Monday, November 23, 2015

Natural: is it good, bad, neither, or both?

It has been months since I put (virtual) pen to (also virtual) paper in this blog.

I have needed time to reset my body clock; to recover from the exhaustion and burnout after many years of midwifery and related professional activism.  I don't know if I have fully recovered yet.  The reality of ageing gives much to ponder; a relentless march towards exhaustion.

In recent months, with no midwifery to absorb time and energy, I have taken up some new challenges.  These photos show the performance of the 'Human Knitting Machine' at the Kyneton Show.

performance of the 'Human Knitting Machine'

The finished product

I am enjoying our new home, and the rural Central Victorian lifestyle.  The daily patterns of weather; the sun and clouds and wind; the subtle changes in the seasons; the growth and change in the garden - these natural life factors add wonder as well as sometimes concern to our days.

We are often delighted, and sometimes concerned, by the little members of our family and friendship circle, as they proceed through their developmental milestones.  This is all part of natural processes: sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes neither, and sometimes both.

Just as with retirement from attending births my life has changed, so has my capacity for writing.  Blogging has, for me, been closely linked with practice.  In the past, as I pondered the events of my professional life, the thoughts that surfaced became seeds for comment in this blog.

I now find that I need to shift my point of view from that of a midwife who was intimately involved in the day by day decisions related to maternity care and the lives of mothers and babies, to a more distant view.  As a retired midwife, my view is that of guardianship of birthing within the bigger picture of living.  I care deeply about what my society does to mothers and babies.  My right to comment continues as in the past.  Readers will need to decide whether my thoughts are valid and useful, or not.

Today I would like to consider *natural* in the maternity context.  Previously I wrote:

Giving birth spontaneously is, in my mind, a woman's *natural right* (not a legal right), just as we have a natural right to breathe, or walk, or perform any other natural function of our bodies.  Women do have a natural right to birth their babies.  Midwives are in the unique position to protect and work with that natural process, giving the mother confidence as she navigates the most challenging terrain.  The only way we can achieve our natural right to birth is if we stay on that natural pathway, and for the majority of women, this is a wonderful and rewarding phenomenon, working with the amazing hormonal cocktail that sets up powerful maternal instincts and bonding/attachment for mother and baby. 

I know of no better way for birth than to proceed under the spontaneous, hormonally mediated natural process from conception to birth, and beyond to nurture and mothering of the infant - MOST of the time.

Natural pregnancy, birth, and nurture of our children is good - MOST of the time.  Regardless of race, wealth, or other social factors, our bodies and minds are set to the 'default' that whatever is natural will be, unless something is done to redirect the course of events.

Whether we apply this principle to maternity issues, or any other ordinary life event, *natural* can be awfully unpredictable, and unmanageable.  There is no therapy that can make it work better, or reign in the unpredictability.  There is no drug that will 'fix it'.  Modern Western medical management of maternity care seeks to minimise 'risk', and in so doing reduce the impact of the spontaneous natural process: to remove the 'MOST' element, and make maternity just another predictable, manageable medical event that complies with medical guidelines and protocols.

For the midwife who is committed to working in harmony with natural processes, except when there is a valid reason to interfere, the big challenge is to know when the natural process is likely to result in harm; when medical and other interventions are likely to lead to improved outcomes.  This requires clear thinking by the midwife or other primary care professional, and independent clear thinking by the woman who receives the advice that a process other than the natural one is being recommended.

I want to emphasize the need for independent thinking by the woman.  The first decision to interrupt the natural birthing process is profound, and the woman must take responsibility for it as her own decision.  It doesn't matter how much trust there is between the woman and her midwife, or doctor for that matter.  The first intervention, which can quickly cascade into a whole bunch of subsequent interventions, can be a life and death decision point.  As can the decision not to intervene!

I started this post by saying that
I know of no better way for birth than to proceed under the spontaneous, hormonally mediated natural process from conception to birth, and beyond to nurture and mothering of the infant - MOST of the time.

During the past couple of decades I have experienced progressive increases in reliance on medical intervention in maternity decisions, paralleled by loss by women in their ownership of their commitment to natural, spontaneous, unmedicated birth.  In Australia today, the woman's ability to make her own consumer choices has eclipsed any valuing of or protecting physiology.  This has made maternity decisions more like walking down the aisle in the supermarket and making selections based on price, packaging, or some other possibly insignificant factor.

I'm not wanting to suggest that I think maternity care was better 20 years ago, when I was busy with midwifery and maternity activism; or 40 years ago, when I was having my own babies; or even 60 years ago, when as a young child I learnt much about mothering from my own mother.

Twenty years ago we were working to demand that midwives be called midwives, not nurses, in hospitals.  We had supported the release of a Code of Practice for Midwives in Victoria.  We were promoting the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, through which maternity hospitals were supported in the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding as the health promoting natural resource of mothers and their new babies.

As time has passed the indicator of reliance on medical rather than natural processes has been the consistently increasing rate of caesarean births in otherwise healthy pregnancies. 

Women don't, on the whole, choose caesarean surgery.  They enter systems of care that sets up the cascade of interventions, so that there is no safe alternative but to bring it all to a conclusion, and when that happens the most rational and helpful option is surgery.  Women, midwives and doctors play games that set up a mirage of choice as the prize, when in reality there is no choice.

Natural birthing can be very good, or very bad.  It can be neither good nor bad.  It can be both good and bad.  Society will either benefit or pay the price for its reliance on the natural physiological processes in maternity decisions.

Wednesday, June 03, 2015

legal rights in childbirth?

Bec and Lucinda
For some years I have been troubled by apparently common misunderstandings of a woman's *rights* in maternity care.   I have pondered these questions publicly on this and other blogs; questions of choice and informed decision making. 

Consider these statements:
You [a competent adult] have the *right* to bodily autonomy.  This means that noone is permitted to do anything to you without your permission.

In any health care situation, including maternity care, you [a competent adult] have the *right* to decline a treatment or intervention.

These legal rights are well established, and I am not going to spend time discussing them. 

Now consider the following statement, which appeared this week in a news article titled Risky underground homebirths: freebirths tipped to rise:

"Women have the legal *right* to birth how they want to"
A legal right? 

Surely not!

Even in the most ideal maternity care situations there will be some women who, in order to protect the life and wellbeing of the mother and her baby, will be advised to undergo surgery.   What happened to these women's legal rights to birth how they want to?

Maternity care in the developing world is often far from ideal.  Women whose health has been compromised by war, social exclusion, poverty, poor nutrition, disease, and other preventable conditions give birth to babies often in shocking conditions, with high rates of mortality and morbidity.  Do these women have a legal right to birth how they want to?  No!

Giving birth is a natural, spontaneous phenomenon, if a woman's body is left to its own devices.
Babies will be born naturally whether someone is monitoring progress or not.   
The sort of birth that the mother wants, which according to the quote above is her legal *right*, may be very different from the natural outcome.  

Giving birth spontaneously is, in my mind, a woman's *natural right* (not a legal right), just as we have a natural right to breathe, or walk, or perform any other natural function of our bodies.  Women do have a natural right to birth their babies.  Midwives are in the unique position to protect and work with that natural process, giving the mother confidence as she navigates the most challenging terrain.  The only way we can achieve our natural right to birth is if we stay on that natural pathway, and for the majority of women, this is a wonderful and rewarding phenomenon, working with the amazing hormonal cocktail that sets up powerful maternal instincts and bonding/attachment for mother and baby.
Those who have access to modern hospitals are not bound to use their natural right: they can obtain medical management and intervention, which is provided in modern societies along with other medical services.   We are privileged to have this access, and even a degree of choice in planning the way babies are born.  But, access to choice in the way a baby is born is not a simple matter.  It's not a legal right. 

I think it would be silly to argue that women have any legal right to a particular medically managed pathway in childbirth.

So, with great respect, I would like to suggest that midwives and maternity activists stop saying that women have a legal right to birth how they want to. It's nonsense.

Why am I so concerned about this question?

I have read coroner's findings, acted as an expert witness, and discussed cases with peers, and the recurrent theme has been this distorted belief, on the part of the midwives, that women should be able to choose the sort of birth they want, and that the midwife should facilitate this choice.  Midwives working under this belief have forgotten the harsh reality that preventable death and disability is often not far away.

The mother who wants an 'undisturbed' birth, and tells the midwife that she does not want any monitoring of her own vital signs or her baby's.  Yes, she gives birth, and usually the baby's condition is good.   ...

The mother who has various medical conditions including unmanaged gestational diabetes, wants a VBA2C, and who decides that there is too much negative energy in the hospital, so she finds an independent midwife who commits to homebirth.  ...

The mother who feels that she suffered trauma in her previous birth, in which labour was augmented, and a forceps birth resulted in severe perineal tearing which was repaired.  She does not know what she should do.  Should she request an elective caesarean birth? ...

These mothers may not be claiming any legal right to the sort of birth they want.  But they are looking for competent professional care.  A midwife can proceed on life's path with the woman, and provide information, support, expert advice, and sometimes guidance.

The midwife can support the woman's natural right to spontaneous birth, in the setting that is considered most appropriate at the time. 

In relation to human rights and birth at home, the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Ternovski v Hungary (2010) is significant.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Insurance: a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow

A pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?
A mirage?
The emperor's new clothes?
[My question is, when will we - the maternity community including midwives, hospitals, and consumers - wake up and come to terms with reality?]

Here's a thumbnail sketch of the insurance problem:

Professional indemnity insurance (PII) for all Australian health professionals became mandatory five years ago.
... BUT midwives who attend homebirth privately cannot purchase PII
... SO the exemption was introduced by the government, to enable midwives to continue being midwives.

Until recently, privately practising midwives who provide clinical midwifery services (pre-, intra-, and post-natal professional care) have purchased PII to cover pre- and post-natal services, and have, with certain conditions set down by the Nursing and Midwifery Board, come under the exemption for attending women in labour, birth, and the immediate postnatal period.  There were two insurance companies MIGA and Vero.  MIGA insurance is restricted to Medicare-eligible midwives, and includes cover for birth in hospital when the midwife has clinical privileges.  Vero, on the other hand, has provided an insurance product for midwives regardless of their eligibility for Medicare funding, and offers no cover for intranatal midwifery services.

Now, Vero has notified midwives that:
"It is with deep regret that we inform you that as of the 2nd April, 2015 Vero and Medisure will no longer be able to provide a Professional Indemnity Insurance policy to Private Practicing Midwives who are providing any home birthing or home birthing related services.

There are a number of factors that have impacted on this difficult decision, including:
• the high cost of claims that have resulted in the past 4 years
• the lack of government funding or assistance (for claims or premium costs), and
• the ability to offer an affordable policy to Private Practicing Midwives who are providing any home birthing related activities.

The Vero insurance product was the only PII option available to non-eligible midwives, and was seen by some eligible midwives as more affordable, and adequate to meet the requirements of registration.

I am not surprised that Vero has come to this decision.  The wonder to my mind was that someone thought it would be do-able!  The 'number of factors' dot points listed in the Vero letter are not surprising:
  • the high cost of claims that have resulted in the past 4 years
Yes, legal defence is costly.  That's what insurance is about.

  • the lack of government funding or assistance (for claims or premium costs), 
This is not new.  The product has never had government assistance

  • the ability to offer an affordable policy ...
This is not new either!

It has been clear to me, since privately practising midwives lost our insurance in 2001, that the private midwifery 'industry' cannot provide the sort of $$ required to insure birth.  Our annual earnings are of a similar quantum to the insurance premiums paid by obstetricians.  At that time I argued (unsuccessfully) in the then Nurses Board of Victoria that if insurance was to be mandated, there was an onus on the regulator/government to ensure that a suitable product was available and affordable.  If not, the regulator was effectively delegating its responsibility for protection of public interest through regulation of the midwifery profession to the insurer.

The purpose of statutory regulation of the health professions is protection of the public.  The insurer does not exist to protect public interest - in this case ensure safety for mothers and babies.  The insurer is a profit-making enterprise, and exists to protect the financial interests of its people - in this case midwives - and shareholders. 

When is the Australian government, the statutory regulator, and the whole maternity community going to stop chasing the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow?  When are they/we going to recognise the mirage of insurance, that in almost every case it makes no difference to any outcome for the client?

Readers who are interested in the back story and further discussion may check out these links:

Midwife Rachel Reed has recently updated her Midwife Thinking blog post on the Future of Midwifery and Homebirth in Australia.

Maternity Choices Australia (formerly Maternity Coalition) has documents and links at its website, and discussion at its facebook pages.

Friday, March 06, 2015

in two minds: why 'choice' is often a mirage

Today I am looking at (the woman's) choice, decision-making (whether it can be called 'informed' or not), and the midwife's challenge which, by definition, includes the protection, promotion and support of healthy natural processes in birth and nurture of the baby. 

From time to time a book or an article promoting women's *rights* in pregnancy and childbirth comes to my attention.  A recent feminist blog is headed with a big question "Why is it still controversial to say that women should make the decisions about childbirth?"

The group Maternity Choices Australia, which emerged out of Maternity Coalition (an organisation in which I was active for a couple of decades) has placed strong emphasis on a woman's own choices in the maternity terrain.

Who is *in two minds*?  
The woman herself. 

What are the two minds?
The woman's intellectual mind and the intuitive mind.  The same brain has separate parts that are used differently.

Why is 'choice' often a mirage?
Choices that are made (using the intellectual mind) prior to the time at which the intuitive mind takes the lead (particularly in labour and bonding) can be irrelevant, but can trap the woman. 

Although I am critical of a great deal of the maternity choice campaign as I see it today, my criticism is based on my understanding of the physiology of birth, which describes the two minds and their interaction with each other; not on feminist arguments of women's rights or fetal personhood.

The person missing from the current arguments about a woman's own choice is the midwife.  Not the generic midwife, whoever is given the task of providing midwifery services at a given moment; the one midwife who is acting as the unique professional, dedicated to working alongside and in partnership with that individual woman through the pregnancy, birth, and postnatal.

I am ready here for someone to tell me that I am being idealistic.  How can health services provide a one-to-one partnership between each woman and a committed midwife whose skill and knowledge the woman is able to trust at any decision-point?

Yes, I know it's not easy.  I have recently ceased providing this level of midwifery care, because I have become too old; too weary.  I can no longer offer to stay awake past my bedtime, or get up in the wee hours; to put aside my own needs hour after hour for the sake of what I believe to be optimal care in birth.   I still see that as optimal, even though I can no longer offer it. 

The only way I can see a maternity world that protects women's ability to make decisions about childbirth is when systematic changes are made so that midwives and women can honestly explore any choices that are presented as time progresses.  When the woman, using her intellectual mind, can explore and grasp the complexity of decision-making in labour, and can trust her midwife-partner to interrupt her from her intuitive state only if she needs to bring a matter of importance to her (intellectual) attention.  

I want to caution here, that without effective partnership, midwives and maternity services, as well as mothers, can err in over-reliance on 'natural' birth.  A UK report highlights the need for caution.  Anecdotes are common and some lead tragically to coroner's reports.

A midwife who delegates decision-making completely to the woman is foolish, lazy, incompetent, unprofessional!
For example:
Midwife A says she believes the woman is free to make any choice she wants about how long to stay in a birth pool after giving birth. 

The woman B has progressed in harmony with amazing natural, physiological forces in her body to give birth unmedicated and unassisted to her baby.  This was just what the new mother B had wanted, and she had (in her intellectual mind) chosen this pathway as having real advantages for herself and her baby.   Midwife A had supported B's plan. 

In the minutes after the birth, B stayed in the birth pool, hormonally awash in the beauty of her newborn and the afterglow of her ecstatic experience.  Midwife A was confident that all was well, and said nothing about getting out of the water.  Baby C did what healthy unmedicated babies do: she found her mother's breast.

Mother B experienced painful uterine contractions, and about 30 minutes after the birth B experienced a gush of blood, and midwife A reassured her that her placenta was about to be born.  Nothing was said about getting out of the water.

More minutes passed, with further after-pains, further bleeding, but no expulsion of the placenta.  Nothing was said about getting out of the water.


Because Midwife A believed B would know when she needed to get out of the water.

Midwife A was wrong.  Mother B was using her intuitive mind as she nurtured and bonded with her baby C.  She had no idea of time, or any other aspect of expected progress that her intellectual mind had considered prior to the birth.  The only intuition about moving out of the birth pool came much later, when B became faint.  I don't need to spell out the consequences of this error in delegation of 'choice'.

In conclusion, I can say that it is still controversial to say that women should make decisions in childbirth.  The big challenge is that midwives and women are enabled to work together, in deep respect, and with freedom to find the best course as time passes.  Neither can do it alone.

Monday, January 05, 2015

A question


Having moved from our home of 30 years in Melbourne's leafy Eastern suburbs to a beautiful semi-rural 'lifestyle' block in central Victoria (link), Noel and I are getting used to our new way of life.  For most of the past month we have not had a reliable internet connection to our home, so have been using the free service at the Kyneton library, and other processes in an attempt to keep in touch with the outside world.

We now have the new year 2015, and an old challenge.  I have been thinking about this question, and hope I can record here something of the current situation in Australian maternity care.  This question was posted by a midwife, to a large international group that discusses human rights in childbirth.  

Can we find passion and activism in the middle ground, that ground that advocates for the right of women to have safe cesareans if they need one? 

I am quite disturbed and shocked at this question.  Why, I ask, would there be a need for passion and activism to advocate for the right of women and their babies to have safe maternity care?   

Perhaps the question is irrelevant to Australia?  Perhaps this is an issue in developing countries, or somewhere else?  

Yes, women can get relatively safe caesarean births here if they have a valid reason.  Those who can afford it, or who work out how to manipulate the public health system, can also get caesareans without needing it.  This surgery might meet all the required hospital safety protocols, but the risks of major abdominal surgery add a new dimension to the safety equation.  Infection, haemorrhage, drug errors, adverse drug interactions, issues of pain management, separation of mother and baby, interference with bonding and establishment of breastfeeding, and additional risks of catastrophic birth outcomes in a subsequent pregnancy are just a few of the additional risk factors in surgical birth when compared with spontaneous, unmedicated uncomplicated vaginal birth.

I would suggest that the big question in a modern Western society such as Australia is 

Can we find passion and activism in the middle ground, that ground that advocates for the right of women to have skilled professional services that will protect the mother's capacity to give birth to a healthy baby spontaneously?

Indeed, do we as a society value a mother's ability to give birth?  Do we value the midwife's duty of care which includes the protection of normal birth?   

No, we don't.

Maternity care in Australia is a dog's breakfast that pays more attention to a woman's ability to pay a fee for service than anything else.  It includes obstetrician-managed 'private' care for women who have no clinical need for a specialist; it includes public hospital maternity services that fail to communicate plans and tests done antenatally with the staff who provide intrapartum care; it includes midwife-led private care for planned homebirth, with no provision for the midwife to continue as the responsible professional if the decision is made to go to hospital for the birth; and it includes a fringe of women who proceed with free-birth, with what care there is directed by doulas and unregulated birth workers.

Advocacy in this country around birth is more focused on the woman's right to 'choose' than protecting and promoting natural healthy processes.  Yes, some women 'choose' just that, and make choices about their care that they believe will enhance the process.  But much 'choice' focuses more on whether or not to use painkilling drugs in labour; whether or not to induce or augment labour; planning a waterbirth, or delayed cord clamping, or vaginal breech birth, or some other aspect of care which may be very important in itself but which cannot be addressed separately from the bigger picture. 

Midwives are the only group who have (or should have) the skill and capacity to improve birth outcomes working in harmony with natural processes.  Mothers can't do it on their own.  Physiological birth requires a woman to minimise neocortical activity - thinking.  Childbirth educators, doulas, or well meaning family or friends can't do it.  They don't have the midwife's unique skill. There is plenty of evidence supporting this contention, which requires a care-partnership between woman and her trusted midwife, who is present as the leading or primary professional carer at the time when decisions are being made.  Yet many Australian midwives approach pregnancy and birth as though their role is inconsequential.  They work from an obstetric-managed philosophy of care, relying more on tests and investigations that detect abnormalities than any authentic midwifery philosophy of firstly protecting, promoting and supporting physiological processes in birth, balanced with a commitment to accessing appropriate emergency obstetric services when indicated.

So, is there a place for ' passion and activism in the middle ground, ...'?

I hope so!

That middle ground where women are valued and respected for their capacity as birth-givers; where we seek first to achieve unmedicated, healthy mothers and babies, and place restrictions on the professionals and the consumers as far as frivolous or unfounded interventions are concerned; where midwives are valued for their ability to protect and support the natural processes. 

This is worth being passionate about.

Friday, October 17, 2014


Dear reader

Over many years I have enjoyed writing as villagemidwife, and I know that there are many people who read my posts.  Much of my writing is an outpouring of thought and emotion that has been directly linked to my practice.  I am hoping to continue writing for a long time, but it's likely that that will change, as my life's pathway moves on.

I have attended the last birth in my caseload.  I am continuing to practise, particularly in sorting out breastfeeding problems and other postnatal care, but I have decided to act my age, and to leave the births to the younger midwives.  My decision to cease attending births was supported by the fact that in the past 3+ years, since the government's maternity reforms, the number of privately practising midwives in and around Melbourne has increased exponentially, while the number of women who wish to engage a midwife for homebirth, or hospital support, is increasing only steadily.  That means many midwives are under-employed, and there is huge competition for 'business'.

[aside] This sort of language may be unpalatable to some readers.  Birthing is about women and their beautiful babies.  Yes!  Surely midwives who practise independently do so because we have made personal commitments to the protection, promotion and support of natural birthing in a way that we are not likely to be able to practise in mainstream maternity services?  Yes!
But these wonderful possibilities can only be sustained if the midwife is free to focus on the woman and her child, and that means maintaining a reasonable caseload and being paid a reasonable amount of money. 

We have sold our house in the leafy Eastern suburbs, and bought a beautiful (smaller) house on five acres in Kyneton.  If you want to search, the address is 121 Rosa Court, Kyneton Victoria 3444.

If you enjoy reading this blog, you may also enjoy OLD midWIVES' TALES.
Also a fac_book site of the same name.  You are welcome there too - just go to the site and send me a membership request.
So far I am the only writer, but I would love to have other midwives record something of their wisdom, experiences, and learnings.

With best wishes
Joy Johnston

Thursday, September 25, 2014


(by Poppy)
Several years ago, in 2010, I posted Dangerous Drugs, in which I explored my thoughts and concerns about the adverse effect of opiate drugs on a baby's ability to function normally in the first few days of life.  In that post the narcotic (opiate) drug endone came under the spotlight, as it was being (and still is) used liberally in early postnatal settings, particularly after caesarean births or when women complain of perineal pain.

[Note to readers:  If you would like to check the information about any drug, you can search the myDr medicines site.  For example, Endone tablets. ]

In 2012 I completed an accredited course in Pharmacology, the Graduate Certificate in Midwifery at Flinders University, and subsequently received endorsement of my registration as a midwife prescriber, and obtained my own prescription pads.  I and many other Australian midwives have used social media for discussion of prescribing issues, in the Midwife Prescriber group.

Any medicine that contains opiates (including over the counter medicines such as panadeine [paracetamol+codeine]) is metabolised into morphine as well as other substances, and has a similar analgesic action to endone for the mother, and is transmitted via breast milk to the baby.  There is a great deal of variability in the way an individual metabolises opiate medicines, transferring the substances from the stomach, via the liver, to the blood stream, and to pain receptor sites.  The existence of ultra-rapid metabolizers of codeine should be noted by any midwife or doctor or pharmacist who prescribes or recommends oral opiates for women who are breastfeeding, and the medicine should not be used if the baby appears affected (excessively sleepy/lethargic) after being fed with mother's milk.  (??? aren't babies supposed to be sleepy after breastfeeding?  Yes - not lethargic though.)

Pethidine (meperidine)
After that rather lengthy introduction, today I would like to focus on another opiate, pethidine, or meperidine (Demarol) in some countries.

Peer reviewed medical literature has for more than a decade drawn attention to the neurotoxic effect of metabolites of pethidine, in both the adult and in the breastfed infant.  In 2006, the New Zealand Medical Journal published a paper by Shipton, stating that "Pethidine is no longer considered a first-line analgesic. ... Clinicians around the World recommend its removal from health systems
or restriction of its use." (p1)

Anderson published A Review of Systemic Opioids Commonly Used for Labor Pain Relief (Journal of Midwifery and Women's Health, 2011), and stated that,
"Meperidine [Pethidine] and its metabolites accumulate in colostrum and breast milk and may be associated with newborn neurobehavioral alterations and unfavorable effects on developing breastfeeding behaviors. Wittels et al43 conducted a prospective, randomized study of breastfeeding women who underwent cesarean births and compared intravenous PCA administration of meperidine to intravenous PCA administration of morphine. Meperidine was associated with significantly more neurobehavioral depression in breastfeeding newborns on the third and fourth days of life when compared with the behavior of the newborns in the morphine cohort (P .05), despite similar overall doses of morphine and meperidine." (page 227)

A question posted at the Midwife Prescriber site a week ago indicated that pethidine is currently used liberally in labour and postnatally, except in public hospitals in New South Wales, where I understand its use has been restricted.  Old habits die hard!

Here's a recent case (true story) -
A woman who is a well informed registered professional, having her second baby by elective caesarean for transverse lie, at a public teaching hospital in Melbourne:
  • requested that the IV be inserted in a vein on her left arm rather than the back of her hand, because she wanted freedom to hold and feed her baby after the birth.
  • was surprised that the young anaesthetic doctor was very reluctant to do this - had to insist - and eventually got what she requested
  • asked not to be given pethidine which is the standard in that hospital, preferred morphine via a PCA, as she was aware of concerns about metabolisation of pethidine, and transfer to colostrum, and felt she could have more control over the amount of drug in her system this way
  • once again found that she had to argue with the anaesthetic doctor in order to achieve this preference. No valid reason was given for the hospital's preference of pethidine. The doctor said that "the midwives don't like PCA and don't know how to manage it" (which I think is nonsense)
  • and after this doctor had (albeit reluctantly) complied with the woman's wishes, said to the woman. "You're right you know, we don't like using pethidine. It's a 'dirty drug'. And not siting the IV on the back of your hand is a no brainer."

This story illustrates unprofessional behaviours, particularly by the anaesthetic doctor, who was probably doing exactly what she or he had been told to do.  As a teaching hospital, one would expect evidence to be critically examined and applied.  If pethidine is not the best available medicine, it should not be used.  Passing the blame to the midwives is outrageous.  Most of the midwives working in hospitals have not studied pharmacology, and do not have authorisation to prescribe.  The person who signs the medications chart is the person who takes responsibility for the prescription.  If there are problems with the equipment, sort that out.

Drugs such as pethidine, morphine, endone, OxyContin, and others are DANGEROUS DRUGS.  They are kept in the DANGEROUS DRUG cupboard in hospital wards, and protocols must be followed to ensure that these medicines are signed out and administered correctly.  They are called DANGEROUS DRUGS because they are DANGEROUS!

The challenge is that when a dangerous drug is required, such as after major surgery, what is the least dangerous option for the mother and her new baby?