I have a few issues with this phrase and the way it is presented to women both in pregnancy and in the moments after birth. Language is incredibly important when it comes to pregnancy and birth, and for too long the negative impacts of the language used in maternity care has been ignored. I believe that “chemically induced third stage” is a more accurate term for what is currently known as an “actively managed third stage”.
The phrase “Active Management” and what it implies
Firstly, the phrase “active management” comes with some serious implications. It suggests that this is the safe, controlled way of birthing your placenta and that waiting for your body to do what it is designed to do is “unmanaged” and therefore dangerous. I went to a birth recently where the midwife described the cervix as a “vice” and told the woman that “sometimes nature just doesn’t do enough to get it out” – this kind of attitude towards women’s bodies is a huge problem in my eyes.
The importance that is put on the length of time passed since the baby was born is immense, but with very little evidence. By calling it a “chemically induced third stage” it is making it clear that this is an intervention that involves medication and is the act of forcing the placenta to be born before the body is ready to do so on its own. It seems appropriate given that it is essentially the same as chemically inducing labour – injecting a woman with an artificial “hormone” to force the uterus to contract.
What the body needs for a smooth birth of the placenta
The birth of the placenta needs the same basic things as the birth of the baby. A woman in labour needs to feel safe, unobserved and undisturbed – the same applies to the birth of the placenta given that it uses the same hormones.
If you ever witness an undisturbed birth, and the environment stays the same after the baby is born, you will see a smooth birth of the placenta too. It may not happen fast, but it will happen. If you witness a birth with midwives present, or people around who are looking for danger, on high alert and full of adrenaline, you will see the environment change entirely. The voices that were soft (or better still, silent) for the many hours prior are suddenly at a normal volume, asking questions and stating observations, the lights might even come on and suddenly the birth space is no longer the safe cacoon that it was before.
If midwives are present, the clock is started – they are counting down the seconds until the placenta is born, perhaps not once considering that by asking the woman questions and observing her so closely they are hindering the process. The fear is contagious, even if it is not justified. Despite there being no known “normal” length of time for the placenta to come, the 60-minute limit is applied and so the pressure begins, even though there is no evidence (nor common sense reason) that a woman’s cervix would close itself naturally before birthing the placenta. It does however make sense that this might happen if the woman has induced artificial uterine stimulation due to the use of Syntometrin.
The risk and varying definitions of post-partum haemorrhage
The common British definition of a haemorrhage is 500mls, whereas in Holland the definition is 1000mls. Whenever there is a big difference (in this instance a HUGE difference) in policies and guidance, it makes me question where they are getting their numbers from. What are they basing these thresholds on if they are so vastly different?
We know that when a woman is pregnant her blood volume increases dramatically, so whether this extra blood comes out immediately after birth, or in the weeks or months following, it is likely the same amount in total. The measurement of blood loss also doesn’t tell us much – one woman could lose a lot of blood and feel perfectly fine, another could lose a small amount and feel awful – surely the way the woman feels should determine whether medical attention is needed, not an estimated measurement.
The supposed benefits are based on very low-quality data, all of the studies were undertaken in hospital settings and according to the Cochrane Review; “Although the data appeared to show that active management reduced the risk of severe primary PPH greater than 1000 mL at the time of birth, we are uncertain of this finding because of the very low-quality evidence. Active management may reduce the incidence of maternal anaemia (Hb less than 9 g/dL) following birth, but harms such as postnatal hypertension, pain and return to hospital due to bleeding were identified.”.
We know that the risk of having a PPH is significantly lower for women who plan a home birth, even if they transfer into hospital for the birth itself. So why is the same low-quality data that only applies to hospital births being implemented into standard practice at home births too?
Also, as a side note, the maternity system can’t be massively concerned about preventing PPH when they are inducing women at alarming rates, which also increases the risk of having a PPH.
The risk and definition of “retained placenta”
incomplete separation of the placenta and its failure to be expelled at the usual time after delivery of the child.
So what is the “usual time”? The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommends that; “the third stage is diagnosed as delayed if it takes longer than 30 minutes to deliver the placenta with active management or 60 minutes if allowed to deliver the placenta physiologically with maternal effort.”
* Notice the use of the word “allowed” – this is what I’m talking about with the use of language *
However, this doesn’t even begin to encompass the wide range of normal. From listening to women’s stories who birthed with no medical staff present, their third stages lasted varying amounts of time with no ill effects. In one freebirth study published in a midwifery journal, they varied from 30 minutes to 5 hours, and some women anecdotally report going to sleep for several hours before birthing their placenta.
According to an article in ‘Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology’, in less developed countries, retained placenta affects about 0.1% of deliveries, whereas, in more developed countries, it happens in around 3% of vaginal deliveries. Considering the intervention rates are higher in developed countries, this leaves a lot of questions about what is causing the increase in cases of retained placenta, how they are defining “retained placenta” and whether these stats are referring to women who do not have the injection or include those who do.
There are very clear symptoms of a retained placenta that is causing an issue, but in the standard practice of midwives, they do not wait for any of these symptoms. Instead, like many of the standard practices in maternity care, they simply assume that the body is incapable of performing its natural functions and intervene too soon.
These are the symptoms of a retained placenta;
- Constant pain
- Fever/high temperature
- Passing large pieces of placental tissue
- Heavier than expected bleeding
- Foul-smelling vaginal discharge
* Note that having an extended period of rest between the birth of your baby and your placenta isn’t listed as a symptom, so decisions to intervene should not be based on that without any actual indications of a problem.
The risks of Syntometrin
Syntometrin is the injection given for an induced third stage. It is made up of oxytocin and ergometrine maleate. Women are quite often told all of the risks of doing nothing, and only the so-called benefits of having the injection and getting it “all over and done with”. From my experience, the only reason women have accepted the injection (even when they had previously declined), is due to fear and/or to stop the constant pestering. The coercion that I have witnessed during that golden time between the birth of the baby and the placenta is truly awful and eventually takes its toll.
We know that with the injection the placenta tends to come fairly quickly, but at the cost of added discomfort due to fundal pressure and cord traction (having a midwife push on your bump and pull on the cord). But there is rarely any mention of the risks and side-effects of having the injection.
In reading the information provided on Syntometrin, here is what I found on the risks:
- Ergometrine is known to cross the placenta and its clearance from the foetus is slow. Concentrations of ergometrine achieved in foetus are not known.
- Ergometrine derivatives are excreted in breast milk but in unknown amounts. It can also suppress lactation.
- Ergometrine can cause vasoconstriction
- Caution is required in patients with mild or moderate hypertension, cardiac disorder, or hepatic or renal impairment
- Oxytocin should be considered as potentially arrhythmogenic
- Patients should be warned of the possibility of dizziness and hypotension
Some of the reported adverse drug reactions:
- Anaphylactic/anaphylactoid reactions associated with dyspnoea, hypotension, collapse or shock
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- Chest pain
- Abdominal pain
“It might just be sitting there”… So what?!
We often hear this from midwives; “It’s likely that your placenta has detached from the uterine wall and is just sitting there on your cervix”. Okay, that makes sense… so what? What is the issue?
In our work as doulas, we trust in birth, we trust in women and their intuitive wisdom. We trust that if a woman feels well, she is well, and if something isn’t right she will know what to do. Women who have had undisturbed births describe feeling contractions and then a sudden urge to move positions due to feeling uncomfortable sitting or lying down, and with this movement, they birth their placenta. These women weren’t timing their third stage or being told when and how to move – just as in their labour, they were listening to the most up-to-date information their body was giving them and acting or waiting, accordingly.
So is a placenta truly retained if it just hasn’t had enough time to come out yet? If it isn’t causing any of the obvious physical symptoms of a genuine issue, does it just need time and patience? Does the presence of someone who is timing this pause have a negative impact on the process? Why are we treating every woman as if a PPH is incredibly likely when that isn’t the case? In the same way that the “failure to progress” label is put on women whose labours aren’t following an arbitrary timeline, intervening can lead to a whole host of other issues, not least that woman feeling like her body failed when the reality is that the maternity system failed to wait.