There are so many myths around childbirth that it can feel pretty overwhelming to try and sort the facts from the fibs. I’ve pulled together seven of the most common birth myths - and I bet you’ve heard of at least one of them!
MYTH #1: Labour always starts with the waters breaking.
Much of what we think we know about labour and birth is based on television programmes and films, which usually depict a woman clutching her belly in agony as the camera zooms out to show a puddle of water on the floor where she is standing.
The fact is, that the majority of labours start with a period-like cramping that gradually builds up to regular contractions. It’s estimated that only around 10% of births start with the waters (the sac of amniotic fluid cushioning your baby) breaking. Most of the time, the waters release close to the baby being born. Your baby can even be born with the amniotic sac still intact, although this is very rare.
MYTH #2: Giving birth is unbearably painful.
This is what we all learn from an early age; childbirth is the worst thing that is going to happen to you as a woman. What we’re not told is that our bodies are actually designed to make childbirth manageable - believe it or not, some women even find it pleasurable!
During childbirth, we produce a number of hormones, including oxytocin and endorphins. Oxytocin is also known as the ‘love’ hormone and its role is to contract the womb to enable the baby to be born. But (and this is the cool thing) it also numbs pain. Endorphins - literally translating as ‘the morphine within’ - help us deal with the intense sensations of birth, just as they do when we exercise.
So why do so many women find birth painful? This delicate process only works well when we feel safe and well supported, and adrenaline - which can inhibit oxytocin and endorphins - is kept low. The environment the woman births in thus plays a crucial part in encouraging a birth that is manageable. The actual environment in which your baby is made, and I’m imagining this is somewhere warm, semi-dark, cosy and safe, is also a very good environment for you to birth your baby! Yes, I know, sex and childbirth are not the same but the same hormones are involved so, that’s why I can draw the parallel.
MYTH #3: Being pregnant past 40 weeks is dangerous.
The standard way of calculating a baby’s due date was devised by a German Obstetrician named Franz Karl Naegele over 100 years ago. It assumes that all women have a 28 day menstrual cycle and all ovulate on the same day in that cycle. Many studies have been carried out since then and in a study by Mittendorf it was suggested that most women are actually pregnant for 288 days and not the 280 suggested by Naegele. Ultrasound scans carried out around week 12 of pregnancy have an error margin of six days - nearly a week - and scans in the third trimester have an error margin of up to two weeks.
To be able to say that your baby is ‘overdue’ you first need to know exactly when the baby is “due” and as you can see, there is no method of determining this that is 100% accurate.
It is well accepted now that a normal pregnancy can last up to 42 weeks, and it’s not until after this point that the pregnancy falls outside of what is expected. Even then, the risk to the baby does not increase very much at all. In week 42, the risk of stillbirth is 1.55 in 1000 (0.0155) so the baby is 99.845% safe. In week 43 the risk increases to 2.13 in 1000 (0.0213). In other words, your baby is still 99.787% safe to still be in your belly! For more information, click here.
MYTH #4: Epidurals don’t affect the birth.
An epidural is the only pain management during labour that has the potential to remove all sensation (it doesn’t work for everyone, but is effective for around three out of four women). Epidurals use a combination of opiates and local anaesthetics, so whilst you might feel a tightening or sensation during contractions, there should be no pain. Many people talk about epidurals as if they are a “magic wand” and they can be a great help for women who need them, however, like most medical interventions, there are risks to consider too.
The epidural in itself doesn’t necessarily affect the birth, but because the baby might not respond well to the drugs that are potentially passing through the placenta, the birth becomes more complex. Because of this, it is recommended that the baby is continuously monitored, which usually means that you will need to spend time semi-reclined rather than upright or on your side. This position can prevent the baby from moving into a good position for birth, as can the drugs in the epidural which relax the pelvic floor. Because the baby might not be in an optimal position - and because an epidural can make it harder for you to feel how or when to push - your chances of having an assisted delivery (i.e. using forceps or ventouse) increase. Research also suggests that your chances of having a Caesarean birth increases too.
I want pregnant women to make informed choices for themselves and their baby and I support women in those choices. However, if you do not know the positive and negative effects from the choices you make, those choices are not truly informed. It’s not ‘wrong’ to have an epidural or ‘right’ to not have one, it’s nothing to do with that! My wish is that every woman knows what she says ‘yes’ to and understands and owns that choice.
MYTH #5: Caesarean birth is the “easy option”.
One of the myths which really irritate me is that women who choose to give birth by Caesarean are somehow taking the “easy option”. Caesareans can be truly life-saving, and I want to stress that I am in favour of women having choice in childbirth, and for some women, a Caesarean birth will absolutely be the right choice. But a Caesarean doesn’t necessarily equal an easy option.
Giving birth is generally very safe. ‘Adverse outcomes’ for babies are rare, regardless of where or how mothers plan to give birth, occurring overall in just 4 or 5 births in every 1000. In other words, your baby is 99.5% safe. However, if we look at the maternal death rate, a UK study by Hall and Bewley came to the following conclusion, and I quote: “The case fatality rate for all caesarean sections is six times that for vaginal delivery, and even for elective caesarean section, the rate is almost three times as great.” The numbers are still very low which means that 98-99+% of the time, childbirth is still very safe, and no birth is entirely without risk - just like the rest of your life (simply walking out of your front door would bring a risk, no matter how tiny, of shutting your fingers in the door, or even of being run-over).
Recovery following a Caesarean birth can be longer than after a vaginal birth, with doctors recommending that women do not drive or lift anything heavy for six weeks following the birth. The chance of a subsequent Caesarean is also higher. Several studies have shown that children born by Caesarean face a greater risk of developing asthma, allergies, and Type 1 diabetes, as well as a number of chronic immune disorders. These risks are relatively small but it’s not often something that women know about when opting to give birth in this way.
MYTH #6: Obstetric advice is always based on solid research.
You would expect that if you are talking to an expert in the field of childbirth, they will be providing you with evidence based information, and not just simply telling you the best way to have a baby according to his/her own views. Recent evaluation of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidelines reveals that only 9–12% of these guidelines were based on the best quality (Grade A) evidence.
For you to be taking total responsibility for your birth choices, make sure you ask for studies and research to back up the information you are being given by your care providers. As a doula, one of the main reasons I hear from women who feel disappointed by a previous birth experience, is not feeling part of the decision making around their birth, or feeling they were not given enough information about their options.
MYTH #7: Babies need to have their cords cut quickly
There is often an assumption that the baby’s umbilical cord has to be cut quickly or something terrible is going to happen. In fact, it’s a lot better for the baby if the cord is left alone until it has actually stopped pulsating.
When your baby is born, they will be receiving oxygen-rich blood from the placenta, which means there is no immediate rush for the baby to take its first breath. By delaying cord clamping, the baby can get up to 40% extra blood. More blood equals more red blood cells which means more iron. Many studies agree that all umbilical cords should be left unclamped for at least a couple of minutes; this simple step reduces the need for blood transfusion, gives the baby a much better circulatory stability, and reduces the risk of bleeding in the brain.
Some women even choose a lotus birth, leaving the cord connected to the baby and the placenta until it naturally comes away. This might not be for you, but do make sure you know all your options with regards to the third stage of labour (when the placenta is expelled) so you are able to make informed choices.
How many of these myths have you heard before? Has anything you’ve just read changed the way you think about birth?
Want to get a few tips and a handy check-list? Why don’t you download my FREE Getting Ready For Birth Mini-guide? It contains a Birth Preference Template, The Ultimate Hospital Bag Checklist, a Relaxation Script and some lovely Birth Affirmation Posters amongst other things...
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Kicki Hansard is a member of Doula UK, however any opinions expressed on this blog are personal views and not necessarily the view of Doula UK.