Curiosity and the Caul

How little we really know about birth in the caul. Or how nature may work to protect us.

Carrie was having a fairly fast and furious labour, and had spent most of it journeying between the sink and the toilet in her upstairs bathroom. The toilet was her ‘best’ place, and she spent so much time on it that we weren’t completely sure whether her waters were still intact. So it was no great surprise to me when she plonked herself down on the loo for the eleventh time that hour and began to push. I murmured something to Carrie about lifting her bottom for a moment so I could put a towel under the seat and provide her baby with a soft landing. Yet, as soon as the words were out of my mouth, Carrie – who clearly did not want to have her baby on the toilet! – was off to the bedroom. Although I arrived in the bedroom only two seconds after her, she had already launched herself onto the bed, in what has become known as the ‘stranded beetle’ position, and had resumed pushing.

Now, that was a surprise!   Carrie had been keen to have an upright, active labour; she had practised all sorts of positions during pregnancy and knew that I would work around any posture she chose. So why this one, I wondered? In the fleeting moments where my mind was able to wander briefly from the task at hand, I caught myself trying to remember when I had last attended a woman giving birth in this position and couldn’t remember another time when this had happened at a home birth.

Curious, I thought. Not a problem, or anything to worry about, because this baby clearly isn’t letting a bit of gravity get in the way of her rapid progress through Carrie’s pelvis. Certainly not anything I want to get into a conversation with Carrie about at this point, because she needs to keep focusing inwards right now. Just curious.

What was also curious, but equally unproblematic, was the fact that Carrie’s baby, whose birth was now imminent, had had a perfectly regular heartbeat with nice reactivity throughout the second stage of her labour. When babies come through the pelvis as fast as this one, I tend to expect to hear a few decelerations resulting from head compression. In fact, if I hadn’t been able to see the baby’s head by this point, I might have wondered if maybe the birth was not as imminent as I thought.

As baby Odessa’s head emerged, it became clear that the waters were intact. This baby was coming in her caul. Not only that, but, once all of Odessa’s head was born, I could see loads of cord in the sac. When I gently opened the amniotic sac and helped Odessa out, I discovered that, while no loops of cord were actually around her neck, there was a good foot or so of cord lying next to her neck. Because Carrie was lying on her back during the birth, the cord was uppermost when Odessa was born and, suddenly, I felt a sense of ‘rightness’ about the position Carrie had chosen for pushing and the fact that Odessa was born in her caul. Had Carrie been on all fours, or sitting on the toilet, or leaning forward on the sink while she pushed, there might have been far more pressure on this cord, which could have caused cord compression. The same thing might have happened if the waters had released earlier, as this would also have put more pressure on the cord.

For me, one of the most important things that emerges from this story is reinforcement of the idea that it really isn’t a good plan to intervene unless there are truly good reasons to do so. In this situation, if someone wanted to break Carrie’s waters, or even suggested a change of position, this may well have impacted on Odessa.

medium_677786684It is also a reminder that there is a whole dimension of birth that we don’t fully understand, and that isn’t taken into account in the current climate of evidence-based practice; the possibility that women and babies have an innate sense of what needs to happen, and, because of this, will sometimes do things that challenge our rational ideas about how things should be, yet which turn out to be exactly the thing that helped everything go well.

I remember Ros Weston writing about a woman whose labour progressed really slowly – it turned out that there was a true knot in the cord. I have shared Carrie’s birth story with many other midwives over the years. Almost every one of those midwives has had a tale of their own about a similar situation. That is, where some aspect of labour seemed to be outside of the norm but, ultimately, this turned out to be the one thing that helped everything become normal. Some midwives call this ‘a safety labour’.

Is this just coincidence? Do we enjoy this kind of story because we still want to see magic and mystery in a journey which modern society tried so hard to rationalise? Or is it that, no matter how much we try to pin things down and turn them into numbers and facts, there really are elements of birth that are beyond rational comprehension and simply require our trust and respect?


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A version of this article was first published as Wickham S (2006). Curiosity and the caul. TPM 9(6):32.
photo credits: quote photo by Nick Owuor (astro.nic.visuals) on Unsplash and second photo Luz Adriana Villa A. via photopin cc

4 comments for “Curiosity and the Caul

  1. November 24, 2014 at 10:33 am

    That’s really interesting Sara- I was at a birth recently where I transferred in for what turned out to be a cord presentation (I’ll write it up in my blog in the next week or so)- Although it felt totally mad to think about ‘what if we hadn’t transferred’ I did, when reflecting quietly to myself think that baby may well have been born quickly and in the caul to protect himself. If I hadn’t have examined her I wouldn’t have known…

  2. Kim
    April 20, 2020 at 11:30 pm

    Hi Sara,
    This is so akin to a home birth I attended. The lady had previously endured a traumatic instrumental “delivery” in hospital.
    This birth was planned as a home waterbirth, pool, lighting, all set in the lounge. When labour was in full flow the lady spontaneously adopted a knee chest position on her bed and there she steadfastly remained. Labour was powerful and fast, as the baby emerged (mum still in the same position) in the dim light of the bedroom, waters still intact, a small irregular protrusion could be seen beside the baby’s head.
    Baby was born with his cord beside his ear, a beautiful birth which could have unfolded so differently in different circumstances. We must always appreciate how much we learn from women.
    Kim Mason

    • admin
      April 21, 2020 at 2:16 pm

      Wow … it’s amazing, isn’t it? Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

  3. Caroline
    May 10, 2020 at 3:35 am

    Just wondering, why didn’t you break the sac as the baby was coming out? My midwife broke it to facilitate the baby coming out but I didn’t anticipate my baby to come en caul and I wonder if we should have stopped her from breaking the sac.

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