The Truth About Birth
By Laura Shanley
I enjoy giving birth. I find it exhilarating Tand exciting, sexual and spiritual, magical and miraculous! It is POWER in its purest form, and for me, it is the ultimate creative act.
I prefer to give birth either alone, or with my husband and children. All four of our children have been born this way. David caught the first one, and I caught the other three. To those who have been raised in a culture that views birth as inherently dangerous and painful, this may sound like absolute insanity. There was a time when I would have agreed, but that was before I knew the truth about birth.
It was English physician and writer, Grantly Dick-Read, who first opened my eyes to the safety and beauty of birth. Dick-Read, who wrote and practiced in the first half of the twentieth century, is widely credited with being one of the fathers of natural childbirth. Simply stated, Dick-Read believed there is a loving, intelligent consciousness that is behind and within all life. This consciousness knows how to grow a baby inside of us. We don’t have to consciously “assist” it, figuring out how to grow fingers and toes, eyes and ears. We simply have to trust that as long as we get fresh air and exercise, shelter and food, the fertilized egg within us will grow into a human being. And because nature or God is efficient – it completes what it starts – that same reasoning can be applied to the act of birth.
In other words, we are not suddenly abandoned at the end of our pregnancy. There is literally a birth “response” that propels our babies from womb to world with very little conscious effort on our part. The problem is, there is something even more powerful than the birth response, something that can override it entirely. That something is known as the fight/flight response.
Dick-Read explained it in this way: when a woman is in a state of fear, messages are sent to the body telling it there is a danger out there that must be fought or run away from. Blood and oxygen are instantly sent into the arms and legs enabling the frightened woman to fight the danger or run away. In order for this to happen, however, blood and oxygen must be drained from other organs which the body considers nonessential for fight or flight. This is why we turn white when we’re afraid. The body assumes that our leg muscles need blood and oxygen more than our face does.
Unfortunately, when it comes to fight or flight, the uterus is considered a nonessential organ. According to Dick-Read, the uterus of a frightened woman in labor is literally white. Because it is deprived of “fuel” – blood and oxygen – it cannot function correctly, nor can waste products be properly carried away. Hence, the laboring woman experiences not only pain, but a multitude of problems. The solution, he believed, was twofold: not only do women need to stop being afraid, but doctors need to stop interfering in the process. Laboring women do not need to be poked, prodded, and drugged. Instead, they need to be calmly encouraged, or simply left alone so their bodies may work unhindered.
Animals intuitively understand this concept. This is why they seek seclusion in labor. They “know” that when a birth is interfered with, the labor may stop or the baby may die. This is as true for domesticated animals as it is for animals in the wild. Purina’s Handbook of Cat Care advises owners to pet the laboring cat
reassuringly and leave her on her own. She may stay in the box; on the other hand, don’t be surprised if she doesn’t. The best thing to do at this point is to do nothing. Keep quiet and do not attempt to help her – it’s her problem. Mother nature usually takes over at this point and it is amazing to see how she goes about doing what comes naturally.
Unfortunately, this book is not on the required reading list in most medical schools! Doctors are taught to intervene in birth, and intervene they do.
The average woman giving birth in the hospital today is subjected to a wide variety of needless and, in fact, dangerous interventions. Numerous books and web sites have been devoted to the subject, so I will only deal with two of the major ones here: Pitocin and epidural anesthesia.
Pitocin is given to women in the hospital either to induce labor, or speed up a labor that a doctor has “determined” is proceeding too slowly. Both excuses rarely hold up, as most women can safely go weeks beyond their due date, and once a labor has begun, there is little justification for rushing it. Pitocin is artificial oxytocin, a substance the body produces naturally when a woman is relaxed and unafraid. Oxytocin is produced not only when a woman is in labor, but also during breastfeeding and sex. This is why some midwives recommend having sex to get a labor started. They know that when a woman’s nipples and clitoris are stimulated, her body will produce oxytocin.
Stimulation resulting in orgasm is even more powerful. According to Ann Douglas and John R. Sussman, M.D., authors of the book The Unofficial Guide to Having a Baby, a single orgasm is thought to be 22 times as relaxing as the average tranquilizer. Often, it’s exactly what a woman needs in order to relieve the tension that is preventing the birth response from doing its job. Most doctors, however, are either unaware of this fact, or prefer more artificial methods.
What most women don’t realize is that Pitocin is not only unnecessary, it’s potentially dangerous. Doris Haire writes in her article, “Update on Obstetric Drugs and Procedures: Their Effects on Maternal and Infant Outcome,” (Birth Gazette 13:1, 1996)
the American manufacturer of Pitocin points out in its package insert that oxytocin can cause: a) maternal hypertensive episodes, b) cardiac arrhythmias, c) uterine spasm, d) titanic contraction, e) uterine rupture, f) subarachnoid hemorrhage, g) water intoxication, h) convulsions, I) coma, j) pelvic hemotoma, k) postpartum hemorrhage, l) afibrinogenemia, and m) fetal death. Uterine stimulants that foreshorten the oxygen-replenishing intervals between contractions by making the contractions too long, too strong, or too close together increase the likelihood that fetal brain cells will die. The situation is somewhat analogous to holding an infant under the surface of the water, allowing the infant to come to the surface to gasp for air but not to breathe.
It’s no wonder that so many babies in the hospital are determined to be in distress. They’re literally suffocating.
Pitocin-induced contractions are often extremely painful. Most women who receive it end up getting an epidural, even if they had previously decided on a natural birth. Despite what most women are told, epidurals can result in the following:
- a slowdown of labor requiring additional drugs to speed things up
- a drop in the mother’s blood pressure with life-threatening consequences for both the mother and the baby
- the elimination of the pleasurable sensations of birth
- unresponsiveness of both the mother and the baby after the birth
- inability of the mother to push the baby out resulting in a forceps delivery
- head and neck aches for the mother that may last several weeks
- breathing and sucking difficulties for the baby
- dulling of the mind and the body resulting in the inability of the mother and the baby to bond after birth
- vomiting and inhaling of the fluids resulting in death for the mother
- impaired muscular, visual and neural development of the baby
- permanent brain damage and mental retardation of the baby
- permanent paralysis of the mother
- infant death
The routine administering of Pitocin and epidural anesthesia is directly responsible for many of the “complications” women in the hospital experience. The C-section rate in this country is high not because vaginal birth is inherently dangerous or difficult. It is high because birth is not designed to be medically managed.
All this being said, there is no denying the fact that many women successfully give birth in the hospital. However, I truly believe they are doing it in spite of hospital procedures rather than because of them.
Of course, nearly all doctors would disagree with this premise. They would instantly point to the many “problems” they believe they have “fixed.” What they fail to admit, however, is that many of the so-called problems they are claiming to fix, are actually caused by them in the first place. For instance, doctors pat themselves on the back for the fact that they’re now saving more premature babies than ever before. They fail to mention that according to Midwifery Today magazine, the biggest cause of premature birth today is induction of labor. Doctors are “heroically” saving babies who should still be safely tucked within their mother’s wombs!
I am not condemning all doctors. Some of them are kind and caring people. And the sad fact is, although there are many women who feel they have had medical intervention forced upon them, there are many who expect and even demand it. Doctors who do not comply with a woman’s wishes may be sued if something goes wrong.
However, I think it is safe to say that the majority of doctors in American hospitals believe that birth is a dangerous ordeal that needs to be managed, controlled, and manipulated. There is also a financial incentive to keep it this way. Giving birth is the number one reason people go to the hospital. It is a fifty billion dollar a year industry in this country, and you can be sure there are people who would like us to continue believing that birth is a dangerous ordeal that can only be made safe by medical intervention.
There is no denying the fact that doctors do indeed save lives. True emergencies do exist. But every birth is not an emergency and there is no excuse for treating it as such. As writer Jeannine Parvati Baker so aptly stated, “Birth is not an emergency. It is simply an emergence.”
So what is the alternative to a medically-managed hospital “delivery”? Some would say a homebirth with a midwife. It is true that midwives as a whole are much more trusting of birth than doctors are. Many of them understand not only the dangers of medical intervention, but the effect of fear on a laboring woman’s body. A loving midwife can offer a fearful woman a tremendous amount of emotional support. Yet midwife-attended births are not without their problems.
When a midwife attends a birth, she is legally responsible for the outcome. Fear of prosecution may cause even the most non-interventive midwife to intervene in birth. Artificial rupturing of the membranes, instructions to push or not push – regardless of the desires of the laboring woman – and aggressive management of the third stage of labor (delivery of the placenta) are not uncommon in a midwife-attended birth. Part of this may be due to legal requirements. A midwife is required to “chart” a woman’s labor. What this means is that technically she must measure dilation and time contractions (among other things). If a woman doesn’t give birth within two hours of cervical dilation (this may vary from state to state), she must be transported to the hospital. A woman must also be transported if her placenta hasn’t delivered within an hour of the birth – even though there is no evidence that suggests retaining a placenta for longer than an hour causes problems.
Of course, many midwives ignore these requirements, and allow women to give birth in their own time and in their own way. When a midwife does intervene, however, the consequences can be devastating.
Several years ago there was a woman in my area who gave birth at home just minutes before her midwife’s arrival. The birth went well and the couple was thrilled. When the midwife arrived, she insisted that the placenta be delivered NOW. It had only been fifteen minutes since the birth, and the mother knew it had not yet detached. But she allowed the midwife to reach in and manually attempt to remove it. The midwife pulled out half the placenta and the mother hemorrhaged. She ended up being transported to the hospital where she enjoyed a three day stay.
Although, based on the letters I receive, this is not an isolated incident, certainly there are cases where a midwife has helped to prevent a tragedy. But how many so-called life or death situations are simply normal variations that do not require “assistance” at all? My first baby was born face first, my second was a footling breech, my third was posterior, and my last baby had the cord wrapped around her neck. I dealt with all of these “complications” easily. Had I been attended by a midwife, perhaps she would have dealt with them easily, as well. But why pay a midwife for something I’m perfectly capable of handling myself? I refuse to believe that birth is this big mystery that the ordinary woman can’t possibly understand. If a woman is in touch with her physical and spiritual instincts, she does not need to be told how to give birth, any more than she needs to be told how to make love or how to go to the bathroom. Birth is a natural bodily function that is sorely in need of demystification.
It’s time women stopped putting doctors and midwives on pedestals and started believing in their own abilities. The sun will come up tomorrow, the grass will continue to grow, and our babies will come out if we let them. The key is to not interfere – either physically or psychologically. My own experiences, and those of others who have chosen to have unassisted births, illustrate this point.
Corey Alicks had her first baby via Cesarean section. Her second child was born at home with a midwife. When she became pregnant with her third child, she decided she felt comfortable giving birth without an attendant. She wrote about her experiences in her story “Finding Truth”:
We had set up the birthing pool in front of the fireplace and it was heavenly sliding into the warm, deep water in the dark, firelit room. I still shudder as I think of how I reached in myself and felt her head; no mirrors, no one else seeing, only absolute connection, only me; and how, as I floated, suspended in the birthing water, I pushed Eva out into the same dark water, like we were both being born. We watched her, still underwater, floating arms outstretched, looking up at us, her body glowing with an unearthly light. Peter was kneeling on the floor at the side of the pool, and I slowly brought our baby’s face to the surface. It was the holiest moment of our lives. She breathed effortlessly and without a sound.
Corey’s next birth was even more spectacular. Once again, she gave birth in a birthing pool in front of the fireplace, but this time she delivered twins all by herself!
Women aren’t the only ones who benefit from having an unassisted birth. Carl Norgauer wrote about the joy of catching his own baby in his story, “A Bond of Admiration and Love”:
After four hours of labor, Lilana finally slid out to my waiting hands. She was delivered to her waist, and as she paused, she wrapped her little hand around one of my fingers and held on tight, forming at that moment a bond of mutual admiration and love that will endure ’til I die. Moments later she was all the way out and announced her arrival with a robust, housewarming cry. What a joy! We had partnered with God a beautiful child….For months afterward we were in a state of exultation and euphoria. This tremendous birthing experience developed a great momentum for bonding, nurturing and loving and was the high point of my life.
There is one other person to consider when deciding the best way to give birth. Few people think about the fact that perhaps babies have a preference as to how they would like to be born. Sam Woods felt that her daughter, Luca, actually led her to have an unassisted birth. On her web site “Journey To Divine Childbirth” she writes:
How can I even begin to describe my home birth experience? Of course it was the comfort of husband and home, freedom from harmful medical intervention, joyful, painless labour and the sheer ecstasy of birthing my child into my own hands. But it was so much more than that. It was the most profound spiritual connection I have ever made. It was reaching into the deepest part of my being and finding my soul power, it was choosing faith over fear, it was truly listening to an inner voice that said, “Follow the light!” I followed and I found a miracle. I found my infinite, loving source and I found my precious Luca. She was the light that I followed. I believe that Luca chose this wonderful birth experience and guided me in my decision. Our babies are Divine and infinitely intelligent. I pray that we can help them maintain their Divine connection, and I thank Luca for helping me find mine.
It has been twenty-nine years since my first unassisted birth, and twenty years since my last. My baby-making days are probably over. But the births of my children will forever be imprinted upon my mind. I will never get over the thrill of catching my own babies in the solitude and sanctity of my own home. It is a joy I wish every couple could know.
Many thanks to Laurie Morgan for allowing me to use her lovely photos.