Could birthing alone be a good thing?
The recent Coronavirus outbreak has had a huge impact on maternity services and expectant parents around the world.
Routine pregnancy appointment and scans have been cancelled or limited to the mother attending alone meaning she is having to leave her birth partner at home and continue birthing alone.
Birth partners – in many cases dads, but also including other sexual partners, friends, family members and doulas – have long be lauded as essential for the birthing mother.
As an antenatal teacher myself, I am always trying to show partners how their support – both physical and emotional – plays a key role in the physiology of birth.
Leave your birth partner at home
But many trusts in the UK – and other countries – are now restricting people allowed to accompany the mother in birth to one partner, and in some cases mothers are facing birthing alone – with just a midwife checking in on her from time to time.
Many mothers are finding this a frightening prospect and are rightly horrified that something that has been deemed so essential has suddenly become banned.
Some feel that their rights are being eroded, and also those of their birth partners who should have a right to attend their baby’s birth.
Could it be the best thing for the mother?
What has been kicking around my brain since I first heard this news is an idea introduced by Michel Odent, the French Obstetrician, famous in birthing communities for helping to shift the mindset of birth back into honouring the mother and her natural physiology.
In 2009 at the Royal College of Midwives’ Annual Conference, Michel Odent postulated that we interfere too much already in the birthing process and that perhaps we should leave women alone.
He said, “The ideal birth environment involves no men in general. Having been involved for more than 50 years in childbirths in homes and hospitals in France, England and Africa, the best environment I know for an easy birth is when there is nobody around the woman in labour apart from a silent, low-profile and experienced midwife – and no doctor and no husband, nobody else,” Odent told the Observer. “In this situation, more often than not, the birth is easier and faster than what happens when there are other people around, especially male figures – husbands and doctors.”
This idea was based in the fact that the presence of men in the birthing room often means a women feels inhibited and stressed which produces stress hormones that can limit or slow down labour.
In actual fact, a supportive (male) birth partner can be the catalyst for a birthing mother to feel safe and secure, uninhibited and protected, feelings which vastly improve the synthesis of the main birthing hormone Oxytocin.
And yet this idea of women being forced to birth without their chosen support still feels to me that it could be a blessing in disguise – if we can reframe it away from being a bad thing and into a good one.
For when a woman is alone and feels comfortable in her body and in her skin, when she knows what should and will happen in her birth, that she trusts in the process of labour and knows that her midwife is there if she needs her, then a woman can truly blossom into birth.
Of course, many women don’t have any experience of labour nor what to do when it happens and so a comprehensive birth preparation training programme is a crucial component to being able to feel confident in what to do, and not feel the need to be coached. (In any cases birthing partners don’t coach you and neither do midwives in most cases.)
I am reminded of my second labour back in 2012. My baby was overdue and due to previously complicated labour I had been told I wouldn’t be ‘allowed’ to go past 40 weeks of pregnancy.
In the end my induction was booked for day 12 overdue and actually happened on day 13. I had been veering between desperately not wanting to be pregnant any more and wanting to honour the natural process.
What finally happened was that I had my waters broken and had been advised by a kindly consultant that if I went into labour naturally within 2 hours I could avoid a chemical induction.
Just leave me alone
The midwife clicked around and my husband walked the room expectantly – it was all distracting and frustrating. But then he went off to move the car to a different place, and my midwife left to do her thing and suddenly it all changed.
I gathered myself. I got on my birth ball and started moving my body in a way I had practised in my active birth preparation classes.
I closed my eyes and listened to some soft music that I had prepared.
I went through my mental checklist of what to do in a contraction and even though my body wasn’t feeling them yet I mentally. went to the space that was open to them.
I tuned into my body, my breath, my movement.
And my body tuned back into me.
And my body started to labour, the contractions began and my mind and body started to fuse into a zone of mindfulness, presence and movement.
I surrendered to the process that I trusted and knew that there was a framework to make sure everything was ok.
The labour came on slowly to begin, and by the time my husband and midwife came back in I had tuned out of them.
The massage we had practised was not used as I couldn’t stand the touch of skin so I rocked and rolled on my ball, I breathed and roared with my contractions, and I went into my personal and private birthing room: myself.
Labour is always within
Even when you have 5 birthing partners, 3 midwives and a partridge in a pear tree, what never changes about labour is that the mother is the one who has to do it, to have it, to be in it.
Once labour has begun it cannot stop and the mother cann0t get away from it.
She can be supported in it and through it, but it cannot be done for her.
It is her country. She is the Queen.
I always encourage mothers on my courses to practice breathing and movements with their eyes closed.
The birthing room within
So many parents get stressed about where to birth their baby: at home, a birthing centre, a hospital, where do I feel most comfortable?
And yet we always have to plan to be in a different place in case our birth follows a more complicated path than we expect.
But once you close your eyes your birthing room is always the same for it is what lies within you.
With your eyes closed there is no-one there.
With your eyes closed it is just your breath.
With your eyes closed it is just your body moving in the way that feels best.
With your eyes closed you can fully surrender to the sensations of labour.
You are always alone in birth
So you see you are always alone, in a way, during birth.
And when you can reach a point of calm and confidence, of surrender and serendipity, of a fusion of breath and movement and focus, everything else just falls away.
And it is just you and your baby.
Your body and your breath.
Your instinct and intuition.
I found this quote that says it all to me by Marcie Macari.
“A woman in birth is at once her most powerful, and most vulnerable. But any woman who has birthed unhindered understands that we are stronger than we know.”