Respectful maternity care: the problem and suggested solutions

Guest  post by Donna Walls, RN, BSN, CLC, ANLC with intro by jess fedenia, clc

 

Donna Walls’s, RN, BSN, ICCE, IBCLC, ANLC unmedicated births were sort of a fluke.

“I remember being horribly afraid of someone sticking a needle in my back,” she recalls.

The “glorious” feelings of confidence and joy were unexpected consequences, but thinking back, Donna says, “Boy, I am sure glad I [gave birth that way.]”

In all other aspects of parenting, Walls credits growing up in the 1960s for becoming a self-described Granola Mom.

“When everything went ‘back to nature’, that was a big influencer for me,” she says.

As a nurse, Walls was always drawn to maternity care and supporting breastfeeding as the natural progression after giving birth.

It felt thorny to her when babies were taken to the transition nursery immediately after birth and later given back to their mothers.

This ritual sent the message that “We (as in the staff) can take better care of your baby than you (as in the mother) can.” That never sat right with Walls.

Then, one pivotal moment in particular, Walls on duty in the transition nursery, walked by a baby only a couple of hours old.

“He was frightened,” Walls begins. “His lip was quivering and he was splayed out underneath the warmer. He was so frightened. It just affected me.”

After that, Walls galvanized to change the culture in this hospital. She worked very hard alongside a physician colleague to open a birth center within the hospital. In 1995, Family Beginnings at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio was unveiled, offering families an option where birth wasn’t pathologized and where mothers and babies were honored as dyads. (Birthing at Family Beginnings remains an option for those in the Dayton area today.)

The center was designed to look like a home. There was no nursery for babies to be separated from their parents. When mothers came in to labor, the staff would pop in bread to bake, a special touch of aromatherapy.

Freshly baked bread, though enticing, wasn’t the number one reason families signed up to birth here. Instead, they chose Family Beginnings because they didn’t want their babies taken away from them, Walls reports.

Walls has since retired from her work in the hospital, but respectful maternity care remains forward in her mind and in her advocacy.

She graces us with reflections on respectful maternity care in her guest post this week on Our Milky Way. Read on!

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As a nurse in maternity for over 40 years, I have too often witnessed what I refer to as the “empty vessel theory”. Women are regarded as merely a container for the fetus and care providers merely the technician to remove it, usually as quickly as possible. I have often been saddened when the emotions and spirituality of birthing are disregarded or even mocked. This miraculous process is a rite of passage with all the inherent pain, joy, lessons and connections needed to begin the journey into parenting. My hope is that through discussions and activism, we can reach a point where the birthing family is honored and all newborns are brought into the world with love and respect.

Photo by João Paulo de Souza Oliveira: https://www.pexels.com/photo/gray-scale-photo-of-a-pregnant-woman-3737150/

Respect is “showing regard for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others”. Concerningly, there is an abundance of anecdotes from patients and caregivers that demonstrate how maternity care practices are often disrespectful, sometimes even abusive.

Disrespectful care encompasses racial inequity, lack of confidentiality, physical and/or emotional abuse, denial of care or provision of substandard care, lack of informed consent or coercion or condescending communications. This type of care occurs in all countries around the world, to all demographics of women and their families. Fortunately, disrespectful care has drawn the attention of many health organizations, including the World Health Organization, and steps are being taken to stop disrespectful, abusive care practices.

Examining the intersection of maternity care and human rights has been a recent topic in many maternal and infant care advocacy groups as well. We cannot assume that hospital admission for an appendectomy is equal to admission for the birth of a baby. This is because  the scope of the process of birthing impacts a person, a family, a community and a nation which is not so of a surgical procedure.

Most women and families expect they will receive safe, inclusive, compassionate care and trust their caregivers to provide prenatal, intrapartum and postnatal care with honest communication and respect for their needs and choices. Provision of safe care should look beyond the basics of preventing maternal, fetal or neonatal morbidity or mortality and consider how to support the family’s human rights– rights inherent to all people, without discrimination, regardless of age, nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status. (White Ribbon Alliance, 2020)

Photo by Dipu Shahin DS: https://www.pexels.com/photo/baby-in-pink-and-white-blanket-4050647/

The first stated right is to be free from harm and mistreatment, yet we find continuing cases of physically and emotionally abusive treatment of pregnant and birthing women. Secondly is the right to competent, culturally sensitive care for both mother and newborn.  Next is  the right to companionship and support, and lastly the right to meet the basic life-sustaining needs of the dyad, including breastfeeding support for the newborn.

The first step toward respectful care is choosing  healthcare providers who value open, honest communication and who will discuss options and listen to the family’s needs and concerns. WHO defines respectful communication as communication which  “aims to put women at the centre of care, enhancing their experience of pregnancy and ensuring that babies have the best possible start in life.” (WHO, 2018)

Other components of respectful communication include the use of positive body language, active listening, the use of non-judgmental language, assuring patient privacy and honoring physical and emotional needs.  Respectful communication can begin with simply referring to the person by the name they prefer. If it is not documented, ask.

Another important step is selecting the birthing place. (Niles, 2023) Most care providers practice at one to two hospitals or birth centers. Choosing the birthing environment is an important decision in creating a birth experience which is in line with the family’s expectations and goals. Research and discussions with childbirth educators, lactation care providers and other families can give insights into common or routine practices at that institution. Will the family’s requests be honored? Will questions be answered with open and honest informed consent? Will the birthing and breastfeeding practices support their goals? These are all questions that need to be answered before a birthing place decision is made.

Creating an environment of respectful care in the birthing place is foundational. It is care that assures women and their families will be regarded as capable of making decisions. Making decisions which respect the values and unique needs of the birthing woman can only be made when patient autonomy– the right of patients to make decisions about their medical care without their health care provider trying to influence the decision–  is recognized.

Photo by Rebekah Vos on Unsplash

Individuals often comment on birthing in the hospital as a time when you lose all modesty; however, it is possible to follow protocols that set a standard for assuring privacy and modesty which can positively impact the birth experience. Simple steps like not discussing patient history or current conditions in front of others (without the patient’s permission), being mindful of covering intimate body parts (or culturally sensitive covering) whenever possible, asking permission before touching or knocking (and waiting for a response) before entering the room are a huge part of maintaining patient dignity. It cannot be overstated that any cultural requirements for modesty must be respected at all times.

More on respect in health care on Our Milky Way here, here and here.

Other recommended resources 

The International MotherBaby Childbirth Initiative (IMBCI) A Human Rights Approach to Optimal Maternity Care

Inclusive, supportive and dignified maternity care (SDMC)-Development and feasibility assessment of an intervention package for public health systems: A study protocol.

The Giving Voice to Mothers study: inequity and mistreatment during pregnancy and childbirth in the United States.

Exploring Evidence for Disrespect and Abuse in Facility‐based Childbirth: Report of a Landscape Analysis

 

The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge

I’ve been following this conversation started by the Grammar Girl:

“I was a guest on a podcast where kids asked two people questions to decide who was the fake and who was the real expert.

The host said that early on, the kids thought the fake was the expert every time because the actors answered every question confidently, and the experts would hedge or even sometimes say, ‘I don’t know.’

They eventually told the fakes to be less confident so the kids would have a chance of picking the expert sometimes.”

The Grammar Girl’s post was making a point specifically about ChatGPT, but the sentiment can be applied more generally, and in our case to the field of lactation and other perinatal care providers.

Some of my favorite comments on the Grammar Girl’s post include:

Never trust an expert who isn’t willing to admit that they don’t know.

Experts know that there are sometimes variables or gray areas, thus they don’t answer in terms of absolutes.

That makes me think of how an intelligent person (possibly an expert in something) is still curious and open minded enough to not always be sure of everything. 

Those who are experts, look before they leap, stop before they comment, ask for help and do their research. Saying ‘I do not know’ is a strength.

It reminds me of the quote: ‘The enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.’ 

Individuals on the perinatal care team can get stuck in a rut where humility is absent, and this can become dangerous for their patients. 

Debra Bingham of PQI, in a recent newsletter, reminds us of physiologic humility.

Bingham writes:

“Perinatal health professionals work tirelessly to provide the best care they can. Unfortunately, sometimes we get stuck performing “strong but wrong” routines. For example, we have centuries of evidence to tell us that physiologic birth practices are key to having the best outcomes. Yet, too often we do not practice what I like to call physiologic humility. Humility that the physiology of a woman’s body before, during, and after giving birth is complex and typically works well on its own. Thus, we should proceed with physiologic humility because there are so many limitations in our knowledge of the complex physiologic processes related to birth …

As perinatal health professionals it is our responsibility to do everything possible to ensure that women in our care get to experience Mother’s Day. Especially this month, may we all continue to keep that in mind and as a top priority.”

In all fields of care, cultural humility must also be maintained. As defined by the National Association of County & City Health Officials (NACCHO), cultural humility (CH) is “a lifelong process of self-reflection, used to better understand the multi-dimensional identities of clients in order to establish and maintain respectful, healthy, and productive relationships.” NACCHO’s Shifting the Care Paradigm Fact Sheet describes how lactation care providers can partner with families and their community to understand individual patients’ cultural background, experience and personal challenges, and specific goals. 

In the U.S., perinatal care is often siloed; however, this trend seems to be evolving as care becomes more collaborative. Collaboration requires all care providers to exercise a level of humility, offering their expertise while respecting and hearing out other members of the care team. Most importantly though, care team members must work together to respect their patient’s wishes and facilitate informed decision making.

“Absolute certainty leaves little room for shared decision-making,” the author of  Humility and the practice of medicine: tasting humble pie points out.

The author later concludes that “the cultivation of humility is often painful and requires a high level of self-awareness and reflective practice.”

A challenge indeed, but worth the effort. Consider “taking a bite” of “humble pie.” [Chochinov, 2010]

VA Maternity Care Coordinator (MCC) program facilitates specialized care for military Veteran parents

For new families, healthy, evidence-based infant feeding education and support can be hard to come by, but among this often barren landscape of support, the VA Maternity Care Coordinator (MCC) program provides an oasis for military Veteran mothers.  

Retired USAF Lt Col Tammy Tenace BSN, MS, APRN-BC, now Women Veteran Education, Outreach and Research Coordinator  for James A. Haley Veterans Hospital in Tampa, Fla. says that the VA understands that pregnancy and parenthood often requires specialized care.

About a decade ago, as care providers started to notice that lactation and breastfeeding support was severely limited in civilian communities, they established the MCC role. MCCs maintain contact with Veteran families throughout the perinatal period, facilitating care that meets their specific needs. 

Because the VA does not provide obstetric care, the MCC acts as a liaison between the VA and the community obstetrical provider. MCCs follow Veterans through pregnancy and postpartum at one and six weeks postpartum. [https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11606-019-04974-z]  The VA supplies Veterans with lactation supplies like breast pumps, nursing bras, nursing pads, storage bags, etc.

The MCC role has been established at every VA medical center, and Tenace has served as MCC at her hospital since 2016.  

Photo by George Pak : https://www.pexels.com/photo/family-sitting-on-sofa-beside-house-plant-near-the-windows-7983863/

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, what little perinatal support existed in civilian spaces, dwindled to almost nothing, Tenace points out. 

Hospital breastfeeding support groups, while only meeting a couple of times a week, stopped meeting altogether. Women weren’t allowed support people or their partners at appointments, and they began to feel isolated. 

“I realized I needed to do something; I couldn’t depend on the community,” Tenace says.  

Working through the Office on Women’s Health as a subject matter expert, VA National Consultant for Lactation Ashley M. Lauria, MA, RD, LDN, IBCLC helps establish standards of care in lactation programs at VA facilities nationwide. 

Tenace and Lauria both comment that among the hundreds of parents they have cared for, it is truly a rarity for an individual to express disinterest in lactation. Their experience reflects national numbers, where most dyads start out breastfeeding. 

Women Veterans are the fastest growing group among the Veteran population. In fact,  “by 2040, VA estimates they will comprise 18% of the Veteran population, versus just 4% in 2000,” according to a VA Pittsburgh press release.

In order to keep up with this demand, Tenace and her colleagues are in the process of curating a Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) program. Made possible through funding from the Women’s Health Innovations and Staffing Enhancements (WHISE), ten of their staff members are completing the Lactation Counselor Training Course (LCTC), including Tenace, physicians, a health coach, advanced practice nurses, among others. 

“The most up-to-date information is really important,” Tenace begins. “[We are all] unlearning the things we thought we knew. The course has been instrumental to helping us feel like we are actually helping women, instead of relying on the knowledge that we thought we had. The course is detailed and professional, yet practical. The practicalness is what’s to our advantage. It’s how we actually help women breastfeed.”

Photo by Timothy Meinberg on Unsplash

Tenace and Lauria go on to explain that their efforts are Veteran-led. That is, their facilities host quarterly focus groups where they can learn about Veterans’ requests. 

“We want to know from women: what do they want?” Tenace comments. 

Because Veteran women often prefer support groups comprised of other Veterans, Lauria offers virtual lactation support groups that also act as social circles and a place for comradery. 

As James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital designs new facilities, Tenace has been invited to offer input on the creation of lactation space for both employees and patients. Tenace applauds their leadership for focusing on improvement for the patient and employee experience. She also highlights that the newly designed main entrance will host a lactation pod. 

“I can’t think of a better way to show commitment,” she adds.  

Tenace and Lauria have embodied a passion for birth and lactation since their youth. Their work with the VA allows them to continue their mission to celebrate parents and their families and position themselves as life-long learners, evolving with the needs of Veteran mothers. 

 

Photo by Brianna Lisa Photography: https://www.pexels.com/photo/mother-breastfeeding-her-child-in-park-11620457/

For more on VA maternity care services visit https://www.womenshealth.va.gov/docs/WomensHealthReproductiveHealthBrochure508.pdf

More on Veteran Health https://www.commonwealthfund.org/blog/2021/birth-equity-Veterans-and-servicemembers  

Regulations and resources for all military branches https://www.mom2momglobal.org/bficb 

Coverage for pregnancy and lactation care in the military health system https://www.military.com/daily-news/2021/11/01/tricare-cover-doulas-lactation-consultants-some-starting-jan-1.html