britten, 2012) published in the BMJ Open online journal.  The researchers stated in their results and conclusions that;

Unanimously families would prefer the balance to shift away from antenatal theory towards more help immediately after birth and at 3–4 months when solids are being considered. Family-orientated interactive discussions are valued above breastfeeding-centred checklist style encounters.

Adopting idealistic global policy goals like exclusive breast feeding until 6 months as individual goals for women is unhelpful. More achievable incremental goals are recommended. Using a proactive family-centred narrative approach to feeding care might enable pivotal points to be anticipated and resolved. More attention to the diverse values, meanings and emotions around infant feeding within families could help to reconcile health ideals with reality.

Clearly, from the results of this study, and the recently released “Breastfeeding Report Card- United States, 2012,” there is still a long way to go toward reaching the World Health Organization’s recommendations that mothers worldwide “exclusively breastfeed infants for the child’s first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health. Thereafter, they should be given nutritious complementary foods and continue breastfeeding up to the age of two years or beyond.”

Reading the Brody article and the referenced study brought me right back to when I worked for a major medical center in my community, as a childbirth educator, (I now teach independent classes) and my responsibilities included teaching a 2 1/2 hour breastfeeding class.  This class, offered as part of a group package with other classes or available as a stand alone class, was well attended by both expectant mothers and usually their partners too.

I covered the usual topics, that I suspect pretty much any other breastfeeding instructor might hit upon, cramming a ton of information into the time allotted in the most interactive way possible.  We talked about breast anatomy, how the breast makes milk, latch, positioning, feeding cues and needs of the newborn, potential problems, benefits, fears, when to reach out for additional support and specific resources in our community and so much more.  Pumping, returning to work strategies and introducing a bottle were also covered.  I recall sharing the preferred food for a newborn is its own mother’s milk at the breast, pumped mother’s milk, donor human milk and then artificial milk (formula) in that order.  I explained that there are lots of ways to feed a newborn and I trust that each mother will find the way that works best for her and her baby.

Class evaluations were handed out at the end, and for years, I enjoyed the positive feedback and enthusiasm from the attendees, who stated time and time again that the class was fun, engaging and helpful, they felt more confident and should things be difficult, they knew they had resources for help.  And then it happened.  After years of teaching and hundreds and hundreds of students, I received an evaluation that struck me to the core.  One that I still think about every time I teach breastfeeding classes or work with a birth doula client helping her and her newborn to get breastfeeding off to the right start. In blue pen, exclamation point included…“Instructor has a clear bias toward breastfeeding!”

I felt like the air had been sucked out of the room.  Left on the back table, in a pile of other evaluations, with no name or contact information.  No way to follow up with someone who I clearly failed to connect with.  Did I have a bias towards breastfeeding?  It *was* a breastfeeding class.  The objectives, as provided by the medical center had been met, but clearly, that night, I had not met a student’s personal expectations. I felt horrible. And I still do, to this day.

What were the expectations of this expectant mother from the breastfeeding class she signed up for?  What pressures was she facing, from me, from others, that maybe I did not address, what fears or concerns did she (or her partner) have that I was not able to assuage? Did I “overpromote” breastfeeding? Breastfeeding is the biological norm for all mammals.  It was a class to learn about breastfeeding her newborn.  I went over every word I spoke that night in my mind, wondering if I crossed a line, even an invisible one that only she was aware of. Upon reflection, yes, I suppose I do have a bias towards breastfeeding.  How could I not?

When I read all these articles, I feel like that line in the sand is being drawn all over again.  How can birth professionals support the biologic norm while meeting new mothers where they are at?  Providing support but not creating additional pressure. Set families up for success, but be ready to help them when the road is bumpy and even at times unsuccessful.  How can we leave women feeling stronger after their breastfeeding experience, no matter how it goes down?  How can we stand together with these new mothers, acknowledging what is best for babies, recognizing that all mothers inherently want to do their best and for reasons, sometimes within the mother’s control and sometimes outside their control, things do not go as planned.  Just like birth.

We must not leave mothers less than whole.  For if we do, we do not create women who are well equipped to parent.  We should stand united, supporting each other, teaching each other, letting children and young adults observe breastfeeding, talking about it to our peers, and co-workers and community.  If I remember correctly, I never saw a baby breastfeeding, where I could observe closely, before I had my own children.  I do not recall conversations with breastfeeding mothers, before I became an expectant parent, and we discussed breastfeeding in my childbirth class.  We should not tolerate the sensationalistic articles published by attention grabbing media or be sucked in to their “feeding” frenzy, (pun intended) pitting one woman against another, forcing everyone to take sides.

I want to own that I do have a clear bias toward breastfeeding, but I want to support all women.  Those that choose to breastfeed and those that don’t.  Or can’t.  I want to offer classes that are open and unbiased, provide accurate information and make myself accessible to all new mothers, who seek support, resources or just a listening ear and strong shoulder.  I want a re-do with that mother in my class, so many years ago.  I carry this unknown student’s comment with me in every breastfeeding interaction I have.  I also remember the wise words of my friend, colleague, mentor and hero, Penny Simkin; ““She has good reason for feeling this way, behaving this way, believing these things, and saying these things.”  I just may not know what those reasons are.

Please share with me, your thoughts on my experience.  About your own “bias toward breastfeeding” and how you handle that with your students, clients and patients.  I welcome respectful discussion and comments as we all celebrate and support women on their breastfeeding journey, whatever that looks like. – SM


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , (2012). Breastfeeding report card—United States, 2012. Retrieved from website: http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/data/reportcard.htm

Hoddinott P, Craig LCA, Britten J, et al. A serial qualitative interview study of infant feeding experiences: idealism meets realism. BMJ Open2012;2:e000504. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2011-000504

Kramer MS, Kakuma R. Optimal duration of exclusive breastfeeding. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2002, Issue 1. Art. No.: CD003517. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003517.

Babies, Breastfeeding, Childbirth Education, Doula Care, Evidence Based Medicine, Healthy Birth Practices, Healthy Care Practices, Infant Attachment, informed Consent, Parenting an Infant, Research , , , , , , , , , ,

Jumping to conclusions: Popular media spins an abstract into headlines.

February 23rd, 2012 by avatar

A new study has been making the rounds of the popular news sites.  The abstract – 65: Neonatal outcomes associated with intended place of birth: birth centers and home birth compared to hospitals  The abstract of the study is published in AJOG It was presented at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine 32nd Annual Meeting.

It is strange that this abstract is getting so much attention. With only an abstract available it is impossible to judge the study’s merits. We look forward to the publication of the study. At this point we have to reserve judgment for later.  We simply don’t have the data available to determine the strength or validity of the study.  That said, it is amazing that the findings presented in the abstract are getting so much attention.

Here are some of the many articles, with varying perspectives, discussing it: 

I found this article to be neutral verging on steering families toward hospital birth:

 “Babies born at home were more than twice as likely to have an Apgar score of under 7 as children born in a hospital or at a birthing center, and also had double the chances of having a seizure….

The overall number of kids who had seizures was low — less than 1 percent at any location.

Prior research has shown that babies with lower Apgar scores are more likely to have complications after birth, such as needing breathing assistance, going to the ICU, having seizures or having developmental issues, Cheng said.”

Study Weighs Pros, Cons of Home or Hospital Birth: More seizures, lower Apgar scores found in home or hospital birth  


This article has a positive spin for homebirth:

 “But when a certified midwife was present, it seems babies born at home may fare as well as those born in hospitals, said study researcher Dr. Yvonne Cheng, an obstetrician and gynecologist at the University of California, San Francisco.

“It’s not just about where you deliver, but perhaps who you deliver with,” Cheng said.

Home births are known to be associated with fewer obstetric interventions — that is, women in labor at home receive fewer epidurals and less pain medication.

Women must weigh the benefits of home births against the risks to make an informed decision about where to give birth, Cheng said.”

Midwives make homebirth safer for babies  


 This article seems to treat the study in a neutral manner:

 “Women who have home births or plan to deliver at home have lower rates of cesarean delivery; however, their babies are more likely to have neonatal seizures and lower Apgar scores if a certified midwife is not in attendance, according to research presented here at the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine 32nd Annual Meeting.”

Home Births Associated With More Seizures, Lower Apgar Scores


This one uses bad data to back a claim:

“…recent evidence suggests that while the absolute risk of planned home births is low, such births carry a neonatal death rate at least twice as high as that of planned hospital births. Neonatal death occurred less than once in 1,000 hospital births, compared with two in 1,000 home births, said an American Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology meta-analysis published in September 2010.”

Home births rise despite higher neonatal mortality rate: Although the vast majority of deliveries occur in hospitals, more women who want a less institutional experience are opting to give birth at home.

This AMA article is citing the Wax et al study.  Science and Sensibility has discussed the vast array of errors and misinformation in the Wax study on four separate occasions:

Others have cited Wax et al, although not explicitly such as this one: Homebirths up Dramatically, but are they safe?

There were numerous letters written to AJOG with regards to the flaws in the study, as well.  So, to have the Wax et al study brought up again is inappropriate and poor science.  It feels to me like a scare tactic or propaganda.

Given that we don’t have all the information, I question the journalistic integrity with which the articles above are written.  It’s always a good headline – about the dangers of home birth.  It’ll get links clicked, newspapers sold and running commentary on social media sites.  However, without proper analysis of the data things are potentially misrepresented.  Once we gain access to the full study, Science and Sensibility will be able to respond appropriately.

Some questions we hope to answer:

  • What data were used? How strong is the data set?
  • Many home births are not reported as such, so data will be lacking.  How is this accounted for?
  • Does the legal status of a homebirth midwife impact outcomes?  Especially because the author states that CNMs have better outcomes than do CPMs or DEMs. We are not aware of research that supports this.
  • Is it considered homebirth if the mother was transferred from home to hospital mid-labor if her intention was to have a home birth?

For more on recent perspectives on homebirth please visit the Homebirth Consensus Summit.

Let’s get the discussion going here.  What are your thoughts on homebirth?

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Planned home birth and neonatal death: Who do we believe?

August 17th, 2010 by avatar

The (in)famous Wax home birth meta-analysis hit the scene over a month ago. But the buzz doesn’t seem to be dying down. In the weeks since the original pre-publication and press release, editors at The Lancet and BMJ have both weighed in, and there’s a steady stream of media attention. While all of the media have dutifully quoted midwives in leadership positions saying the meta-analysis is flawed (an assessment with which I agree), I still keep coming back to the question I asked in my earlier postdid we need a meta-analysis to establish the neonatal outcomes of planned home birth? We had, after all, a very large, methodologically rigorous study on home birth safety involving over a half million women that was published less than 2 years ago. Won’t that suffice?

I had a chance to interview two of the researchers who conducted that study when I was in Vancouver for the Normal Labour & Birth International Research Conference. Simone Buitendijk, MD, is Professor of Maternal and Child Health and Midwifery Studies at the Academic Medical Center of Amsterstam and heads up the Child Health Programme at the Netherlands Organisation for Applied Scientific Research. Ank de Jonge, the study’s lead author, is a practicing midwife with a PhD in public health who works at the Midwifery Science section within the EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam. I gained some new insights from them about their research and the Wax meta-analysis. Based on those interviews, and despite having written about the meta-analysis twice already, I thought it was time to ask anew: which is the “better” evidence for determining neonatal outcomes of planned home birth: the de Jonge cohort study or the Wax meta-analysis? Let’s have a look at some objective criteria and see how each study measures up.

Study size (home birth group):

  • Wax: 9,811
  • de Jonge: 321,307

That’s right, the Dutch neonatal mortality analysis is 33 times the size of the neonatal mortality meta-analysis. And believe it or not, this was BRAND NEW news to me that I didn’t realize until I spoke to de Jonge and Buitendijk. Although I had access to the full-text of the Wax meta-analysis and in fact looked critically at it (heck, I blogged about it!), I completely missed the fact that while the de Jonge study was “included” in the meta-analysis, it was excluded from the analysis of neonatal mortality, which was the major finding given so much attention by the media.  On the one hand, I’m pretty embarrassed to have made such a major error. On the other hand, it just underscores how misleading it can be for professionals or lay people to read headlines about a meta-analysis of “hundreds of thousands” of births finding triple the neonatal death rate.  Wax’s neonatal death data don’t come from hundreds of thousands of births at all. Not by a long shot.

Mechanism to ensure data were from planned home births:

  • Wax: mechanism varies across the included studies. In Pang et al., which contributed 63% of the home birth data and accounted for 12 of the 18 neonatal deaths in normally formed newborns, researchers relied on birth certificate data that did not differentiate between planned and unplanned home births, and assumed that any birth certificate for a baby born at home at or beyond 34 weeks, signed by a midwife, nurse, or doctor was a planned home birth, a method that has not been scientifically validated and has been widely criticized. Unplanned home births are riskier than planned home births with qualified attendants.
  • de Jonge: midwives routinely record the planned place of birth in a national perinatal database that covers 99% of births and is linked to another database of neonatal deaths by a validated method. Planned place of birth was unknown for 8.5% of the population, and the outcomes of this group were analyzed separately and reported.

Definition of neonatal death:

  • Wax: death of a live-born infant between 0 and 28 days
  • de Jonge: death of a live-born infant between 0 and 7 days (the World Health Organization definition of early neonatal death)

The appropriate definition of neonatal death has been a major bone of contention in the comments on this and other blogs that criticized the Wax meta-analysis.  Both 0-28 days (neonatal death) and 0-7 days (early neonatal death) are accepted definitions. Proponents of using early neonatal death argue that it is more sensitive to events occurring around the time of birth, such as hypoxic injury resulting from inadequate fetal monitoring or a sudden emergency like a cord prolapse or placental abruption. Indeed, some of the late (8-28 days) neonatal deaths reported in Wax resulted from sudden infant death syndrome, a condition that has nothing to do with planned place of birth. On the other hand, proponents of using 0-28 day mortality point out that some babies experiencing severe hypoxic injury in labor or birth may be kept alive for many days in a modern neonatal intensive care unit.  Their deaths should be counted as birth-related even if they don’t die as soon after birth.

Regardless of which is the more appropriate measure, I was shocked by something de Jonge and Buitendijk revealed in their interview. Wax never contacted them to ask for their 8-28 day mortality data. It is standard practice among researchers who conduct meta-analyses to contact the authors of the original papers to obtain unpublished data, clarify methodologies, or ask for data in a compatible format. One would think that if Wax was truly interested in whether planned home birth caused neonatal death up to 28 days, he would be very motivated to get his hands on the Dutch data set. And while de Jonge and Buitendijk told me that those data are not as complete as the early neonatal death data (because some pediatricians don’t reliably enter their patients’ data), they do in fact have the data up to 28 days and would have supplied it to Wax had he asked. Instead, they have done the analysis themselves and submitted it for peer review.  (Therefore, we’ll have to wait for the results.)

What were the characteristics of the population?

  • Wax – no requirements for home birth eligibility were defined for inclusion in the meta-analysis. Individual studies included in the meta-analysis varied in their mechanisms for determining eligibility. As noted above, the largest study that contributed the majority of neonatal deaths relied on birth certificates. Women with any of 18 medical conditions documented on the baby’s birth certificate were excluded. Neither the study authors nor Wax and colleagues comment on whether this is a reliable method for defining “low-risk”. (As someone who routinely completed birth certificates when I was practicing, my guess is that it isn’t.)
  • de Jonge – National guidelines (“Obstetric Indication List“) define who is eligible for primary midwifery care and home birth. These conservative guidelines ensure that the population of women having planned home births are healthy and at very low risk of complications.

The Dutch study has been criticized because it is, well, Dutch – midwifery and home birth in the Netherlands are highly regulated and integrated into the system, and there are clear eligibility guidelines. The same isn’t true of the United States, so we can’t generalize the results here or elsewhere where home birth is marginalized (e.g., Australia). What the Dutch study gives us, though, is a clear model to emulate in order to make sure home birth is as safe as it can be – regulate midwifery, provide continuity of care for women who need to be referred, and make sure only low-risk women are having home births. Instead of acknowledging this and moving forward to optimize safety, Wax and colleagues chose to mash together data from five different countries and four different decades with no attention paid to which women were and were not eligible and spit out an authoritative answer to the question, “Is home birth safe?” “Is home birth safe?” is a bogus question to which there is no answer. Context, training, system integration, and perhaps above all else the characteristics of the population matter. Any study worth its salt will describe these factors in as robust detail as is feasible. Combining and meta-analyzing data from dissimilar contexts may make sense in other areas of health care, but when context is everything, what’s there to gain?

A note about comments: please keep it civil and on point. I’m OK with debate, discussion, and disagreement. Name-calling, personal attacks, and other degrading commentary will be deleted or edited.

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