WHAT IS “OPTIMAL”?
What is Optimal Fetal Positioning? Optimal fetal positioning is the act of manipulating a mother’s body through movement in order to alter the fetus’s position into one that is favorable to moving through the mother’s pelvis.
In the previous blog post, I explained why the left occipital anterior (LOA) position is the most favorable for a baby to start in during labor. While this is true for the majority of labors, I’d like to refer back to the first blog post on the various pelvis shapes among women, and explore how this may not be true in all cases.
Because the gynecoid pelvis is the most common shape – one that 50% of women possess – this is the pelvis that is mainly referred to in OFP discussions. But, what if you have one of the other three types of pelvises? Optimal fetal positioning may then look different for you. While the general thought is that OFP is trying to get the baby into the LOA position, variations in the pelvic shape will change what is the optimal position for the baby.
I will reiterate here: the optimal position for the baby is whichever position the baby most easily fits through the pelvis. So, in the case of the anthropoid or android pelvis, the shape of these pelvises makes it much more likely for a baby to be in the posterior position. While a labor where the occipital bone of the baby is pressing against the mother’s sacrum may not sound ideal to the mother, if it’s the place that baby best fits through, it’s the best position in which the baby should be.
OPTIMAL FETAL POSITIONING DURING PREGNANCY
*POSTURE In the last blog post, I brought up one of the best things a pregnant woman can do to encourage OFP, and that deals with her posture.
I would say that the majority of “failure to progress” babies are due to malpositioning, and that the majority of the malpositioning is due to our modern lifestyles. Instead of walking for travel, we slouch in our cars. We do not sit cross-legged on the floor, nor do we squat, we lounge on sofas and in easy chairs. The majority of our work is done while seated, and the majority of us sit poorly.
So, watch your posture! Get a birth ball to sit on during the day. Tailor sit at home. Take breaks from sitting and do pelvic rocks. Spend a good 10 minutes when you get home from work just leaning over your kitchen countertop and moving your hipsThese positions will move the uterus forward, and help the baby to rotate into an anterior position. These postures will encourage flexibility in the pelvic joints which will enable them to open up to make more room for the baby.
*BODY WORK Some of us may need more help than just normal posturing to get our babies to move into more favorable positions.
Perhaps you had a bad fall when you were a kid. Maybe you were in a car accident. Or you played soccer and made the same one-sided twisting motion over and over again. All of these things can affect the pelvis alignment and uterine ligaments.
When the pelvis is bumped out of alignment, or the uterine ligaments are tighter on one side of the uterus, there’s going to be a twist in the uterus. While a slight twist or misalignment may seem like a minimal problem from the outside, everything is magnified on the inside. A slight twist outside turns into a large twist on the inside, making rotation more difficult for the baby.
Chiropractic care is wonderful for dealing with these bone and ligament issues. Mayan Abdominal Massage is another form of body work that helps get the uterus into better alignment.
*MOVEMENT What happens when you sit the same way, walk the same way, move the same way over and over again? Your body becomes rigid and tight, only allowing certain movements to take place. In pregnancy and birth, we want the body to be able to open up, the pelvis to open and move, the ligaments stretch. So, to help a baby be able to move, you need to move! Certain movements are more helpful during pregnancy and for optimal fetal positioning than others.
- squatting – opens up the pelvis, stretches your leg muscles, gets baby into alignment.
- tailor sitting – this stretches out the legs, opens the pelvis, moves the uterus forward and aligns your body.
- pelvic rocking – this helps get the baby out of the pelvis to allow it to move into a more optimal position, loosens the joints and ligaments of the pelvis and uterus and tones the abdominal and back muscles..
- forward lean – this helps to counter all the leaning back we do during the day. Lean against a table, a counter and while you lean move your bottom around to loosen up the hips!
- hip shimmy – this is where, as mom leans forward (over a birth ball or a table or a bed) her partner comes up behind her, grabs each side of her hips and shimmies them back and forth. This helps to loosen up the pelvis and the uterus, gets baby moving around and feels good to mom
- dancing – dancing is one of the most fun ways of helping to get a baby positioned correctly! Last year when I attended a Zumba class with a friend, one of the dance instructors leading the class was 8 months pregnant. While her movements may have not been as mobile or precise as the other instructors, I couldn’t take my eyes off of her! The whole time I watched her I was thinking how great these movements were for her pelvis and uterus, and what a wonderful gift she was giving her baby through movement and flexibility!
* SIFTING Sifting is a technique that has been used by Mexican midwives for centuries. It involves wrapping a rebozo (“shawl”) under the bottom or belly of a pregnant mother, and shifting the shawl back and forth while raising the mother’s body slightly off the floor. This takes some arm strength, so have someone strong apply this technique! If you do not have a traditional shawl, a towel or sheet, or any longer piece of material, will work. This technique is similar to the hip shimmy in that it helps to loosen up the pelvis and uterus. It loosens ligaments and muscles, gets the baby moving, and can really help to rotate a baby. Whether or not sifting should be done on the woman’s belly or bottom depends on the position of her baby.
It is a wonderful technique to use on most pregnant women, as it often helps to ease any lower back discomfort that is common in pregnancy.
* DUMPING Dumping is a technique that was brought to my attention by my friend and chiropractic care provider, Dr. Joella Pettigrew. When a pregnant mama comes into her practice and she determines that baby is lodged into a bad position, before she performs an adjustment on the mother, she will have her get up on her table, and bend down – feet on the raised platform, bottom in the air, and hands on the floor. This is something that should not be done by oneself, but with supporters on both sides. What happens with this position is that it allows gravity to work on getting the baby out of the mom’s pelvis, in order to then get the baby to rotate into a better position through the chiropractic adjustments. Dumping prior to the other movement techniques helps to increase the likelihood of getting a posterior baby into a more optimal position.
GETTING BABY TO FLEX ITS HEAD
Referring back to the second part of the OFP posts, whether or not a baby’s head is flexed can make a huge difference on the ease with which the baby will fit through the mother’s pelvis. How to get a baby to flex its head may be a question that arose while reading through that post. While it’s not as simple as the rotational techniques, there are still some things that can help get a baby to have a well flexed head.
First off, before a baby has engaged deep into the mother’s pelvis, a skilled midwife can feel, through palpation, whether or not the baby’s head is flexed. And, if the baby’s head seems to be extended, she can help the baby to flex its head all from the outside of the mother.
Another way to encourage a baby to have good flexion, is to have toned abdominal muscles. Women with multiple pregnancies, which tend to stretch out both the uterus and the abdominal muscles, seem to present more babies with extended, or asynclitic heads. Keeping the abdominal muscles toned in between pregnancies, and through pregnancy with pelvic rocks, will greatly help with getting the baby to flex his head.
Along with well-toned abdominal muscles, sifting can be very helpful in getting a baby to flex his head. The shifting movement of the mother’s body can help to shimmy the baby down in the most accommodating place of the pelvis and encourage the baby to tuck his chin.
OPTIMAL FETAL POSITIONING DURING LABOR
Many of the techniques for optimal fetal positioning during pregnancy can also be applied during labor. While it’s best to have baby in an optimal position prior to labor starting, sometimes it cannot be helped!
*MOVEMENT Key to any labor, but especially one in which the mother is trying to get a baby to change position, movement allows gravity and momentum to work together to get a baby to rotate. Walking is simple to do and a wonderful way to encourage rotation! The back and forth shifting of the pelvis as the mother takes her steps helps to get baby moving too.
Rotating the hips while sitting on a birth ball is another movement which encourages baby to move and find the best fit through mom’s pelvis. Dancing with a partner, or just moving side to side, swaying your hips, these primal, unconscious movements that many mothers make during labor are all ways that the body works to get a baby to move around and down.
*UPRIGHT Unless you are trying to get the baby out of the pelvis, or to move more specifically, upright positions will allow the most opportunity for babies to rotate and find their good fit. It also tends to be most comfortable for moms, allowing them to freely move.
*TURNING A BABY FROM RIGHT TO LEFT If the baby is starting with its occipital bone facing the mother’s right side, it is important to remember that babies tend to move dextrorotationally. Meaning that they move clockwise and will therefore have to move into a posterior position before swinging around to the left. How will you know if the baby is in a right position? One way is belly mapping, which can be discovered at the spinning babies website. Another way you can see a baby’s position is by looking at the mother’s hips from behind her. If a baby’s occipital bone is pressing down into the pelvis, you will most likely see that side of the mother’s pelvis bulge out. This is only visible if the baby is in a more posterior position. If the baby is starting in an ROA position, you will probably not see any difference in the hips.
If baby is starting out in an RO position, the best way to get it moving in the right direction is to purposely rotate the baby first into a posterior position. That may not sound pleasant, but if a baby is turning clockwise, it will need to move around the back before coming back over to the left! Depending on which position baby starts in – ROA , ROT or ROP, you may need to start with right side-lying to get baby to move farther back.
If the baby is engaged into the pelvis, and especially if the bag of waters has broken already, it might be necessary to first get the baby out of the pelvis. Dumping was one option already mentioned, though it might be scary to do during labor. Another technique for lifting babies out of the pelvis is called the belly lift and tuck (described below). I discovered this technique on the spinning babies website and have used it very successfully! Once baby is brought back up out of the pelvis, sifting while mom is on her back is what I’ve found to be best.
This shimmies the baby to rotate into a posterior position. Sift only between contractions. Babies rotate between contractions, move down during.
Once baby is established in the posterior position, moving mom onto her left side will help get the baby rotated into an LO position. Just side-lying can do the trick. A little hip shaking while mom is side lying isn’t bad, either.
When you feel certain that baby has moved to the left side (again, look for the hip bulge), have mom get up and walk around to get baby to engage in this position. Hopefully, once this is done, progress will be seen soon after!
*SIFTING This was brought up as part of the rotational process above, but it can be helpful no matter what position you either think, or know, the baby is in. Sifting is also the best technique to use if a mother has one of the “other” types of pelvises in which the baby best descends in a posterior position, or with an asynclitic attitude. Sifting is like jiggling a key in a lock to make it fit. It will help to get the baby into the pelvis because it is moving the baby around until it finds the best fit!
*BELLY LIFT AND TUCK This is a technique I learned from the spinning babies website and have used successfully in getting stalled labors going again. What I discovered with labors that progress with contractions but not with dilation, is that it often has to do with either the attitude of the baby’s head, or the position of the baby. If a baby cannot fit down into a pelvis, it will not be putting pressure on the cervix to dilate it. In Bradley® classes, we talk about the NAP – the Natural Alignment Plateau – that occurs in over one-third of all births. While there are many reasons for an NAP (emotions, hormone production, head molding), one of the most common is what the name infers. Alignment.
When you help the baby get into a better alignment, the labor will progress with dilation and descent.
What the belly lift and tuck does is lift the baby out of the pelvis where it is assumed he has tried to descend, either with a wonky head, or in a suboptimal position. Once he got there, he couldn’t go any further. So, when the mother lifts her belly up during a contraction, it helps to lift the baby out of the pelvis. While mom lifts her belly, she also tucks her pelvis under as she would do during a pelvic rock. This helps the baby find a better entry point into the mother’s pelvis. If the stall in the labor is due to the baby’s need to flex or straighten his head, this may be all that is needed to finish labor rapidly. If baby still needs to rotate, this technique in combination with some of the others will be best in getting labor to progress further.
*HIP SHAKING Like dancing, moving, and sifting, the hip shake technique described in the pregnancy portion can help to rotate a baby into a better position. This is a useful technique if a mother does not want to lie down to be sifted, or does not want her belly touched with sifting. The partner can stand behind her, ask her to lean over the bed, counter, chair, etc., grab her hips firmly and move them in the same fashion as the sifting would.
Optimal fetal positioning is a wonderful skill to know, whether you are the pregnant mother, a doula, a nurse, midwife or doctor! Knowing how to utilize these techniques may mean the difference in a vaginal or a cesarean birth. It may mean the difference in a 12 hour labor and a 48 hour labor. It may mean the difference in an extremely intense back labor, or a labor that is more manageable. Knowing how to make the difference is an invaluable skill to have!
While all of these techniques can help get a baby rotated and into an optimal fetal position, it is important to remember that pelvises and babies’ heads are still amazing at adapting. Babies can still be born in posterior positions, with brow and face presentations, and in other “non-optimal” positions. It may take a little more time, and a lot more effort, but the human body is amazing at making birth work.
WHERE I LEARNED THIS STUFF (a.k.a References and Resources)
* Childbirth International Physiology in Birth Course Manual
* Childbirth International Birth Doula Skills Course Manual
* Understanding and Teaching Optimal Foetal Positioning by Jean Sutton and Pauline Scott
* The International Chiropractic Pediatric Association
* Joella Pettigrew, D.C.
* Spinning Babies
* The Belly Mapping Workbook
* Personal Experience