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Malpresentation

8-minute read

If you feel your waters break and you have been told that your baby is not in a head-first position, seek medical help immediately.

Key facts

  • Malpresentation is when your baby is not facing head-first down the birth canal as birth approaches.
  • The most common type of malpresentation is breech — when your baby’s bottom or feet are facing downwards.
  • A procedure called external cephalic version can sometimes turn a breech baby into a head-first position at 36 weeks.
  • Most babies with malpresentation are born by caesarean, but you may be able to have a vaginal birth if your baby is breech.
  • There is a serious risk of cord prolapse if your waters break and your baby is not head-first.

What are presentation and malpresentation?

‘Presentation’ describes how your baby is facing down the birth canal. The ‘presenting part’ is the part of your baby’s body that is against the cervix.

The ideal presentation is head-first, with the crown (top) of the baby’s head against the cervix, with the chin tucked into the baby’s chest. This is called ‘vertex presentation’.

If your baby is in any other position, it’s called ‘malpresentation’. Malpresentation can mean your baby’s face, brow, buttocks, foot, back, shoulder, arms or legs or the umbilical cord are against the cervix.

It’s safest for your baby’s head to come out first. If any other body part goes down the birth canal first, the risks to you and your baby may be higher. Malpresentation increases the chance that you will have a more complex vaginal birth or a caesarean.

If my baby is not head-first, what position could they be in?

Malpresentation is caused by your baby’s position (‘lie’). There are different types of malpresentation.

Breech presentation

This is when your baby is lying with their bottom or feet facing down. Sometimes one foot may enter the birth canal first (called a ‘footling presentation’).

Breech presentation is the most common type of malpresentation.

Face presentation

This is when your baby is head-first but stretching their neck, with their face against the cervix.

Transverse lie

This is when your baby is lying sideways. Their back, shoulders, arms or legs may be the first to enter the birth canal.

Oblique lie

This is when your baby is lying diagonally. No particular part of their body is against the cervix.

Unstable lie

This is when your baby continually changes their position after 36 weeks of pregnancy.

Cord presentation

This is when the umbilical cord is against the cervix, between your baby and the birth canal. It can happen in any situation where your baby’s presenting part is not sitting snugly in your pelvis. It can become an emergency if it leads to cord prolapse (when the cord is born before your baby, potentially reducing placental blood flow to your baby).


What is malposition?

If your baby is lying head-first, the best position for labour is when their face is towards your back.

If your baby is facing the front of your body (posterior position) or facing your side (transverse position) this is called malposition. Transverse position is not the same as transverse lie. A transverse position means your labour may take a bit longer and you might feel more pain in your back. Often your baby will move into a better position before or during labour.

Why might my baby be in the wrong position?

Malpresentation may be caused by:

  • a low-lying placenta
  • too much or too little amniotic fluid
  • an abnormally shaped uterus or problems with the uterus, such as large fibroids
  • many previous pregnancies, making the muscles of the uterus less stable
  • carrying twins or more

Often no cause is found.

Is it likely that my baby will be in the wrong position?

Many babies are in a breech position during pregnancy. They usually turn head-first as pregnancy progresses, and more than 9 in 10 babies in Australia have a vertex presentation (ideal presentation, head-first) at birth.

You are more likely to have a malpresentation if:

How is malpresentation diagnosed?

Malpresentation is normally diagnosed when your doctor or midwife examines you, from 36 weeks of pregnancy. If it’s not clear, it can be confirmed with an ultrasound.

Can my baby’s position be changed?

If you are 36 weeks pregnant, it may be possible to gently turn your baby into a head-first position. This is done by an obstetrician using a technique called external cephalic version (ECV).

Some people try different postures or acupuncture to correct malpresentation, but there isn’t reliable evidence that either of these work.

Will I need a caesarean if my baby has a malpresentation?

Most babies with a malpresentation close to birth are born by caesarean. You may be able to have a vaginal birth with a breech baby, but you will need to go to a hospital that can offer you and your baby specialised care.

If your baby is breech, an elective (planned) caesarean is safer for your baby than a vaginal birth in the short term. However, in the longer term their health will be similar, on average, regardless of how they were born.

A vaginal birth is safer for you than an elective caesarean. However, about 4 in 10 people planning a vaginal breech birth end up needing an emergency caesarean. If this happens to you, the risk of complications will be higher.

Your doctor can talk to you about your options. Whether it’s safe for you to try a vaginal birth will depend on many factors. These include how big your baby is, the position of your baby, the structure of your pelvis and whether you’ve had a caesarean in the past.

What are the risks if I have my baby when it’s not head-first?

If your waters break when your baby is not head-first, there is a risk of cord prolapse. This is an emergency.

If you feel your waters break and you have been told that your baby is not in a head-first position, seek medical help immediately.

Vaginal breech birth

Risks to your baby can include:

Caesarean

Risks to you include:

  • blood loss or blood clots
  • infection in the wound
  • problems with the anaesthetic
  • damage to other organs nearby, such as your bladder
  • a higher chance of problems in future pregnancies
  • a longer recovery time than after a vaginal birth

Risks to your baby include:

  • trouble with breathing — this is temporary
  • getting a small cut during the surgery

Will I have a malpresentation in my future pregnancies?

If you had a malpresentation in one pregnancy, you have a higher chance of it happening again, but it won’t necessarily happen in future pregnancies. If you’re worried, it may help to talk to your doctor or midwife so they can explain what happened.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: July 2022


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Need more information?

Breech pregnancy

When a baby is positioned bottom-down late in pregnancy, this is called the breech position. Find out about 3 main types and safe birthing options.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Breech Presentation at the End of your Pregnancy

Breech presentation occurs when your baby is lying bottom first or feet first in the uterus (womb) rather than the usual head first position. In early pregnancy, a breech position is very common.

Read more on RANZCOG - Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists website

Breech presentation and turning the baby

In preparation for a safe birth, your health team will need to turn your baby if it is in a bottom first ‘breech’ position.

Read more on WA Health website

Labour complications

Even if you’re healthy and well prepared for childbirth, there’s always a chance of unexpected problems. Learn more about labour complications.

Read more on Pregnancy, Birth & Baby website

Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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