How will you manage labor pain? Are epidurals safe? Are scheduled c-sections as safe as spontaneous vaginal birth? American pregnant women ask these questions everyday… and get different answers. In all the clamour to define the risks and benefits of such medical solutions to the challenge of labor pain, very few take the time to consider that the normal labor process may actually have some benefits.
In Pushed: The Painful Truth about Childbirth and Modern Maternity Care auth0r Jennifer Block highlights several positives unique to a spontaneous vaginal birth: “the conditioning of the fetal lungs, the priming of the breastfeeding relationship, the infusion of the ‘love hormone,’ the physical proximity of mother and baby.” Let’s look at the positive side of natural birth, shall we?
Babies Can Breathe
Scientists still don’t understand how spontaneous birth is initiated, but they do know that the baby and the mother’s body communicate, almost “agreeing” when it is time. Michel Odent, a scientist who’s dedicated to studying the natural labor process, explains “the baby gives a signal when its lungs are mature. For a baby to be born it implies that the lungs are ready, because to be born is to breathe. When you induce labor, or when you do an elective cesarean section with no labor, the baby has not given the signal” (Block, pg. 140). One clear benefit of spontaneous normal birth is that baby is ready – truly full term. Remember, there is a significant margin of error in setting a “due date” (which should really be considered a “due month”). Baby is the expert on when to be born.
Spontaneous vaginal birth offers another breathing benefit. In the womb, baby’s lungs are filled with fluid. How do those lungs switch from water-filled to air-filled? Gradually. The baby “begins purging its lungs of fluid in the days prior to birth….the process continues during spontaneous labor and birth. Hormones are released that prime the lungs for air, and the squeezing effect of the birth canal helps purge the lungs of excess fluid” (pg. 140). Cesarean babies often have trouble breathing, requiring heavy suctioning and intubation (pg. 140).
Babies Can Breastfeed
Breastfeeding is an “extremely time-sensitive relationship” concur countless studies and even the CDC (pg. 141). The sooner a newly born baby can be put to the breast, the better chance for a successful breastfeeding relationship. If the newborn is struggling to breathe, breastfeeding is delayed. More cesarean-born babies are put in the NICU, another common breastfeeding challenge. What’s more, suctioning and intubating irritate baby’s mouth and throat making feeding uncomfortable and discouraging.
The very pain of childbirth plays a part in breastfeeding success. How? It’s the endorphin-prolactin connection. “Endorphins, natural opiates that are also secreted during sex, reach peak levels during birth and are responsible for the altered state of consciousness that women often describe toward the end of labor – a reproductive version of the ‘runner’s high.’ The endorphins stimulate release of prolactin, which is central to breastfeeding” (pg. 172). No pain, no endorphins. No endorphins no prolactin. No prolactin, uh-oh breastfeeding. “The endorphin-prolactin connection may explain recent data suggesting that epidurals hamper breastfeeding” says Odent (pg. 173). Is it so surprising that a woman’s ability to breastfeed is tied to her experience of birth? The two are designed to go hand in hand.
Babies can Bond
This last benefit is really more for the mother than for the baby, but no one would deny that baby benefits. And here’s the bottom line: natural, spontaneous labor includes the release of the “love hormone” in mama and the opportunity for immediate, skin to skin contact between mama and baby at birth. These are the makings of a beautiful bond.
Oxytocin is the “love hormone”. “In addition to its star role of contracting the uterus during labor and birth, oxytocin is the hormone secreted, in both men and women, during the ecstasy of orgasm, the feeling of emotional connection with a friend, the rush of being in love, and the literal rush of milk to a suckling infant” (pg. 135). Oxytocin is a potent hormone that plays a pivotal role to our emotional well-being. But, when mama is induced, artificial oxytocin called Pitocin is used to force labor. Problem is Pitocin doesn’t make it’s way to the brain to encourage an emotional response to birth (pg. 135). This synthetic version of oxytocin is essentially incomplete because it doesn’t cross the blood-brain barrier. In fact, it actually works against the body, signally it to stop producing oxytocin. So, mama’s got no “love hormone”, she’s tied down to a bed, disconnected from the birth with a numbing epidural or c-section and watching it all like a spectator. Do we wonder why mothers today report difficulty with bonding?
Author Jennifer Block shares the story of Michelle McSweeny, a woman who was reluctantly induced and eventually sectioned. Michelle felt manipulated and overpowered by her experience, but her biggest regret was “the initial inability to bond with or care for her daughter. ‘The saddest thing of all was that when the baby came out and they held her up for me, I didn’t cry or feel that joy that you’re supposed to feel. And I’m an emotional person. I didn’t have that moment of ecstasy. I was so out of it… I couldn’t breastfeed right away. My arms barely worked. I couldn’t pick the baby up if she was crying’” (pg. 144).
Pain = Gain for Mama & Baby
Labor is painful. I’ve given birth naturally - twice - both times at home with a midwife. The first time I was unsure and inexperienced. Pushing took longer than I expected and to say I felt “desperate” towards the end would be an understatement. I only briefing held my daughter at birth because my significant loss of blood required attention. Even so, I experienced immediate bonding with my child, who breathed and suckled easily.
My second birth was decidedly different. It was beautiful. I felt so supported, so sure of my strength, so completely “high”. That experience, the extended ecstasy of a completed, natural, joyful birth is worth all the pain I experienced, several times over. I know I owe my physical and emotional health and that of my child’s to my dedication to following nature’s path. I encourage you to hold onto what you know to be true. Trust your body’s wisdom and birth your baby in good time.