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The transformative power of birth

Induction of labour, epidural analgesia, and caesarean section are now common themes in many women’s birth stories. Women are often fearful of childbirth which may drive them to seek out medical intervention without a medical reason (Nilsson et al., 2018). Indeed, fragmented hospital maternity care supports the view that pregnancy and birth are inherently dangerous and require management and control. From this perspective, labour pain is viewed as needing ‘relief’ and the use of epidural analgesia is seen as normal practice (Newnham, McKellar, & Pincombe, 2016). The community generally lack knowledge about normal birth and in particular, the benefits of physiological birth (Wong, He, Shorey, & Koh, 2017). However, having a vaginal birth with minimal interference has considerable benefits for women and their babies in both the short and long term.

Birth is a process best supported by a known and trusted midwife

Birth is a normal and deeply significant psychological and social event in a woman’s life – and in most instances does not require medical rescue or relief. Further, there is considerable evidence that birth is best supported by a known midwife who provides reassurance, nurturing and comfort (Walsh, 2006), so that a woman can work with pain rather than resist it (Leap, Sandall, Buckland, & Huber, 2010), and feel safe enough to ‘let go’ (Anderson, 2000). When women are supported in this way, birth has the potential to be positively transformative, producing a sense of inner strength, triumph, and bliss. These transformative experiences have a lasting impact on the woman’s sense of self (Schwartz et al 2015), confidence as a new mother (Fenwick et al 2015), and relationship with her newborn (Toohill et al 2014).

New theory explains the positive potential of birth-giving

While the subject of birth trauma is gaining traction, women’s potential to positively transform through birth is not well understood. New research has addressed this gap and developed new language that can facilitate women’s conversations about their experiences. PhD candidate Ella Kurz applied feminist theory to childbirth to develop a theory that explains the transformative power of giving birth (Kurz, Davis & Browne, 2021).

The new theory, Parturescence, describes the process of women ‘becoming’ through childbirth (Kurz et al., 2021). Positive transformation results in better psycho-social well-being after birth. Whereas negative transformation includes birth trauma and psychological injury following birth. Parturescence theory refers to lines of descent (activities that bring predictability and control in birth) and lines of ascent (activities which open new ways of thinking and being). Importantly, the challenging and destabilising parts of labour and birth – and how these are mediated by maternity care – are key to women’s positive or negative transformation (Kurz et al., 2021). Midwife-woman interactions can facilitate negative or positive transformation through birth (Kurz et al., 2021). Midwives need to have the motivation and capacity to support women to feel safe, loved, relaxed and unafraid during birth – but not all midwives behave this way (Allen, Kildea, Hartz, Tracy, & Tracy, 2017). Recent research has demonstrated the importance of midwives’ social and emotional competence to establish and maintain positive relationships (Hastie & Barclay, 2021).

What does this mean for women and maternity services?

Birth has intrinsic value for women and their babies – and this should be reflected in how maternity care is organised and provided. Women and the wider community should know that women benefit from the continuous supportive presence of a known and trusted midwife who can hold the space while they transform triumphant into motherhood. Importantly, when women are treated with respect and compassion, regardless of mode of birth, there is potential for positive transformation.

Highlighted research

Kurz, E., Davis, D., & Browne, J. (2021). Parturescence: A theorisation of women’s transformation through childbirth. Women and Birth. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wombi.2021.03.009

References

Allen, J., Kildea, S., Hartz, D. L., Tracy, M., & Tracy, S. (2017). The motivation and capacity to go ‘above and beyond’: Qualitative analysis of free-text survey responses in the M@NGO randomised controlled trial of caseload midwifery. Midwifery, 50, 148-156. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2017.03.012

Anderson, T. (2000). Feeling safe enough to let go: the relationship between a woman and her midwife during the second stage of labour. In M. Kirkham (Ed.), The Midwife–Mother Relationship. Macmillan Press.

Fenwick J, Toohill J, Gamble J, Creedy DK, Buist A, Turkstra E, Sneddon A, Scuffham PA, & Ryding EL. (2015). Effects of a midwife psycho-education intervention to reduce childbirth fear on women’s birth outcomes and psychological well-being. BMC Pregnancy & Childbirth, 15, 284. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-015-0721-y

Hastie, C. R., & Barclay, L. (2021). Early career midwives’ perception of their teamwork skills following a specifically designed, whole-of-degree educational strategy utilising groupwork assessments. Midwifery. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2021.102997

Kurz, E., Davis, D., & Browne, J. (2021). Parturescence: A theorisation of women’s transformation through childbirth. Women and Birth. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.wombi.2021.03.009

Leap, N., Sandall, J., Buckland, S., & Huber, U. (2010). Journey to Confidence: Women’s Experiences of Pain in Labour and Relational Continuity of Care. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 55(3), 234-242. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jmwh.2010.02.001

Newnham E., McKellar L., & Pincombe, J. (2016). A critical literature review of epidural analgesia. Evid Based Midwifery, 14(1), 22-28.

Nilsson, C., Hessman, E., Sjöblom, H., Dencker, A., Jangsten, E., Mollberg, M., . . . Begley, C. (2018). Definitions, measurements and prevalence of fear of childbirth: a systematic review. BMC Pregnancy Childbirth, 18(1), 28. https://doi.org/10.1186/s12884-018-1659-7

Schwartz L, Toohill J, Creedy DK, Baird K, Gamble G & Fenwick J. (2015) Factors associated with childbirth self-efficacy in childbearing women. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 15:29.

Wong, C. Y. W., He, H. G., Shorey, S., & Koh, S. S. L. (2017). An integrative literature review on midwives’ perceptions on the facilitators and barriers of physiological birth. International Journal of Nursing Practice, 23(6). https://doi.org/10.1111/ijn.12602

Mental health screening during pregnancy and after birth is even more important right now

Professor Debra Creedy 

Up to 15% of pregnant women in Australia, and 21% of mothers of infants up to four months of age will experience depression. The presence of anxiety, which frequently co-exists with depression, is estimated to also be as high as 20%. Depression during pregnancy and/or the postpartum period can have profound effects on not only a woman’s long-term health and well-being but can also adversely affect her relationship with the baby and her partner.

We currently don’t know the impact of life changes and restrictions related to COVID 19 on the emotional wellbeing of childbearing women. A systematic review of clinical outcomes of 3559 hospitalised patients (in 72 different studies) was published in the Lancet (18th May, 2020). Rogers and colleagues concluded that if the pattern for COVID 19 follows that of similar pandemics (such as SARS in 2002) many admitted patients will experience confusion, acute depression, anxiety, and sleep difficulties. After the illness, 32.2% patients from these combined studies reported post-traumatic stress, and around 15% reported symptoms of depression and anxiety. This data highlights the importance of assessing the emotional wellbeing of not only people with COVID19 but for members of the community who may be at risk, such as pregnant women. However, the approach to screening for depression and/or anxiety during pregnancy and the postpartum varies a great deal.

In an effort to promote common approaches to assessment and measurement of patient outcomes and experiences, core outcome sets are being developed for a range of conditions and used in practice. A core outcome set is an agreed set of outcomes that should be measured and reported. In 2016 the International Consortium for Health Outcomes Measurement (ICHOM) published a core outcome set to evaluate value in maternity care. Acknowledging mental health as an outcome important to women, the ICHOM Working Party included the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ-2) and the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) to measure symptoms of perinatal depression.

Currently in Australia, United States, and Canada clinical guidelines recommend that all women should be screened during pregnancy and at least once in the postpartum using the Edinburgh Depression Scale (EPDS). Whereas in the United Kingdom, health professionals undertake selective screening using two brief questions similar to the PHQ-2 – During the past 2 weeks, have you been bothered by (1) ‘feeling down, depressed or hopeless’; and (2) ‘little interest or pleasure in doing things’. If a woman says ‘yes’ (been bothered for several days =1; more than half the days = 2; or nearly every day =3) to one or both questions, then she is asked to complete the EPDS (10 questions). Subsequently, ICHOM recommended using the 2-item PHQ-2 to screen all women, followed by the EPDS if a woman obtains a score of 3 or more (known as a ‘positive’ screen). But the extent to which the PHQ-2 could correctly identify and not miss childbearing women at risk of depressive symptoms had not been tested and further research was needed.

We aimed to compare the screening accuracy of the PHQ-2 to identify women at risk of probable depression during pregnancy and the postpartum. We recruited 309 pregnant women who completed the PHQ-2 and EPDS (at their booking-in appointment around 36-weeks) and postpartum (at 6 and 26-weeks) 4.

The accuracy of the PHQ-2 was tested using two methods (1) scored cut-points >2 and >3, and (2) dichotomous yes/no (positive response to either question) against EPDS cut-points for probable major and probable minor depression. We were interested in the ‘sensitivity’ of the tool – that is, the ability of the PHQ-2 to correctly identify women with depression (known as the true positive rate), and ‘specificity’ – the ability of the PHQ-2 to correctly identify those women who do not have depression (true negative rate).

Our analysis revealed that the dichotomous yes/no (positive response to either question) had the highest sensitivity (81 – 100%). While specificity was low (60 – 74%) we felt that this shortcoming was outweighed by the ability of the PHQ-2 to correctly identify those women at risk for depression.

COVID19 will challenge the mental health of many people in our community, so we shouldn’t stop mental health screening. Our research highlights the importance of supporting women’s mental health through pregnancy and the first year post birth, and why having screening tools that are simple, easy to use tools, and ‘fit for purpose’ in the face of changes to care provision are important. Women receiving continuity of care from a known midwife throughout pregnancy and up to 6 weeks postpartum are more likely to be screened for depression and are more likely to confide in their midwife about concerns and worries.