The New York Times recently ran a brief story about the increase in home births in America. While still only about 1% of total births, the rate of homebirth has increased 20% since 2004. Readers’ experiences of homebirth and opinions about it were solicited at the end of the article. Most replies were positive, but one negative voice stood out:
I have yet to hear a justification for homebirth that doesn't sound like this: "I'm special, I'm special, I'm special." Please. Have your baby in a hospital. If you are not happy with your ‘birthing experience,’ try getting a life.
Outside of natural birth circles, and especially among people who have never experienced birth, this opinion is fairly common among Westerners. It’s an opinion worth challenging. A woman’s experience does matter, whether she births at home, at a birth center, or in the hospital. It influences the progress of labor, her and her baby’s comfort and safety, and their health after the birth.
It’s a false logic that pits a woman’s experience against the needs of her baby. It’s based on two assumptions of the Western medical model that are belied by experience. The first is that mind and body are separate. If you’ve ever experienced a physical response to a thought – such as salivating as you think about a delicious food or the flush of sexual arousal as you think about your beloved – you’ll know that mind and body are one. The hormones of birth are especially influenced by our environment and by our thoughts about our environment.
It may help to know that the “prime mover” of birth is the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone of love and bonding. It is released during sexual arousal, orgasm, and bonding (post-coital or otherwise); during labor and birth; and during breastfeeding. Consider how our environment and our thoughts influence our readiness for and enjoyment of sex. In Mother Nature’s perfect economy the same environment and thoughts that got you pregnant will get your baby born. Imagine how intercourse would be influenced if you tried to have it in a medical setting: with bright lights and strangers coming in and out of your room, criticizing how you’re doing it, and pressuring you to do it more quickly.
Now imagine the perfect environment and frame of mind for sex. You’re probably picturing a familiar space that you control and can completely relax in; a partner you love and trust, and both of you allowing the experience to unfold moment by moment in its own time until it reaches its inevitable climax.
Quite a difference, isn’t it? The climax that is birth is physiologically not that different from the climax of sex: same hormones, same organs, muscles, and tissues. What is good for a woman during sex is good for her during birth. And if you’ve ever breastfed, you probably found it was easier and more enjoyable to nurse your baby in an environment where you could be uninhibited.
No one questions that a mother’s experience during sex and breastfeeding matter. However, they question it during birth because of a second assumption of the Western medical model: that mother and baby are separate. Again, experience tells a different story. When you were pregnant, did you notice baby reacting to your emotional state? In the HypnoBirthing classes I teach, it’s very common for babies to “come out to play” as soon as mothers begin their relaxation practice. I also vividly remember my unborn daughter’s manic kicking while I argued furiously with a family member during my pregnancy with her. Emotions cross the placenta.
As a mother, have you ever noticed your baby’s energy mirroring your own? I noticed this for the first time as a teenage babysitter. I was caring for an infant with colic, whose cries I tried desperately to soothe, and I was becoming increasingly upset. I called my mother for help. She came over, and the instant I passed the screaming baby to my calm, experienced mother, he stopped crying. This is one thing that conventional wisdom has got right: a happy mother makes for a happy family.
The truth is that in the womb (and for a long time after) baby and mother are one energy unit. Her experience influences baby’s and vice versa. The oxytocin that flows freely in a mother who is laboring in an optimal environment, free from fear and pressure, among people who honor and support her, is perfectly calibrated for her body and her baby. It produces surges that are more rhythmic, gentle, and efficient for both mother and baby than the pitocin-augmented contractions that the medical model favors. If pitocin is hard on mothers – many opt for pain relief with pitocin – you can be sure it’s hard on babies.
Finally, a woman’s experience during birth affects on how she feels about herself as a mother. A difficult labor and birth is a known risk factor in post-partum depression (see Mother-Daughter Wisdom, by Dr. Christiane Northrup, M.D., 2005). Two studies reported in Birth as an American Rite of Passage, by Robbie Davis-Floyd (2003) find a high correlation between a highly medical birth and post-partum depression. What price do mothers and babies pay when their experience of birth is disregarded as unimportant?
I know my own births – which were greatly satisfying and safe for my children and for me – taught me to trust my body, my instincts, and my baby. There was a moment early in my first birth when my labor became suddenly stronger. I panicked and braced myself against the surge, mistakenly thinking that if I held my breath and tensed my body I could control it. When that only made it worse, I remembered my HypnoBirthing practice. It taught me to trust that my body and baby knew what they were doing. So I sat down to wait for the next surge. When it came, this time I relaxed. I breathed. I let it come and welcomed it. I smiled. The difference was night and day: comfort where there had been pain, ease where there had been effort, and confidence where there had been fear. From that time my labor progressed smoothly and easily, and when my healthy baby was born, I knew I could do anything!
Birth may be unique in its physical intensity, but it is a metaphor for life: relax; trust; breathe; allow things to happen at their own pace; this surge (this phase) will pass; smile. When this is your approach to sex, birth, breastfeeding, motherhood, not only is your experience more satisfying, it’s better for everyone involved.
You bet your experience matters.
Allison is a Martha Beck-trained life coach and certified HypnoBirthing practitioner. She lives with her husband and two adorable children at Yokota Air Base, west of Tokyo. Find her at Wisdom Childbirth.