When we think about childbirth, our focus is often on a mother, pushing with all her might to get her baby out! What we don’t often consider is what the baby is doing in that scenario. It might come as a surprise to you that babies are not at all passive during childbirth. They actually move around a lot and are very much active participants in their own births. Let’s take a closer look at what happens to a baby during a straightforward vaginal birth.
During the last few weeks of pregnancy, the baby will usually move down to engage her head in the woman’s pelvis and in the first stage of labour, the baby settles lower and lower, applying her head onto the cervix. The mother will most likely be feeling the muscles of her uterus tightening as her cervix stretches, thins, and effaces.
The uterus has three different layers of muscles. When the muscles of the outer layer tighten, they gently pull the inner layer of muscles upwards. This causes the cervix to open and these muscles change in the second stage to help expel the baby. The middle layer of muscles regulates the blood supply to the uterus and when these are relaxed, your baby is getting oxygen and nutrients. During contractions, this is temporarily diminished. The inner layer of muscles pull upwards during labour to help open the cervix.
During the second stage of labour, when the mother’s cervix is fully dilated, the baby’s head comes into the birth canal. It’s time for the baby to be born. In normal birth, where the baby is in the usual position, (Left Occiput Anterior - but there are many, many variations on normal!), the baby will rotate her head to face your back, curl her back over, and tuck her chin into her chest. Babies will usually wriggle, twist and turn to enable them to find the best way out through the pelvis. As the baby’s head passes through the birth canal, their head may elongate as the bones in their skull move to allow their head to pass through. Once the head is out, her head and shoulders rotate to help the shoulders pass through the birth canal and once the shoulders are out, the rest of the baby’s body slips out easily.
The baby and mother utilise a special reflex that has been named the maternal foetal ejection reflex. The maternal foetal ejection reflex is a natural reflex which will happen regardless of the wishes of the birthing woman, and is often described by women as an overwhelming, uncontrollable urge to push. After this reflex, labour will usually move along very quickly and the baby is soon born. This reflex is only activated during undisturbed and physiological childbirth – and, as this is an entirely natural reaction, one could ponder on what impact it has on the mother and the baby if it is not utilised. I often wonder if we know how we might be altering the human race by interfering with a system we do not fully understand.
This simple video beautifully illustrates the “dance” which babies do as they are being born. As you can see, this is a far cry from just passively sliding out! Also notice how the tail-bone moves out of the way to make more room for the baby to pass through. That’s why lying on the bed might be less helpful for both mother and baby.
During the third stage of labour, ie. when the placenta is birthed, the baby should be skin-to-skin with the mother and may even start breastfeeding soon after birth. It is very important that the birthing mother is kept warm during this stage. If the mother has used pethidine or other opiate drugs and/or an epidural as a pain management during labour, her baby may feel drowsy. Babies whose mothers had a physiological birth are more likely to be born alert rather than sleepy, and usually manage more easily to find the breast and feed.
A newborn baby born after a straightforward birth, who is placed on the mother’s abdomen can crawl up to the mother’s chest, find the breast and self-attach. This is rarely seen in hospital births but also not something most people are aware of.
Often, whilst waiting for the placenta to be born, the baby’s cord will be clamped and cut. It is a good idea to allow the cord to stop pulsing completely before it is cut (otherwise known as optimal or delayed cord clamping). This allows the baby to benefit from a higher number of red blood cells, stem cells and immune cells, than if the cord was cut immediately and we know that simply delaying clamping for a few minutes can increase a baby’s blood volume by up to a third. This gives the baby many benefits and we know that the neonatal iron level storage is much improved by waiting for all the blood in the placenta to pass to the baby, preventing anemia later on.
Want to find out more about how you can prepare for a positive birth? Book your place on Your Birth, Your Way, my pioneering online antenatal course or just get the module that suit your needs!
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.