Dr. Ee Von Ling, ND
*There is a shift towards using the term TOLAC (Trial of labour after C-section) instead of VBAC (Vaginal Birth after C-section). In many ways this term is preferred, less emotionally loaded and less cumbersome than using VBAC. Thus, I will be using both VBAC and TOLAC interchangeably in this post.
One of the very first births I attended as a new doula was a home VBAC. The parents had taken my HypnoBirthing classes and requested me to be their doula. At the time I was just so excited to be going to a home birth that I didn’t even think about the significance of this being a TOLAC.
The mother told me her birth history and the events that had led up to her c-section – “failure to progress at 9cm”. I took all her info and simply reassured her, “every pregnancy is different and so this will be a different experience than your first one”. And it was different. Amazingly different. The labour and birth progressed just like any other normal labour and birth and the mother had her successful home VBAC!
This VBAC homebirth imprinted on me that VBACs were no big deal and they were just like any other birth.
It wasn’t until I started having more conversations with pregnant clients and doctors and reading comments in mommy forums and news articles that I would realize that VBAC’s were seen as A. BIG. DEAL. Words like “highly risky”, “uterine rupture”, “endangering baby”, “dangerous for mom”, “irresponsible” almost always accompanied the VBAC discussion. It was bad enough that women had fear of normal labour and birth itself, but having a past c-section somehow put a whole other layer of fear and worry on top of that.
So I double checked the evidence and the statistics around VBAC and risks and benefits. Contrary to the conversations, the numbers showed that a vaginal birth after a previous c-section was a reasonably safe and healthy choice for most women. The absolute risks were very low and the success rates for attempted VBACs were actually quite high. In fact, the risks for a planned repeat c-section were worse. If you’d like to learn more about the pros, cons and risks around attempting a VBAC, you can read this very excellent handout created by the Ontario Association of Midwives here.
Over the last several decades VBAC rates have gone up and down. According to US statistics, In the 1990’s about 30% of those who had a previous C-section attempted a VBAC. Today that number is about 13%. These numbers have fluctuated because of changes in the practice guidelines of obstetricians. VBAC births themselves did not become more dangerous, but practice guideline updates recommended more medical requirements in order to offer them. These changes influenced the perception and accessibility of attempting VBACs – OB’s became less supportive of them and the public developed a bigger fear of them. Understand that the risks and outcomes for those who attempt VBACs did not change in the last 40 years.
Being able to go through a trial of labour after C-section might be a very significant and impactful choice. For some, being able to vaginally birth helps them to heal a previous birth trauma and reclaim the birth experience for themselves. As a medical industry, we should not take the personal decision to try for a VBAC lightly and we should provide unbiased information and support for that person.
If you had a previous C-section and are now considering a VBAC for your next childbirth, here are 6 things you can do to help improve your chances of birthing your baby vaginally:
- Choose a supportive provider: This might be the most important factor of all. Having a midwife improves your chances of giving birth vaginally and with fewer restrictions around VBAC. If you are not able to get a midwife, make sure your OB is VBAC supportive. How will you know if they are VBAC supportive, ask them outright:
- Are you supportive of VBAC?
- What is this hospital’s TOLAC rate? How many of your own patients chose TOLAC and how many of those result in VBAC?
- What would be your advice around increasing my chances of achieving a VBAC?
You will get a sense of their own attitudes and biases based on how they respond to these questions.
- Learn techniques so you can labour at home for as long as possible: Choose a program that includes learning and practicing breathing exercises, visualizing, releasing past fears. Our clients who have been able to VBAC took HypnoBirthing classes, listened to positive birth podcasts, read books about empowered birth by Ina May Gaskin and Penny Simkin. From our own collective experience supporting our own VBAC clients, we teach a special condensed version of our Confident Birth Prenatal Program that focuses just on the relaxation exercises and techniques to help you be calm and confident during labour.
- Ensure the baby is in a good position: Head down is not enough! Baby’s position with their back on the left side so you feel kicks or the big movements on the right (referred to as LOT) or baby’s back is in the front so you don’t feel a lot of kicks or movement elsewhere (referred to as OA) are the ideal starting positions for baby. A baby in the posterior position (or OP or “sunny side up”) may have a harder time being born vaginally. Perhaps during your previous birthing the baby was in this posterior position, which can lead to slow or arrested labour.
There are ways to help encourage a baby to get into the ideal starting position for birth. Daily positional awareness, acupuncture, massage, chiropractic, osteopath and physiotherapy treatments may help.
- Get your labour to start naturally: If you labour starts naturally, this will help you avoid further interventions that might increase the risks of a TOLAC. Speak with your midwife or doula about ways to start labour that are safe for those who’ve had a previous c-section.
- Try to avoid an epidural: An epidural can limit movement and slow down labour (if started early in labour). If labour slows down, then artificial oxytocin will be needed to help progress the labour. But using artificial oxytocin in someone who had a C-section increases the risk of having a VBAC (ie. scar separation). This is why learning good coping techniques and having a doula can be very helpful. That said, if you need an epidural to help you have a positive birth experience, then by all means, choose that for yourself!
- If you have an epidural, use a peanut ball: Even if someone has an epidural, there are tips and tricks to help increase your chance of a vaginal birth. A peanut-ball is a peanut shaped exercise ball that can be used in a variety of positions to help open up the pelvis and positively influence the positioning of the baby as it’s being born.
Beware the “VBAC calculator”! Recently, I have been hearing about care providers using a “VBAC calculator”. Different factors about the pregnant person are inputted into an algorithm that is supposed to predict the percent chance of having a vaginal birth. The use of this is a HUGE RED FLAG to me, and if this becomes part of routine OB and midwifery practice I fear that VBAC rates will decrease even further.
What is wrong with these calculators?
First, the database of information that these calculators use is from observational data of a specific patient population. The one that care providers in Toronto have been known to use is from a patient population in the United States. American birthing patients and American birth management practices are very different from the birthing patients and birth management practices in Canada. VBAC rates in the US are much lower than VBAC rates in Canada. A hospital with low VBAC rates will produce patients with low VBAC rates and vice versa. So you can already see a discrepancy in applying such a calculator on a random patient.
These calculators are not evidence based, meaning no study has been done to test the impact of using these calculators to accurately predict actual VBAC success, we also need to study how these calculators impact decision making in both the OB and the patient.
We are well aware that there is bias in the practice of obstetric medicine, meaning, if a care provider is personally biased in the management of a particular patient, it greatly influences the outcome for that patient. For example, if this VBAC calculator happens to calculate a low success rate, then that can influence the OB to assume that the patient’s attempted VBAC will end up in a c-section.
In any case, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists had this to say about VBAC calculators: “… population-based statistics cannot accurately predict an individual’s VBAC success odds….It is ill-advised to use statistics as a primary indicator when making VBAC decisions.”
The role of a doula in your plan to have a TOLAC: The good news is, a doula can navigate at least 5 out of 6 of the positive factors listed. Having the presence of continuous and on-going support from a doula is supported by research to help you avoid a c-section (whether it’s your first childbirth or an attempt at a VBAC). If you are interested in learning more about how a doula could be an integral part of your VBAC team, book a free meet and greet with us today!
Want to get prepared for pregnancy, birth and postpartum? Grab our free Bump to Baby Checklist! This clear and thorough guide walks you through everything to expect from your first trimester to past your 6 week postpartum check up.
- What tests and screenings will be offered and when
- When to sign up for prenatal education and what types to consider
- Things you should think about that your care provider may not mention
- Links to helpful resources