Make the best birth choices for yourself and your baby as we explore the important decisions you’ll make along the way to becoming a parent.
In the summer of 2010, I was waiting impatiently to try to conceive. I had a serious case of baby fever! It’s no surprise then that I clicked play when I saw The Business of Being Born recommended on Netflix. That amazing documentary opened my eyes to all of the issues and possibilities surrounding birth just in time. Up until that point, I just figured I’d call up my usual OBGYN and go to the hospital when the time came.
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This post contains affiliate links to some of my favorite resources for making great choices for your birth.
I got pregnant with my son a couple of months later. Thanks to my new-found enlightenment, I decided (along with my amazingly understanding husband) to prepare for a natural birth. I found a midwife, took Bradley childbirth classes, and we had an amazing, transformative home birth.
As I talked to other moms both online and in real life, I realized that my birth experience had been stunningly different from what most of them experienced. There were a lot of reasons that my son’s birth was a bit unusual. First off, he was late (16 days to be exact), he was big (10 pounds 11 ounces), and I didn’t experience labor as painful (don’t stop reading now; I realize this is not typical). The biggest difference though was what a positive and empowering birth experience I enjoyed.I found myself unable to keep silent on the subject of how amazing natural birth could be. I wanted every woman to know that birth could be so much more than the dramatized version we see on TV or the horror stories we hear from one another. Rather than driving everyone in my real life crazy, I moved the conversation online. Two months later, I started writing my blog GrowingSlower all about natural pregnancy, birth, and parenting.
Flash forward to today: I have been writing GrowingSlower for almost two years, and I’m now pregnant with Baby #2. (I was at the time I wrote the book; BabyA has since arrived. I’ll be sharing her birth story later this month.) Natural Birth Stories is the extension of the conversation that started on the blog, and I hope it will be an opportunity to empower even more women to achieve the natural birth they desire.
Putting together this book has been the perfect childbirth “prep class” for me. As a pregnant mama for the second time, I needed the reassurance that I could do this birth thing again. As I read all of the submissions I have been so inspired and so humbled that these 25 women have entrusted me with the telling of their stories.
You’re not getting an epidural? A Tale of Two Births
…There are times when natural birth is not a safe possibility and when medical interventions do serve a purpose in making sure both mother and baby stay healthy. Some women will have a real and unavoidable complication arise and there is simply no other choice. However, the relative number of births where intervention is truly necessary is far less than our birth culture would have us believe.To better understand the difference between a typical medical birth and a natural birth, let’s look at two hypothetical scenarios. Woman A (we’ll call her Anna) is under the care of a group of midwives and naturally minded doctors. At each prenatal appointment, Anna’s care providers answer her questions and help her to make decisions based on the information they provide along with the research she has done herself. Forty weeks comes and goes and Anna doesn’t go into labor. Since both she and baby are healthy, they all continue to wait for labor to start.
Finally, at 41 weeks (the true average “due date” for low-risk moms) she starts to feel some serious contractions. She calls her doula to come over to help support her alongside her husband. Then they all meet the midwife on call at the hospital. At times Anna feels that labor is going to last forever, but her midwife patiently watches her progress and encourages her that she’s doing great. After about 7 1/2 hours of active labor, (the average for unmedicated first-time moms) Anna gives birth to a healthy baby boy. She is ecstatic. Suddenly after all those hours of labor and pushing, she has so much energy. Her baby is immediately placed on her chest, and her midwife helps her to establish breastfeeding. After a few weeks, Anna is already looking forward to doing it all again the next time she has a baby, but she might want a home birth next time.
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Meanwhile, Woman B (let’s call her Brooke) gives birth in a hospital with her usual OBGYN. At her 35 week ultrasound, her baby is estimated to already be 8 1/2 pounds. She is encouraged by her care providers to schedule an induction for 38 ½ weeks. They say that otherwise, the baby will be too big to deliver vaginally. (Inducing early for a big baby is against obstetric guidelines and is not supported by research.) As her induction date approaches, she is a little nervous, but she is looking forward to meeting her baby. It is kind of nice to know exactly when he is going to arrive. However, two days before her scheduled appointment, Brooke goes into labor on her own.She and her husband head to the hospital. Contractions are painful, especially since she can’t move very much with the electronic fetal monitoring belt around her belly. Although she was hoping for a natural birth, she accepts the epidural when the nurse offers it to her for the third time. However, this seems to make contractions slow down. The nurse reports this back to the doctor. He orders that Brooke is put on an IV of Pitocin. After two more hours the nurse on duty checks her cervix and reports that she still hasn’t progressed even one centimeter (the medical definition of “failure to progress”).
After the doctor finishes seeing his prenatal patients for the day, he stops by to check on Brooke. Although she’s only been in active labor for seven hours, he recommends a c-section because she is failing to progress. Within minutes she is being prepped for surgery. Her healthy baby boy is born at about 4:30 on Friday afternoon at 7 pounds 13 ounces (the average for babies that are estimated to be “too big”). She is sad that she doesn’t get to hold her baby right away. In the weeks and months to come, she wonders whether the c-section was really necessary, but everyone tells her to just be happy that she has a healthy baby.
The Startling Truth About Your Birth Choices
This second scenario is what is often referred to as the “cascade of interventions” with one intervention leading to another. Around 23 percent of births are induced. This is done almost always by breaking the bag of waters or using drugs to stimulate contractions. These pharmaceuticals cause contractions that are much stronger and more frequent than natural contractions stimulated by the body. It is no surprise then that 65 percent of women end up with an epidural to cope with pain. (That statistic may sound surprisingly low until you realize that this does not include the 33 percent of women who are given a c-section.) It’s also unsurprising that babies tend to show signs of distress in response to these unnaturally strong contractions and continue to have complications after birth.
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Several interventions including continuous electronic fetal monitoring, a catheter, and IV fluids are typically used alongside an epidural. After the epidural is administered it usually confines women to bed for the duration of labor. Some women experience side effects from epidurals including itching, fever, and fluctuations in blood pressure during labor, and headache following the birth. When fever develops during labor, babies are more likely to have trouble breathing and lower Apgar scores after birth. Any complications with the baby may lead to temporary separation from the mother for extra treatment or admission to the NICU. Because fever can also be a sign of infection, women are treated with antibiotics even if it was actually caused by the epidural. They are also more likely to have a forceps or vacuum-assisted delivery or to be given a c-section for fetal distress. Epidurals have not been thoroughly studied for potential severe side effects. If a woman has an epidural for the pain this will often slow down her labor leading her care providers to augment her labor with drugs. Seventeen percent of labors are augmented once they have already started using the same methods as induction.The
The Mother Friendly Childbirth Initiative recommends no more than a 10 percent cesarean rate for regional hospitals and no more than 15 percent for hospitals that deal with a greater number of high-risk pregnancies. However, almost 33 percent of women giving birth in the US end up with a c-section. Although c-sections are touted by mainstream pregnancy books and some medical professionals as just as safe as vaginal birth, they do pose very real risks, particularly to birthing mothers. Severe complications include infection, blood loss and need for blood transfusion, accidental injury to internal organs, and reactions to medications. There is also a much greater risk of maternal death with c-section than with vaginal birth. Other more minor risks include a longer recovery time, difficulty bonding and breastfeeding, chronic pain, and negative feelings about the birth experience. With each c-section, the mother also has increasing risks of complications in future pregnancies. For the baby, risks include breathing problems and accidental cuts during surgery. The long-term risks are largely unknown, but c-section has been linked to future allergies and asthma for babies born in this way.
As you can see, even one of these very common medical interventions can lead to another, increasing the risk to mother and baby and dramatically reducing the chances of a natural birth. This leaves less than two percent of all women in the United States that give birth naturally. While the statistics themselves can be shocking, it’s even more important to remember that each one represents stories of real women: an epidural and then “failure to progress,” a baby that’s just “too big,” “too late,” and a mom who’s told she is just not strong enough, another disappointed new mom recovering from an unnecessary c-section. What’s going on here? Are our bodies really failing so miserably?
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Why is it that Anna can have a healthy and safe natural birth while Brooke and her baby need to be saved by the doctor with a whole host of interventions? Imagine if 33 percent of children were unable to walk? What if 33 percent of couples suffered from infertility? We might start to wonder why these basic natural processes failed so often. But when 33 percent of mothers need a surgical delivery, everyone says they should just be happy for a healthy baby.In stark contrast, when low-risk women give birth under the care of excellent naturally minded midwives or doctors, they can do so 95 percent of the time without risky medical intervention. Even in the rare instances when induction or augmentation is needed, this can be done using natural methods. Less than four percent of these women will end up using an epidural, and birth will only end in c-section less than two percent of the time. Barring real high-risk pregnancies and complications, natural birth can be achieved safely by most women most of the time.
In stark contrast, when low-risk women give birth under the care of excellent naturally minded midwives or doctors, they can do so 95 percent of the time without risky medical intervention. Even in the rare instances when induction or augmentation is needed, this can be done using natural methods. Less than four percent of these women will end up using an epidural, and birth will only end in c-section less than two percent of the time. Barring real high-risk pregnancies and complications, natural birth can be achieved safely by most women most of the time. It is not our bodies that are failing us.
Benefits of Natural Birth
Choosing natural birth isn’t just about avoiding the risks of drugs and medical interventions. I will never forget the day my dear friend called from across the country. She had just read my birth story on the blog, and she was crying. Soon we were both in tears. After having successful c-sections with her first two babies, she felt that something was missing from her birth experiences. She wanted to experience pushing a baby out of her body on her own strength. Before too long she was pregnant with baby number three. She fought through the ups and downs of preparing for a VBAC (vaginal birth after cesarean) by educating herself, switching to a group of more supportive doctors, and declining induction at 40 weeks. As she headed to the hospital, I texted her some last minute words of encouragement and prayed that everything would go well. I was so happy and excited to see a picture of her baby boy a few days later, but I was even more so that she had gotten the birth experience her heart desired.
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Natural birth is about way more than avoiding the risks and side effects of medical procedures and drugs. Perhaps the biggest benefit of a natural birth is a phenomenon I’ve seen in almost every natural birth story I’ve ever read or heard. That magic comes at the end of the story, even immediately after a woman may have endured days of painful contractions. Whether it is the celebrity stories of Gisele Bundchen and Cindy Crawford (affiliate link) or the natural birth story of a mom at my church or La Leche League group, she declares herself ready to do it again. Yes, it is about the experience! She describes herself as “energized,” “electric,” “euphoric,” and “empowered.” This is such a wonderful way to start off the postpartum and newborn period. I wish every mother could have this “I can do anything” feeling in the moment she becomes a mother. And indeed every woman should have the right.
Sure the majority of women could give birth naturally, but how many women actually want to have a natural birth? The answer may surprise you. In one survey, 19 percent of first time moms and 34 percent of experienced moms planned to have a natural birth. Something is going terribly wrong in our maternity care system when only two percent of moms actually have a natural birth. It leaves in its wake many new moms healing from both disappointment and unnecessary medical interventions. Perhaps the worst part of it is that 25 percent of women who had medical interventions including inductions and c-sections felt like they were pressured into accepting them.
It is also interesting to note that experienced moms were almost twice as likely as first time moms to plan a natural birth. Many women leave their first births dissatisfied or disappointed with their experience and hope for something different the second time around. My dream is for women to know all their options before ever giving birth, so they don’t have to struggle with the emotional and physical recovery of a negative experience.
How to Make the Best Birth Choices for Your Baby
Too many women never know that there are options for their birth experience until it’s much too late. Sure, they may have heard of midwives or birth centers or their crazy neighbor who gave birth without an epidural, but they never consider them a real option because the bias against them in our culture is so great. They never find out there are actually choices about birth to be made until they find themselves trying to heal after a dissatisfying or even traumatic birth experience. They feel bullied and pressured, broken and sometimes quite literally cut up.
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Do I think every woman should have a natural birth? No. Do I think every woman deserves to make a fully informed decision about how her baby comes into this world? Absolutely!
I realize that many women will read the relevant research and still decide that getting an epidural is right for them. I am so thankful that they have that choice along with many other choices for their birth experience. What I want is for those women who do desire to have a natural birth to have the chance to have childbirth choices, too. Their desires should be respected and supported in the same way as women who want all the standard interventions.
A woman should feel proud and confident after birth, whatever type of delivery that may be. She should not have to struggle with the feeling that she was not supported, was pressured or even forced into having acts done upon her body which she did not want or think necessary. She should be allowed to peacefully adjust to motherhood and enjoy the postpartum and newborn period.
As a culture, we need to start seeing birth as just as much of an amazing miracle as we already know conception and pregnancy to be. The best way to achieve a new generation of confident moms satisfied with their births is for each one of them to be informed about all of her birth options and the risks and benefits of each. Every mom should know her rights to make decisions for her health, and her decisions should be supported by her birth team.
How do we take on a challenge so big? I believe it starts with women who have experienced natural birth for themselves. There is no bigger advocate or more expert individual than a mama who has experienced a natural birth. Our current birth culture will tell you that you can’t do it or that you’re crazy even to try. My hope is that each of the natural birth stories and advice from the 25 real moms in this book will demonstrate that you can do this!