Shoulder Dystocia: the real story

Updated: August 2023

There is a lot of unwarranted fear about ‘big babies’ getting stuck. The media reflects the usual story – that women are creating a problem. This post was initially written in response to a news article entitled “doctors forced to break babies bones to deliver them safely” (since removed from the internet by The crux of the article was that unhealthy women are growing very large babies that get stuck, and doctors are performing heroics to save them. The incidence of shoulder dystocia does increase with the size of the baby. However, it is not possible to accurately estimate the size of a baby before they are born. And the complications associated with big babies are not necessarily about the size of the baby. For example, if a care provider suspects a ‘big baby’ the woman is more likely to experience interventions and complications regardless of whether her baby is actually big (Sadeh-Mestechkin et al. 2008Blackwell et al. 2009). This post will discuss how to avoid a shoulder dystocia (if possible), and deal with the situation if it occurs.

What happens during a shoulder dystocia?

Basically the baby’s shoulder/s get caught in the pelvis. This movie shows a baby becoming stuck on symphysis pubis (the pubic bone) at the brim of the pelvis. However, a baby can become stuck in any part of the pelvis (more info about the pelvic brim, cavity and outlet in this previous post). Unfortunately variations of shoulder dystocia are generally ignored in emergency training, and instead the focus is on the symphysis pubis scenario. This misunderstanding can result in problems with resolving a shoulder dystocia as particular actions are ineffective for particular types of shoulder dystocia.

Avoiding shoulder dystocia

A lot of midwifery and obstetric learning resources focus on how to manage complications or problems, rather than on how to prevent them happening. Although in some cases shoulder dystocia is unavoidable, there are a number of ways to reduce the chance of it occuring:

Undisturbed birth

When women are able to birth instinctively without direction or intervention they are capable of instinctively fixing problems themselves. I have seen some bizarre birth positions and movements that made perfect sense once the baby emerged. And, in the case of a stuck shoulder, instinctive pelvic movements can release the baby without drama. The first step in risk management is to promote and support instinct and physiology. (see this post)


The baby needs time to get into the best position to move through their mother’s pelvis. When we try to hurry birth, the baby may be unable to make these adjustments. Directed pushing can force the baby into the pelvis without allowing time for subtle adjustments to happen. Syntocinon (pitocin) induced contractions can do the same. And I am also convinced (but have no research to back me up) that pulling babies out can wedge their shoulders against the pelvis. Waiting for a contraction when the head is out can feel like forever (could be 5+ minutes), and it is tempting to tell the mother to push or pull the baby’s head. But, the baby may be using this time to make the adjustments necessary for the shoulders to birth. As long as there is some change with each contraction, and the baby is well, you can wait. Bite your tongue and sit on your hands if you have to. Usually the shoulders will be born with the next contraction following the head, but not always. The next contraction may rotate the baby, then the next contraction birth the shoulders. Watch and see. I have noticed that many babies do not follow the textbook description of the ‘mechanism of birth’ and instead emerge with their shoulders lateral or oblique to the pelvis rather than anterior-posterior. It is probably best not to force a ‘mechanism’ on an individual baby/situation.

Being proactive with epidurals

An epidural will completely alter the physiology of birth and the instinctive behaviour of the mother. Once an epidural is inserted ‘active birth’ often goes out the window. In my opinion ‘active birth’ is not necessary when a woman is undisturbed – she will instinctively get into positions that work for her without prompting. However, active birth becomes essential for a woman who has an epidural. Looking after a woman with an epidural should be hard work. As a care provider you now have to help the baby through the pelvis by prompting and assisting maternal movement and position. This is where the ‘creating space’ tricks‘ become important.

Birthing in a semi-recumbant position increases the chance of shoulder dystocia because the pelvis is unable to open ie. sacrum move back and coccyx uncurl. This is often the default position for women with epidurals. However, most women are able to get into an alternative position with assistance, and most hospital beds are adjustable. It is possible to get into a squat using a bar attachment to hold, and women can kneel up and lean over the back of the bed despite a lack of feeling in their legs. A lying lateral position is always available if movement is really difficult. Lots of position changes during pushing may be difficult but can make a huge difference to the outcome.

Management of a shoulder dystocia

Despite anything and everything that mothers and care providers do – some babies will still get stuck. Even though shoulder dystocia is relatively uncommon (1:200), knowing what to do is useful. Firstly, it is important not to make a bad situation worse, therefore:

  • Do not pull the baby as this will impact their shoulder further. Initially diagnostic traction may help you know if the baby really is stuck ie. gentle firm traction – if the baby is stuck on tissue rather than bone they will move… if not stop. Pulling is the most common mistake people make because they panic. Excess traction can result in brachial plexus injury to the baby. Unfortunately the care provider can then find themselves facing litigation. An article by Johnson outlines the medico-legal perspective ‘…for many years it has been accepted that OBPP [obstetric brachial plexus palsy] is an injury caused by excessive traction on the head when the anterior shoulder is impacted above the symphysis pubis.’ 
  • Do not cut the umbilical cord if it is around the baby’s neck. While the cord is intact there is still a chance that the baby is receiving oxygen which gives you more time, and assists with resuscitation afterwards.
  • Communicate with the mother. You always have time to explain what is happening and get consent for actions.

Here is a video illustrating why pulling babies out is bad practice:

We all learn and retain information differently. As a lecturer I taught two types of approaches – ‘standardised/general’ and ‘situational’.

Standardised / general approaches

These structured approaches are good for those who find it easier to remember systematic step-by-step information and prefer to systematically work through set techniques.


This is the standard approach taught within the hospital system to doctors and midwives.

I have a strong aversion to mnemonics. I get particularly frustrated by mnemonics that don’t fit the letters to actions = actions being crow-barred into the word, or another letter being added so it is no longer an actual word. In the case of HELPERR the first E is for ‘evaluate for episiotomy’ – which I am yet to see anyone seriously do in real life. Firstly, you would have to be very brave to attempt putting scissors in such a tight space next to a baby’s head/face. Secondly, if you really need to get your hands in – you will, and a tear will be the least of your worries in that moment. I have recently heard that ‘E’ is now used for ‘explain’, which is much better. Another problem with HELPERR is that it assumes the woman is on her back – which I guess she usually is if the baby is stuck. The first two manouvres ‘McRoberts’ and ‘suprapubic pressure’ are only effective when the shoulder is stuck on the symphysis pubis. Otherwise they are a waste of precious time.

I know that some people find mnemonics assist them to remember sequences, and that hospital staff are expected to follow them. I can see the place of this approach within a hospital setting where a range of practitioners with a range of skill and experience may be dealing with an emergency. At least everyone knows what comes next and I have seen it work well for a ‘group’ approach to the problem. In addition, for legal purposes (see above article) it looks good if you have documented evidence of working through the HELPERR sequence. Because HELPERR is the standard approach I will not list ‘how to’ here – you can find information all over the internet about the medical approach to shoulder dystocia.

However, the limitations of the HELPERR approach become apparent when assumptions about position (reclining/on back) and environment (on a hospital bed) are removed. If a shoulder dystocia occurs in a small toilet cubical with an upright woman – how do you perform McRoberts? Or, if the baby’s shoulders are stuck mid pelvis, or on the ‘sit bones’, the first techniques in HELPERR will be ineffective.

FlipFLOP (Gail Tully):

This is another standardised/general approach that works well with a mobile un-epiduralised woman. There are less steps in this to remember and it makes more sense from a physiological perspective because it allows you to make the most of the space in the back of the pelvis.  You can find information, about this method here.

A situational approach

Considering the range of positions, environments and situations birth takes place in; and the variety of places shoulders can get stuck, another approach is to think and act beyond a mnemonic. We also need to keep it simple and quick. When a shoulder dystocia occurs one or both of 2 things need to happen to release the shoulders:

1. Change the size and position of the pelvis (mother)

This can be done by encouraging the mother to move and change position. The best option will depend on the position she is already in. Often just the movement of getting into a position will release the baby. You can ask or assist a mother to change her pelvis by:

  • Lifting a leg up and/or outwards eg. onto the side of the birth pool or chair. This can be accompanied by a rocking back and forward of the pelvis (thrusts).
  • McRoberts is easy if the mother is already reclining. If on all fours, flipping over onto her back might be possible and the baby may release during the movement.
  • Gaskin manoeuvre – rotating onto all fours from a reclining position (a bit like a reverse McRoberts). If upright, dropping to all fours might work.
  • German approach – this focuses on moving the mother rather than the baby.

2. Change the size and position of the shoulders (baby)

Adducting the shoulder/s will make the diameter of the shoulders smaller. Rotating the shoulders into the oblique diameter of the pelvis will make use of the extra space available (see pelvis info in previous post). Explanations of the following manoeuvres are provided in the movie link above in the HELPERR section.

  • Suprapubic pressure (sometimes called Rubin’s I)
  • Rubin’s manoeuvre (sometimes called Rubin’s II because it is attempting to do the same as the above manoeuvre only internally)
  • Woodscrew manoeuvre
  • Reverse Woodscrew manoeuvre
  • Removal of the posterior arm
  • Axillary traction (not included in HELPERR)

There is no particular order in which you can try the above positions and actions. It will depend on how well the mother can move; the position she is in; and the access you have into her pelvis ie. how and where you can get your fingers in (if needed). For example, Rubins (II) will be easier to do than suprapubic pressure on a forward leaning mother. Bascially there is more room in the back of the pelvis… and this room is best accessed when a woman is forward leaning.

It really doesn’t matter what the manoevres are called, or where exactly you place your fingers. Or even where the baby is stuck – if you don’t know. Essentially, put your hand in, find the baby (shoulder, back, chest) and push them round and out. Ideally you will be applying pressure to the back of the shoulder, but if not, the baby is still likely to rotate… the shoulders/chest are all connected and will move together. The important thing is to get the baby out and getting caught up in exacts can create more stress and delay.

A situational approach assesses the holistic situation and uses the appropriate movement or action at the time. I have created a list that combines manoeuvres and when they are appropriate.

You can watch a movie of a shoulder dystocia occurring during a home waterbirth here

Further Information

Big Babies and Should Dystocia – Birthful Podcast

If you found this post helpful, you can find more of my work in the following resources:

Join my Mailing List for a monthly newsletter and to stay up to date with new content.