Language and Birth

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Words matter. They settle deep in the psyche and impact our emotions, our beliefs – our overall outlook on things. This is never truer than with pregnancy and childbirth. All pregnant women, but especially a woman pregnant with her first child, is in new and unchartered space, and the people who surround her and the things they say impact her labor and first experiences as a mother.

Mind your words around a pregnant woman, and especially around a woman in labor.

Anthropologists and communication scholars write about two different paradigms of birth. Robbie Davis Floyd, Texas anthropologist and author, writes and lectures about the “technocratic” and “ecology” models of birth, arguing that there is freedom and space in the ecology model, but that in the technocratic model, the woman’s body is seen a machine and the baby as the product. Other researchers write about the “obstetrical” model, which includes the surgical training of obstetricians, versus the “midwifery” model, which includes the midwifery model of care and the importance of continuous support for the laboring woman. In each model you see a different lexicon of words.

For instance, who actually “delivers” the baby? It’s more common in the obstetrical/technocratic model to hear that the physician delivers the baby. But, the original use of the Middle English verb to deliver was passive. The Oxford Dictionaries site points out that “a woman was delivered of a child. When active use first arose, the midwife or doctor was the agent, and the woman the object: ‘they sent, and beg’d I would deliver her’ [1676].” In the beginning, deliver referred to the woman’s experience, whether liberation or rescue from the labor, or the woman freed from the burden of pregnancy. Next it moved to the active form that focused upon the woman’s agency in her birth experience, and today it has moved the main action to the attendant. “Dr. X delivered my baby.”

At the core, within the midwifery model, pregnancy is viewed as a natural life event for childbearing women. And out of that belief, words such as power, trust, love, empowerment, choice, and energy are often used to describe pregnancy and birth. There might be references to the power of nature/ birth or the power of the mother’s abilities in labor. Doulas and midwives use words such “rushes” or “waves” or “surges” to refer to a woman’s contractions, words that conjure up the image of a powerful ocean crashing against the seaside or strong electrical currents. And the midwife serves as facilitator, not director, in the mother’s natural life event.

By contrast, within the obstetrical model, pregnancy is viewed in terms of norms, with the male body as normal. Floyd takes this idea further by saying the woman’s body is seen as machine, the baby as product, and that pregnancy is something to be controlled: the doctor or midwife “deliver” the product through their control over the process with words like induce, intervene, and medicate. If the norm is to not be pregnant, then the labor needs to be actively managed. The action is focused not on the woman who is in labor, but on the staff who perform the management.

Somewhere in between is the reality of birth, right? There are times when a labor or pregnancy can move outside the norm of regular birth. While the woman’s body is designed for giving birth, labor can get complicated. In that case, the obstetrical model, with its emphasis on management and intervention and the provider in action, is a necessary model. But, given that approximately 90% or more (some researchers believe the more accurate number to be 95%) of women can give birth, can deliver their babies without intervention, why are obstetrical/technocratic words so commonly used? And why does it matter?

Women in labor are highly sensitive and intuitive. For example, if a woman is in active labor, moving quickly through the stages, and arrives at the hospital only to hear a nurse tell her that she won’t be giving birth until the next morning, guess what? The labor slows and the baby is born in the morning. If a soon-to-be-grandmother is anxious about the birth and present in the delivery room, the slightest slip of the tongue can have a negative impact on the laboring woman. If she says, “All the women in our family have cesareans, you’re no different,” the labor will be harder, the woman will have to fight against the negativity, and if not adequately prepared or supported, she might end up with a cesarean that may or may not have been needed if the words that surrounded her were positive and affirming. If a nurse tells a mother who is ready to push that the doctor needs to arrive to deliver the baby, the mother may lose her sense of agency over the delivery and the contractions may slow or the pushing become difficult.

The power of suggestion takes on a heightened meaning during birth.

In an article on the Birth International site, Abby Sutcliffe writes:

During labour, women are particularly alert to what is being said by caregivers. Even though she may look as though she is lost is concentration during contractions, the labouring woman will hear, often acutely, what is being said around her. She looks to the midwife for confirmation that she is doing well, particularly with handling the pain. A few well-chosen words of encouragement and support can be far more effective than [medication] in achieving relaxation and confidence in the labouring woman. The midwife at a birth has great influence on the woman’s reactions and impressions, so be careful not to introduce your own feelings and biases into the room. This woman is not a “poor thing” who won’t cope without you — she is a strong, innately capable woman uniquely designed for giving birth easily, safely and enjoyably. If you truly believe this then you won’t need to watch your language, you will already be consciously feeding this information back to through your language and responses.

Birth is a highly personal experience. Each laboring woman brings into the birthing room a personal story that includes the past birth experiences of the women in her family, her own hopes and fears, and any other past experiences that impact the natural process of birth, such as past sexual trauma or body image issues. Birth is a natural life event, a part of a women’s greater sexuality and biology. The words that she hears can help or heed her progress; it’s up to the people who surround her to make it the most positive and successful experience possible. Care providers: pay attention to the words you use around a pregnant or laboring woman. Family members and support team: think before speaking—everyone in the labor room should examine their own biases and experiences, their own fears, or even trauma that may not have been dealt with in the past. For the laboring woman, words really do matter.

Pregnant women deserve to feel supported and respected – empowered – to deliver her baby. No matter the final outcome—whether natural, or a birth with medication or a cesarean section—positive language in the birthing room puts the woman at the center of the action, so that she is in the best position to successfully deliver her baby.

 

Herbs in Pregnancy

Herbs

We’ve written in the past about a pregnant woman’s lowered immunity. Good nutrition, sanitation habits, rest, and exercise all help to strengthen the pregnant woman’s immune system—yet she will inevitably be exposed to viruses and other immune challenges. Pharmaceutical remedies may prove too strong or be contraindicated in pregnancy, so we wondered about herbal remedies. What herbs are safe in pregnancy and what herbs should be avoided? We turned to an herbalist with training in the use of herbs during pregnancy and postpartum to find the answers. *

Before receiving clinical training in Herbal Medicine for Women, Julie Pettler worked as a physical therapist. Later, while teaching her young children at home, Julie built a large garden in her yard and began to keep bees. As her love of gardening grew, so did her fascination with the power of herbs—herbs that grow naturally and herbs that can be cultivated—to treat common ailments. “I study history, science, anatomy, and human health [as an herbalist],” Julie says. “Sometimes I walk barefoot through my yard to gather dandelion greens to add some bitter to my diet. Sometimes I order a strong tincture to stimulate a client’s lymphatic system.” In her current herbalist practice, she combines her love of teaching with her love of plants by leading workshops on foraging, herbal medicine making, the holistic use of plants for health and well-being, and the history and science of plant medicine. Studying herbs for women’s health combined another of her passions: advocacy for pregnant women and evidence-based childbirth.

We started the conversation by asking Julie when the pregnant woman can use herbs during pregnancy. “Herbs may be used for general nutritional support during pregnancy, such as with the use of pregnancy “teas,” and confidently used to address common mild discomforts such as nausea, itchy skin (topical use), and heartburn,” she says. “If a more serious issue arises during pregnancy, herbs may be considered in consultation with a knowledgeable practitioner.”

Julie offered a list of categories of herbs traditionally avoided in pregnancy. “Stimulating laxatives, such as Cascara sagrada, [and] aloe and rhubarb should not be used during pregnancy.” She suggests instead non-stimulating bulk laxatives such as flax or psyllium. Tansy, Mugwort, wormwood, and yarrow stimulate menstrual flow and should not be used. Julie points out that the literature on the safety of herbs in pregnancy is often conflicting, so she suggests a conservative approach to the use of herbal remedies.

The following are some of her suggestions for use in pregnancy:

Nausea

Nausea is a common complaint among pregnant women, in particular in the early months. Julie recommends ginger. “It’s the most studied herb for nausea in pregnancy,” she says. “And the studies support the traditional use of ginger.” Ginger can be taken as a tea (simply shaving fresh ginger into a teacup and steeping it in hot water, can create the tea), as ale in the form of ginger ale with real ginger, in capsule form, or as a candy.

Colds and Flus

For immune support, Julie recommends Echinacea initially, at the first sign of a cold or a flu. “It can be combined with elderberry for extra immune support,” she says. “If a cold or flu sets in, Echinacea should be discontinued. Many times though, the use of Echinacea will prevent illness.” Echinacea is best used for a short duration and can be taken in tincture form every few hours for two-three days.

Pregnancy Tea for Uterine Support

Pregnancy teas support and tone the expanding uterus in the second and third trimesters. Julie recommends equal parts Red Raspberry Leaf, Nettle Leaf, Oat Straw, and Alfalfa (measuring one cup combined). Using one quart of boiling water, cover and steep the herbs overnight to make the nourishing tea.

Postpartum

Julie suggests using herbs for after pains and for healing and antiseptic support of the perineal tissue. Antispasmodic herbs include chamomile, catnip, motherwort, and cramp bark, and can provide relief from after pains. Sitz baths, warm compresses, or peri-rinses to support the perineum postpartum can be made using comfrey leaves, calendula flowers, lavender flowers, sage leaf, yarrow blossoms, and rosemary.

A longitudinal study in 2001 on the use of pharmaceutical medications in pregnancy concluded that 91% of conventional medications had not been proven safe in pregnancy; physicians had inadequate information on the safety of medications in pregnancy. The World Health Organization studied the safety of vaccines in pregnancy and reached a similar conclusion—there are not enough studies conducted on pregnant women for obvious ethical reasons.

Most pregnant women have healthy pregnancies despite the lowered immunity. Herbs can provide a safe and low-risk option for women wanting to boost their immune systems when they’ve been exposed to a cold or flu, when they are preparing for birth, and during the early trimesters for nausea or in the postpartum period when their bodies are healing. “I love that the plants are simultaneously simple and complex,” Julie says. “I love the ways herbs can nudge our bodes toward health by nourishing us and supporting all of our body systems. This is an excellent time to slow down and embrace the healing power of plants.”

*Always consult with your healthcare practitioner before using herbs in pregnancy

The Physiology of Birth

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photo courtesy of Adelaide Birth Photography

Birth is often a mystery—at least that’s what we’re led to believe. But closer examination reveals basic physiological truths that underpin normal birth for both the mother and baby. Certain truisms can indicate risk, such as a pregnant woman’s prenatal nutrition and medical history, but, in the end, birth is a complex orchestration of hormones, proteins, neurology, and basic psychology for the mother. The teasing apart of these elements allows us to understand the perfectly designed biological process of childbirth.

What We Know About the Onset of Labor

There is surprisingly little known about what causes labor. In the beginning of pregnancy, the woman’s immune system is suppressed to insure that the forming embryo implants successfully and the biological process sets in motion. In fact, if a woman’s immune system is too active, miscarriage can occur in the early months. Later in the pregnancy, when the baby is full term and labor begins naturally, though, there is less consensus about the exact cause of labor. Science is only just beginning to understand the onset of labor.

There’s strong evidence the baby may have something to do with initiating labor. When the baby reaches 32 weeks, a surface protein, a soap like substance or surfacent, coats the inside of the baby’s lungs to keep the alveoli open, a critical shift that will allow the baby to breathe outside the uterus. The surfacent consists of six fats and 4 proteins and continues to be produced until around the child’s eighth birthday, when the lungs are fully developed. Eventually one of the proteins, SP-A, is produced in the baby’s maturing lungs in utero. This protein activates immune cells (macrophages) to migrate to the uterine wall, creating a chemical, inflammatory, reaction, which may be the official start of a natural labor. Studies have been done with mice in which the SP-A is blocked; the mice remain pregnant beyond normal gestation. So, in a nutshell, the baby’s development—more importantly, the baby’s maturing lungs that signal when they are ready to breathe outside the uterus—may be the instigator, signaling for labor to begin.

On the mother’s part, hormones play an important role. Prostaglandin is the hormone that softens the cervix and oxytocin increases and triggers contractions. Also at play are estrogen, progesterone, cortisol, and CRH—corticotrophn. When the baby drops in the mother’s pelvis, the hormones assist, and the cervix begins to relax and thin.

The hormones; the baby’s position; and the immune cells, in concert with the uterus, all work together to trigger the full onset of labor. And hormones continue to work to the mother’s advantage as she progresses through the rest of the labor.

Hormones in Undisturbed Labor Defined

Any woman who has had a natural birth or observed a natural birth knows that undisturbed labor is intuitive and powerful, an intricate dance between mother and baby and the people assisting the mother. The mother often knows what she most needs, even in the most complicated of situations, because of the uninterrupted intuitive interplay between mother and baby.

Sarah Buckley, MD, an Australian obstetrician, writes and speaks extensively on the hormones at play in undisturbed birth. The key hormones in birth include oxytocin, beta-endorphin, adrenaline (epinephrine), and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), and are identical to the pattern of hormone release in lovemaking. “As the hormones of love, pleasure and transcendence, excitement, and tender mothering, respectively, these form the major components of an ecstatic cocktail of hormones that nature prescribes to aid birthing mothers of all mammalian species,” Buckley writes in “Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering.”

The cocktail of hormones build up and peak around the time of birth or soon after and subside and reorganize over the hours and days after the birth. All of these hormones are produced primarily in the hypothalamus and each serve an important function in natural labor: oxytocin, the love hormone, stimulates contractions, and higher levels of oxytocin are also beneficial for contracting the uterus after birth to prevent hemorrhaging; beta-endorphin serves as a stress hormone, more specifically as a pain-reliever that in high amounts can slow the production of oxytocin, thereby helping to modulate the pain of labor; and adrenaline and noradrenaline—fight or flight hormones—rise at the end of labor, giving the mother extra energy for the pushing and initiating the ejection impulse necessary for the final stage of labor.

Karen Strange, CPM, who teaches NRP training from the baby’s perspective, teaches birth workers to observe and expect the laboring mother to “pause” after the baby arrives. Strange teaches that there is a natural sequencing to birth for both mother and baby, and the pause or resting allows them to have a time of integration. Oxytocin, the love hormone, is at its highest in the hour after the birth, and mothers and babies begin the bonding process during that sacred hour. But noradrenaline also plays a role. “Noradrenaline, as part of the ecstatic cocktail, is also implicated in instinctive mothering behavior. Mice bred to be deficient in noradrenaline will not care for their young after birth unless noradrenaline is injected back into their system,” writes Buckley.

Why Environment Matters

Michael Odent, French obstetrician and surgeon, studied the environments for birth in the 1980s. He introduced low lighting, birthing pools, and singing into the birthing rooms at the hospital where he practiced in Paris. Eventually he became involved in home birth and started a research center in London. He found that low lighting, less observation, warm water, and a more homelike environment aided women in labor. Looking at the hormones at play—the very same hormones that are involved in lovemaking—it’s easy to see why a woman’s labor might be aided by the elements he studied. Traditionally women have birthed in a home, or even outside. The hospital environment became a new normal in the 20th century as surgical and other interventions began to rise, an environment Odent refers to as the masculinization of the birth environment.

Buckley writes, “For birth to proceed optimally, this more primitive part of the brain needs to take precedence over our neocortex—our “new” or higher brain—which is the seat of our rational mind. This shift in consciousness, which some have called “going to another planet,” is aided by (and also aids) the release of birthing hormones such as beta-endorphin, and is inhibited by circumstances that increase alertness, such as bright lighting, conversation, and expectations of rationality.”

Finely Tuned Dance

Low lighting, quiet, and support for the increasing irrational and more instinctual feelings of the birthing mother all support undisturbed labor. Midwives are trained to follow the mother. By following her cues and trusting in the complex orchestration of hormones, the healthcare provider receives vital information for understanding how the labor is progressing. What is most important is that the mother feels safe to travel to that other planet and that labor starts naturally and remains undisturbed. Biology most often takes care of the rest.

The physiology of birth includes a finely tuned dance between mother and baby, between immune cells and proteins and the uterine wall, and between the mother and her environment. If birth is treated more like a medical procedure, more like a masculine [refers to culture, not to men specifically] and rational endeavor, the more removed the mother will become from all the benefits nature provides. The physiology of birth, when allowed to proceed uninterrupted in normal birth, provides a hormonal roadmap for a successful birth and bonding.

“Giving birth and being born brings us into the essence of creation, where the human spirit is courageous and bold and the body, a miracle of wisdom.”

-Harriette Hartigan, midwife, author, and photographer

How to Get Healthy and Stay Healthy During Pregnancy

 

maternity-pictures-1_carmenhibbinsEach woman arrives at a new pregnancy from a different starting point. One woman may have planned for months to get pregnant, taking vitamins, eating healthy, and exercising. Another might be classified as medically obese and is worried about how that will affect her pregnancy—should she lose weight or focus only on eating healthy? While yet another may have, not intending or wanting a pregnancy at the time, been drinking heavily or using illicit drugs. Of course, most women are somewhere in the middle. Ultimately it’s most important that a woman work at getting as healthy as possible, so that she and the baby have the best outcomes.

So how does a woman who is already pregnant get healthy and stay healthy? And what are the risks if she isn’t healthy?

Lets look at the central tenets of a healthy pregnancy:

Good nutrition

Eating right helps to build a strong and healthy baby, and it helps the pregnant mom as well. A healthy diet can help to prevent high blood pressure, preeclampsia, gestational diabetes, and premature labor. A healthy diet can help to ensure against the baby growing too big, which could lead to a difficult birth.

Earlier this past year, we outlined a healthy diet for pregnancy. Be sure to eat plenty of protein and whole grains, and focus on color and variety in your fruits and vegetables during pregnancy. Good sources of protein include meats (limit seafood because of the high mercury content in many sources of seafood), dairy, eggs, nuts, beans, and seeds. And the less processed and milled the grains, the better. Drink plenty of water and salt to taste. Eat small, nutritious meals often. And, most of all, limit sweets and high-sugar-content food and drink.

A good prenatal vitamin is important for a healthy pregnancy as well. Prenatal vitamins are specially formulated for a pregnant woman’s needs. In particular, the pregnant woman needs at least 400 mcg of folate (higher if a BMI over 30) and Vitamin D. Folate in the first trimester helps the baby’s developing nervous system and strengthens the mom’s immune system. Vitamin D also helps with the mom’s immune system and helps the baby to develop strong bones and teeth before and after the birth. Vitamin D can be continued postpartum and can help to decrease the risk of postpartum blues.

What if a woman has a high BMI when she finds out she’s pregnant? There is no evidence that dieting to lose weight is good for mom or baby. In that case, she should focus on the healthy pregnancy diet, balancing the pregnancy needs for quality protein, whole grains, and plenty of fruit and vegetables. Many women who struggle with weight before pregnancy discover that eating healthy for the pregnancy helps them to maintain a healthier weight during and after the pregnancy. Most moms-to-be who have a higher BMI at the start of pregnancy can expect to enjoy a healthy pregnancy.

Exercise

Exercise helps the pregnant woman prepare for birth by strengthening and toning her body. It can also help to manage weight, and, combined with a healthy diet, can lower the risk of giving birth to a large baby. The adage is that if a woman already has a regular exercise practice, she can continue the practice. But, if the mom is new to exercise, low-impact exercise with a gradual endurance plan is just as beneficial.

The shift in the woman’s center of gravity and increase in joint laxity can make exercise more challenging. Water sports, such as swimming or low-impact water aerobics, can help support the pregnant woman’s body. Mild exercise in general can help the woman meet the greater oxygen demand that pregnancy creates. However, too aerobic of an activity can decrease her oxygen consumption and lower her overall oxygen volume. Ultimately, exercise can make pregnancy more comfortable and shorten the woman’s labor, and even reduce the need for interventions.

Exercise can also:

  • Reduce back aches
  • Reduce constipation, bloating, and swelling
  • Boost energy levels
  • Help with mood
  • Help with sleep
  • Prevent excess weight gain
  • Promote strength and endurance, which in turn helps the mother in childbirth

If the pregnant woman hasn’t exercised in awhile, but would like to add an exercise routine during pregnancy, she should start slowly, beginning with five minutes and building her endurance by five minute increments until she reaches a thirty minute practice.

What exercise should be avoided during pregnancy? Some forms of exercise are not advisable, such as:

  • Exercise that forces you to lie flat on your back after the 1st trimester
  • Scuba diving, which puts the baby at risk of decompression sickness
  • Water skiing, surfing, and diving, which cause you to hit water with a great deal of force
  • Contact sports such as ice hockey, basketball, volleyball, or soccer
  • High altitude exercise (less oxygen for you and the baby—and risk of altitude sickness, which causes headache and nausea)
  • Any activity that could cause direct trauma to the abdomen, like kickboxing
  • Hot Yoga or Pilates
  • Sports with a high risk of falling, such as downhill skiing, gymnastics, or horseback riding at fast speeds

A regular exercise practice during pregnancy can lead to an exercise practice postpartum, which can help the new mom shed weight and regain muscle tone and strength for her non-pregnant body. Exercise should be avoided for the first month while the woman establishes breastfeeding and recovers from the birth.

Education

In addition to prenatal counseling with a maternity care provider, there are several ways a pregnant woman can educate herself about pregnancy and childbirth:

Childbirth education (CE) classes

CE classes can help the pregnant woman stay focused on pregnancy-specific issues, such as nutrition, lifestyle practices, and preparation for childbirth. Some options for childbirth education classes include: Hypnobirthing, Birthing From Within, Bradley, Lamaze, Birthworks, Centering Pregnancy, Sacred Pregnancy, and others. Local doulas and midwives often have extensive lists of local childbirth education providers, and some midwives offer childbirth classes at birth centers and in their communities.

Books

Books are a powerful way for the pregnant woman to prepare for birth and to learn coping mechanisms for the changing nature of pregnancy. Some favorites include: Spiritual Midwifery, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, Diary of a Midwife, Birth Without Violence, Birth with Confidence, and Homebirth Cesarean. There are also literary memoirs about pregnancy and birth, and pregnancy loss that can be powerful and impactful narratives, depending on a mother’s perspective and needs.

Documentaries

Documentaries about pregnancy and childbirth often include interviews with experts, snapshots of individual women’s labors, and commentary on an overall maternity care system. Documentaries, if appropriate, can help children understand an upcoming birth and help pregnant women (and couples) make decisions about what they most want from the birth experience. Some of the better documentaries include The Business of Being Born, Orgasmic Birth, The Face of Birth, Birth Into Being: The Russian Waterbirth Experience, and Pregnant in America. Check out this TED talk by Ina May Gaskin, the international childbirth luminary midwife.

Support

Rhea Dempsey writes about the “circles of influence” that surround the pregnant woman—from friends and family to the wider culture. These circles ultimately impact the woman’s pregnancy and birth experiences.

The people with whom the pregnant woman surrounds herself make a big difference in how healthy, physically and emotionally, the woman will be during pregnancy. The following are important questions to ask:

  • Is the pregnant woman’s home a safe place?
  • Does she have emotional support?
  • Is she more concerned with the anxieties and fears of her mother, her sister, her husband, her friend, than her own?
  • Is the pregnant woman able to decide how and where she wants to birth based solely on her needs and wants?
  • Is her maternity care provider supportive of her wishes?
  • Can she ask questions without fear of belittlement or of her fears being minimized?
  • Does she have access to healthy food and clean water?

A healthy pregnancy hinges on physical elements such as a safe place to live, the opportunity to exercise, access to healthy food and clean water, and good prenatal care, but it also hinges on emotional health, and support is central to a pregnant woman’s emotional health. Support often means more listening than talking, and support means something different for every woman. And, ultimately, after pregnancy, the birth is most about the woman and her baby, not the people who surround her. Sometimes the best support is the most minimal support, support that allows the woman to decide how she wants to birth and who she wants to support her during the birth.

Getting healthy during pregnancy will mean something different for each woman. For instance, a woman who struggles with alcohol and drugs may need to first focus on addiction recovery. After she is clean and sober, she can move on to good prenatal care and nutrition, as well as creating a circle of support that is healthy and best for her and the baby. For a woman who doesn’t have good nutritional habits, getting healthy may mean focusing solely on nutrition and exercise. And for a woman who lives in an unsafe home, getting to safety may be the first step toward a healthy pregnancy.

Focusing on the main tenets of a healthy pregnancy will help a woman get healthy and stay healthy throughout pregnancy, with great benefits to both mother and baby.

The Fourth Trimester

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photo credit: Birthing Beautiful Communities

When a newborn emerges from the womb, it leaves behind a warm, dark, and physically stimulating environment that includes the mother’s heartbeat, the sounds of children or other adult voices, and the rocking, jostling, and rhythmic steps of the mother moving about. Upon birth, a baby will turn toward the familiar sound of its mother’s voice. We teach new parents to lay the baby down in quiet rooms, away from noise and the hustle and bustle of life, away from the mother’s familiar heartbeat, but what if what they really need is more of what they experienced in the womb?

The concept of a fourth trimester was first communicated by British childbirth educator and author, Sheila Kitzinger, in 1975: “There is a fourth trimester to pregnancy, and we neglect it at our peril. It is a transitional period of approximately three months after birth, particularly marked after first babies, when many women are emotionally highly vulnerable, when they experience confusion and recurrent despair, and during which anxiety is normal and states of reactive depression commonplace.” And other anthropologists like Jean Liedloff, author of The Continuum Concept, have studied multiple cultures or indigenous populations, looking for answers for problems faced by mothers and babies during the fourth trimester and beyond.

The fourth trimester concept embraces the idea that human babies are born three to four months earlier than developmentally ready. With evolution, the human brain has grown larger, but the woman’s pelvis has not. Thus, babies are born when their skulls are approximately eleven centimeters and before they have the muscle control to hold up their heads or roll over.

A friend who recently had her first baby remarked that while she had probably over-prepared for the birth, she hadn’t prepared at all for the first three months. Women no longer live and work in the same environments; we don’t see parenting up close with our communities or do as much caring for younger children as we once did when families were larger and life was more communal. We’ve moved into the workplace, attending college at large numbers, and waiting until our thirties (on average) to have children.

The transition from baby-in-the-womb to baby in the room can be just as jarring for today’s new mother as for the baby.

Buzzwords and parenting trends come and go, but the needs of the baby and new mother remain constant. During the fourth trimester, the mother faces: changing hormones, physical and sometimes emotional recovery from the birth, an initial unusually heavy period, soreness, moodiness, sleep deprivation, feeding and caring challenges with the baby, and, frankly, a world turned topsy-turvy. First time mothers are adjusting to the fact that every decision they make—even slipping into the bathroom to shower—impacts another person. Essentially, her life is no longer focused on her own wants and desires. More than men, women’s lives are greatly disrupted and reshaped by the arrival of a child, especially in the first months after the baby’s birth.

Both mom and baby are thrust into a new world, requiring adjustments, time, and a steep learning curve. If it’s a first baby, the learning curve is steep, but even consecutive babies create a learning curve, given personality and developmental differences baby to baby.

didymos-baby-sling-baby-carrier-baby-brightThe concept of the fourth trimester helps during this vulnerable time of change—looking at the early months through the eyes of the newborn, with empathy, helps the new parents in terms of setting expectations and making decisions. For instance, babywearing, especially with cloth wraps, can soothe even the fussiest of babies. The baby returns to the familiar warmth, heartbeats, and movement of its mother in the wrap. Wrapped securely, mothers can grocery shop, take care of older children, walk around the house, prepare food, or rest on the couch while the baby naps in its familiar cocoon. Some physicians and development specialists recommend swaddling to achieve a similar sense of security, but it remains more controversial in terms of neurological and motor development, especially if done for extended periods of time. One of my favorite wraps is the Didymos, but there are many types and styles of wraps on the market today and a mother might find that different styles are better for certain situations. For instance, for a quick errand at the store, a ring style sling might be easier to use. And babywearing can be a lifesaver with colicky babies.

Looking through the lens of the fourth trimester, it’s easy to see why a baby might nurse at uneven intervals; in the womb, the baby received nutrition continuously and in synch with the baby’s development. In the same way, a baby will nurse more when it’s making big developmental leaps, cutting teeth, or going through a growth spurt—as well as when it’s upset, scared, or angry. The media (books, TV shows, movies) often portrays sleep as something to be managed, when in reality, the baby knows what it needs and the sooner the new mother (and father) accept a more flexible approach to feeding/nursing, the easier the fourth trimester becomes. Full nights of sleep WILL return, but to expect full nights of sleep when the baby is young is contrary to its needs and development.

In the meantime, what makes sleep easier? Many families find that co-sleeping or using a side basinet works well. If breastfeeding, the mother gets more sleep when the baby is close by. And regular sleep/arousal cycles are healthy for infants and decrease the risk of SIDS. Every baby will sleep on its own when it’s ready. Managing expectations about sleep is just as important as managing the baby’s care. Attitudes should match development, not external schedules or sleep rules. These guidelines for safe co-sleeping can be helpful. Never sleep with an infant if the accompanying parent(s) have been using drugs or alcohol, as they may impair instincts and awareness. Dr. McKenna, an anthropologist and infant sleep researcher, cautions against co-sleeping when the mother is unable to breastfeed. In that instance, having the infant in the room in the early days will allow the parents to respond quickly to the baby’s needs. To learn more, check out McKenna’s Behavioral Sleep Laboratory at Notre Dame.

More and more research, as well as community programs, is focused on the concept of the fourth trimester. The University of North Carolina has a team of investigators looking at ways to improve outcomes during the first months of motherhood and infancy. Mothers and babies need support during those tender first months and health professionals are beginning to realize the importance of timely health encounters to reduce the incidents of post-partum depression, breastfeeding problems, and other maternal health issues. As women, we no longer live communally, but we can create a sense of community and support with our care providers, support groups (La Leche League or new parent groups for example), extended family, and friends who are already mothers.

Midwives see the care of the mother from a holistic perspective. From pregnancy to birth to postpartum, the midwife educates and supports the mother. It’s just as important that a new mother reach out to her midwife or care provider when feeling overwhelmed or unsure. Like the baby, the new mother is going from a constant environment—one in which she did things a certain way—to a completely changed environment. Support from other seasoned mothers and from health providers can be crucial to moving successfully through the final trimester and first months of motherhood.

(Locally, check out the Premier Birth Center postpartum support group, which meets every month in Winchester).

The Differences Between Hospital and Out-of-Hospital Birth

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People who have never given birth outside of a hospital may have no idea of the differences between hospital and out-of-hospital birth. What’s the big deal? You can have a natural birth in the hospital. Why would someone want to have their baby at a birth center or (gasp!) at home? The answer is not so black and white.

Can you have a natural birth in the hospital?

Well, that all depends on what you call “natural,” but yes, to varying degrees, you can have a “natural birth” in the hospital. There are many labor & delivery nurses who are excellent at supporting natural hospital births, and there are many doctors and midwives who are supportive as well. Some hospitals have adopted policies that are more tolerant (even encouraging) of birth plans or that allow doulas in the birth room. Those are steps in the right direction. And many women have found creative ways to ensure a natural birth, such as waiting until transition to head to the Labor & Delivery floor, or laboring while roaming the halls of the hospital with a labor coach (a partner or doula or friend). Of course, a birth plan as an avoidance of interventions, rather than as a vision of an ideal birth, seems to really miss the point in a lot of ways. Should birth really be about strategic plans for dodging unwanted interference in your baby’s birth?

Let’s break this down. You’ve hired your care provider because you’ve heard great things about them, they have a great reputation, their statistics are great.. etcetera… Pushing the boundaries within a set system is one thing, but can you ask your care provider to be someone they’re not? A great hospital-based provider is skilled at hospital birth and what hospital birth has to offer you. A great birth center or home birth midwife is skilled at the midwifery model care. The models are not the same. As anyone who has seen birth both in and out of the hospital will tell you, there are a few key differences between the two:

The provider on call attends the birth at the hospital.

If your care provider is part of a group practice, who will actually attend your birth? If it’s a combination of physicians and midwives, are you guaranteed a midwife to attend you? Are all of the providers on board with your birth plan? You may have a favorite midwife or physician in the practice, but what are the chances that your favorite provider will attend the birth?

Most out-of-hospital practices are solo providers, although some are small group practices. In a solo practice, there is a rare possibility that your midwife will be unavailable due to illness or family emergency-after all, we’re only human! If you hired an out-of-hospital provider, do you know who the backup provider is?

All of the above are important questions to ask as you consider your birth options and whether to give birth in the hospital or out. What is most important is that you are comfortable with your decisions and ultimately your birth experience.

In the hospital, it’s the nurses who take care of you, not the doctors.

You spent weeks researching practices, settling on the one practice you think will best support your birth plan. Your doctor is a local superhero. But, who takes care of you at the hospital?

During your time in labor, the nurses will take care of you. Nurses are the amazing unsung heroes in the hospital. They are the ones who do the heavy lifting (literally, as well as figuratively) in patient care. They’re often over-worked and underpaid. We love nurses, yet even though they are awesome, they are also people you’ve never met before. Nurses are the ones who will be with you, almost single-handedly helping you with your labor. What if your philosophies on birth don’t match? Nurses vary in their training in natural labor support techniques. How do you know if you’ll be the lucky mom to get the super nurse who really knows her way around a rebozo or who does her best to be at the bedside as often as possible? Answer: You don’t. It’s a roll of the dice.

Once you get to the hospital, you’ll be checked in by the L&D staff. If you are seen by a doctor or midwife, it might be a provider from your group, or it might be an OB hospitalist, a physician who only sees patients in the hospital and does not have a private practice. If you’re admitted, you’ll most likely be monitored and “treated” per your provider’s standing orders. It’s good to know beforehand what orders are standard for your care provider. Your nurse will keep in contact with your provider and will update and consult with them, as needed, typically by phone. If you have questions about the orders or want to refuse something, you will have to wait until the nurse can reach the provider.

The provider may briefly check in during your labor, but typically they are not continuously present until you are pushing and the head is visible. Their training rests on the ability to take action if something unexpected happens. They are surgeons and the best option for a high risk situation, which happens in a small percentage of births.

Out-of-hospital midwives are the people who take care of you at your home or birth center. Together, with a birth assistant, they provide continuous labor support from beginning to end – and they determine when and if you need someone as highly trained as an OB or a transfer to a hospital. Rather than treat every laboring woman as if they are the minority of women who have complications, out-of-hospital midwives treat laboring women as the if they are the majority, who will not have complications, all the while keeping an eye on whether a complication could occur and when/if to transfer the mother to an OB’s care – much like the maternity models in most of the developed world.

Your nurse is taking care of more than one person at a time.

No matter how awesome your nurse is, she is only one person, and is most likely taking care of multiple women at the same time. It’s not realistic to expect a one-on-one continuous physical presence and support from your labor nurse. The hospital system is set up with floors of patients who are typically divided among the nurses for twelve hour shifts. The care will fluctuate based on caseload, changing shift hours, and the preferences of the nurses in term of hands-on care. There will be no chance to meet the nurses who will attend you before you are admitted. And no choice in terms of which nurse is assigned to you.

On the flip side, hiring a midwife means that you have a chance to interview and pick the right provider for your care, including a back-up midwife. Whether the primary midwife or the back-up midwife, you will have a good sense of exactly who will be providing continuous labor support during your birth.

They work in shifts.

Nurses typically work in 12 hour shifts. Unfortunately, labor doesn’t often fit neatly within one 12 hour shift. Your labor will typically straddle two shifts, or maybe more. While getting through contractions, you may have to shift gears and adapt to a new support person- right before transition, or even right in the middle of pushing.

The typical out-of-hospital provider does not work in shifts. She’s there with you from the beginning to the end.

A different team takes care of your baby.

Every hospital has different protocols and rules about labor and delivery care. The nurses who attend your labor and delivery will likely not be the nurses who take care of your new baby. With the lack of continuity in care for the family, mistakes can be made, such as giving a breastfed baby formula or giving a baby a pacifier when the mom doesn’t want one offered to the baby (in the event it causes nipple confusion and adds stress to the new breastfeeding relationship.)

Usually, the father or another family member can be assigned to accompany the baby whenever he/she leaves the mother, to ensure that no unwanted procedures were carried out despite their wishes to the contrary. Even with this safeguard though, the pediatric team still can’t possibly know the whole picture.

They haven’t been with the family throughout the entirety of prenatal care and birth, so they don’t know you in the same way your midwife would.

Yet another team takes care of you during postpartum.

With midwifery care, the mother’s care, the baby’s care, and the family’s care are all provided by the same team. In fact, the postpartum care is also provided by the midwife who attended the birth.

A different philosophy.

You’re “allowed” to do something, you’re “not allowed” to do something. If your wishes conflict with a physician’s preferences, you might be asked to sign an AMA (Against Medical Advice) form, which can feel intimidating when in the throes of labor. It’s important to remember that hospitals are large institutions with rules and regulations that are applied to every woman, despite the wide differences between them.

Obstetricians handle emergency situations well. In emergencies, the obstetrician is the necessary authority and operates from that perspective.

But in the case of normal birth, the woman is just as important of an authority. When she is able to follow her intuition and pay close attention to her body, with minimal interruption, she can communicate valuable information to her caregiver.

Midwives are trained to respect this authority in normal birth. The philosophy of midwives is that the midwife/client relationship is a partnership and decision-making is shared.

A different outcome.

Hospital and out-of-hospital birth are two very different things. It’s hard for me, as someone who has had it both ways, and who has seen many births both ways, to minimize the difference in outcomes. Personally, my hospital births left me feeling less powerful and capable as a woman and new mother. My home births helped me to feel empowered, intelligent-like I was the expert when it came to my new baby’s needs. There really isn’t a way to quantify that kind of effect, or to easily measure how it impacts your mothering in the long run. Or even to measure how it affects the child long-term. It’s easy to measure the physical benefits of a natural birth.  But it can also have an unexpected and very healing impact on a mother’s life, just when she is embarking on new motherhood with a newborn. The unquantifiable effects of home birth may, in some ways, be the very reason that home birth is the optimal birth choice for so many women. And this may be the biggest difference of all.

Whose birth is it anyway?

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Why does it seem that so much about birth has to do with who controls what? For many people who choose to give birth outside the box, some of the most irritating things about the hospital environment have to do with control. The hospital seems to have a great need to control every aspect of the birth and hospital stay of the mother and baby. They have rules about just about everything!

  • There are rules about the birth tub — IF there’s a tub, you can stay in it for labor, but typically not for the birth, and sometimes not at all if your membranes have ruptured (depending on the hospital).
  • There are rules about the hours that your loved ones can be with you — partner 24/7, grandparents can stay until midnight, children until 8pm, etc.
  • Rules about bathing your baby — the baby is considered a biohazard, so most hospitals require the baby must be bathed ___ hours after the birth.
  • Rules about whether your baby can go home in the car seat you brought with you — don’t even get me started about the car seat test!
  • Rules about whether you can even take your baby home from the hospital — can’t take the baby home if you don’t have a car seat. Not a bad rule, but a rule nonetheless.
  • Rules about doulas — some hospitals don’t even allow them!
  • Rules about what you can eat and drink — pretty much nothing, although your labor partner should eat and drink frequently to keep his strength up. (Hmmm… who’s the one laboring here?)
  • Rules about the Vitamin K and Erythromycin ointment — they look at you like you just grew a third eye if you even question it.
  • Rules about how many people can be in the room — usually no more than 3 plus the laboring woman (depending on the hospital, some are more lenient) and usually only 1 if the birth is a cesarean birth. But, there can be as many hospital staff members as the hospital wants.
  • Rules about having to have an IV — must have it unless your doctor “allows” you to opt for a hep-lock instead.

Yeesh! All of those rules! How does the presence of these rules affect a laboring woman? My thought is that just having someone else calling the shots on things you may or may not care much about, hands your power over to that person or institution for the things you do very deeply care about. The woman gives up her power and her responsibility to think for herself because the institution has a rule for every decision she would normally have to make for herself. Giving up this power and responsibility for the most basic decisions about food, comfort, companionship, and her baby’s treatment puts her in a position of relinquishing control of the bigger decisions by default. She’s already accepted the hospital and doctor as the decision makers for her basic needs, so how could she have the gumption to question the more complex decisions they make for her? Birth becomes something that is done to her, rather than by her.

When listening to women talk about their hospital births, how often do you hear something like this: “I’m not sure why, but they did ____ to me. I’m sure they had their reasons.” Or, perhaps, something like this: “The doctor allowed me to _____.” Something like that would just not fly in midwifery care! In midwifery, the woman takes part in just about every decision made. She becomes informed about the options available, she learns about the objective evidence regarding the risks vs. benefits of those choices, hears her provider’s perspective about her own clinical experience, considers that information along with her own goals and preferences, and then makes a decision about her care based upon this informed choice process. This participative style of decision making is the cornerstone of midwifery care.

Are there rules for out-of-hospital birth with midwives? Sure, of course there are. Each midwife has her own practice guidelines, and there is a community standard of care, but midwives support the mother’s informed choices, even if those choices are not exactly the choices we would make for ourselves. Skip the eye ointment and the vitamin K? If you’re informed about the risks and benefits and feel like that’s the best choice for your family, yes, of course. Eat and drink in labor? Absolutely. In fact, most midwives insist upon it. Get in the water after membranes have ruptured? Sure, why not? Have your loved ones with you 24/7? Absolutely. We wouldn’t have it any other way, provided that’s what you want. Skip the bath? It’s your baby, why not? If someone is worried about disease, they can wash themselves after they touch the baby! Car seat? Yes, but we’re not going to do the car seat test! Ultrasounds? If you want them, you can get them, but that’s up to you. Want to catch your own baby? Go for it, but if you want your midwife to do it, she’d be happy to do so.

The point is that you have as much control as you want to have. You have choices in your birth. Your midwife might guide you, and she might point you to information to help you make decisions about your care, but having a midwife means you have the control to make the choices you believe are best. It’s your birth. You own your choices, which means you own your birth.