In the festive season, we celebrate perhaps the most famous gentle, natural, birth in history.
Blessed Mary gave birth to her legendary baby in the most low-technology setting imaginable… and surrounded by mammals.
Could this be a powerful teaching to us, across time, about human birth?
We are mammals too!
When we understand that we are mammals too, it becomes obvious that disturbance in birth—or any situation where the labouring woman does not feel private, safe, and unobserved—will interfere to some extent with the processes of labour.
Mary, for example, did not need to move to hospital mid-labour, and was not attended by strangers- definitely not workable for our mammalian cousins!
Disturbances such as shifting to an unfamiliar environment (especially home to hospital) can slow or even stop labour by disrupting our labour hormones. Labour disturbances can elevate adrenaline and noradrenaline, our “fight or flight” hormones, not only slowing labour, but also re-routing blood from the uterus and baby to the muscles, heart, and lungs in preparation for action.
Studies in animals show that labour disturbance can disrupt several other hormonal pathways as well (see my report Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing), emphasising the biological and evolutionary importance of a safe place to birth.
Private and safe
Our basic mammalian need to feel private and safe in labour is recognised in traditional systems of maternity care. Just like the circle of elephants that surround a labouring female in the wild, traditional caregivers know how to support the labouring woman so that she is as calm and comfortable as possible.
Individualised labour support (recognising that some women seek company in labour and others feel safer with more privacy) can help women to deal with the intensity of labour, aided of course by our natural pain and stress-relieving systems such as oxytocin and endorphins.
Well, most of us will not give birth in a stable this Christmas–or with a circle of elephants! So how can we make the most of our “Ecstatic hormones,” even in settings that may challenge or disturb us?
This is a very big topic, but in a nutshell, here are my top 5 festive give-aways, for a gentle, natural, birth
1. Choose your maternity caregivers wisely
Labouring in a low-technology setting, such as homebirth or a birth centre, are safe options (see below) that are more likely to soothe your hormonal systems. Choosing lower-technology caregivers such as your own midwife or family physician will reduce your chances of maternity-care interventions such as epidurals and caesareans, which will can interefere with hormonal processes. You can always move up to higher levels of care, if needed, but it is difficult to move to lower technology care once labour begins.
(Its important to add that, in labour, it is your own perception of safety that matters. Choose the setting and caregivers that help you to feel private and safe! )
2. Choose your labour support team carefully
Who do you feel safe with? If you are a private person, you probably don’t want your whole family there. My best advice is to be flexible, so that you can see how you feel when you are actually in labour. Let your birth support team know that you may or may not call them, and you may even ask them to leave if you need privacy.
If you are giving birth in hospital, having your own midwife and/or doula (supportive birth companion) will reduce your chances of interventions such as epidurals and forceps, according to the best evidence (see below).
If you need higher-level care because of a medical condition or complication, talk to your care provider about the benefits of taking your own doula.
3. Create your own privacy
How can you bring a sense of privacy and safety with you, into any setting? Controlling your sensory input can be enormously helpful.
For example shutting your eyes, wearing an eye-mask, or focussing on a soothing object or image will reduce visual disturbance. Having ear plugs or headphones with soothing music, or having your beloved whispering encouraging words to you, will help control auditory input. And bringing familiar smells, e.g. essential oils, a T shirt from home, or your pillow to bury into, will reduce unfamiliar odours.
Hypnosis and hypnobirthing, relaxation tapes and techniques, and meditative practices, especially if you have used these in pregnancy, can also help to anchor you into a private and safe state, amidst the intensity of labour.
4. Having a baby, making a baby
The hormones involved with having a baby are the same hormones involved with making a baby, and we need the same conditions (you guessed it!)- private, safe, and unobserved! This is a good rule of thumb to assess your “nest” in labour, especially if labour is stalling: Could I make a a baby in this situation?
You can also use this knowledge to help labour progress. Oxytocin, the hormone that gets labour going, is also a hormone of sexual activity and orgasm. Sexual activity in labour can be very effective for speeding labour– more natural (and more fun) than an IV drip with synthetic oxytocin!
5. Point of no return
There is a stage in labour when external disturbance does not slow labour down. In fact, for hormonal reasons, disturbance at the end of labour is more likely to speed things up. This is the ideal time to make your move to hospital.
How can you recognise this? I asked this question of participants in my Undisturbed Birth workshops, and one midwife commented, “I know it is time to go to hospital when she can’t remember her own phone number!”
These wise words reflect the deep alteration in consciousness that accompanies a gentle, natural, physiologic birth, where activity in our rational brain subsides and our instinctive brain takes over. This can be a positive, even ecstatic experience. Hmm sounds a lot like… making a baby!
Find out more:
*More about birth hormones in my free Ecstatic Birth ebook
*My whole-day Undisturbed Birth workshop on DVD You can attend my acclaimed workshop in the comfort of your own home!
- Learn all about the ecstatic hormones, and how to make the most of them
- Find out how maternity-care interventions can impact these delicate hormonal systems.
- Discover the hormonal magic of the hour after birth, and how to give your newborn the best start with cord clamping.
This DVD workshop is suitable for interested parents as well as birth professionals, with free postage worldwide.
*Watch online lectures about the ecstatic hormones, impacts of intervention and much more in my Gentle Natural Birth Professional program, also suitable for interested parents.
*All the science and citatations in my Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing report. (See especially Section 5.2.1 for research on the hormonal effects of labour stress.)
*Michel Odent discusses the mammalian need to feel private and safe in labour
*Elephant birth in the wild: circle of elephants
*More mammalian birth videos
Email us your favourite online animal birth video links!
Sexuality of labour and birth: www.orgasmicbirth.com
*Best available evidence from the Cochrane Collaboration:
- Doula care and its benefits
- Midwifery care and its benefits
- Family physician care and its benefits
- Homebirth safety
- Birth centre safety