Pregnant for the first time in 2002 I was hugely excited about meeting my baby and fairly naive about what lay ahead of me. Having been fascinated by the changes in my body in my teens I had always been drawn to books about puberty and now, in this latest phase, wanted stories of pregnancy and birth. My mother had experienced very quick, straightforward births, so I was confident in my body’s capability. I also had very few friends who had given birth at that time, so wasn’t tainted by their tales. So different to what I experience now with the women I support as a doula. Time and time again I hear how women have been subjected to horrific stories of birth and feeding, and I am ever-more aware of the way in which birth is portrayed in our media. As with everything else we are bombarded with information and imagery from dawn to dusk, whether we like it or not. Technology is both our greatest and worst invention. And when it comes to birth it is causing major problems. Recent press articles hinted at a huge increase in fear of birth due to so many negative stories being posted on social media sites and forums. So, what is it that I want women to know about birth?
1) Birth is a physiological process. Everything we see of birth in the media – contractions, pushing, dilating, waters breaking – is about the mechanics. And our film and programme-makers love to focus on the drama. Is it entirely surprising that Quentin Tarantino was asked to direct the episode of ER when one of the major characters went into labour? But what very few people seem to focus on is that the way our uterus contracts and cervix dilates stems from hormones released in our bodies. According to obstetrician Michel Odent, oxytocin, the hormone of love, bonding and connection, responsible for really efficient uterine contractions in labour, is shy. It is easily switched off by bright light, change in temperature and environment, by feeling observed, so the most important thing for anyone in pregnancy to consider is where they are going to feel safest when labouring. Feeling safe, warm, protected, unobserved and calm will optimise oxytocin release. Hand-in-hand with oxytocin come the endorphins, responsible for our feeling good and natural pain relief, which some say are 4x more powerful than chemical opiates. Disturb these with our fight, flight or freeze hormone, adrenalin, and labour can slow down and/or become more painful. Oxytocin is extraordinary when working at it’s peak – women go into a different zone, able to breathe through these intense sensations in their bodies, some reporting feeling powerful, pain-free and even pleasure.
2) Knowledge is power. Pregnancy is not a time to put your head in the sand and pretend it will all go away or be fine on the day. Educating yourself is vital. So many women I meet tell how they just handed everything over to their care providers on the day and then were surprised when they felt disempowered, upset or traumatised by their birth experience. Making informed choices is key to feeling positive or negative about your birth experience. Birth rarely conforms to “the plan” but considering your options, preparing for different eventualities and working out your priorities in advance make for a smoother ride most of the time.
3) Ignore the nay-sayers and the negative story-tellers. People love to tell their awful birth stories. Often it is because they are still living the effects of trauma and feel the need to recount their tale in an effort to prevent other people experiencing the same. Your body is not theirs – this is not their pregnancy, birth or baby. Yours will not be the same – it will be your birth experience. Politely decline when people offer their story. Surround yourself with positive and inspiring people, find stories that give you courage and faith, seek out groups or forums where the aim is to empower and encourage. There are so many people out there who have positive and lovely birth stories to tell – they are often ashamed to tell their stories because they don’t want to upset those who had less than positive experiences. However, their stories need to be heard so that we turn this juggernaut of negativity around. Birth can be the most amazing and empowering experience, regardless which route it takes.
4) Surround yourself with the best support. The assumption these days is that our love-partner is the ideal person to have with us at our birth. Whilst this is certainly true for some, it might not be for others, and certainly warrants conversation in advance of labour. Going back to physiology, we can be profoundly affected and influenced by the hormonal make-up of those surrounding us in birth. If our partner is fearful, unhappy or unwilling to be there it can have significant negative effects. Choosing to surround yourself with people who have belief in you, your plan and in birth itself is ultimately empowering. If your partner is not happy to be with you, or even if he/she is, then you might want to consider hiring a doula. A doula is a professional birth partner, an experienced woman (usually) whose role is to support everybody involved in the birth – the labouring woman, her partner, the midwives etc. Research has shown that doulas significantly reduce the length of labour, need for pain relief, inductions, instrumental and caesarean births, as well as improving breastfeeding statistics. Many men and women have come away from the births of their babies finding the constancy of emotional and practical support from a doula to be completely invaluable. Doulas can be hugely reassuring to someone who hasn’t been in a birth space before – empowering partners with comfort measures or giving them necessary breathing space, a time to rest, recharge the batteries or deal with other practicalities.
5) Make a postnatal plan. Just as educating yourself, preparing and having good support in place for the day of the birth is important so is considering what life is going to be like in the first days and weeks afterwards. Very few of us grow up around extended families with babies – some of us have never held a tiny newborn or watched breastfeeding before. We have to learn so much in a short time. Empowerment comes in the form of learning about the needs of the baby in advance, arming yourself with contacts and signposts for further support, asking friends and family to provide meals, take on routine domestic tasks etc so that you can get on with the most important job of bonding with and learning your new baby. So much can be prevented by taking those first few days and weeks at a slower, gentler pace, rather than rushing around trying to do everything and exhausting yourself. Putting a good support network in place is vital for riding that transition phase from non-parent to parent.
If you would like to know more about doulas, or find a doula to support you in pregnancy, birth or the early postnatal period then do visit our website www.nurturingbirth.co.uk. Sophie regularly posts videos, blogs and interviews on the Nurturing Birth sites about all things to do with birth, parenting in the early days and infant feeding.