Preterm Labor: Understanding Treatment Protocols

Birth Quest doula attends lecture with Obstetric residents about preterm labor.

On August 22nd, 2017, Sandy Parker from On the Path Yoga and I drove to the New Holland Brewery in Grand Rapids to hear Dr. June Murphy, DO, Maternal Fetal Medicine Fellowship Director at St. Joseph Mercy Oakland Hospital, talk about “Advances in Management of Preterm Labor: Achieving Optimal Practice.” The lecture was at an event that combined the journal clubs of obstetric residents at Mercy Health Hackley in Muskegon and Metro Health (University of Michigan) in Grand Rapids. The event was sponsored by Hologic, the makers of the fetal fibronectin test.

Understanding the ever-changing standard of care involving preterm labor is important for maternal and infant health advocates, like doulas and childbirth educators. People who experience preterm labor are often confused about why treatment varies so much between patients. Not understanding the standard of care can lead to anger when it appears that patients have not been treated equally. While unequal care can occur, protocols can prevent bias and reassure patients that everything possible is being done to protect them and their infant.

While preterm labor is the leading cause of infant mortality in the US, it is very common and often harmless. In fact, I learned that as many as 1 in 4 women will experience four contractions per hour prior to 32 weeks! However, 30% of preterm labor resolves spontaneously, without treatment. Only 1 in 10 women who are diagnosed with preterm labor will give birth within 7 days. In other words, uterine contractions poorly predict whose baby will be born too soon!

To complicate matters, steroids given to mothers with preterm labor improve newborn outcomes when given as late as 34 – 36 weeks, but can be harmful when given unnecessarily.

So, what are providers supposed to do? Fortunately, the March of Dimes created the Preterm Labor Assessment Tool (PLAT), an algorithm, or decision tree, based on the Rose et al study (2010), to assist healthcare providers in deciding whether to admit someone in preterm labor. Dr. Murphy explained how the cut-offs for cervical length combined with the fetal fibronectin results best predicted who would deliver early. Unfortunately, the protocol does not prevent preterm birth, but does save money, time and stress from unnecessary hospitalizations.

In addition to the lecture, residents reviewed two articles, one comparing the efficacy of vaginal progesterone to an injection. Studies in the last decade have shown that progesterone treatment to prevent preterm birth is effective. Barriers to this treatment include problems with insurance reimbursement and compliance with office visits to receive injections. Vaginal progesterone has the advantage of being cheaper and easier to administer. Although the study was small, it showed promise for an alternative, but effective, treatment to prevent preterm delivery and save lives.

Dr. Murphy said that if a woman presents to a hospital in preterm labor and there was a thought bubble above her fetus, if would say, “Follow the protocol!” The causes of prematurity are complex and interrelated. Clinical providers have a limited role in addressing the underlying causes of prematurity and the infant mortality that results. Standardized care based on the latest research can reduce treatment influenced by bias and help achieve equity.

Cooperative Childbirth Education: Class Descriptions

Cooperative Childbirth Education classes in Muskegon

Birth Quest’s fall 2017 and winter 2018 childbirth education classes can be taken a la carte.

Interested in attending childbirth education classes, but don’t have the time to research your options, travel outside of Muskegon or attend a full series?

Busy families like yours want to be able to make the best use of their valuable time when expecting a new addition. That’s why Birth Quest offers a la cart classes so that you can seek out knowledge according to your unique interests and circumstances. I have taught a wide variety of classes privately, in group settings, for non-profit organizations, and as a guest presenter in classrooms. Since 2014, I have taught classes in the following settings (places in italics were as a volunteer):

Please contact me if you would like to host a class!

Are you having trouble deciding which classes to attend? Check out the class descriptions below:

  • Choices in Childbirth: Providers and Settings — Did you know that the choice of where and with whom to give birth best predictor how it will turn out? The purpose of this class is to educate you about all of your choices are so that you can give birth where you feel safest and the most supported.
  • Self-Care for Your Changing Body — This class is for those who are motivated to optimize their health during pregnancy through diet, movement and tending to their emotional needs. Strategies for alleviating common pregnancy discomforts will also be shared.
  • Holistic Pregnancy Care Options — Many families are turning to less invasive and more natural solutions during pregnancy and birth. This class will look at several different complementary and alternative medicine options, along with where to find practitioners in the Muskegon area.
  • Birth Plans: What Parents Need to Know — There sure are a lot of choices to be made when having a baby! You will leave this class confident, knowing what the available research says about birth plans, staff responses and birth outcomes. Parents will be provided with multiple templates for creating a birth plan, as well as advice for forgoing a birth plan altogether. Whatever families decide, they will learn all the key decision-making points from early labor to common newborn procedures and everything in between.
  • Labor & Delivery: Prepared & Informed — Birth is unpredictable, full of unexpected twists and turns, making it something families anticipate with both excitement and apprehension. Highlights of this class include indications for, risks and benefits of and how to prevent common interventions, such as inductions, episiotomy and cesarean. Childbirth education does not guarantee an outcome, but it can lead to empowerment: knowledge is power!
  • Essentials of Labor Support: What Birthing People Need — This class is for the birthing person and whoever they choose to support them during labor and delivery, including spouses, partners, friends and family members. Topics include communication skills, practicing massage comfort techniques and so much more!
  • Pain-Coping Strategies: A Smorgasbord of Options — Pain relief during labor is a primary concern for many pregnant people. Some believe that they must choose between no pain relief or an epidural. Fortunately, we’ve come a long way since the days of a one-size-fits-all approach. We will explore a full spectrum of both pharmaceutical and natural ways to lessen and cope with the pain of childbirth.
  • Postpartum Wellness: The Fourth Trimester — This class is focused on the physical and emotional health of parents after a birth. We will cover recovery from a vaginal or a cesarean birth, movement, nutrition and mental health with lots of resources for further exploration. This class is appropriate for any expectant or new parent.
  • Newborn Care — Babies aren’t born with an instruction manual, but the good news is that you are the expert on caring for your baby! We will cover what to expect from newborns in terms of appearance and behavior, as well as bonding, development, diapering, bathing, safe sleep and more!
  • Breastfeed Successfully with Knowledge & Support — This class is for anyone interested in learning more about the benefits of breastfeeding how it works, and how to avoid common pitfalls, as well as community resources to support breastfeeding families.
  • Childbirth After Cesarean: Making Informed Decisions — With about 1/3 of West Michigan moms delivering their babies via cesarean, many are faced with limited future childbearing options. This class seeks to inform and empower families before and during pregnancy to make the best decisions for themselves and their families.
  • Introduction to Birth Work: Doulas & Childbirth Educators — This class explains possible career paths for doulas and childbirth educators, what they do and how they positively impact birth outcomes. The presentation concludes with a sample childbirth education class.

You can find out about upcoming classes on my calendar or under “events” on Birth Quest’s Facebook page.

Classes can be tailored to suit the needs of any setting or population, like youth, maternal and infant health professionals, homeless shelters, or places of worship. Presentations can also be developed to cover other specific topics, like pregnancy complications, anger management during pregnancy, substance abuse prevention or parenting. What topics would you like to see Birth Quest offer?

6 is the New 4: Changes in the ACOG Guidelines

From “The Birth Series,” circa 1975

In March of 2014, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) released a statement called “Safe Prevention of the Primary Cesarean Delivery.” In that statement, they outline some ways to decrease cesareans, including:

  • Letting early (latent) labor progress without time limits.
  • Changing the definition of active labor from 4 cm to 6 cm.
  • Not diagnosing “failure to progress” (no adequate contraction or cervical change) during active labor before four hours without oxytocin and six hours with.
  • Letting those who have delivered vaginally before to push for at least two hours, three hours if they haven’t, and even longer in some situations, like an epidural or posterior baby, before a cesarean is recommended.
  • Using instrumental delivery, for example vacuum extraction or forceps, to help with vaginal delivery and avoid cesarean. This includes ensuring new doctors are learning these skills.
  • Counseling patients to avoid gaining over the recommended amount of weight during pregnancy.

I became a doula the year these changes were implemented, although I had attended several births before my career change. It wasn’t until I participated in an online webinar through GOLD Learning’s Online Symposium on Childbirth Education with Penny Simkin, entitled, “The Tipping Point(s) in Childbirth Education & the Consequences of Ignorance,” that I really understood how these changes were affecting my practice as a birth worker and impacting the experiences of the clients I served.

According to Simkin, time and patience are allies of the parent and baby, but our job as childbirth educators, doulas and advocates, is to convince birthing women that these things are important! Since “Longer labors are harder on women,” Simkin says, “motivation, incentive and know-how are essential” and that “when people understand why and how to avoid a c-section and are assisted along the way, the odds of success improve.”

When I consider my recent experience as a childbirth educator and doula, her wisdom really resonates with me. Birthing people are often sent home, multiple times, after being told they are not yet in “active labor,” which can be discouraging when their bodies are giving a different message. Preparing them for this possibility begins with educating them about the high rates of cesareans and how ACOG guidelines defining 6 as the new 4 for active labor is a positive change to help them achieve the birth they desire. Next, providing strategies for staying home as long as possible can put them in a better mindset for the long-haul ahead of them.

Along with realistic birth preparation, childbirth educators and doulas can provide strategies that can be used during labor to help increase endurance: nourishment, movement, relaxation and rest. Encouragement is also key, so believe in the birthing person and their body’s ability to birth from beginning to end and let them know you do!