Breech and external cephalic version
Breech presentation is when the fetus is lying longitudinally and its buttocks, foot or feet are presenting instead of its head.
Figure 1. Breech presentations
- Breech presentation occurs in three to four per cent of term deliveries and is more common in nulliparous women.
- External cephalic version (ECV) from 37 weeks has been shown to decrease the incidence of breech presentation at term and the subsequent elective caesarean section (ELCS) rate.
- Vaginal breech birth increases the risk of low Apgar scores and more serious short-term complications, but evidence has not shown an increase in long-term morbidity.
- Emergency caesarean section (EMCS) is needed in approximately 40 per cent of women planning a vaginal breech birth.
- Perinatal mortality by mode of birth:
- 0.5/1000 with ELCS for breech >39 weeks gestation
- 2.0/1000 planned vaginal breech birth >39/40
- 1.0/1000 with planned cephalic birth.
- A reduction in planned vaginal breech birth followed publication of the Term Breech Trial (TBT) in 2001.
- Acquisition of skills necessary to manage breech presentation (for example, ECV) is important to optimise outcomes.
Clinical suspicion of breech presentation
- Abdominal palpation: if the presenting part is irregular and not ballotable or if the fetal head is ballotable at the fundus
- Pelvic examination: head not felt in the pelvis
- Cord prolapse
- Very thick meconium after rupture of membranes
- Fetal heart heard higher in the abdomen
In cases of extended breech, the breech may not be ballotable and the fetal heart may be heard in the same location as expected for a cephalic presentation.
If breech presentation is suspected, an ultrasound examination will confirm diagnosis.
Cord prolapse is an obstetric emergency. Urgent delivery is indicated after confirming gestation and fetal viability.
Diagnosis: preterm ≤36+6 weeks
- Breech presentation is a normal finding in preterm pregnancy.
- If diagnosed at the 35-36 week antenatal visit, refer the woman for ultrasound scan to enable assessment prior to ECV.
- Mode of birth in a breech preterm delivery depends on the clinical circumstances.
Diagnosis: ≥37+0 weeks
- Refer woman for ultrasound scan to:
- determine type of breech presentation
- determine extension/flexion of fetal head
- locate position of placenta and exclude placenta praevia
- exclude fetal congenital abnormality
- calculate amniotic fluid index
- estimate fetal weight.
- Offer ECV if there are no contraindications.
- If ECV is declined or unsuccessful, provide counselling on risks and benefits of a planned vaginal birth versus an ELCS.
- Inform the woman that there are fewer maternal complications with a successful vaginal birth, however the risk to the woman increases significantly if there is a need for an EMCS.
- Inform the woman that caesarean section increases the risk of complication in future pregnancies, including the risk of a repeat caesarean section and the risk of invasive placentation.
- If the woman chooses an ELCS, document consent and organise booking for 39 weeks gestation.
Information and decision making
Women with a breech presentation should have the opportunity to make informed decisions about their care and treatment, in partnership with the clinicians providing care.
Planning for birth requires careful assessment for risk of poor outcomes relating to planned vaginal breech birth. If any risk factors are identified, inform the woman that an ELCS is recommended due to increased perinatal risk.
Good communication between clinicians and women is essential. Treatment, care and information provided should:
- take into account women's individual needs and preferences
- be supported by evidence-based, written information tailored to the needs of the individual woman
- be culturally appropriate
- be accessible to women, their partners, support people and families
- take into account any specific needs, such as physical or cognitive disabilities or limitations to their ability to understand spoken or written English.
The following should be documented in the woman's hospital medical record and (where applicable) in her hand-held medical record:
- discussion of risks and benefits of vaginal breech birth and ELCS
- discussion of the woman's questions about planned vaginal breech birth and ELCS
- discussion of ECV, if applicable
- consultation, referral and escalation
External cephalic version (ECV)
- ECV can be offered from 37 weeks gestation
- The woman must provide written consent prior to the procedure
- The success rate of ECV is 40-60 per cent
- Approximately one in 200 ECV attempts will lead to EMCS
- ECV should only be performed by a suitably trained, experienced clinician
- ECV should only be performed in a service with access to:
- continuous electronic fetal monitoring (EFM)
- capability to perform an EMCS.
Table 1. Contraindications to ECV
|Abnormal cardiotocograph (CTG)|
|Lack of maternal consent|
|Current or recent (within one week) vaginal bleeding|
|Any absolute indication for caesarean section|
|Multiple pregnancy (except after delivery of the first twin)|
|Abnormal fetal Doppler|
|Lack of access to ultrasound|
|Lack of equipment or personnel to perform fetal monitoring|
|Lack of capability to perform emergency caesarean section|
- Nuchal cord
Escalate care to a consultant obstetrician if considering ECV in these circumstances.
- Perform a CTG prior to the procedure - continue until RANZCOG criteria for a normal antenatal CTG are met.
- Use betamimetics (terbutaline) for tocolysis:
- 250 microg s/c, 30 minutes prior to the procedure.
- Administer Anti-D immunoglobulin if the woman is rhesus negative.
- Do not make more than four attempts at ECV, for a suggested maximum time of ten minutes in total.
- Undertake CTG monitoring post-procedure until RANZCOG criteria for a normal antenatal CTG are met.
Urgent delivery is indicated in the event of the following complications:
- abnormal CTG
- vaginal bleeding
- unexplained pain.
Initiate emergency response as per local guidelines.
Alternatives to ECV
There is a lack of evidence to support the use of moxibustion, acupuncture or postural techniques to achieve a vertex presentation after 35 weeks gestation.
Criteria for a planned vaginal breech birth
- Documented evidence of counselling regarding mode of birth
- Documentation of informed consent, including written consent from the woman
- Estimated fetal weight of 2500-4000g
- Flexed fetal head
- Emergency theatre facilities available on site
- Availability of suitably skilled healthcare professional
- Frank or complete breech presentation
- No previous caesarean section.
- Cord presentation
- Fetal growth restriction or macrosomia
- Any presentation other than a frank or complete breech
- Extension of the fetal head
- Fetal anomaly incompatible with vaginal delivery
- Clinically inadequate maternal pelvis
- Previous caesarean section
- Inability of the service to provide experienced personnel.
If an ELCS is booked
- Confirm presentation by ultrasound scan when a woman presents for ELCS.
- If fetal presentation is cephalic on admission for ELCS, plan ongoing management with the woman.
- Advise the woman that continuous EFM may lead to improved neonatal outcomes.
- Where continuous EFM is declined, perform intermittent EFM or intermittent auscultation, with conversion to EFM if an abnormality is detected.
- A fetal scalp electrode can be applied to the breech.
Position of the woman
- The optimal maternal position for birth is upright.
- Lithotomy may be appropriate, depending on the accoucheur's training and experience.
- Epidural analgesia may increase the risk of intervention with a vaginal breech birth.
- Epidural analgesia may impact on the woman's ability to push spontaneously in the second stage of labour.
Induction of labour (IOL)
See the IOL eHandbook page for more detail.
- IOL may be offered if clinical circumstances are favourable and the woman wishes to have a vaginal birth.
- Augmentation (in the absence of an epidural) should be avoided as adequate progress in the absence of augmentation may be the best indicator of feto-pelvic proportions.
The capacity to offer IOL will depend on clinician experience and availability and service capability.
- Manage with the same principles as a cephalic presentation.
- Labour should be expected to progress as for a cephalic presentation.
- If progress in the first stage is slow, consider a caesarean section.
- If an epidural is in situ and contractions are less than 4:10, consult with a senior obstetrician.
- Avoid routine amniotomy to avoid the risk of cord prolapse or cord compression.
- Allow passive descent of the breech to the perineum prior to active pushing.
- If breech is not visible within one hour of passive descent, a caesarean section is normally recommended.
- Active second stage should be ½ hour for a multigravida and one hour for a primipara.
- All midwives and obstetricians should be familiar with the techniques and manoeuvres required to assist a vaginal breech birth.
- Ensure a consultant obstetrician is present for birth.
- Ensure a senior paediatric clinician is present for birth.
- Encouragement of maternal pushing (if at all) should not begin until the presenting part is visible.
- A hands-off approach is recommended.
- Significant cord compression is common once buttocks have passed the perineum.
- Timely intervention is recommended if there is slow progress once the umbilicus has delivered.
- Allow spontaneous birth of the trunk and limbs by maternal effort as breech extraction can cause extension of the arms and head.
- Grasp the fetus around the bony pelvic girdle, not soft tissue, to avoid trauma.
- Assist birth if there is a delay of more than five minutes from delivery of the buttocks to the head, or of more than three minutes from the umbilicus to the head.
- Signs that delivery should be expedited also include lack of tone or colour or sign of poor fetal condition.
- Ensure fetal back remains in the anterior position.
- Routine episiotomy not recommended.
- Lovset's manoeuvre for extended arms.
- Reverse Lovset's manoeuvre may be used to reduce nuchal arms.
- Supra-pubic pressure may aide flexion of the fetal head.
- Maricueau-Smellie-Veit manoeuvre or forceps may be used to deliver the after coming head.
Undiagnosed breech in labour
- This occurs in approximately 25 per cent of breech presentations.
- Management depends on the stage of labour when presenting.
- Assessment is required around increased complications, informed consent and suitability of skilled expertise.
- Do not routinely offer caesarean section to women in active second stage.
- If there is no senior obstetrician skilled in breech delivery, an EMCS is the preferred option.
- If time permits, a detailed ultrasound scan to estimate position of fetal neck and legs and estimated fetal weight should be made and the woman counselled.
Entrapment of the fetal head
This is an extreme emergency
This complication is often due to poor selection for vaginal breech birth.
- A vaginal examination (VE) should be performed to ensure that the cervix is fully dilated.
- If a lip of cervix is still evident try to push the cervix over the fetal head.
- If the fetal head has entered the pelvis, perform the Mauriceau-Smellie-Veit manoeuvre combined with suprapubic pressure from a second attendant in a direction that maintains flexion and descent of the fetal head.
- Rotate fetal body to a lateral position and apply suprapubic pressure to flex the fetal head; if unsuccessful consider alternative manoeuvres.
- Reassess cervical dilatation; if not fully dilated consider Duhrssen incision at 2, 10 and 6 o'clock.
- A caesarean section may be performed if the baby is still alive.
- Paediatric review.
- Routine observations as per your local guidelines, recorded on a track and trigger chart such as ViCTOR Birth Suite/Postnatal.
- Observe for signs of jaundice.
- Observe for signs of tissue or nerve damage.
- Hip ultrasound scan to be performed at 6-12 weeks post birth to monitor for developmental dysplasia of the hip (DDH). See Neonatal eHandbook - Developmental dysplasia of the hip.
Audit and performance improvement
All maternity services should have processes in place for:
- auditing clinical practice and outcomes
- providing feedback to clinicians on audit results
- addressing risks, if identified
- implementing change, if indicated.
Potential auditable standards are:
- number of women with a breech presentation offered ECV
- success rate of ECV
- ECV complications
- rate of planned vaginal breech birth
- breech birth outcomes for vaginal and caesarean birth.
For more information or assistance with auditing, please contact us via firstname.lastname@example.org
- Bue and Lauszus 2016, Moxibustion did not have an effect in a randomised clinical trial for version of breech position. Danish Medical Journal 63(2), A599
- Coulon et.al. 2014, Version of breech fetuses by moxibustion with acupuncture. Obstetrics and Gynecology 124(1), 32-39. DOI: 10.1097/AOG.0000000000000303
- Coyle ME, Smith CA, Peat B 2012, Cephalic version by moxibustion for breech presentation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 5. Art. No.: CD003928. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD003928.pub3
- Evans J 2012, Essentially MIDIRS Understanding Physiological Breech Birth Volume 3. Number 2. February 2012
- Hoffmann J, Thomassen K, Stumpp P, Grothoff M, Engel C, Kahn T, et al. 2016, New MRI Criteria for Successful Vaginal Breech Delivery in Primiparae. PLoS ONE 11(8): e0161028. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0161028
- Hofmeyr GJ, Kulier R 2012, Cephalic version by postural management for breech presentation. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2012, Issue 10. Art. No.: CD000051. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000051.pub2
- New South Wales Department of Health 2013, Maternity: Management of Breech Presentation HNELHD CG 13_01, NSW Government; 2013
- Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists 2017, External Cephalic Version and Reducing the Incidence of Term Breech Presentation. Green-top Guideline No. 20a. London: RCOG; 2017
- The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) 2016, Management of breech presentation at term, July 2016 C-Obs-11:
- The Royal Women's Hospital 2015, Management of Breech - Clinical Guideline
- Women's and Newborn Health Service, King Edward Memorial Hospital 2015, Complications of Pregnancy Breech Presentation
|AFI||Amniotic Fluid Index|
|DDH||Developmental dysplasia of the hip|
|ECV||External cephalic version|
|EFM||Electronic fetal monitoring|
|ELCS||Elective caesarean section|
|EMCS||Emergency caesarean section|
|IOL||Induction of labour|
|LUSCS||Lower uterine caesarean section|
|TBT||Term Breech Trial|
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First published: May 2018
Last web update: May 2018
Review by: May 2020
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Page last updated: 12 Nov 2020