Identifying fetal presentation and discussing management options with women who have a malpresentation late in pregnancy enables informed planning for the birth.
Fetal presentation refers to the part of the baby that is overlying the maternal pelvis. Fetal lie refers to the relationship between the longitudinal axis of the baby with respect to the longitudinal axis of the mother (longitudinal lie, transverse lie, oblique lie).
Most babies present with the crown of the head at the cervix (vertex presentation). Less optimal situations are when the presenting part is the face or brow; the buttocks (breech presentation); or foot or feet (footling presentation). Babies that are in a transverse lie may present the fetal back or shoulders, arms or legs, or the umbilical cord (funic presentation). In an oblique lie, generally no palpable fetal part is presenting. This lie is usually transitory and occurs as the baby is moving.
Fetal presentation can be identified by palpation of the maternal abdomen, and confirmed by ultrasound if there is any doubt.
61.1.1 Fetal presentation at birth
Among women who gave birth in Australia in 2010, most fetal presentations were vertex (94.4%). Malpresentations included breech (3.9%), face or brow presentation (0.2%) and shoulder/transverse and compound presentations (0.7%).
61.2 Abdominal palpation
Abdominal palpation is accurate in identifying presentation, especially if carried out by an experienced health professional. In Australia, it is recommended that all health professionals providing antenatal care be experienced in palpation of the pregnant abdomen including identification of the presenting part . While the positive effects of abdominal palpation are difficult to quantify, no risks have been identified and it provides a point of engagement with the mother and baby. Assessment of presentation by abdominal palpation before 36 weeks is not always accurate.
Assess fetal presentation by abdominal palpation at 36 weeks or later, when presentation is likely to influence the plans for the birth.
Approved by NHMRC in June 2014; expires June 2019
Where there is any doubt as to the presenting part, obstetric ultrasound should be used to confirm the palpation findings. Ultrasound can also exclude fetal anomaly, low-lying placenta, hyperextension of the baby’s head and the presence of umbilical cord around the fetal neck.
Suspected non-cephalic presentation after 36 weeks should be confirmed by an ultrasound assessment.
Approved by NHMRC in June 2014; expires June 2019
61.3 Breech presentation
Breech presentation is common in mid pregnancy, with incidence decreasing as the pregnancy approaches term. Turning the baby (eg using external cephalic version [ECV]) reduces the number of babies who are breech at term, thereby improving the chance of a vaginal birth.
The optimal mode of birth for women who have a baby in the breech position is the subject of much controversy. Following the initial findings of the Term Breech Trial of fewer adverse outcomes among babies following planned caesarean section than planned vaginal birth, breech birth is now more likely to occur by caesarean section. Rates of singleton vaginal breech births in Australia fell from 23.1% in 1991 to 4.0% in 2010 .
However, several studies have shown that with careful selection criteria and involvement of experienced health professionals in centres that are supportive, vaginal breech birth can be successful in 49–83% of women, with rates of morbidity equal to that of birth by caesarean section and higher success rates among multiparous women.
Evidence into neonatal or maternal outcomes associated with mode of breech birth is inconsistent:
- Risks to the infant: Some cohort studies found no differences in mortality and morbidity between vaginal births and caesarean sections, while others found higher rates of morbidity following vaginal birth and one found a higher risk of neonatal mortality among babies of 1,000–1,500 g following vaginal birth but no significant difference in neonatal mortality above these weights . An observational study found that the risk of adverse perinatal outcomes following vaginal birth was increased among babies with a birthweight below the 10th percentile and a gestational age of less than 39 weeks . A systematic review of cohort studies found a lower risk of developmental dysplasia of the hip following caesarean section compared with vaginal birth . Importantly, the follow-up study from the babies born in the Term Breech Trial showed that risk of death or developmental delay at 2 years of age did not differ with mode of birth .
- Risks to the mother: Some studies have found lower rates of maternal morbidity following vaginal birth , while another found a lower risk of maternal complications following caesarean section .
Identifying breech presentation at around 36 weeks gestation enables timely discussion of ECV and referral as required (eg to a health professional with expertise in ECV) or referral to a health professional and centre with expertise in vaginal breech birth.
61.4 External cephalic version
Offering ECV when clinically appropriate is recommended in the United Kingdom , the United States and Australia .
The reported success rate of ECV is in the range of 36.7–72.3% .
A spontaneous reversion rate of 3–14% has been reported after 36 weeks.
61.4.2 Benefits and risks
Successful ECV reduces the rate of caesarean sections, with vaginal birth following ECV being successful in 71–84% of women .
ECV is a safe procedure when performed in a setting where an urgent caesarean section can be performed . In a systematic review, the most frequently reported complications of ECV were transient abnormal cardiotocography patterns (5.7%), persisting pathological cardiotocography (0.37%), vaginal bleeding (0.47%) and placental abruption (0.12%) . Caesarean section was performed in 0.43% of all procedures and perinatal mortality was 0.16%.
Small studies have shown that the moderate degree of pain associated with ECV is well tolerated by the majority of women because of its short duration and that most women rate ECV as a good experience, whether it is successful (94%) or unsuccessful (71%) .
61.4.3 Factors influencing success of ECV
Factors predicting successful ECV include posterior placental location, complete breech position, amniotic fluid index >10, unengaged presenting part, maternal weight <65 kg and thicker fundal myometrium on ultrasound . ECV is also more successful in multiparous (57–78% than primiparous (27–53%) women , and if the health professional performing the ECV is experienced. ECV at 34–35 weeks versus ≥37 weeks increased the likelihood of cephalic version but did not decrease the rate of caesarean section .
The use of tocolytics (uterine relaxants) to facilitate ECV has been shown to increase cephalic presentations (RR: 1.38; 95% CI: 1.03–1.85) and reduce the rate of caesarean sections (RR: 0.82; 95% CI: 0.71–0.94) in both nulliparous and multiparous women . The available evidence supports the use of beta mimetics for tocolysis .
A small non-randomised study suggested that clinical hypnosis combined with tocolysis before ECV may increase success rates .
Offer external cephalic version to women with uncomplicated singleton breech pregnancy after 37 weeks of gestation.
Approved by NHMRC in June 2014; expires June 2019
Relative contraindications for external cephalic version include a previous caesarean section, uterine anomaly, vaginal bleeding, ruptured membranes or labour, oligohydramnios, placenta praevia and fetal anomalies or compromise.
Approved by NHMRC in June 2014; expires June 2019
External cephalic version should be performed by a health professional with appropriate expertise.
Approved by NHMRC in June 2014; expires June 2019
61.4.4 Other interventions
- Acupoint stimulation: The evidence for the effectiveness and safety of moxibustion (a Chinese medicine treatment that involves burning of Artemisia argyi close to the skin at an acupuncture point) is inconsistent and largely based on small studies, many of which are of poor quality with high heterogeneity. Some systematic reviews , RCTs and a cohort study have reported a higher rate of cephalic version with moxibustion and other acupuncture point stimulation methods, while others have found no beneficial effect . Although small studies have not observed significant maternal or fetal side effects associated with moxibustion , a recent Cochrane review identified a need for further evidence on its safety and effectiveness .
- Posture: A Cochrane review (n=417) found insufficient evidence to support the use of posture management to turn a breech baby . Combined with moxibustion, postural techniques may reduce the number of non-cephalic presentations at birth (RR: 0.73; 95% CI: 0.57–0.94) .
61.5 Discussing fetal presentation
If a woman has a baby that is in the breech position, she should be given information in a calm, reassuring manner using appropriate terminology so that she can decide which options are most suitable to her situation. Points for discussion include that:
- for babies in the breech position, ECV may be offered (this involves a health professional using his or her hands on the woman’s abdomen to gently turn the breech baby and is successful in approximately half of women, with success more likely if medications to relax the uterus are used)
- ECV is not appropriate in some situations (eg when there is vaginal bleeding, a low level of amniotic fluid or fetal or uterine anomalies)
- ECV has low complication rates but should be carried out where there are facilities for emergency caesarean section
- other interventions to turn a breech baby (posture and acustimulation) are less effective than ECV and the evidence on their safety is limited
- if a woman chooses not to have ECV, the procedure is unsuccessful or the baby returns to breech position, vaginal birth may still be possible depending on the individual situation.
61.6 Practice summary: fetal presentation
At around 36 weeks gestation.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Practitioner
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Health Worker
- multicultural health worker.
- Discuss the risks associated with malpresentation
Explain that, while most babies turn to present with the crown of the head before labour, the birth process can be complicated if this does not occur.
- Discuss ECV with women with a breech baby
Explain that turning the baby before the birth reduces the need for caesarean section. Discuss the benefits and risks of the procedure and where it would take place.
- Discuss plans for the birth
Explain the risks and benefits associated with planned vaginal birth and caesarean section.
- Take a holistic approach
Encourage women to attend with family members to discuss plans for ECV and birthing options.
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