A new study has just been published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) that claims that second-born term twins are twice as like to die at birth or shortly after birth as first born twins. This finding reflects a relative risk, not an absolute risk which remains very small. It also does not hold for premature twins.
The Atlanta Journal Constitution (3/2/07) reports
" 'I would hate to see this study used as an excuse to have every mother with twins have a Caesarean section,' said Dr. F. Sessions Cole, the head of the neonatal intensive care unit at St. Louis Children's Hospital."
Yet this is precisely my fear. How many doctors will use this study to push mothers with twins into having cesareans? The author of the BMJ study, Gordon Smith, says that cesareans lower the risk for second twins and the research study concludes: "the findings of this and other studies suggest that planned cesarean section may be beneficial for all twins." However the key word is MAY.
This conclusion runs head into an ongoing debate about the best way to deliver twins. Medical opinion is divided on whether cesareans are protective for all twin deliveries . A rather large debate remains, especially when it comes to premature twins or twins that are not headfirst. Yet that debate rarely makes it into the news. when it does, an expert is usually called up to "interpret" the findings.
Our expert here is Dr. Cole, who is quoted as saying that the study applies more to Britain than the US, because we monitor twins better in the US. I think a few British obstetricians might object to this generalization. Dr. Cole also states that most doctors are happy to deliver twins vaginally in the US. This is hardly the case. Between 50% and 90% of twins are delivered by cesarean, depending on their orientation. I'm not talking about sexual preference here. In the twin literature, orientation refers to the twin's position in the uterus: headfirst ( vertex), breech, or transverse. The latter two are likely candidates for a cesarean according to some studies, while this is debated by others.
It is good that Dr. Cole is questioning automatic cesareans for all mothers with twins. Yet the rate of obligatory cesareans for twins is rising in the US and elsewhere. In the US, roughly 60% of all twin pregnancies will include one twin who is not headfirst. This amounts to more than 79 thousand babies a year in the US. Many women with twins where one is headfirst will have little choice but to opt for the 'planned' cesarean their doctor recommends. They won't find a doctor willing to risk a vaginal delivery.
This is what happened to me. My second twin was transverse. I went to the four best and most vaginal-friendly obstetric providers I could find in a 100 mile radius. Not a single OB even entertained the thought of a vaginal delivery. Not the OBs in the hip, feminist, pro-lesbian town of Northampton, nor the crunchy, earth-mother practice in southern Vermont. Luckily, I delivered accidentally into the hands of one of the few doctors on the East Coast who was comfortable with a vaginal breech delivery at 26 weeks.
Studies disagree about the safest mode of delivery in my case---when only twin B is breech and preterm. A French study shows that vaginal delivery is as safe if not safer for twin deliveries, regardless of presenataion or gestational age. Here is the Pubmed abstract of the 2006 study.
So why are so many doctors afraid to deliver breech twins vaginally? Because of the hostile legal climat they labor under, but also because the newer generation of obstetricians has less and less experience delivering twins or breeches (and god forbid, both combined!) vaginally. The public, too, is to blame for wanting a perfect birth and not understanding the very real risks of breech and twin deliveries.
My brilliant obstetrician gives me some hope. But what happens as the younger generation of OBs take over, few of whom have seen or done a vaginal delivery of a breech or twin birth?
Mothers of twins, esp. breech twins----read those scientific abstracts. It may be that a cesarean is safer in your case. It may be that a vaginal birth is safer. It may be that nobody really knows. But don't take one doctor or one expert as the final word.
PS. My second twin actually did better than my first twin. Yeah, yeah, only anecdote. But guess how many cases were responsible for one of Gordon Smith's earlier conclusions? Nine births!!