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Strategies that work to increase vaginal birth rate after caesarean

Vaginal birth after caesarean around the world

VBAC is a vaginal birth after caesarean section. While planned VBAC is a safe choice for most women, rates of VBAC vary considerably. VBAC rates are high in countries like Finland, Sweden and Netherlands (approximately 50%), lower in Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Spain and Germany (approximately 30%), and lowest in countries like the US and Australia (approximately 12%) (Lundgren et al., 2020). Indeed, the rate of successful VBAC in Australia has remained stagnant over the past decade – 13.1% in 2007 to 12.1% in 2018 (Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, 2020).

Research finds that in settings where rates are low , VBAC is not considered the obvious first choice for most women (Lundgren et al., 2020). Furthermore, obstetricians tend to determine whether VBAC should be attempted in countries with low-rates rather than women themselves (Lundgren et al., 2020). In a recent US study, women described having to “fight hard” for a VBAC including navigating obstacles, finding a supportive care provider, and sometimes travelling long distances to access care (Basile Ibrahim et al. 2021). Wingert et al. (2018) conducted a systematic review of all studies that had looked at the impact of interventions (e.g., education) on planned and/or successful VBAC rates.

Strategies for maternity care providers

Education for healthcare providers about the benefits of VBAC was effective, particularly when it was provided by a respected obstetric opinion leader (Wingert et al., 2018). When doctors were required to seek a second opinion from an obstetrician – regarding first or subsequent caesarean section (CS) – the rates of planned and successful VBACs increased (Wingert et al., 2018). Furthermore, having a night float on-call system which uses doctors who were more rested, compared to doctors on a 24-hour on-call shift, increased VBAC success rates (Wingert et al., 2021). 

Strategies for pregnant and birthing women

The systematic review included several studies that assessed the usefulness of a decision aid, compared to no decision aid, for women choosing between VBAC and CS for their next birth. Every decision aid was associated with an increase in women’s knowledge and decrease in their anxiety about decision –  but none of the decision aids made a difference to planned VBAC rates (Wingert et al., 2018).

Health system strategies

Providing hospitals funding contingent on increasing VBAC rates was an effective strategy in one study (Wingert et al., 2018). Models of care – midwifery continuity of carer, midwifery antenatal continuity, and dedicated VBAC antenatal clinics – were associated with higher rates of planned and successful VBAC compared to standard care (Wingert et al., 2018).

Midwifery continuity of carer models

Women’s experiences of planned VBAC in midwifery continuity of carer models were more positive than standard care (Keedle et al., 2020). For example, women were more likely to feel in control of their decision making and feel their health care provider positively supported their decision to have a VBAC.  Furthermore, women with a known midwife were more likely to have been active in labour, labour in water, and use an upright birth position (Keedle et al., 2020).

A small randomised trial aimed to compare a midwifery continuity of carer model (antenatal, birth, postnatal), with a midwifery antenatal continuity model, on VBAC rates (Homer et al., 2021). In this study, there was no significant difference between midwifery continuity of carer or antenatal continuity for planned VBAC (67% vs 57%) or VBAC success (28% vs 33%)  (Homer et al., 2021). However, the likely reason was that both models were similar to each other (i.e. women saw a similar number of midwives antenatally and during labour and birth) (Homer et al., 2021). Therefore, a trial of midwifery continuity of carer – using a model where a genuine and trusting relationship can develop between midwife and woman – is still required (Homer et al., 2021).

Recommendations to support VBAC

Health services should increase access to models of care that include a significant role for midwives, and use evidence-based strategies that proactively encourage vaginal birth for women after previous CS (Davis et al., 2020).

Maternity care providers can facilitate women to plan a VBAC by providing information in a supportive way, viewing VBAC as the first alternative in the absence of complications, and helping women to ‘let go’ of their previous childbirth experience to prepare for their next birth (Nilsson et al., 2017). The discussion of risks and benefits for next birth after CS, should include information about recovery from surgical birth (Davis et al., 2020). During labour, midwives and obstetricians can help women achieve a VBAC by offering calm and confident support  (Nilsson et al., 2017).

A national mass media public health campaign about the benefits of VBAC has been an effective strategy in one country with low rates of planned VBAC. Women who viewed the campaign had increased self-reported knowledge, positive attitude towards VBAC and higher intention toward VBAC (Majilesi et al., 2020). A similar campaign could be considered in other countries with low rates of VBAC intention.

Highlighted research

Homer, C., Davis, D. L., Mollart, L., Turkmani, S., Smith, R. M., Bullard, M., Leiser, B., & Foureur, M. (2021). Midwifery continuity of care and vaginal birth after caesarean section: A randomised controlled trial. Women and Birth, S1871-5192(21)00089-5. Advance online publication.


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020). National Core Maternity Indicators 2018: summary report. Retrieved from Canberra:

Basile Ibrahim, B., Knobf, M. T., Shorten, A., Vedam, S., Cheyney, M., Illuzzi, J., & Kennedy, H. P. (2021). “I had to fight for my VBAC”: A mixed methods exploration of women’s experiences of pregnancy and vaginal birth after cesarean in the United States. Birth (Berkeley, Calif.)48(2), 164–177.

Davis, D., S Homer, C., Clack, D., Turkmani, S., & Foureur, M. (2020). Choosing vaginal birth after caesarean section: Motivating factors. Midwifery88, 102766.

Keedle, H., Peters, L., Schmied, V., Burns, E., Keedle, W., & Dahlen, H. G. (2020). Women’s experiences of planning a vaginal birth after caesarean in different models of maternity care in Australia. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth20(1), 381.

Lundgren, I., Morano, S., Nilsson, C., Sinclair, M., & Begley, C. (2020). Cultural perspectives on vaginal birth after previous caesarean section in countries with high and low rates – A hermeneutic study. Women Birth, 33(4), e339-e347.

Majlesi, M., Montazeri, A., Rakhshani, F., Nouri-Khashe-Heiran, E., & Akbari, N. (2020). ‘No to unnecessary caesarean sections’: Evaluation of a mass-media campaign on women’s knowledge, attitude and intention for mode of delivery. PloS One15(8), e0235688.

Nilsson, C., van Limbeek, E., Vehvilainen-Julkunen, K., & Lundgren, I. (2017). Vaginal birth after cesarean: Views of women from countries with high VBAC rates. Qualitative Health Research27(3), 325–340.

Wingert, A., Johnson, C., Featherstone, R., Sebastianski, M., Hartling, L., & Douglas Wilson, R. (2018). Adjunct clinical interventions that influence vaginal birth after cesarean rates: Systematic review. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth18(1), 452.

Central fetal monitoring – time to de-implement?

Investment in fetal monitoring technology

Maternity services in high-income countries have invested heavily in medical technologies. However, some technologies have been implemented without clear evidence of clinical benefit or safety. Cardiotocograph (CTG) is commonly used to monitor the fetal heart rate in labour. Professional position statements and clinical guidelines recommend the use of CTG, despite highest-level evidence that it does not improve perinatal outcomes, even for women with risk factors (Small et al., 2020). See more here does-intrapartum-ctg-monitoring-save-lives. Furthermore, one of the unintended consequences of CTG has been escalating rates of caesarean section (Small et al., 2020).

Impact of fetal monitoring technology

Central  monitoring systems (CMS) transmit data from the CTG to a central site where it can be interpreted outside the room. CMS are being rolled out as a valuable add-on to CTGs, yet there have been no randomised trials of CMS. Indeed, the only evidence available is from three small studies that demonstrated CMS do not impact perinatal outcomes (Small et al., 2021). Furthermore, two of the studies measured an increase rates of instrumental birth and caesarean section after CMS was introduced (Brown et al., 2016; Weiss et al., 1997). Additional concerns include that midwives spend less time in the room with labouring women when these are CMS (Brown et al., 2016).

New research with clinicians in a setting with CMS

Obstetrician Dr Kirsten Small (PhD), project lead with Transforming Maternity Care Collaborative, conducted doctoral research about how CMS organise the work of maternity clinicians. Her PhD was supervised by Emeritus Professors Mary Sidebotham and Jenny Gamble, and Professor Jennifer Fenwick. Their latest publication describes how CMS affect maternity care providers clinical behaviours (Small et al., 2021). The setting for this qualitative study was a maternity hospital where 90% of women had a CTG in labour (all connected to a CMS). Thirty-six midwives (including midwifery students), and 16 doctors (including obstetric residents, registrars, and consultants) participated in the study. Dr Small interviewed (individually and in groups) and/or observed (e.g., when interacting with the CMS) participants and then led analysis of the data.

Undermining midwifery autonomy and compromising maternity care

The study found that clinicians outside the room made clinical decisions without all the relevant information, which potentially compromises safety (Small et al., 2021). Informants described how decisions were made, before engaging with the birthing woman and her midwife. Team leaders were perceived to check-in less with individual midwives (i.e., to get updated about the woman’s labour), if they could see that the CTG was normal.

Some midwives felt professionally disrespected by obstetricians, who would see the CMS and enter a room without invitation or permission (Small et al., 2021). This behaviour required midwives to de-escalate concerns, sometimes in a context of forceful obstetric communication. Importantly, this is the opposite of the usual process where midwives escalate concerns based on the midwife’s professional judgement. Taken together, making decisions outside the room, and coming into the room to then bypass or contradict the midwife’s interpretation of the CTG, was perceived to undermine women’s confidence in their midwife (Small et al., 2021).

Midwives lamented they were spending more time documenting on the CMS rather than being with woman. To limit disruptions to the birth space, midwives described changing their practice. For example, midwives limited women’s positions to ensure good contact for a CTG and directed women’s pushing efforts to speed up second stage labour. Informants described obstetricians acting on normal second stage decelerations (seen on the CMS), by performing surgical/instrumental birth.

Time to pause and consider next steps

Maternity services who are considering installation of CMS should pause – further research that demonstrates clinical benefit is required. Maternity services that have installed CMS, should rigorously evaluate the risks and benefits of these systems. Next steps may include the decision to de-implement CMS. De-implementation is the “process of identifying and removing harmful, non-cost-effective, or ineffective practices” (Upvall & Bourgault, 2018, p.495). Unlike implementation research, however, little is known about the process of de-implementation (van Bodegom-Vos et al., 2017). Three criteria have been suggested to help services identify which interventions are appropriate for de-implementation (McKay et al., 2018):

1) not effective or harmful; or

2) not the most effective or efficient to provide; or

3) no longer necessary.

Managers and service leaders have a responsibility to disinvest from technologies that meet any of these criteria.

Highlighted research

Small, K. A., Sidebotham, M., Fenwick, J., & Gamble, J. (2021). “I’m not doing what I should be doing as a midwife”: An ethnographic exploration of central fetal monitoring and perceptions of clinical safety. Women and Birth.


Brown, J., McIntyre, A., Gasparotto, R., & McGee, T. M. (2016). Birth outcomes, intervention frequency, and the disappearing Midwife—Potential hazards of central fetal monitoring: A single center review. Birth43(2), 100-107.

Burton, C., Williams, L., Bucknall, T. et al. (2019). Understanding how and why de-implementation works in health and care: research protocol for a realist synthesis of evidence. Systematic Reviews, 8(194).

McKay, V. R., Morshed, A. B., Brownson, R. C., Proctor, E. K., & Prusaczyk, B. (2018). Letting Go: Conceptualizing Intervention De-implementation in Public Health and Social Service Settings. American Journal of Community Psychology62(1-2), 189–202.

Small, K. A., Sidebotham, M., Fenwick, J., & Gamble, J. (2020). Intrapartum cardiotocograph monitoring and perinatal outcomes for women at risk: Literature review. Women and birth : journal of the Australian College of Midwives33(5), 411–418.

Upvall, M. J., & Bourgault, A. M. (2018). De-implementation: A concept analysis. Nursing forum, 10.1111/nuf.12256. Advance online publication.

van Bodegom-Vos L, Davidoff F, Marang-van de Mheen PJ. (2017). Implementation and de-implementation: two sides of the same coin? BMJ Quality & Safety, 26, 495-501.

Weiss, P. M., Balducci, J., Reed, J., Klasko, S. K., & Rust, O. A. (1997). Does centralized monitoring affect perinatal outcome?. The Journal of Maternal‐Fetal Medicine6(6), 317-319.

Withiam-Leitch, M., Shelton, J., & Fleming, E. (2007). Central fetal monitoring: Effect on perinatal outcomes and cesarean section rate. Obstetrical & gynecological survey62(4), 232-233.

“Caesareans are just another way of giving birth” – right?

Caesarean section (CS) is common in high income-countries. In Australia, 35% of women give birth by caesarean, while 85% of women with a previous CS will have a repeat CS (AIHW, 2020a). However, there is increasing media interest in the concept of ‘caesarean shaming’ or ‘caesarean stigma’. Although shame is an emotion of self-blame (Heshmat, 2015), a recent media article has suggested that talking about risks of CS and benefits of normal birth, causes women who have experienced or are planning CS, to feel shame (Begg, 2021) However, caesarean shaming is not born out in the literature – and focus on it obfuscates the issues.

Research on caesarean shaming or stigma

A quick literature search finds just two articles on CS shaming or stigma  – one is a research paper. A UK study presents results from 75 semi-structured interviews with women on a postnatal ward following a planned or unplanned CS (Tully & Ball, 2013). While some women felt stigma that they had “copped out of normal birth”; none of the women referred to feeling shamed by their decision or experience (Tully & Ball, 2013). The recent media article quotes 30 Australian women who uniformly believed their CS was lifesaving (Begg, 2021). Importantly, this echoes the UK interview results –every woman considered that her CS had been justified and necessary. Women commonly perceived it was their only option and lifesaving (Tully & Ball, 2013).

Caesareans can be life-saving but…this is epidemic

Caesarean section rates above 15% do not reduce maternal or neonatal mortality rates (Gibbons et al., 2010). Indeed, in high-income countries maternal death is exceedingly rare – 5.5 per 100,000  women who give birth in Australia will die (AIHW, 2020b). Maternity health professionals (WHO, 2018) and maternity consumer organisations (MCA, 2021) are increasingly concerned that CS is being performed without a medical or obstetric indication. Subsequently, we are experiencing a “caesarean epidemic” in high-income countries (Visser et al. 2018) – this is the story that needs to be picked up by the media.

Unnecessary caesarean creates harm without benefit

When a CS occurs without benefit, it creates unnecessary risks for mother and baby (Wise, 2018) . However, this jars with the commonly held view that CS is safer than vaginal birth because it is more “controlled” (Coates et al, 2021b).

Women who have a CS are at increased risk of birth trauma, uterine rupture, death, and future pregnancy complications including miscarriage, ectopic pregnancy, preterm birth, and stillbirth (Sandall et al., 2018). Babies born via CS have higher rates of nursery admission and lower chance of sustained breastfeeding with negative health consequences (Hobbs et al., 2016). While evidence about long-term risks for CS born children continues to emerge, they appear to include allergies and asthma; diabetes, gastroenteritis, obesity, autism, and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (Sandall et al., 2018; Słabuszewska-Jóźwiak et al., 2020; Zhang et al., 2019).

Early term caesarean carries additional risks

The recent Australian Commission for Safety and Quality in Healthcare report showed that 50% of CS performed before 39 weeks gestation were done without a medical indication (ACSQH, 2021). Worryingly, early planned birth (<39 weeks) increases risks for babies of breathing difficulties, admission to neonatal nursery (ASQH, 2021), and in rare instances neonatal death (Prediger et al., 2020). In addition, the long-term risks of early planned birth are learning difficulties and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ACSQH, 2021).

How do women make informed decisions about caesarean

The Federation of International Gynecologists and Obstetricians have released a statement that women must be “properly informed” of the risks prior to consenting for CS (Visser et al., 2018). Coates et al. (2021a) survey of Australian women’s decision-making around planned CS reported that 90% perceived they had adequate information that they understood, including risks and benefits of CS. However, 15% felt pressured or uncertain about their decision, a figure reflected in the wider literature (Coates et al., 2021a). Further research on women’s decision-making about planned birth (either induction or CS) indicates that approximately:

  • 4 in 10 women were not provided with written information before deciding
  • 1 in 5 women felt they “didn’t really have a choice” about induction or CS (Coates et al., 2021b).

What can maternity services do

Facilitating informed decision-making is part of addressing alarming rates of CS. Likewise, it may be necessary to focus on changing the maternity care system. For example, there are several system-wide strategies that have been demonstrated to reduce CS rates:

  • Providing women with continuity of midwifery care (Callander et al., 2019)
  • Benchmarking, auditing and publishing CS rates in health services (Chen et al., 2018; Visser et al., 2018)
  • Funding models that mean fees for vaginal birth and CS are the same (Visser et al., 2018)
  • Implementation of guidelines, combined with mandatory second obstetric opinion about indication for CS, and physician education (Chen et al., 2018).

Additionally, it may be useful for clinicians to reflect on how they debrief with women following a CS, especially in relation to a possible future pregnancy. For example, considering how language may be interpreted (i.e., my baby almost died) and resisting the impulse to reassure women their CS was warranted if the clinical picture and evidence suggests it was not, is important (Niemczyk, 2014).


Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020a). Australia’s mothers and babies 2018—in brief. Canberra: AIHW.

Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. (2020b). Maternal deaths in Australia. Retrieved from

Australian Commission on Safety and Quality in Healthcare. (2021).
The Fourth Australian Atlas on Healthcare Variation. Retrieved from:

Begg, C. (2021). “I was told I had taken the easy way out.” We need to talk about C-section shaming. Mamamia.

Callander, E., Creedy, D.K., Gamble, J., Fox, H., Toohill, J., Sneddon, A., & Ellwood D. (2019). Reducing caesarean section: An economic evaluation of routine induction of labour at 39 weeks gestation in low-risk nulliparous women. Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, 34(1), 3-11.

Chen I, Opiyo N, Tavender E, et al. (2018). Non-clinical interventions for reducing unnecessary caesarean section. The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 9(9): Cd005528.

Coates, D., Donnolley, N., Thirukumar, P., Lainchbury, A., Spear, V., & Henry, A. (2021a). Women’s experiences of decision-making and beliefs in relation to planned caesarean section: A survey study. The Australian & New Zealand Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology61(1), 106–115.

Coates, D., Donnolley, N., Foureur, M., Thirukumar, P., & Henry, A. (2021b). Factors associated with women’s birth beliefs and experiences of decision-making in the context of planned birth: A survey study. Midwifery96, 102944.

Gibbons L, Belizán JM, Lauer JA, et al. (2010). The global numbers and costs of additionally needed and unnecessary caesarean sections performed per year: overuse as a barrier to universal coverage. World Health Rep, 30, 1–31.

Heshmat, S. (2015). Five factors that make you feel shame. Psychology Today.

Hobbs, A.J., Mannion, C.A., McDonald, S.W., Brockway, M., Tough, S.C. (2016). The impact of caesarean section on breastfeeding initiation, duration and difficulties in the first four months postpartum. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, 16, 90.

Independent Hospital Pricing Authority. (2020). National Hospital Cost Data Collection, Round 22 (2017-18). Sydney: IHPA.

Maternity Choices Australia. (2021). 2021 Federal Election MP/Senator brief endorsed by 15 community organisations. Retrieved from

Niemczyk, N. A. (2014). Most women think their cesarean birth was necessary. Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health, 59, 363-364.

Prediger, B., Mathes, T., Polus, S., Glatt, A., Bühn, S., Schiermeier, S., Neugebauer, E., & Pieper, D. (2020). A systematic review and time-response meta-analysis of the optimal timing of elective caesarean sections for best maternal and neonatal health outcomes. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth20(1), 395.

Sandall J, Tribe RM, Avery L, et al. (2018). Short-term and long-term effects of caesarean section on the health of women and children. The Lancet, 392(10155),1349-57.

Słabuszewska-Jóźwiak, A., Szymański, J. K., Ciebiera, M., Sarecka-Hujar, B., & Jakiel, G. (2020). Pediatrics consequences of caesarean section-A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health17(21), 8031.

Tully, K. P., & Ball, H. L. (2013). Misrecognition of need: women’s experiences of and explanations for undergoing cesarean delivery. Social Science & Medicine, 85(1982), 103–111.

Visser, G.H.A, Ayres-de-Campos, D., Barnea, E.R, et al. (2018). FIGO position paper: how to stop the caesarean section epidemic. The Lancet, 392(10155), 1286-1287.

Wise, J. (2018). Alarming global rise in caesarean births, figure show. British Medical Journal, 363, 4319.

World Health Organization. (2018). WHO recommendations non-clinical interventions to reduce unnecessary caesarean sections. Geneva: WHO.

Zhang T, Sidorchuk A, Sevilla-Cermeño L, et al. (2019). Association of cesarean delivery with risk of neurodevelopmental and psychiatric disorders in the offspring. JAMA Network Open, 2(8), e1910236.


No Pain, No Gain? An opinion piece

During the final year of the Bachelor of Midwifery at Griffith University, midwifery students are asked to write an opinion piece focussed on normal birth that could be published. Dr Jyai Allen convenes this course and supported the students to complete this work. Several of these were of such good quality that we offered students the option of having them published here. This is the fourth articles in a series of five. This article was written by Monique Matthews.

No Pain, No Gain?

Many women express wanting a ‘drug free labour’ or a ‘natural/normal birth’. The International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) definition of normal birth, requires the process to occur without any surgical, medical, or pharmacological intervention.

Pharmacological pain relief are interventions that include, epidural, opioids (morphine) and nitrous oxide (happy gas). Women not using pharmacological pain relief have many options. These include heat, hydrotherapy/water immersion (shower/bath), acupressure and acupuncture, hypnosis, relaxation, breathing, massage, yoga, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), aromatherapy, sterile water injections, and a birth ball. These techniques are termed non-pharmacological pain relief.

In 2018 in Australia, 21% of women exclusively used only non-pharmacological pain relief, whereas, 78% of women used pharmacological pain relief during labour. With a high rate of pharmacological pain relief and the known negative impacts of these techniques, the question needs to be asked: why have non-pharmacological techniques, that are less invasive and more natural, become the alternative rather than the standard option?


Techniques for pain relief in labour have changed throughout history, largely influenced by their availability and the values of practitioners. The earliest techniques were midwifery based, which facilitated the natural physiology of labour in the home with family support and only intervened in life threatening difficulties. Many of these non-pharmacological techniques are still used today.

In the early 1700s birth moved from midwifery to obstetrics as formal biomedical training started institutionalising birth in the hospital. Doctors perspectives became greatly influential. Doctor Joseph Lee likened women’s experience of childbirth to falling on a pitchfork and he wanted to rid childbirth of “unskilled” labour assistance. This enforced the idea that women were unable to cope with labour pain and they required professional help to survive. Pain became a target of medical intervention.

Pain relief techniques in labour through the 1800s and 1900s introduced pharmacological pain relief such as chloroform, nitrous oxide and a mixture of morphine (pain relief) and scolimeine (memory loss) coined ‘twilight sleep’. Women were barely conscious while giving birth, dehumanising the process and causing extensive trauma. In the 1960s, epidural pain relief gained popularity. An interest in returning to non-pharmacological birthing practices also emerged around this time, as the experience of pain was considered empowering for women. By 1990, women’s rights to pain relief were again promoted for a technological, pain free birth.

Today, the primary healthcare provider for a woman in labour in Australia can be a doctor or midwife. Women’s views on what techniques they will use during labour are diverse, as they are impacted by their social and cultural learning, the media, and the ongoing medicalisation of birth.

Biomedical Paradigm

While the ICM’s definition of normal birth excludes the use of pharmacological intervention, the Queensland Clinical Guidelines definition includes the use of nitrous oxide, normalising pharmacological pain relief. Within the guideline the term ‘non-pharmacological support’ is consistently used. This situates these techniques within a biomedical paradigm, with risk and pathology as the dominant discourse. This implies that these natural and traditional techniques are inferior, by stating that they are ‘other’ than the dominant pharmacological techniques.

This position is often supported in media representations where women are unrealistically shown lying on a bed, out of control, screaming for pain relief. Today, this is a more common source of information than having been present at an actual birth. The expectations women form, impact their experience of pain as it is a subjective experience, influenced by social and cultural learnings.

Physiological vs medical approaches to pain

When women experience uterine contractions, the pain is physiological rather than pathological. This pain is considered beneficial, as it emphasises the need for support, heightens elation and triggers hormones to support wellbeing. During labour, women naturally produce hormones (oxytocin and endorphins) that counter the intensity of the pain experienced. Stress hormones (catecholamines and cortisol) can override this natural pain relief when women experience fear or a lack of trust. If women and midwives understand these hormonal processes and use non-pharmacological techniques to enhance them, the fear cascade can be avoided.

If labour pain is a subjective experience, why is a medical approach, based on objective principles, used?

The biomedical paradigm views birth as a mechanical process requiring intervention for efficacy and safety. Using pharmacological pain relief changes labour from a physiological process to a medical procedure as side effects require management.

Nitrous oxide can cause nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and drowsiness. Morphine crosses the placenta lowering the baby’s breathing rate and alertness at birth. Women can also experience excessive sedation, a lowered breathing rate and nausea. Epidurals increase instrumental vaginal birth rates by 500% and can increase the use of synthetic oxytocin, length of labour, low blood pressure, and a less positive birth experience.

As non-pharmacological techniques have less side effects, why are they not better promoted? The answer may lie in the cost effectiveness of these techniques, which do not make manufacturers as much money, causing them to be understudied, which lessens practitioner’s confidence in the techniques. Sara Wickham articulates this point well when she said “Ethically, medical intervention has to prove itself against nature. Not the other way around”.

Power Play

Women can be empowered during their birth experience through woman-led, self-generating techniques that involve partners. However, pharmacological pain relief shifts power from the woman to the practitioner. This phenomenon occurs as standard monitoring is required to deem whether the situation is ‘safe’ to continue labour, creating parameters that may exclude women from decisions.

The power of suggestion can impact which techniques women use during labour. If midwives and practitioners are afraid of being with women in pain, they may offer increased pain relief when they feel the woman needs it, rather than upon request. Women have described feeling coerced and being presented with false dilemmas with limited choices. Consent is not valid in these situations if the risks of pharmacological pain relief are not fully disclosed, or the information is tailored by midwives. Research on epidurals, found they are sometimes used as a substitute for continuous support.

This raises the question: Is pain relief used more often for the convenience of practitioners, rather than to meet the needs of women?

Pain relief is a human right!

Access to pain relief is considered a human right. Some women accessing maternity care may state that they want an epidural immediately or make the decision to use pharmacological pain relief when they were not initially planning to. This is their right. However, pain perception is influenced by social and cultural learnings, medicalisation, and the media. This may not include evidence-based information on birth physiology and adequate support for non-pharmacological pain relief techniques.

A study on pain relief in labour found epidurals were considered the most effective pain relief, nonetheless, water birth was associated with higher levels of satisfaction than epidural use. Predictors for a positive birth experience include a positive attitude and support from midwives, ability to mobilise, confidence & autonomy, inclusion of partners and a safe birthing environment. Birth satisfaction does not solely depend on the level of pain experienced, but the care provided. Women’s autonomy is promoted when non-pharmacological techniques are appropriately explained and used.

Reframing non-pharmacological pain relief

Non-pharmacological pain relief needs to be reconceptualised. Labour is not a problem to be solved but an experience to be worked through. Non-pharmacological techniques enhance this experience and most are easily implemented, affordable, and effective in helping women and their partners actively engage in their care. Midwives, as the protectors of normal birth, should be confident to inform, promote and facilitate the use of non-pharmacological techniques during labour.

Pain relief techniques offered to women during labour are influenced by the opinions and values of their care provider. A mindset change in the way midwives and practitioners present choices to women could increase understanding of the benefits of non-pharmacological pain relief in labour. Discussing non-pharmacological pain relief options not defined by the medical paradigm, but rather, validated in their own right, could improve women’s confidence in their labour choices. Using words such as intuitive or natural techniques would be more appropriate.

Women’s decisions are influenced by social and cultural norms. Birthing choices can be positively influenced, by providing information around birthing techniques based on evidence, that focuses on women’s needs. Comprehensive discussion during antenatal care of physiology in labour and all of the pain relief techniques available, including the risks and benefits, would ensure women are adequately informed.

Current labour care is not always focused on women’s needs. Social and cultural learnings from media sources informed by a biomedical paradigm have influenced midwives and women to discount the benefits of non-pharmacological pain relief. Pharmacological pain relief techniques are being used in a majority of births without necessarily providing the best experiences. Non-pharmacological pain relief techniques, which have been effective since traditional midwifery care, enhance the physiological process, support women’s autonomy and can facilitate a positive birth.

So, I challenge you, instead of questioning whether non-pharmacological pain relief techniques are adequate labour care, question whether all pain relief techniques are being adequately facilitated and ask – who is benefiting from these choices?


Abdul-Sattar Khudhur Ali, S., & Mirkhan Ahmed, H. (2018, 2018/06/01/). Effect of change in position and back massage on pain perception during first stage of labor. Pain Management Nursing, 19(3), 288-294.

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Does intrapartum CTG monitoring save lives?

Dr Kirsten Small is a project lead with the Transforming Maternity Care Collaborative. Yesterday she delivered the closing keynote address at the GOLD Obstetric Conference, speaking about why it is so difficult to align clinical practice with the research evidence. Kirsten hosts the Birth Small Talk blog and her post today reviews the research evidence she summarised in her address. She has kindly shared it here as well. 

If you are interested in pursuing research relating to the use of fetal heart rate monitoring in labour please connect with us via our contact form


Today’s post examines the research evidence about CTG monitoring with regards to stillbirth and neonatal death. This is a deep dive for my fellow data geeks who like to read the fine print, not the executive summary. The short version is – no. Using a CTG to monitor a woman in labour doesn’t prevent the death of her baby. If you are keen to know the details, read on!

Intrapartum CTG monitoring in low risk populations

This is the least controversial area of evidence, and the one most maternity clinicians are familiar with. Of the eleven randomised controlled trials that have compared CTG monitoring with intermittent auscultation (IA) during labour, three were done in low risk populations, five in high risk populations and the remaining three in mixed risk populations or where risk was not specified (Alfirevic et al., 2017).

The three low risk trials were Kelso et al., 1978, Leveno et al., 1986 and Wood et al., 1981. A total of 16,049 births were included in this analysis, which showed no statistically significant difference in the perinatal mortality rate (RR 0.87, 95% CI 0.29 – 2.58).

It has been almost 40 years since the last of these trials was performed. It could be argued that CTG technology has improved, or that we are better at CTG interpretation now. Heelan-Fancher et al. (2019) examined a large population data set from two states in the United States, specifically looking at birth outcomes for low risk women. This was not a randomised controlled trial – rather it was a non-experimental analysis of what happens in practice when women are monitored by CTG or by IA, with a very large sample size (1.5 million births). They didn’t report on intrapartum stillbirth. They found no significant difference in the neonatal mortality rate when CTG monitoring was used.

On the basis of available evidence, there is nothing that suggests that use of CTG monitoring rather than IA reduces the perinatal mortality rate in women considered to be at low risk. That’s not all that controversial. Most people in maternity care know this particular bit of information.

Intrapartum CTG monitoring in mixed, unknown, and high-risk populations

There is a widespread assumption that the absence of mortality benefit derived from CTG monitoring in labour ONLY applies to women considered to be low risk. We wouldn’t be using CTGs so widely if they didn’t save lives, right? But what does the evidence actually say regarding the use of intrapartum CTG monitoring in women who are not at low risk?

The randomised controlled trial evidence regarding high risk populations consists of five studies published over 6 papers, over a thirty-year period, starting in 1976 and continuing to 2006 (Haverkamp et al., 1979; Haverkamp et al., 1976; Luthy et al., 1987; Madaan and Trivedi, 2006; Renou et al., 1976; Shy et al., 1987). In addition, there are four studies published over five papers which were conducted in populations with both women considered to be at lower and higher risk or where the risk profile of the population was not described (Grant et al., 1989; Kelso et al., 1978; MacDonald et al., 1985; Neldam et al., 1986; Vintzileos et al., 1993). With my co-authors Associate Professor Mary Sidebotham, Professor Jenny Gamble, and Professor Jennifer Fenwick, we have synthesised the findings from these populations (Small et al., 2020).

In the high-risk population (n = 1,975), perinatal mortality was not significantly different when CTG was compared with IA (RR 1.17, 95% CI 0.62 – 2.22). There was also no statistically significant difference in mortality in the mixed-risk population (n = 15,994, RR 0.67, 95% CI 0.36 – 1.23). The mortality rate was higher in the mixed risk population than it was for the low risk population, and higher again for the high-risk population, indicating that researchers have correctly identified populations of women with higher risk.

Note that the number of women in the high-risk population is small. It has been argued that with a larger sample size a difference would be detected but that it would be unethical to recruit women considered to be a high-risk to further RCTs because the non-experimental evidence supporting the use of intrapartum CTG monitoring is so compelling. We set out to examine this assertion and examined the nonexperimental evidence (Small et al., 2020).

Non-experimental research

Our searches located 27 papers published between 1972 and 2018 which provided evidence about the use of intrapartum CTG monitoring in high-risk populations. We then used a tool (ROBINS-I) to assess the degree to which the findings of the research might be affected by bias – that is that the findings were due to something other than CTG use. 22 papers were at critical risk of bias and another was a serious risk. Most of these papers compared a time period prior to the introduction of CTG monitoring with a period after it was introduced, without controlling for any of the other changes to practice which might improve outcomes over time. Given the high risk of bias, the findings from these papers should not be relied on to guide practice as a consequence. The remaining five studies were assessed to be at moderate risk of bias. According to the ROBINS-I tool, studies at moderate risk of bias can be relied upon to inform clinical practice.

Starting with the studies at critical or serious risk of bias, only five of these studies showed a statistically significant reduction in perinatal mortality out of fourteen where this could be calculated. In the studies at moderate risk of bias (which ranged in size from 235 to 1.2 million women), no significant differences in perinatal mortality rates were reported. The argument that the non-experimental evidence presents a compelling argument for intrapartum CTG monitoring can’t be sustained on the basis of the available evidence.

Where to next?

Where does that leave us as clinicians and what recommendations can we make on the basis of these findings? We have an ethical obligation to include information regarding the lack of effectiveness of CTG monitoring in our discussions about intrapartum fetal monitoring with birthing women, regardless of their risk profile (Sartwelle et al., 2020) and to support their informed decision making. However, doing currently places clinicians at odds with professional guidelines. Professional guidelines are meant to be evidence informed, yet this is clearly not the case for intrapartum fetal monitoring. In order to support clinicians to provide evidence-informed care, there needs to be stronger recognition in professional guidelines that the evidence in favour of intrapartum CTG monitoring is far from compelling and that using IA instead is not proof of unprofessional practice.

The full reference list is available on the post on Birth Small Talk. 


Overcoming barriers to obstetric support for midwifery continuity of care models

by Midwives Siubhan McCaffery and Professor Jenny Gamble, with Obstetrician Kirsten Small

One of the frequently mentioned barriers to the expansion of midwifery continuity of care models is a lack of support from obstetricians. There is a small body of research that sheds some light on this lack of support. These studies have shown that the issues include differing birth-related philosophies between maternity care providers, medical dominance of the maternity-care landscape, medical officers’ misunderstanding of what midwifery is, and the impact of maternity reform on medical maternity care providers.

One study reported on a cohesive and accepting culture across midwifery and obstetrics which was created through strong knowledge of the model and acceptance of the associated evidence relating to midwifery continuity of care (Styles, et al., 2020). While this was the exception, rather than the norm, it does show that it is possible to overcome the challenges and generate multi-professional teams that support midwifery continuity of carer models.

We have both worked in a variety of maternity care settings and have our own first-hand experience of setting up and working in midwifery continuity of care models. It is our belief that many of the concerns of obstetricians can be addressed through education or through exposure to well-functioning models of care. Here we explore and address three common concerns.

Concern #1 Uncertainty about professional roles

Historically, obstetricians have by default been considered as the leader of any maternity care team. When midwives move into the role of primary care provider, this necessitates a shift in role for the obstetrician as well. This can cause discomfort simply because it is unfamiliar but provides a valuable opportunity for obstetricians to reflect on what they want to contribute to maternity care and how they would like to structure their role.

The obstetricians’ role shifts from being primarily about supporting the birthing woman, and the midwife supporting the obstetrician to do that; to the obstetrician supporting the midwife as they support the birthing woman. The primary relationship the obstetrician has in a midwifery continuity of care model is with the midwives, rather than birthing women. The concept of measuring good obstetric practice changes from being chiefly about whether the woman was happy with the obstetrician’s care (though that remains important), to being about whether the midwife was happy with the support provided by the obstetrician.

As obstetricians shift into this new role, there is also an opportunity to negotiate with midwives who will make up the team about how members of each profession work with one another. We take for granted that we understand our own and each other’s roles, yet this is often not accurate. Rather than representing a threat to obstetric practice, role clarity for both professions can reduce workload and anxiety, and improve the safety of practice.

Concern #2 Uncertainty about professional responsibility

Tied to the concept of the obstetrician as the leader, is the sense that obstetricians are ultimately responsible for the actions of every member of the healthcare team in producing good outcomes. There is no basis for this assumption in law, which is clear that clinicians are responsible for their own actions and not that of others. Along with providing an opportunity to renegotiate roles, shifting to midwifery continuity models of care provides a chance to be clear about lines of responsibility.

The most effective way for obstetricians to be clear about their risk exposure is to not take on care responsibilities for women until a midwife escalates care to them. This is easy to achieve in a midwifery continuity of care model where the only time an obstetrician becomes involved in woman’s care is when they are asked to do so by a midwife who has the woman’s agreement. Hybrid models, where obstetricians review healthy women at some point, make the lines of responsibility fuzzy and don’t improve outcomes. They should therefore not be used.

Concern #3 Lack of forewarning

While the suggestion that obstetricians don’t take on care for women until requested reduces workload and medicolegal risk, this can generate concern that they will need to step into a care role without forewarning. Many obstetricians feel more comfortable when they have had the opportunity to meet and assess women during the antenatal period, on the assumption that they might be able to prevent complications from arising during or after birth.

Evidence shows that the outcomes of midwifery continuity of care are at least as good as they are for obstetric led care (Sandall et al., 2016). This is only possible because midwives are at least as good as obstetricians at risk assessment and management. The circumstances under which midwives request the input of obstetricians are clearly set out, ensuring that obstetric involvement is achieved before a clinical situation has evolved into a major complication, when this is possible to do so.

It is important to acknowledge, that even with significant levels of obstetric input in an obstetric led model of care that unexpected emergencies still arise. It is therefore a myth that having a check-up with an obstetrician can avoid these. Being able to respond to an emergency situation without being forewarned will always be a feature of the work required of obstetricians, regardless of the model of care. This should not be used as a reason to limit access to midwifery continuity of care models.

In closing

As a midwife and an obstetrician, we have both experienced the benefits of working in midwifery continuity of care models. Not only are the clinical outcomes excellent, but the restructuring of working relationships between midwives and obstetricians that occur with the shift in model enhance professional relationships and help to make our professional lives more meaningful. There is joy and reward to be found in working in multi-professional teams with clear understanding and respect for each other’s roles and responsibilities.


Sandall, J., Soltani, H., Gates, S., Shennan, A., & Devane, D. (2016.) Midwife-led continuity models versus other models of care for childbearing women. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, 4(11), CD004667.

Styles, C., Kearney,L., & George, K. (2020). Implementation and upscaling of midwifery continuity of care: The experience of midwives and obstetricians. Women and Birth, in press.