“Hmm, it looks like your baby is in a transverse position right now,” my ob-gyn told me during the ultrasound at my 30-week prenatal appointment. I cursed. Loudly. After two months of happily hanging out in the head-down position, what the hell was she doing sideways? She was going to be breech. I knew it. I just knew it.
All this positioning stuff is known as “fetal presentation,” and when you’re near your due date, the way your baby is situated in your uterus is everything. Having a baby in the breech (head up) or transverse (sideways or diagonal) position late in the pregnancy typically means an automatic C-section. And like many pregnant women, I did NOT want a C-section unless I absolutely needed to have one.
Although my doctor assured me not to panic and that the baby still had plenty of time and space to wiggle her head down, I did what any normal, type-A pregnant person does: I started frantically Googling as soon as I hit the waiting room.
On the way home, I discovered Spinning Babies, a series of exercises designed to help a fetus find the optimal position in the womb. Created by Minneapolis midwife Gail Tully, Spinning Babies is a program that encourages the baby to rotate into—and stay—in the head-down position, leading to an easier, lower-intervention birth.
What are the exercises like?
I happened to be taking a HypnoBirthing class at the time, and my instructor, a doula, showed us a few exercises from the Spinning Babies canon. Even if a baby wasn’t breech, she encouraged us to incorporate the exercises into our routine every day to help the baby get into (or stay in) an optimal position.
These exercises included getting on all fours while my husband vibrated my stomach with a scarf, lying on my side on the bed while draping my leg down toward the floor, and more scarf jiggling…on my butt. Lots of other Spinning Babies exercises are available for free online, including pelvic tilts (where you swoop your pelvis up and down while on all fours), and if the baby is stubbornly in the breech position and won’t budge, kneeling on the couch, tipping your torso upside down, resting your elbows and head on the floor and hanging out there. There’s also an exercise aptly named the breech tilt, which you’re supposed to follow it up with. And, um, it involves an ironing board.
For stubborn breach cases, Spinning Babies recommends ordering a special breech e-book, but a bunch of free videos are available on the SB website that address turning a breech baby too.
But does any of this stuff actually work?
Great question. Anecdotally, I guess you could say it worked for me. After a few weeks of practicing these exercises (the vibrating scarf ones grew on me and actually felt pretty cool), I returned to my ob-gyn for an ultrasound and she announced that the baby’s position was no longer transverse but head down (hallelujah!) and remained that way until I gave birth. But would the baby have migrated that way anyway, even if I hadn’t done the exercises? Possibly. Most babies will settle into the head-down position by 34 weeks gestation, according to obstetrics textbook Oxorn Foote Human Labor and Birth. And that’s right around when my baby decided to flip.
I polled my mom friends, and out of the five women I group text with, two of them had tried Spinning Babies exercises late in their pregnancy. “My son was breech and my midwife recommended Spinning Babies to try to turn him,” one friend told me. “It didn’t work.” She ended up having a C-section. Another friend attempted to use the exercises to flip her sunny-side-up baby and it did work…ten minutes before she delivered her daughter. So while the three of us did the same exercises, we all had totally different outcomes.
What does science say? Well, that’s complicated. There aren’t a ton of studies conducted on pregnant women in general, because doing medical experiments on them isn’t exactly the safest thing in the world. But in a Cochrane review that combines the findings of six studies, researchers found that of the 417 women who were tested, there was no major benefit to postural alignments—like the pelvic tilt and other Spinning Babies exercises—and more research is needed to determine its effectiveness. Darn.
Are there any other ways to flip babies?
Yes, although there’s only one that doctors regularly recommend before resorting to a C-section: an external cephalic version. Basically, an obstetrician tries to manually turn the baby with his or her hands by applying firm pressure to the outside of the bump (and yes, it can be painful). ECV works a little more than half the time, so even if you agree to let your doctor do this, it’s still not a guarantee. (My friend who ended up with a C-section also tried an ECV, with no luck.)
Other baby-flipping methods include chiropractic adjustments, acupuncture and moxibustion (where an herb called mugwort is waved over specific pressure points on the body). One method even involves holding a bag of frozen veggies near the baby’s head in the hopes that he will get so uncomfortable that he’ll decide to move. None of these methods have been proved to be as effective as an ECV.
The bottom line: Some midwives and obstetricians do recommend trying the Spinning Babies exercises as a way to coax the baby into the optimal position. “[We] have been recommending the Spinning Babies website for years,” say the Midwives of New Jersey, a collective of six midwives. “Breech tilts help move the whole baby toward the mother’s diaphragm, away from the restrictions of the lower uterus and pelvis, to help the baby move into a head-down position. People need to remember that the baby wants his head down, so he will respond favorably to the extra room.”
If you get your doctor’s permission and you want to try some pelvic tilts, go for it. But after a couple weeks, it might be time to throw in the towel (er, vibrating scarf?) and try an ECV.