Hospital Midwifery

Rachel commented, in response to my Worry-wart = New Midwife post: “I was interested to see in your description how “medical” the treatment of the L&D patients seems to be, despite having a midwife on hand. Any thoughts on that?”

Of course I have thoughts on that!

First of all, this is hospital midwifery and hospital birth. Unfortunatley, you almost have to think of it as a different species of midwifery all together. Because this is occuring inside a hospital, and there are hospital regulations to follow, there are protocols in place which limit the amount of freedom a midwife has to manage her clients in a more traditional “midwifery” manner, and there is a constant push-and-pull of politics and power at play. Who ultimately gets to make the calls? Is it the women themselves, who are educated and empowered enough to demand the kind of birth experience they want? Is it the midwives, fighting and advocating for these women? Is it the doctors, whom the midwives collaborate with? Is it the nurses, who often choose to ignore the breastfeeding-friendly initiative that’s been established in our hospital, and try to bring the baby to the nursery as quickly as possible after the birth in order to limit the amount of work they have to do right after the birth?

Ultimately, it’s a combination of all of those things which impact the overall birth experience. This is a midwifery service located in a very busy urban hospital in a very poor, underserved section of Brooklyn. Our clients are women from all over the world. Many of them are recent, first-generation immigrants, and presumably many of them are here illegally (we never ask). Many of them don’t speak English—they speak Spanish, Urdu, Polish, Hindi, Arabic, French, French Creole and Patois, predominantly. On the whole, many of these pregancies are unplanned. Home situations vary incredibly. Sometimes the father of the baby is supportive, sometimes they’re married, certainly sometimes it’s a planned and wanted pregnancy, but sometimes the woman and her partner are no longer on speaking terms, sometimes there’s a court order against him, sometimes the aunts and mothers and grandmothers of these women will be raising the baby while the woman goes back to finish high school. Planning for the pregnancy and birth is often done under very difficult circumstances. By and large, these women are not showing up to labor and delivery with doulas and birth balls and birth plans, having read all the latest childbirth books and having bought the latest, most ergonomic birth sling. They’re not online, with internet access, reading blogs like ours or doing research about their birth choices. But most importantly, these women are not choosing midwifery care. They’re coming to our hospital clinic because they can get prenatal care for free with us if they don’t have health insurance and they qualify for medicaid and WIC and PCAP. They’re being taken care of by midwives because their pregnancies are predominantly low-risk and healthy, and because the hospital finds midwifery care to be cost-effective and economical, but are these women seeking us out, or looking for the midwifery experience? Not really. And are these women really after a natural childbirth experience? Again, for the most part, not really.

Women generally see one midwife for their prenatal care, but unfortunately, labor and delivery is covered in shifts. It’s a 24-hour service, so there are always two midwives on L&D at any given time of the day or night, but it may not necessarily be the midwife who took care of you during your prenatal care. Which means that when you come to the hospital to give birth, the midwife you know and are familiar with may be there to deliver your baby, but there’s also a good chance that she won’t be. It’s not ideal, by a long shot, but this is the difference between private practice midwifery, which is often a luxury item reserved for those who can afford it, and hospital midwifery, which serves underserved populations with excellent care, but isn’t set up in such a way that the midwives are on-call for their clients.

So, in a hospital setting, where does the midwifery care come in? We don’t have a birthing center, and there really isn’t a birthing center vibe to the place. However, I think the midwifery aspect comes into play in many areas which aren’t immediately obvious because they’re subtle, but I do think it makes a big difference overall. For one thing, the number of women getting epidurals on this floor seems to be much less to me than in other hospitals where I’ve worked as a nurse (and these were all private hospitals predominantly served by private doctors). I chalk the decreased epidural rate up to the increased labor support the women get from the midwives and the nurses. The c-section rate is also much lower in our hospital than it is in many other hospitals in the city (22% last year, v. 30-35% in other hospitals in NYC, and certainly much lower than the national average), and our VBAC rate is much higher than in many other hospitals in the city, as well as higher than the national average (I think this comes from the fact that there is one dedicated VBAC counselor who counsels all the women, and the midwives really work hard to find the op report and talk to women about the benefits/risks of VBAC). Women are allowed to eat clear liquids (juice/jello etc.) during labor, which is a big improvement over many other hospitals where women STILL aren’t allowed to eat anything (and which is still occurring on a regular basis at other hospitals). Women can get out of bed if they’re not on pitocin (again, something which doesn’t occur that often in other hospitals). We push in side-lying or sitting positions, we push with squat bars, we let women push on the toilet or standing (hanging) in a suspended squat.

More than any of this is, though, is the midwifery philosophy which is held by the midwives, and which is always at work in the hospital. I’ve been working here for only about 4 weeks, but a lot of that time has been spent advocating for natural childbirth and breastfeeding and trying to find a way to limit the number of interventions performed in labor and delivery. As the midwife, it’s a constant struggle. Sometimes it means jumping through hoops, or presenting patients to the doctors in a such a way which highlights the positive (she’s making change, just slowly…but no, I don’t think she needs pitocin or a cesarean or etc. etc.) and downplaying the negatives. It doesn’t mean changing the facts, it just means fighting and doing everything you can to let a normal birth unfold, even in a hospital. It’s a crazy balancing act, balancing so many different needs and agendas and pressures and desires. I think this philosophy can be seen in the amount of patience which the midwives display, the effort put into offering a humane, hands-on touch, and the deeply held belief that BIRTH IS NORMAL, that women CAN do it, that all women deserve respect and informed choice, that they deserve explanations, that no one is going to just walk in and rupture their membranes without talking to them about it first and making sure it’s okay. To me, the midwifery philosophy, at its very core, means LISTEN to WOMEN, DON’T JUDGE, and return the power of labor and birth back to the WOMAN, where it belongs. We don’t deliver babies, we catch babies; it’s the woman who does all the hard work. It’s the woman who delivers her baby. It’s her body, it’s her baby, and it’s her birth. Women in this hospital are powerless in so many ways, and are often so used to giving up their power. They don’t always ask questions because they don’t realize that they have a right to ask questions—that they can ask questions. The midwifery philosophy at work in a hospital helps to correct this imbalance and inequality, even if only a little bit. So much of midwifery care is education, and education is power.

I’ve recently had a birth which really illustrate these points, and which I’ll write about below, but in any case, I do think the difference is palpable. Yes, it’s hospital birth. Yes, there are lots of monitors and beeping machines, there are hospital protocols which must be followed, women get epidurals (but only if they want them), we use pitocin, there aren’t tubs, and unfortunately no one has time to rub lavendar oil into anyone’s back (simply because this is an incredibly BUSY hospital, and you rarely have time to pee, let alone massage someone during labor), but I think we still provide excellent midwifery care to our clients. Even if it wasn’t necessarily the kind of care they were looking for in the first place, I think that many women find that they really enjoy midwifery care, because we as midwives are trying so hard to give them choices, to help them take control of their bodies and their births, to be able to say no to treatments or procedures they don’t want, and of course, treating them with dignity and respect (again, things which aren’t always in large supply in hospital settings).

Case in point: last week I was taking care of a woman who was laboring with a baby that was Occiput Posterior, meaning that the baby was face up instead of face down, and that therefore the back of the baby’s head (the hardest part of the baby) was up against the woman’s back. OP happens quite frequently during birth, and can make labor a lot longer and more difficult, because it’s not the optimal fetal position for a quick and easy birth. And indeed, this woman was making progress, just SLOW progress. She was 6 cm dilated at 8:00 am when we first came on our shift, then she was 8 cm at 10:30 am (when I broke her water because she was asking for something to speed the process up). She was 9 cm at noon, had progressed to anterior lip at 2:00 pm and was finally fully dilated at 4:00 pm. I was getting really nervous because she was gong so slowly and I was conscious of the hospital pressure which always exists, and which goes something like this: as soon as you’re admitted to the hospital, you better be moving towards birth, and moving at a pretty regular, pretty rapid pace. It was my preceptor that day (a sassy, loud-mouthed-in-the-best-possible-way woman who’s been a midwife for 10+ years, possesses loads of confidence-born-of-experience—which I don’t yet possess—and is not afraid to tell the truth, whatever that may be) who was the calm rock of this birth. She’s the one who told me to quit checking our patient, to just sit tight and watch her labor unfold and trust that everything is going the way it should. So that’s what we did.

Because our patient didn’t have an epidural and she didn’t have pitocin going (she just had two fabulous midwives, sitting in her room with her because it was a quiet day), we got her out of the bed and let her sit on the toilet for awhile, let her walk a little bit, but eventually she wanted to get back into the bed, so we helped her back into bed and then helped her roll side to side every 20 minutes or so. Position change is a key to managing OP birth, as I’ve been learning; just keep changing position, and eventually the baby will slowly rotate and work its way into an anterior position (that’s the hope, anyway). Luckily, the tracing was beautiful—we couldn’t have asked for a nicer tracing, with these huge, reassuring accelerations into the 170s with almost every contraction—so we weren’t under a time crunch to get the baby out quickly. Everything was going smoothly, just slowly.

Then, once she’d been pushing for about an hour, one of the doctors stormed in (having just finished a c-section) and threw a little hissy fit, right in front of the patient: why is this woman STILL pregnant?!? Why haven’t you started pit? What are you guys doing in here? Start pit! This is ridiculous. Etc. etc. Nevermind the fact that he hadn’t been paying attention to her all day; she was a midwifery patient, and we had been managing her, but now that it was 5:00 pm and he was signing off to the oncoming doctor he suddenly wanted her to have been delivered ages ago (I guess it looks bad to the oncoming doctor that he’s had a patient all day who still hasn’t delivered yet? Again, this is part of the hospital pressure mentality which says “as soon as you’re admitted to the hospital, you better be moving towards birth, and moving at a pretty regular, pretty rapid pace”). This doctor kept saying: she was 6 cm at 8:00 am, what are you guys DOING in here?? She should have had her baby already!! etc. etc.

And to be honest, I was absolutely, 100% cowed and terrified. As a new midwife, in my near-constant state of terror, I have very little confidence in myself or my management skills, and unfortunately this translates to a whole lot of fear right now; fear of birth, fear of doing something wrong, fear of making a really big mistake etc. etc. If it had been me alone in that room, I probably would have burst into tears. I had already been wondering to myself if we should have started pitocin. But no, thankfully my preceptor was in the room with me, and she very calmly, tranquilly and firmly told the doctor to chill his pants. She basically said: we’ll start pit if you absolutely insist (he is the doctor, after all), but she’s having an OP baby, she’s making progress, and things are fine and NORMAL in here, so please leave and let us do our thing. And what do you know…he left! And then we started pit (and actually, for what it’s worth, the incoming doctor got into an argument with the outgoing doctor at the board, stating that our patient probably didn’t really need the pitocin. If her contractions were enough to get her to fully dilated, albeit slowly, then they were probably enough to get the baby delivered.) But anyway, we started pit, and she pushed and pushed and pushed. And here, I think if she’d had an epidural, she wouldn’t have been able to push that baby out, but thank goodness she didn’t have an epidural so she could really feel the urge to push with each contraction, and eventually the baby did a long-arc rotation and was born from right occiput anterior at 5:39 pm, screaming his head off, and voila!….a totally normal labor and birth.

Would that birth have been different if she hadn’t had midwives taking care of her? Yes, I think so. Maybe she would have had an epidural, and been unable to push her baby out. Maybe a different provider would not have accepted her slow progress, and started pitocin on her a lot sooner. Maybe someone else would have considered her lack of progress as “failure to progress” and she would have been taken to the back for a cesarean. Maybe if no one had gotten her out of bed, or sat with her in the bathroom while she pushed on the toilet (something the midwives have to do, because the nurses won’t take responsibility for the patient if she’s off the monitor, so unless the midwife is in the bathroom with her or walking with her, they don’t let her out of bed), maybe if she hadn’t been walking and changing position so much, maybe that baby wouldn’t have rotated. Who knows. The point I’m trying to make is that midwifery care, admittedly in a somewhat altered and modified form, is alive and well in a hospital setting. Unfortunately, there are just more rules to conform to, more egos and personalities to manage, more pressure and time-crunch, and there isn’t that lovely, private-practice one-on-one kind of care which is one of the hallmarks of midwifery care in other settings. Is there still a lot of things which can be changed? Yes, of course. Is there still a lot of things which are far less than ideal in our set-up? Undoubtedly. But I think the midwives are giving excellent care to our patients, in the best way we can, and I think it really does make a difference.

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