Breech Delivery

Updated: Jan 08, 2021
Author: Philippe H Girerd, MD; Chief Editor: Ronald M Ramus, MD 


Practice Essentials

An appropriate axiom to keep in mind when considering a planned vaginal breech delivery is well stated by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) Committee Opinion "Mode of Term Singleton Breech Delivery"[1] :

"The decision regarding the mode of delivery should depend on the experience of the healthcare provider. Cesarean delivery will be the preferred mode of delivery for most physicians because of the diminishing expertise in vaginal breech delivery."

In the modern landscape of obstetrics, vaginal breech delivery has become a rarity. The following factors have led to this reality:

  • Known risks of vaginal breech delivery when strict selection criteria are not applied
  • Lack of training in vaginal breech delivery owing to few remaining experienced teachers of the art
  • Patient fear of vaginal breech delivery
  • Superficial understanding of the literature 
  • Fear of litigation

Of course, these factors are entirely understandable in an era when cesarean section has become very safe. In developed nations, great strides in risk reduction have been made in obstetrics so that even small differences in outcomes have come to the forefront. For this reason, post-cesarean complications, both immediate and long term, have risen to the forefront and should be considered in the decision.


Breech presentation occurs when the fetus presents to the birth canal with buttocks or feet first. This presentation may create a mechanical problem in delivery of the fetus.

Singleton breech delivery

Breech delivery has become increasingly rare both in the United States and globally. In recent decades, the perceived relative safety of cesarean delivery has made this route of delivery increasingly common for breech presentation.

This trend was accelerated by a 2000 study by Hannah et al.[2]  This randomized study of 2083 patients compared planned cesarean delivery (1041 patients) with planned vaginal birth (1042 patients) for breech presentation. The authors concluded, "Planned caesarean section is better than planned vaginal birth for the term fetus in the breech presentation; serious maternal complications are similar between the groups."[2] This conclusion was made on the basis of a significantly lower fetal and neonatal morbidity and mortality in the planned cesarean group. Of course, it is understandable that this conclusion would dampen any remaining enthusiasm for vaginal breech delivery. Giving strength to this trend was the 2001 ACOG Committee on Obstetric Practice recommendation, which stated that "planned vaginal delivery of a singleton breech is no longer appropriate."[3]

Those who are proponents of vaginal delivery point out that since this was a randomized controlled trial, none of the accepted selection criteria for safe vaginal breech delivery were employed. Thus, decisions based on extant prognostic factors were not applied to inclusion of patients in the planned vaginal breech delivery arm. In other words, no well-known selection criteria were applied to ascertain the safety of vaginal breech delivery. Had those been applied, results may have been more favorable.

In a follow-up study, the same group who conducted the 2000 study found that "the risk of death or neurodevelopmental delay was no different in the planned cesarean delivery group compared with the planned vaginal delivery group."[4] Other studies have, as well, tempered the findings of the initial study described above.

Twin breech delivery

In twins with a cephalic leading twin and a breech second twin, it is reasonable to expect that the dynamics of the delivery of the second twin in breech presentation would differ significantly from that of a singleton breech presentation. Indeed, a Cochrane database review that looked at 2864 combined cases concluded: "There is insufficient evidence to support the routine use of planned caesarean section for term twin pregnancy with leading cephalic presentation, except in the context of further randomised trials."[5]


The buttocks and feet of the fetus do not provide an effective wedge to dilate the cervix so that the after-coming head might get trapped during delivery. Also, the umbilical cord may prolapse due to the increased space between the presenting buttocks and feet without the benefit of a fetal part well applied to the cervix .

The 3 types of breech presentation are as follows:

  • Frank (65%): Hips of the fetus are flexed, and knees are extended.

  • Complete (10%): The hips and knees of the fetus are flexed.

  • Incomplete (25%): The feet or knees of the fetus are the lowermost presenting part.

    • Single footling: One of the lower extremities is lowermost.

    • Double footling: Both of the lower extremities are lowermost.


Risk factors for breech presentation at delivery include the following:

  • Preterm gestational age: Prior to the onset of labor, the fetus typically turns into a cephalic presentation. If labor occurs abruptly or unexpectedly (eg, following trauma), the fetus may not have yet shifted position.

  • Increased maternal parity may cause stretching or laxity of the uterus, predisposing the fetus to breech deliveries.

  • Multiple fetuses: As a result of limited space in the uterus, fetuses may position themselves head to foot.

  • Hydramnios, ie, too much amniotic fluid, may allow the fetus too much movement.

  • Oligohydramnios, ie, too little amniotic fluid, may impede the final shift of the fetus into a cephalic presentation.[6]

  • Placenta previa, ie, placental implantation over the cervical os, allows the fetus too much space for movement within the uterus.

  • Hydrocephalus, ie, enlarged head in the fetus, makes it more difficult for the fetus to make shift to cephalic presentation prior to the onset of labor.

  • Previous breech deliveries may increase likelihood of another one secondary to an anatomical anomaly.

    • Uterine anomalies include uterine scarring from a previous cesarean section, bicornuate uterus, or a septate uterus.

    • Pelvic tumors may impede fetal movement and trap the fetus in a breech presentation.


United States data

Incidence is correlated to gestational age (see the Table below). However, the overall frequency is 3-4% at delivery.[7]

Table. Gestational age and frequency of breech birth (Open Table in a new window)

Gestational Age, Weeks

Breech, %











International data

The international incidence has been reported at 3-4%.[2]

Age-related demographics

Older maternal age is a consideration.[8]  A Finnish study found that advanced maternal age (≥35 years) is a risk factor for breech presentation in moderate to late preterm pregnancies (32-36 weeks’ gestation) as well as in term pregnancies.[9]


Fetal and maternal morbidity and mortality increase with breech delivery. Fetus and infant mortality increases to 9%, compared with 3% in cephalic presentations.

A rise in the number of cesarean deliveries increases the maternal morbidity and mortality (eg, wound infection, aspiration, anesthesia risk), especially with emergency delivery.

The average Apgar score, especially at 1 minute, is lower. Congenital abnormalities increase to 6%, compared with 2.4% in infants with cephalic presentations.

Factors for increased adverse fetal outcome include the following[7] :

  • Older mothers

  • Footling presentation

  • Hyperextended fetal head

  • Birth weight less than 2500 g or greater than 4000 g

  • Prolonged labor

  • Nonexperienced clinician


Various complications are associated with a breech presentation in labor. This may be due to the underlying etiology of the breech presentation, such as fetal anomalies or polyhydramnios. In addition, complications can occur as a result of umbilical cord compression due to the unusual presentation to the maternal pelvis.

The inexperienced provider when faced with a slowing fetal heart rate from cord compression  is more likely to apply traction on the fetus prematurely, increasing the risk of birth trauma and nuchal arms. Nuchal arms lead to complications with delivery of the head by increasing the diameter required for delivery.

The incidence of prolapsed umbilical cord depends on the type of breech presentation, as follows:

  • Footling – 17% incidence

  • Complete – 5% incidence

  • Frank – 0.5% incidence

Umbilical cord abnormalities can occur. Cord length may be reduced, and, in footling breeches, there is an increased risk of the cord coiling around a leg of the fetus.


Traumatic mortality to the fetus is 12 times more likely. Intracranial fetal hemorrhage is the most common injury in breech delivery. In decreasing order of frequency, the spinal cord, liver, adrenals, and spleen also are injured.

Patient Education

Patient education is an essential part of all medical practice. This is especially true for breech delivery.

Early prenatal care can identify patients at risk for breech delivery.




Factors that increase likelihood of breech delivery include the following:

  • Preterm delivery[10]

  • Increased parity

  • Multiple gestations

  • Previous breech delivery

  • Pelvic tumors

  • Uterine anomalies (eg, septate uterus)

  • Older maternal age[8]

  • Polyhydramnios

  • Fetal anomalies (eg, hydrocephalus with macrocrania)

Physical Examination

Physical findings may include the following:

  • Leopold maneuvers: With the first maneuver, the hard fetal head can be palpated at the uterine fundus.

  • Auscultation: Heart sounds can be heard above the umbilicus.

  • Vaginal examination

    • In frank breech presentations, the ischial tuberosities, sacrum, anus, and/or genitals may be palpated. In addition, meconium staining of the examiner's digit may occur.

    • In complete breech presentations, the feet or buttocks of the fetus can be palpated.

    • In incomplete breech presentations, one or both of the feet/knees may be palpated.

  • During frank breech delivery, the following conditions make vaginal delivery less risky:

    • Favorable pelvis - Gynecoid (ie, round) or anthropoid (ie, elliptical)

    • Fetal weight less than 3600 g - The larger the fetus, the larger the head, as well as other noncompressible body parts, thereby leading to an increased risk of fetal hypoxia and birth trauma

    • Complete dilation and effacement of the cervix - Provides the head a better chance to pass through the pelvis

    • Availability of skilled obstetrician, neonatal resuscitation equipment, and anesthesia

  • The following conditions are unfavorable for delivery:

    • Fetal weight more than 3600 g

    • Unfavorable pelvis - Breech delivery does not allow sufficient time for molding of the fetal head; thus, a platypelloid (ie, anteroposterior flat) or android (ie, heart-shaped) pelvis decreases the fetal head's ability to navigate the maternal pelvis.

    • Hyperextension of the head - Increases risk of cervical spine injury

    • Footlings - Incidence of umbilical cord prolapse increases with coiling of the umbilical cord around the legs of the fetus



Differential Diagnoses



Imaging Studies

Portable radiographs inform the practitioner if the fetal head is hyperextended and indicate the shape of the maternal pelvis and type of breech presentation.

Limited bedside pelvic ultrasonography is the mainstay for fetal assessment. If breech presentation is suspected, obtain a sonogram to confirm or refute suspicions. In addition to fetal presentation, a sonogram may reveal other fetal and/or uterine abnormalities. See image below.

Ultrasound demonstrating a fetus in breech present Ultrasound demonstrating a fetus in breech presentation with a hyperextended head (ie, "star gazing").


Prehospital Care

If a vaginal delivery is planned, or the fetus has an underlying concern leading to a breech presentation transport the mother to the nearest facility with neonatal intensive care. If the mother is in the second-stage of labor or if amniotic membranes have ruptured, take the mother to the nearest hospital or urgent care center for emergency delivery.

Administer supportive oxygen and IV fluids. Transport the mother in a comfortable position or in the left lateral decubitus position.

Inform the hospital of an impending arrival and of the clinical situation.

Emergency Department Care

See the list below:

  • Provide supportive care, including IV, oxygen, monitor, complete blood count (CBC), and blood type and screen.

  • Consult an obstetrician and neonatologist.

  • Alert labor & delivery.

  • Three types of vaginal breech delivery exist:

    • Spontaneous breech (rare): No manipulation of the infant is necessary, other than supporting the infant.

    • Partial breech extraction (most common): Fetus descends spontaneously to the point where the umbilicus is at the vaginal introitus; then, the fetus is further extracted.

    • Total breech extraction: The entire body is extracted. This is typically only done for a second twin delivery, and with a singleton is indicated only if there is evidence of fetal distress unresponsive to routine maneuvers and a cesarean delivery is not possible. As mentioned earlier, it is imperative that the cervix be fully dilated and effaced before the infant is delivered past its umbilicus. Note: The presence of the feet at the vulva is not an indication to the physician to proceed with active extraction.

  • Technique for footling extraction (see image below)

    Footling breech presentation. Once the feet have d Footling breech presentation. Once the feet have delivered, one may be tempted to pull on the feet. However, a singleton gestation should not be pulled by the feet because this action may precipitate head entrapment in an incompletely dilated cervix or may precipitate nuchal arms. As long as the fetal heart rate is stable and no physical evidence of a prolapsed cord is evident, management may be expectant while awaiting full cervical dilation.

    See the list below:

    • Advance the hand into the vagina and grasp the feet. How do you know the extremity is a foot? Feel for the heel. Place a finger between the legs and apply gentle traction (see image below).

      Assisted vaginal breech delivery. Thick meconium p Assisted vaginal breech delivery. Thick meconium passage is common as the breech is squeezed through the birth canal. This is usually not associated with meconium aspiration because the meconium passes out of the vagina and does not mix with the amniotic fluid.
    • After the feet are pulled through the vulva, an episiotomy can be made, if necessary (see image below).

      Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The Ritgen maneu Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The Ritgen maneuver is applied to take pressure off the perineum during vaginal delivery. Episiotomies are often performed for assisted vaginal breech deliveries, even in multiparous women, to prevent soft tissue dystocia.
    • Wrap the legs with a towel to aid in grasping the fetus (see image below).

      Assisted vaginal breech delivery. With a towel wra Assisted vaginal breech delivery. With a towel wrapped around the fetal hips, gentle downward and outward traction is applied in conjunction with maternal expulsive efforts until the scapula is reached. An assistant should be applying gentle fundal pressure to keep the fetal head flexed.
    • Perform gentle downward traction to deliver the hips, and, then, the buttocks. At this point, the fetus's back should rotate anteriorly.

    • Adjust grip so that the thumbs overlay the sacrum. With the fingers over the hips, continue gentle downward traction with a left and right rotation (to reduce any nuchal arms).

    • As the scapulae are delivered, the fetus's back rotates laterally. If this does not occur spontaneously, gently rotate the fetus.

    • Once the lower halves of the scapula have passed the vulva and the axillae are identified, deliver the shoulders by 1 of 2 maneuvers:

      • In the first method, rotate the trunk posteriorly until the anterior arm and shoulder are delivered; then, rotate the body in the reverse direction to deliver the other shoulder and arm beneath the symphysis pubis (see images below).

        Assisted vaginal breech delivery. After the scapul Assisted vaginal breech delivery. After the scapula is reached, the fetus should be rotated 90° in order to deliver the anterior arm.
        Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The anterior arm Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The anterior arm is followed to the elbow, and the arm is swept out of the vagina.
        Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The fetus is rot Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The fetus is rotated 180°, and the contralateral arm is delivered in a similar manner as the first. The infant is then rotated 90° to the backup position in preparation for delivery of the head.
      • If the rotation and counter-rotation method is unsuccessful, deliver the posterior shoulder first. Grasp the feet of the fetus in one hand and, with upward traction, pull the fetus over the mother's groin. The posterior shoulder and extremity slide out above the perineum. Afterward, deliver the anterior shoulder and upper extremity with downward traction.

      • If the arm does not pass with the shoulder, deliver the upper extremity manually. Slide two fingers along the humerus until the elbow is reached. Use fingers to splint the humerus, and sweep the forearm of the fetus across the chest and out of the vagina.

    • The last part to pass is the head. Typically, the fetal chin is posterior. The head is extracted using the Mauriceau maneuver, as follows (see image below):

      Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The fetal head i Assisted vaginal breech delivery. The fetal head is maintained in a flexed position by using the Mauriceau maneuver, which is performed by placing the index and middle fingers over the maxillary prominence on either side of the nose. The fetal body is supported in a neutral position, with care to not overextend the neck.

      See the list below:

      • With the fetus resting on your hand and forearm, insert index and middle fingers into the vagina to rest upon the fetal maxilla.

      • This maneuver accomplishes flexion of the head. Use caution to avoid placing fingers into the mouth or pushing hard on the neck, as tears may occur.

      • Hook 2 fingers from the other hand on either side of the fetus's neck. Grasp the shoulders and apply downward traction until the fetal subocciput appears beneath the symphysis pubis.

      • The fetus subsequently is elevated toward the maternal abdomen with delivery of the mouth, nose, brow, and occiput beyond the perineum.

      • An assistant may apply suprapubic pressure during the Mauriceau maneuver to aid in delivery of the head.

      • As an alternative, Piper forceps may be used to deliver the aftercoming head. These forceps are designed to prevent hyperextension of the fetal neck with delivery.

• Technique for frank delivery

  • After episiotomy, allow breech birth to proceed spontaneously as far as possible. Then, apply posterior traction with a finger from each hand placed around the hips of the fetus and into each inguinal region.

  • Once the knees appear, flex the legs gently to assist in delivery.


Inform an obstetrician skilled in breech delivery of its possibility. Their presence at the bedside is imperative.

As most infants delivered breech are premature, notify a neonatologist or a pediatric intensivist.

Premature infants do not have great pulmonary reserve. Thus, airway support and intubation may be necessary.[11]



Further Inpatient Care

Warm and dry the infant. Place him or her in an infant incubator. If the infant is younger than 37 weeks' gestation, the lungs may be premature. Consider endotracheal intubation with mechanical ventilation. Even infants older than 37 weeks' gestation still should be placed in a hospital with a nursery.

Inspect the maternal birth canal, and repair lacerations of the cervix and vagina, as required. Administer 300 mcg RhoGAM IM if the mother is Rh negative.

When the infant is stable, transfer him or her to the nearest hospital with pediatric intensive care. Otherwise, transfer the infant and mother to a hospital with newborn facilities.