Gentle, natural birth is our genetic blueprint for labour and birth, switching on hormonal systems that optimise ease, pleasure and safety for mothers, babies, fathers and families. A gentle, natural birth gives an optimal start, not only for labour and birth, but also with breastfeeding and bonding for mother and baby.
When maternity-care interventions are needed, we can still aim for the most gentle and natural situation possible. Having immediate and undisturbed skin-to-skin with our newborn, for example, will help to close the inevitable ‘hormonal gaps’ related to interventions such as caesareans.
Planning for a gentle natural birth—and especially choosing your care providers with this in mind– will increase your chances of birthing with maximum ease, pleasure and safety for you and your baby.
How can we increase our chances of this, in modern times?
Here are six suggestions for modern mamas!
1. Be in good shape
Your good health and wellbeing, including healthy nutritional state, are the foundation for a healthy pregnancy, birth and baby. Making this effort, ideally before you conceive, will benefit your baby’s health lifelong. But don’t panic if you missed this opportunity! Starting at any time, even in late pregnancy, will benefit you and your baby.
Here is a short list of my top tips
- Take up healthy habits for the duration of your pregnancy and beyond. Give up smoking, take a break from alcohol and exercise in moderation: just walking is good exercise! More info below
- Go organic! Detox from pesticides and chemicals as far as possible. However, if this is beyond your budget, avoid the “dirty dozen” fruit and vegetables and buy the “clean 15” below.
- Eat fat! Have good quantities of healthy fats, zinc, and folate in your diet. More in my nutrition blog below
- Enjoy healthy sun exposure for good Vitamin D levels. If this is not possible, take a supplement. Guidelines below.
This is perhaps the easiest advice to give and the hardest to follow in pregnancy, right? But it really can be simple, and profoundly nourishing, for your baby as well as yourself.
I recommend simply taking ten minutes at the end of your day to put your feet up, with a cuppa or glass of water, taking a few deep breaths, and tuning into your belly and baby.
Use your hands, your voice, if it feels right- talk to, sing to, whisper to your growing baby. You can share your dreams and hopes, your fears and concerns and maybe even sing a favourite song. Singing releases oxytocin, which feels good for you and your baby too! This is a good time to involve your partner, whose voice your baby will recognise straight after birth!
You might also like to use some specific pregnancy relaxations or meditations such as hypnobirthing visualisations. You could also use a simple or familiar meditation technique, or any music that quietens your mind. You may also find that relaxation comes through a physical practice such as yoga or even walking.
Become familiar with this inner ‘quiet place’ of relaxation, whatever this is for you. Then you can access this place in your labour to ground and relax yourself in the midst of intensity. And it can be your friend right through the months and years of parenting too.
3. Choose your carers carefully
This is one of the most pivotal choices you will make in relation to your pregnancy. It is wise to spend the time and money to research and consider your options, just as you would for a wedding or honeymoon. Creating your best possible birth is an investment for a lifetime.
You may have received advice and even had strong opinions about your maternity care provider, even before pregnancy. It is not uncommon for your situation and choices to look completely different on the real side of pregnancy, and you may even have a change of mind again as labour and birth draw closer. It is very good to tune into your inner knowing and intuitions, which I believe are heightened during pregnancy.
If you are aiming for a gentle, natural birth, you will want to choose care-providers who are skilled in this area. Generally, this means a midwife to attend you whether in hospital or at home. See below for more about midwifery care.
If you are birthing in a conventional hospital with a medical doctor or OB, I highly recommend that you engage a doula– a supportive birth companion. The best medical evidence shows that having a doula reduces your need for pain relief and caesareans, shortens labour, and increases your chance of being satisfied with your experience. See below for more.
4. Your favourite place!
This may sounds an odd thing to say, but from the perspective of your body (and the science of your hormones- see below), the best environment to have your baby is the same environment where you could make a baby– or at least have a good time trying!.
In fact, the hormones of sex and birth are almost identical, and both activities require us to feel private, safe, and unobserved in order for our hormones to fully flow. We need to be able to turn down the alert, rational parts of our brain, and sink into our more primitive “limbic system,” which is where our mammalian birthing– and mating– hormones are made. In particular, oxytocin, the “shy hormone” requires us to feel safe and trusting, and in return gives us natural pain relief, as well as an efficient labour and birth. Oxytocin also switches on our pleasure and reward centres, contributing to the ecstasy and euphoria that we naturally get when we meet our babies for the first time.
Obviously your own familiar home will be an ideal place for labour and birth. The best medical evidence shows that home birth is a safe choice for mother and baby, with the added benefit of much lower rates of interventions. Planning a home birth dramatically reduces your chances of a caesarean, avoiding the extra surgical risks that this involves for you and your baby, including in future pregnancies.
If you are choosing to go to hospital, I suggest you stay at home as long as safely possible, ideally with support from your midwife or doula. Moving to hospital late in labour can have a paradoxically positive effect on labour, whereas moving in early labour tends to shut things down, for hormonal reasons.
5. Create your culture
In westernised societies, we do not have a great attitude to labour and birth. You may have noticed this as your belly has gotten bigger: so many women sharing their stories of painful and traumatic births. And maybe, with a hushed voice, some have tried to protect you from trauma by advising you to “just get the epidural” or even to request a caesarean.
Unfortunately it is true that giving birth can sometimes be a traumatic experience under modern maternity care. From a hormonal perspective, some of this comes from our ignorance of “the basic needs of the labouring woman”- to feel private, safe and unobserved. When we feel unsafe, labour will slow or even stop. This is our mammalian safety response, designed over millions of years of evolution to ensure that a labouring female is in the most secure place possible to give birth.
This hard-wired hormonal reaction reaction can make it hard to give birth in most hospital birthing environments. Labour tends to slow or stop, especially when you move from the familiarity of home, and a whole “cascade of interventions” can be used to speed things up. The end result can be a gruelling experience, and a lack of the hormones of ecstasy and pleasure as we meet our babies for the first time.
This is not how birth is supposed to be!
My advice to you is to find some way to avoid these negative conversations and suggestions. Excuse yourself physically and/or mentally from these interactions so that negative stories don’t create extra fears and concerns. Instead, find a “positive birth” culture: other women who know that birth can be a positive, even ecstatic experience, and who can share that with you. Meeting face-to-face, even just having a cuppa with one happy mama, is ideal. If this is not possible, or you just don’t know where to start, check out online communities. Even books and magazines- and especially those featuring positive birth stories– can help foster a postive attitude. See below.
A final note: It’s not your job to defend, or even share, your choices for a gentle natural birth, even with close family and friends, if this might be stressful. You have the right to decide what is right for you, your body, your baby and family, and this is enshrined in law in most countries. See below.
6. Mind the gap
Sometimes, despite our best intentions and wise decisions, things happen and we need interventions for our own wellbeing, or that of our babies.
It is true that virtually all interventions, including induction, epidurals (which reduce oxytocin- see below) , and caesareans will impact hormonal processes and experiences for both mother and baby, who will miss some of “Mother Nature’s Superb Design.” The resulting ‘hormonal gaps’ can impact maternal mood and wellbeing, newborn wellbeing and breastfeeding and bonding for both.(See my Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing report below)
However, these gaps can be addressed with some simple measures and a lot of patience. Basically, when we miss the window of opportunity in labour and birth, when mother and baby are fully primed for these hormonal processes, it will take more effort and more time to switch on these systems.
The basic remedies for all hormonal gaps are the activities that we naturally do, and enjoy doing with our babies- breastfeeding and skin-to-skin contact. Both of these release the feel-good hormones oxytocin and prolactin and give us a hit of endorphins that activate our pleasure and reward centres, so that we feel good- and our babies do too!
It can take hours or even days and weeks of skin to skin and liberal feeding to catch up with the hormonal activity and triggers that naturally happen in labour and birth, but this effort is really worthwhile. One study even found that having skin to skin contact in the early weeks reduced postpartum depression scores.
Eat fat! Sarah’s tips for pregnancy nutrition http://sarahbuckley.com/blog/what-to-eat-when-youre-expecting-to-be-expecting)
Doulas – review of effectiveness
Ecstatic birth- science and wisdom of your birth hormones – free ebook
Caesarean risks- WHO summary
Traumatic birth affects up to 1 in 6 women
How to heal a bad birth- my favourite resource
Your right to choose Informed refusal (ACOG)
Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing– Sarah’s groundbreaking report