The language we are exposed to, and make use of, in healthcare is important. Language is the way in which we come to understand and share our knowledge of the world. Carried within the terminology we use are values and assumptions, sometimes visible, but often hidden below the surface. Critically reflecting on our use of language is an important part of transforming maternity care to provide respectful, equitable, and inclusive care. This is no less important when it comes to intrapartum fetal heart rate monitoring than it is for any other aspect of healthcare.
Very soon after the introduction of CTG monitoring, the use of the CTG during labour became described as “fetal monitoring”. For example, Paul and Hon (1970) reported on the introduction of intrapartum CTG monitoring in Connecticut, USA. Their paper included a table which lists a number of “indications for fetal monitoring” that describes the circumstances under which CTG monitoring was initiated in their population they studied.
Once CTG use was defined as “fetal monitoring”, the use of other methods to assess the fetal heart rate were no longer consistently described as a form of fetal monitoring. For example, Chan and co-authors (1973) described how out of 6533 “deliveries”, the “number monitored” was 1150. Whilst not explicitly described in this paper, it is highly likely that intermittent auscultation was used for the majority of the remaining women. Weinraub et al. (1978) took this one step further in their paper “Perinatal outcome in monitored and unmonitored high-risk deliveries” specifically describing women who received intermittent auscultation as being “unmonitored”.
These examples demonstrate how the addition of CTG monitoring as an option for intrapartum fetal monitoring resulted in the alternate choice – intermittent auscultation – being diminished through the use of language which transformed it into a form of “unmonitoring”. This convention has persisted into present day language use in maternity care. For example, Theodoridou et al. (2020) recently provided a summary of non-invasive options for fetal heart rate monitoring, without once including intermittent auscultation in the paper.
Why does this matter? Transforming the language describing intermittent auscultation to a form of “unmonitoring” generates psychological discomfort when people seek to use intermittent auscultation for intrapartum fetal heart rate monitoring. Linguistically speaking, CTG monitoring occupies the place of the proper way to monitor, and intermittent auscultation becomes clearly inadequate. The portrayal of intermittent auscultation as inferior is at odds with the research evidence.
I see this language playing out in clinical practice on a regular basis. The question “is she being monitored?” is only answered in the affirmative when a CTG is in use. Not only does this misrepresent the utility of intermittent auscultation for fetal monitoring, a statement like this underestimates the work that midwives do in monitoring ALL aspects of the wellbeing of the woman, her fetus, and the unfolding of her labour. Ensuring that the two wiggly lines of the fetal heart rate and the woman’s uterine activity are plotted on graph paper has come to represent quality care, when in reality, they are simply two wiggly lines on a chart with little meaning when viewed in isolation from all the other information gathered when monitoring the woman and her baby.
What can you do? Catch yourself talking about monitoring in labour and reflect on the language you are using. Are you using terminology that makes the work of monitoring the woman, her fetus, and her labour largely disappear? Does your language imply that CTG monitoring is the only form of fetal monitoring? Practice using different ways of talking about monitoring in labour and explain why you have changed your language to the people around. Language is powerful. It constitutes the ways in which we know the world and shapes how we take action in the world. Make use of the power of language to generate the changes you want to see in maternity care.
Chan, W. H., Paul, R. H., & Toews, J. (1973). Intrapartum fetal monitoring. Maternal and fetal morbidity and perinatal mortality. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 41(1), 7-13.
Paul, R. H., & Hon, E. H. (1970). A clinical fetal monitor. Obstetrics and Gynecology, 35(2), 161-169.
Theodoridou, A., Athanasiadis, A., Tsakmakidis, G., Tsakiridis, I., Pilavidi, A., Vosnakis, C., Dagklis, T., Mavromatidis, G., & Mamopoulos, A. (2020). Current methods of non-invasive fetal heart rate surveillance. Clinical and Experimental Obstetrics & Gynecology, 47(4), 459-464. https://doi.org/10.31083/j.ceog.2020.04.5422
Weinraub, Z., Caspi, E., Brook, I., Rahmani, P., Bukovsky, I., & Schreyer, P. (1978). Perinatal outcome in monitored and unmonitored high-risk deliveries. Israel Journal of Medical Sciences, 14(2), 249-255.