–Vanessa Stephens, Minnesota Birth Network
What is natural childbirth? Any discussion of this topic requires a definition of the terms used, because sometimes any vaginal birth, no matter how many interventions are employed, is considered a natural birth. For purposes of this article, natural birth is birth without the use of obstetrical drugs and interventions (these are drugs and procedures used during labor and birth). A woman choosing natural birth relies on non-drug pain relief, relaxation, emotional support, movement during labor and her own inner resources.
Among the many reasons to choose natural birth are safety and satisfaction. Obstetrical drugs and procedures carry risks that are usually not discussed by birth attendants. Drugs such as sedatives (for relaxation), analgesics (to relieve pain) and anesthetics (to reduce sensation), cross the placenta and can affect the baby, causing fetal distress, breathing difficulty at birth and other problems. They may also cause labor to slow down or stop and can make the mother’s pushing efforts less effective. Oxytocin (a hormone used to induce or stimulate labor) can reduce the baby’s oxygen supply and cause fetal distress. Drugs may have side effects for the mother as well. Natural birth is also free of interventions such as IVs and continuous fetal monitoring, which confine the mother to bed; forceps or vacuum extraction (used to help the baby rotate and descend through the birth canal), which can cause injury to the baby or mother; and routine episiotomy (a cut made to enlarge the vaginal opening as the baby’s head is born). Episiotomies heal slowly and may interfere with later sexual function. Rarely, some of these procedures can be beneficial. Complications may be more likely to occur in women with a history of transplants, drug abuse or other serious medical conditions. Carefully research these issues before birth. The benefits of less intervention can be profound: a shorter, easier recovery; a happier and healthier mother. In addition an alert newborn is better able to bond and breastfeed successfully. Mom experiences a mountaintop feeling of achievement!
If you decide to seek a natural birth, first select a birth attendant who believes in the “Midwifery Model” of birthing. This philosophy sees pregnancy and birth as a sexual and spiritual process and a normal, healthy part of life which does best without interference. The Midwifery Model considers each woman and birth unique. It emphasizes nutrition and disease prevention, and believes that the birth experience belongs to the family. Although it is possible to find obstetricians who agree with this philosophy, you may be happier with a midwife. In Minnesota teams of certified nurse-midwives practice in hospitals and traditional midwives attend births at home. It can be more difficult to achieve natural birth in a hospital. In hospitals, midwives must work under the supervision of obstetricians and hospital administrations, but it can be done. Others prefer to give birth at home, in a familiar environment where the midwife is an invited guest.
Whether your choice is home or hospital, there are many ways to cope with labor. During pregnancy, you may want to take a natural childbirth class such as Bradley or Birthworks. When labor begins, comfort measures can facilitate progress and relieve pain. These measures include: movement and position changes; warm water in a labor tub, bathtub or shower; relaxation techniques like visualization or hypnotherapy; and massage or acupressure. Possibly your most important ally is a doula – a support person hired by you to help you through labor.
A doula’s assistance can be invaluable, especially in a hospital. Ideally, you have met before birth, and her presence is familiar and comforting. She gives physical and emotional support during labor and knows how to help you cope. She knows about birth and your birth plan and can offer massage, suggest position changes, answer your questions and explain what is happening. In addition, she can give your birth partner a break, which can take the pressure off and help him or her to better enjoy the birth experience. Interview doulas to find a good match and do not hesitate to try a doula-in-training. She may have time and energy to devote to you, may partner with a more experienced doula and often charges little or nothing for her services.
Water is another great labor aid. Warm water immersion can relieve pain, enhance relaxation, lower blood pressure and increase the efficiency of uterine contractions. Being born into water may have benefits for the baby as well. Labor tubs are heated and large enough to accommodate movement and a variety of positions. Rented tubs can be used in the hospital or at home. They might be just what you need for a more comfortable labor.
Whatever your birth choices, remember that your most important resources are your inner strength, intuition and love for your baby. These allow your baby to be born, and they are also your best allies as a parent. You know best the needs of you and your child. Trust in the process and your intuition, and you can give birth naturally, just as women have since the beginning of humankind.