This post is about routine vaginal examinations (VE) during physiological birth ie. an uncomplicated birth without any medical intervention. The VE is a useful assessment in some circumstances, but it’s routine use in an attempt to determine labour progress is questionable. As birth knowledge evolves, and research challenges the current cervical-centric approach to labour progress, there is an opportunity to shift practice. I’m hoping this post will inspire readers to reconsider their beliefs and practices regarding cervixes and VEs.
History: the rise of the cervix
How did we get fixated on what one small area of the body is doing during the complex and multidimensional birth process? An article by Dahlen et al. (2013) discusses the history of VEs. It seems that midwives (and others) have been performing this intervention throughout recorded history. However, for most of this time VEs were carried out in response to suspected pathology eg. an obstructed labour or an unusual presentation. The VE provided an assessment of a complication and informed the response. Midwifery text books warned against unnecessary VEs: “Too much vaginal meddling is bad too: the best thing is to wait patiently, alert to all cues” – French midwife Madame du Coudray [1563-1636] (cited in Dahlen et al. 2013).
The development of medicine was influenced by the notion that the body could be understood like a machine, with distinct parts that could be studied and understood separately. The birthing woman was ‘broken’ into physical parts – uterus, cervix, baby – and a systematic, linear understanding of progress created (McCourt 2010). This is still evident in modern textbooks. The woman has disappeared in favour of diagrams depicting her ‘parts’ (and the fetal skull) alongside precise measurements. This simplified and incorrect understanding has underpinned education about birth, and practice during birth. In the 1970s, based on this reductionist and linear approach, the partogram became established within medicalised maternity systems. The aim of the partogram was/is to measure and control labour progress by plotting cervical dilatation onto a graph, along with descent of the baby’s head. If the cervix does not open along the prescribed timeframe (1cm per hour or 0.5cm per hour depending on the hospital), labour will be augmented ie. speeded up with an ARM or synthetic oxytocin.
Now: new understandings and contradictions
In recent years, new knowledge about birth physiology and research has challenged the cervical-centric approach to labour progress assessment. A previous article/post discusses the research regarding labour patterns and partograms. In summary, the research shows that women’s labour patterns do not fit the timeframes prescribed by partograms. A Cochrane Review (2013) on the use of partograms in normal labour concluded that: “On the basis of the findings of this review, we cannot recommend routine use of the partogram as part of standard labour management and care.” Partograms and VEs go hand in hand – filling out a partogram requires regular vaginal examinations to ‘plot’ along the graph. However, there is no evidence that routine VEs in labour improve outcomes for mothers or babies. A Cochrane Review (2013) concluded that: “We identified no convincing evidence to support, or reject, the use of routine vaginal examinations in labour…” (Downe et al. 2013).
Without adequate evidence for the use of the partogram, or routine VEs there is increasing debate in academic circles about the way forward. Unfortunately we are so cervical-centric that the proposed solutions still involve cervical measurements, and therefore VEs. For example, Zhang et al. (2015) in their article ‘statistical aspects of modeling the labor curve’ state: “…any labor curve is illustrative and may not be instructive in managing labor because of variations in individual labor pattern and large errors in measuring cervical dilation. With the tools commonly available, it may be more productive to establish a new partogram that takes the physiology of labor and contemporary obstetric population into account.” At the ICM Conference in Prague (2014) and at the University of California (article/interview available) it was proposed that the partogram (ie. the clock) should be started at ‘6cm dilated’ rather than the current ‘3-4cm’ to avoid unnecessary intervention.
There is also reluctance to change hospital policies, underpinned by a need to maintain cultural norms. The Cochrane review on the use of partograms on the one hand states that they cannot be recommended for use during ‘standard labour care’, and on the other hand states: “Given the fact that the partogram is currently in widespread use and generally accepted, it appears reasonable, until stronger evidence is available, that partogram use should be locally determined.” Once again, an intervention implemented without evidence requires ‘strong’ evidence before it is removed. The reality is that we are unlikely to get what is considered ‘strong evidence’ (ie. randomised controlled trials) due to research ethics and the culture of maternity systems. Guidelines for care in labour continue to advocate ‘4 hourly VEs’ and reference each other rather than any actual research to support this (NICE, Queensland Health). Interesting whilst Queensland Health guidelines recommend 4 hourly VEs, their parent information leaflet states: “While a VE can provide information about how a woman has progressed so far in labour, it cannot predict how much longer you will be in labour…” and that there are “…other factors such as the strength, duration and length of contractions as well as a woman’s behaviour and wellbeing that can indicate progress in labour”. Which begs the question ‘why bother doing a VE’?
The cervical-centric discourse is so embedded that it is evident everywhere. Despite telling women to ‘trust themselves’ and ‘listen to their body’, midwives define women’s labours in centimetres “She’s not in labour, she’s only 2cm dilated”. We do this despite having many experiences of cervixes misleading us ie. being only 2cm and suddenly a baby appears, or being 9cm and no baby for hours. Women’s birth stories are often peppered with cervical measurements “I was 8cm by the time I got to the hospital”. Even women choosing birth outside of the mainstream maternity system are not immune to the cervical-centric discourse. Regardless of previous knowledge and beliefs, once in labour women often revert to cultural norms (Machin & Scamell 1997). Women want to know their labour is progressing and there is a deep subconscious belief that the cervix can provide the answer. Most of the VEs I have carried out in recent years have been at the insistence of labouring women – women who know that their cervix is not a good indicator of ‘where they are at’ but still need that number. One woman even said “I know it doesn’t mean anything but I want you to do it”. Of course, her cervix was still fat and obvious (I didn’t estimate dilatation)… her baby was born within an hour.
Vaginal examinations: not just a benign procedure
In order to gain consent for a VE, women need information about the lack of evidence supporting VEs, and about the potential consequences of VEs. I’ve started a list below and welcome any additions you can think of:
- VEs are invasive and often painful: There is limited research into women’s experiences of VEs (surprise, surprise). Most women report being ‘satisfied’ with their VE experience, some find it painful, for a few VE is associated with PTSD (Dahlen et al. 2013). I’d be interested in your comments about experiences of VEs.
- The findings can be misleading: What the cervix is doing at the moment of a VE does not indicate what the cervix is going to do in the future. Therefore, the findings cannot effectively inform decisions about pain medication or other interventions (although this is often the rationale given for performing them).
- The measurements are subjective and inconsistent between practitioners: The accuracy between practitioners is less than 50% (Buchmann & Libhaber 2007).
- A VE disregards the woman’s knowledge and reinforces the ‘external expert': Often the findings do not match the woman’s experience and the result can be disempowering, for example in early labour.
- A VE can result in accident rupturing of the membranes: It is not uncommon to accidentally break the amniotic sac whilst carrying out a VE – this alters the birth process and increases risk for the baby.
- VEs can increase the chance of developing an infection (Dahlen et al. 2013).
Other ways of knowing
The truth is that women’s bodies are complex, unique and immeasurable. Birth is a multidimensional experience that cannot be accurately defined by anyone outside of the experience. We – those of us who give birth and/or attend birth – know this. Midwives already assess labour based on other (less invasive) ways of knowing. In my PhD findings midwives’ birth stories were filled with descriptions of mothers’ behaviour. One participant said: “It’s like a performance… at this stage of this performance what is it saying? And… it’s not what she’s saying, it’s what she’s not saying. And it’s what she’s displaying, the way she’s moving, what her body is doing in a physiological sense.” Other studies have also described this approach to labour assessment. Dixon et al. (2014) mapped their research about the emotional journey of labour with findings from previous studies, and integrated this with physiology. Duff (2005) studied women’s behaviour during labour and created an alternative ‘partogram’ based on her findings. There are also physical changes that occur to women’s bodies during labour that can be seen and indicate labour progress (eg. the shift of the Rhombus of Michaelis and the purple line). It is not within the scope of this post to discuss these behaviours in depth (perhaps a separate post?). I am just trying to point out that the cervix is not the only indicator of labour progress. Yes, women’s behaviours are individual and may not fit any expected patterns, therefore relying on these methods may be misleading in some cases. But VE’s are also inaccurate and misleading (see above)!
Suggestions for midwives
- Be mindful of language and how we communicate about labour to each other and women. Stop talking about centimetres and start talking about behaviours and other signs of progress.
- During pregnancy: provide women with honest information about VE’s, their limitations and the potential consequences; and the alternatives. This should also include information about policies in their chosen birth setting, and their right to decline policy recommendations.
- Care in labour is influenced by the setting. For example, a hospital may have a policy of ‘4 hourly VE’s’ – and as an employee you are obliged to follow policy. However, your obligation is to offer a VE, not to carry it out. To do a VE without consent is assault and battery and a breach of professional standards. If you provide the woman with adequate information (see above), and make it clear that this is an ‘offer’ based on policy (not your own needs), and that from all external signs she is progressing well… some women will decline your offer. You can document her decision and carry on having fulfilled your duty to the woman, and to the hospital.
- If you are in a setting where VEs are not routine (eg. homebirth) and the woman asks for a VE (which they do)… try and work out what she really wants. Does she want reassurance that all is well and she is progressing, or does she really want to know what her cervix is doing. If it is the latter, encourage her to feel her own cervix. If she insists -do a VE with consent.
- When communicating the findings of a VE include other changes – “the baby has descended, rotated, flexed” – and positives about the cervix – “it is stretchy, soft, opening up nicely”. If she needs a number, give her one, but demonstrate that this is not important to you. Do not use the findings to dictate her behaviour eg. pushing or not pushing.
Routine vaginal examinations during physiological birth are a symptom of a cervical-centric birth culture. There is enough evidence to support a shift away from this common intervention towards a more woman-centred approach to labour progress assessment. We need to value the ‘other ways of knowing’ that are already established, and reinforce the woman as the expert in her own birth experience.