Labor is an energy-draining experience. After hours of pain and pushing, you may near the end of the birthing process with less energy than needed to push the baby out into the world. When energy levels are low or the baby’s head is a bit too large to push through the vaginal opening, vacuum-assisted birth or forceps may be used to help in the birthing process. There are risks associated with vacuum-assisted birth and forceps usage, but often the rewards outweigh the risks.
If there are complications during the birthing process that can leave you unable to give birth without assistance, doctors can use a vacuum attached to the baby’s head to help. The vacuum allows the doctor to pull while mom pushes. Often, the vacuum will temporarily deform the baby’s skull – usually into a cone shape. The skull is very pliable at birth so the baby’s head can be rubbed to return it to a normal shape easily. Risks associated with vacuum-assisted birth include bruising of the scalp, neonatal jaundice, and hemorrhage.
Forceps are metal instruments that are shaped like two spoons facing each other. The spoons are placed on either side of the baby's head and used to pull while mom is pushing. Many of the same risks that are associated with vacuum-assisted deliveries are associated with deliveries that use forceps. Additional risks include possible tearing of the skin where the forceps are placed on the head.
Vacuum and forceps are only used as a last resort when no other methods have helped move the baby out of the birth canal. Doctors will watch the baby’s vital signs such as the heart rate and oxygen level to determine when assistance is needed to get the baby out more quickly. If the baby shows signs of distress, the risks of assisted birthing techniques will be outweighed by the life-saving rewards.