Today’s post is a guest piece by my lovely friend Paula Cleary, doula and childbirth educator in Norfolk. This article went rather viral a while ago (funny how that is such a loaded word these days) but has been homeless for a while. Paula would like it to live here for a bit and for that, I am very grateful! Read on for Paula’s poetic way with words and a peep into what a homebirth really feels like.
If you’re a considering a homebirth our suggestion would be to talk to your local midwives. They may still be able to help you, despite the current crisis. You won’t be the only one considering not going to hospital. If your local Trust has withdrawn homebirth provision, you may be able to consider reaching out to your local independent midwife. You can contact AIMS or Birthrights if you need support.
There is a myth and a misconception that really needs to be overhauled once and for all. I want to help shake off the idea that natural birth is only possible for a selective group of earth mothers who are somehow endowed with superhuman strengths.
There are of course some serious medical reasons why some women are unable to have a home-birth. But for those that choose to take this option, the fact is that even the most conventional of you can get in touch with your inner birth power, as thousands of women around the world do every day! It is easy when you know how, and you have the advantage of having the blueprint for safe birth written in your DNA.
You are the product of generations of women who gave birth in a long chain – resulting in you! Most of them gave birth without obstetric intervention, and in more dangerous sanitary conditions than we enjoy today. You may ask – Why put myself through the extra pain of having an unmedicated birth? Isn’t that a bit… er…. middle ages?
Well… the actual answer is something that may surprise you. It doesn’t actually hurt any more to have a child without drugs – if you know how! In fact the truth is that it can actually be not only less painful but also safer, and result in a more satisfying and euphoric first meeting with your baby – without either of you feeling groggy! This is not to say it will be a piece of cake – birth is hard work. It is intense. It requires real focus.
There can be hard moments and scary moments. I’m not going to be unrealistic here – birth is not always a picnic. But fear alone shouldn’t stop you from considering a homebirth – life is never 100% guaranteed safe at any moment of any day for any person on the planet!
The fact is that there is a wealth of knowledge about how to birth your baby right inside you already – but finding a way back to that knowledge requires a real choice – it involves turning your back on the sign-posts that leads to to all the conventional tricks and tools of modern medicalized births and going on a bit of a journey back home to yourself.
You’re going to dig deeper into yourself than ever before as you go on a journey of discovery! Working on your attitudes and fears are the number one birth preparation along with a bit of myth-busting through positive birth education. It is completely possible for all kinds of women to birth instinctively, when they learn to peel away all the barriers and obstructions that mostly exist outside of their body – and are also often easily overcome through positive birthing education, love, laughter, talking things out, and connecting more deeply with ourselves and others – digging deeper into human resources before resorting to the other routes of ‘pain relief’.
The reason our bodies are generally more able to birth easily without un-necessary interventions and drugs is because of the perfectly sequenced, correctly dosed cocktail of hormones which carry our birthings along with perfect momentum, and when we know a little about how and why this happens it becomes easier to believe! (The drugs companies who make a LOT of money out of selling artificial substances don’t exactly advertise this though – why on earth would they?)
When labour starts normally and is not triggered by artificial means because someone else decides the baby is ‘overdue’, a chain reaction of hormones begins to work it’s magic in your body- just as throughout the whole of your pregnancy and in fact, the whole of your life so far! Your body knows exactly what to do – but the problem is that many women don’t really believe or know this so they go into labour armed and afraid. And perhaps because birth education is so skewed towards telling women constantly how painful birth is and what drugs they can take to relieve it, it is not surprising that they feel tense and a little apprehensive about birth.
The truth is that in the same way that your body knows how to sneeze or cough or shiver or perform the thousands of other daily functions without any fuss – your body knows how to expel your baby. We have been conned and tricked into somehow believing that women’s bodies are, en masse, sort of broken nowadays in some way, and not capable of going into labour and giving birth naturally, when your body deems it wise to do so – even though we trust it to do all the other stuff. Like grow a whole entire baby just from an egg and a sperm. Or digest every meal with a complicated chain-reaction of bodily chemicals and processes and other all the other things we do every single day. How did we become so mistrustful of this particular bodily function when it is really not all that much different from any other? Ok, so I decide to skip the drugs. How, realistically am I going to cope? I can’t imagine how anyone could cope with that much pain!
Well like I just mentioned, your body is already pre-programmed to know what to do by a sequence of hormones and the subtle changes your body has been going through for the 9 months or so that you are pregnant. Your ligaments will become stretchier and softer. Your brain will slowly be trying to get you into a more primal mothering mode – softening and becoming less sharp hence the term having ‘baby brains’. The shift in brain frequency is to help you birth your baby by making it easier to switch off your critical thinking brain and shift instead to a softer maternal and instinctual way of thinking – thinking and feeling more with your heart and gut and less with your head! Your muscles are flexing and preparing you as your body grows and the baby’s own weight pushing down with ever increasing intensity sends signals to the body which it responds to by adapting accordingly. In the final weeks, your body will do lots of ‘dry’ runs with ’braxton hix’ contractions which are in effect your body’s way of tapping on a mike and saying ‘Testing! Testing! ‘ Throughout pregnancy your hormone levels stay in perfect harmony with your baby’s needs and the baby actually does some preparing of their own – they are not suddenly thrust into the world without going through bodily, and other changes.
No-one really knows, after all the years of advances and research, what exactly triggers labour to happen when it does. But when it happens spontaneously and naturally – your brain and body are in absolute cahoots and the communication channels remain intact for the hormonal party to begin. Your body will produce Beta-Endorphins which act in the same way as pethidine, by activating the same sensors on your brain as opiates like morphine and heroin. Your body naturally releases these self-protective, feel-good, pain-relieving hormones in greater measure as your labour intensifies – peaking at the birth and flooding your body in much the way they do after someone does some intensive sports activity or has an orgasm. Endorphins not only allow the body to rise to really intense physical challenges but it positively transforms them into something beyond painful – even if your body is stretched beyond anything it has achieved before. Think how runners feel after a run and that is what natural birth feels like afterwards – breathless, ecstatic, intense, heart-pumping, alert, surreal and yet ultimately – triumphant. Endorphins are the vehicle or the lubricant if you like, to take your body through pain barriers and perhaps explains why people are able to walk on hot coals and endure excruciating pain. The more endorphins are activating the brains pain-numbing receptors – the more the baby has too – so its win-win! I wonder if the reason some women feel ‘low’ a day or two before their birth, is because the body is keeping aside a stash of endorphins ready for the big moment?
Hand-in-hand with Endorphins is the hormone Oxytocin which will also intensify over pregnancy and peak during labour. Oxytocin is the hormone of love – the feel-good ‘cuddling’ hormone as it is sometimes called. The way to increase oxytocin is to give birth surrounded only by people you love or at least feel totally safe with. When you have skin-to-skin or body-to-body loving comforting touch support in labour, the oxytocin in your body will flow more freely and make sure that you birth with heart power. This is really the centre of your incredible power-source and internal ‘seat of strength’- it’s not all in your pushy pelvis you know! If you want to be strong – birthing with your heart is where it is really at! Cuddling, loving touch, heart-to-heart connection, massage, snogging, nipple stimulation, and any safe-feeling ‘sexy’ touchy touchy in labour can really flood your body with this amazing protective hormone and providing you feel safe and happy who cares if you have a snog in the birth-room?
Don’t let anyone put you off. It makes sense that the same hormones that got the baby in would also help when the baby comes out, since birth is not simply a biological function, but a process involving primarily, your lurve organs! Strong loving feelings at a birth will feel a helluva lot more pain-relieving than feeling shit-scared on synthetic pain-relieving drugs! So what’s left? Surely those hormones are already incredible enough, huh? Well we have two more that are known about in great detail but there are perhaps hundreds more.
Let’s talk about the ones we do know about though. So….. next up is Prolactin. Prolactin is a hormone which very specifically helps you and baby to stay connected and bonded hormonally and intuitively to one another. This is the hormone responsible for triggering the process of milk production. It is also associated with ‘tiger’ mother reflexes, or as I like to call it the ’don’t mess with my baby or I will kill you” hormone!’ It’s shared by all mammals – and continues throughout the breast-feeding relationship particularly – bonding both mother and baby together so that you don’t do a runner! Nature is clever, huh?
So the very last hormone is the wonderful hormone – adrenaline. (There are various types of adrenaline but we’ll just say adrenaline to keep things straightforward.) Adrenaline, like our friends Endorphins helping us get over those hot coals or push past our comfort zones and pain barriers. It is great when we need a sudden boost, for a big finale, an eye-popping, all-out, physically full-on surge. And in birth, adrenaline is the hormone that surges and pumps through our body for the actual the pushing moment. The problem with adrenaline however, is when it is pumping around a birthing womans body prior to the big push. It effectively prevents the body from labouring because the presence of it is telling her mammalian primal body that she is in high-alert mode, and inhibits her production of oxytocin and endorphins. Remember adrenaline is the fight-or-flight hormone. And we all know that mama cat aint gonna have her kittens if she feels even slightly uneasy. You are the same! So if we need to feel safe in order for our birth hormones to flow freely, we really need for our adrenaline levels to be very low until birth intensifies on its own and produces it – on its own. And we need to look at ways to keep adrenaline down.
But what actually triggers adrenaline? Other people’s adrenaline can have an effect on your own. You know how you can just sense when you walk into a room whether someone is nervous or anxious – they seem to give off vibes, right? Well adrenaline works like that. If other people are restless, anxious, excitable, loud, authoritarian, hyper, rude, pushy or aggressive (even passive aggressive), it all feeds into the atmosphere. It’s kind of catching! So to avoid adrenaline you actually need to avoid people who are giving it off – or get very very good at ‘blocking’ their energy out by some means – this is perhaps where ‘hypnobirthing’ techniques can help – it gives you a means of shutting down your neo-cortex active brain which is responsible for flight-or-fight brain activity and part of your brain that works in cahoots with adrenaline. It can also help if you have a trusted birth partner to field questions aimed at you during the birth, knowing that they will advocate for you so you can put all your energy into your birth and answer for you while you go into cloud-cuckoo labour land. Another way of inhibiting adrenaline is to birth in a place that you feel really safe and uninhibited. Home offers this environment more readily than hospital since you don’t have to do the extra work to integrate both the intensity of labour AND a whole bunch of new noises, sounds, smells, tastes, textures, and in fact a whole world of ‘stimulation’ with adrenaline-pumped people along the way.
At a home-birth, the atmosphere can be made more serene and calm, with soft lighting, and perhaps some home comforts that can not be reproduced in a hospital – curling up in front of a fire, being on your own bed, being physical and loving with your partner without feeling uptight or awkward. At home you can be naked without feeling self-conscious. Midwives tip-toe and creep around you and seem to respect your space rather than ‘owning’ it like they do in a hospital situation. You can do what you like and not be bossed around by anyone (or a string of people).
At home you can control your heating and keep extra warm which also inhibits adrenaline production. You can move about in whatever positions feel comfortable and avoid having all kinds of bleeping buttons and machines right there in your face, poking you all the time in the adrenalines!!! (Metaphorically speaking). At home you can have whoever you want in tow to help you feel safe, and less people you don’t want. No-one to answer to but yourself. You don’t have to wait to see if a birth pool is available. You can have a bath or shower whenever the heck you like – or better still rent your own birth pool!
So! We’ve talked a lot about hormones and the amazing powerhouse that is going on inside your body, and how Beta-Endorphins, Pro-Lactin, Oxytocin, and Adrenaline work, and their interaction within the body. And since adrenaline can actually reverse or stall a labour by stopping contractions, we have to take our hat off to this fabulous hormone, but kick it out of the birth-space until we say – ‘ok – you can come back in now’.
But is that really it? Is birth so simple as that? Is it really so simple as just having faith in your body and protecting and working with your natural hormonal flow? Well mostly – yes! It is that simple. Natural birth occurs when women feel safe, feel loved, feel listened to, are surrounded by calm loving people, and go with their natural birth flow. In all its intensity – your body was designed to handle it. Even if you don’t know it yet.
It IS hard work. It IS intense. It does help if you’re a bit bendy. It does help if you are active throughout pregnancy and vaguely fit. But no yoga required if that doesn’t float your boat. All the drugs and pain relief you need are right inside you. All the strength you need is right inside you. If you can find birth attendants who will mirror that belief back at you in their eyes, in their hearts, in their hands, in their attitude and manner, and in their language to you – in effect, saying ‘I believe in you’, you are one step closer to discovering the greatest, and the most ordinary and yet extraordinary power known to woman – natural birth. What nicer way to start a new life together as a family, huh? And the best thing? When it’s all over you can collapse into bed as a family and sleep together in one loved-up hormonal cocktail of endorphins, oxytocin, prolactin and adrenaline, in one glowing and tired bundle – a bit like the post-coital love-in – with a baby at the heart of it all. Bliss!