Not long ago, I was listening to the radio and feeling disappointed that the knowledge and perception around childbirth is still so dire. Jeremy Vine on BBC Radio 2 had childbirth expert Christine Hill on, talking about the ‘ghastliness’ of childbirth followed by Clare Byam Cook ‘controversial breastfeeding advice’ (her own words), stating that many women can’t make enough milk for their babies; and when she says ‘many’, in reality, she means most! The truth is that it is estimated that around just 5% of women worldwide are physically unable to make enough milk for their baby and in these cases, there are specific remedies and even medication available to increase their milk supply.
As for Christine Hill stating that childbirth is ‘ghastly’, she could possibly mean that she has not been given the space to process her own experiences of childbirth or been given the chance to reflect on it. Perhaps she is making herself feel better by telling her ‘girls’ in her classes to go straight for the epidural. I'm not suggesting that having an epidural is necessarily the wrong thing to do, I just worry that on many occasions, women don't make informed choices, but instead, trusts the 'expert'. It might also be right to speculate that Clare struggled with breastfeeding and is, therefore, peddling the old myth about ‘not enough milk’; who knows.
How are we ever going to change the views and opinions around childbirth and breastfeeding if the media keep giving ‘experts’ like these the air time to pass on information which is often incorrect but even worse, so damaging. Women are, in effect, being socialised to mistrust and doubt that their bodies are capable of giving birth and feeding their babies!
I’m going to let you in on a secret; one of the biggest secrets ever kept hidden from today’s pregnant women! Childbirth is a physiological event, which means it happens with the simple support of a release of hormones from our pituitary gland and even women who are completely paralysed can birth their babies. These hormones, however, are quite shy and require an optimal environment conducive to their release. It has to be warm, dark and safe and the woman must feel well supported emotionally. This environment needs to be just like the place where the baby was conceived in the first place. Oxytocin, also known as the ‘love hormone’ is the key hormone in both love making and childbirth, so that is why this parallel is so clear to those of us who are familiar with birth physiology and the massive impact the environment has on helping a woman have a straight-forward birth.
You cannot study for childbirth, nor can you control it! To think that you can revise, like you did for your degree or Masters and by doing so, you will manage the birth of your baby more effectively, can be what many antenatal classes lead you to believe. In reality, the best way to prepare for childbirth is to learn about the different options available; to understand that you are allowed to choose what is right for you and your baby and then totally surrender to the process, accepting that anything could happen. This is a much more healthy way to prepare. Knowing that you will be part of the decision making, completely supported emotionally and practically by a doula and your partner, will make your birth experience a positive one, whatever happens.
Birth is physically challenging, but more than anything, it challenges your beliefs in yourself and your ability to keep going during a time of intense muscular work. The uterus is the strongest muscle by weight in a woman’s body and it works extremely hard to ease the cervix open and push the baby downwards, whilst helping the baby twist to navigate the pelvis outlet. The three different layers of muscle in the uterus are each doing their work, like a wave building up, rising to a peak and then slowly subsiding and coming completely to rest. Out of all the muscles in the body, the uterus has the highest ability to quickly exert force.
Imagine yourself in the sea and how you would paddle harder and stronger as a wave builds up, and also imagine doing the opposite, relaxing and letting the wave take you where it wants to go. To release and relax, trusting that you will come to the surface again, unharmed and then be granted a short time of rest until the next wave comes along – knowing that nothing is going to break inside you and that everything is just like it should be.
This is usually the biggest challenge for a woman in labour and also for her partner to watch as he or she will be keen to try and fix it, to make the waves go away. However, it is widely reported that taking the pain out of childbirth doesn’t necessarily make it a better experience. This is where the psyche becomes the most important thing for a woman in labour. Can she sustain the short-term intensity for the long-term gain? It’s like the experiment where children are told they can eat a sweet now or wait 15 minutes and then they can have two sweets. Delayed gratification plays a huge part, but it’s also about endurance, determination and a commitment of doing it your way!
I believe the real experts on childbirth are the women themselves. They are the ones that must take responsibility for their births, gain knowledge by looking for evidence-based research and learn to trust that birth is not dangerous and that they know best!
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.