Birthing Trends: Having a "Traditional" Birth

I recently sent this link to a friend. It shows a clip from the Mad Men episode The Fog, where Betty has her third child. Don is told to stay in the waiting room, and Betty is giving the twilight drug while she’s giving birth, and wakes up terrified with nightmares. I’ve heard some people say that many of the problems women have with childbirth now, like having unwanted c-sections, or being given pitocin, are remnants of this old fashioned idea that women should be subjected and controlled during birth so the doctor doesn’t have to deal with their hysteria.

(Just look at how nicely controlled these women are! No hysteria thanks to modern sedation!)

 I don’t know how true that may be, but it is odd that our c-section rate is so high in the U.S., while we don’t have very good child/mother mortality rates. Either women in the U.S. are just not physically capable of having children, or all of the interventions U.S. doctors like to do may not always be necessary, and could be harmful.
It’s important to remember that things weren’t always better in the past, and that society has really evolved in lots of great ways. Although I love playing the housewife, I’m so glad that I’m not forced into that role, and that I have so many options for my life, especially when it comes to things like my health. I’ve heard about how women would go in for examinations for breast cancer and be put under, and wake up missing a breast, because the decision for surgery was up to their husband, not them. The scariest part is that from what I’ve read about this isn’t hyperbolic, but how things actually were.

(Old medical equipment really freaks me out. Hospitals were almost too sanitary.)

Here is a great quote from Aunt B.:
“I really thought it was what it sounded like, a light sedation that kept you kind of woozy and pain free while your husband was out in the waiting room passing out cigars and you both waited for the doctor to bring you the news that the baby had been born. And I assumed it fell out of favor because the women couldn’t help push or something. 
No. 
During twilight sleep, women went crazy from the drugs and the pain. They hurt their heads (and so women’s heads were wrapped in large gauzy Q-tip looking arrangements). They thrashed around and tried to claw at the doctors and so they were strapped to their gurneys, sometimes for days. Twilight sleep didn’t suppress pain; it suppressed the memory of pain. So the doctors could just do whatever and the women would not remember it and since it was ‘indecent’ for new fathers to be there, there was no one with the woman to advocate for her. Plus, and this is the part that just creeps me out, they used lamb’s wool on the restraints because it didn’t leave bruises and so the husbands stopped seeing bruises and stopped asking questions about what was being done to their wives.”
Yeah, that’s definitely not cool. Again, I am so glad I don’t live then. Or at least then in a big city. I have a feeling more rural communities probably continued with less impressive medical techniques.
When looking to the past for inspiration for your life it’s important to not follow every generation or every trend to a T. In the case of birth, we really need to look back to pioneer and indigenous women to find the more natural state of things. This is essentially what famous midwife Ina May Gaskin did when  she and her husband were traveling with a group of students. They created a small, very primitive commune in the hills of Tennessee where Ina helped hundreds of women give birth. Since then, Ina has traveled the world, exploring how women around the world give birth without medical help (Here is a an interview she did on NPR, talking about homebirth). Of course, being inspired by old fashioned birth doesn’t mean that you have to have birth at home. Great births are mostly categorized by limited medical intervention. Having a midwife instead of a doctor is a great start, since there are almost no states that force you to have a doctor, not a midwife for your birth. Some states, like mine, do not allow homebirths though. 
  • Ask your midwife or doctor to become a bit more familiar with birthing techniques like those Ina May advocates for. Often doctors will be interested in trying out new things, as long as the risk is minimal (This can even go as far as midwives techniques for turning a breech birth. All techniques are non-invasive and so it is hard for a doctor to protest the small amount of time and trouble to do them.)
  • Be patient! Unless your water breaks don’t go to the hospital and labor at home. The hospital will appreciate this, as will your insurance, and being at home is so much more comfortable than being forced to lie in a bed. 
  • Next, limit your medical interventions. Many women like epidurals, although it would probably be better to avoid them. If you wait at home long enough you’ll probably miss the window for them anyway, to avoid the temptation haha. Whatever you do though, do not accept medicine to help speed up labor. Medicines like Pitocin often create complications that will lead to a necessary c-section. (And reducing medication is always a good idea from a historical perspective. Just look at the Thalidomide Drug problems)
  • Ask and emphasize your desire to not put your feet in stirrups. They are not comfortable and make your likelihood of rips greater. Position yourself however you feel comfortable to push.

(I challenge you to find a picture pre 1900 of a woman lying to push. Lounging maybe. Lying never.)
  • Ask the nurses to do their medical checks on the baby as he sits on your chest. Some things, like the blood draws, will be much easier for them and the baby if he is happily cuddling with Momma instead of screaming on a table.
  • Bring your own blankets and clothing. Having things that were washed and dried at home allow you to give your baby familiar scents and also help ensure they aren’t having things washed in bleach or other strong chemicals. The same goes for diapers, if you are doing cloth diapers.
  • Have your baby stay in the room with you. Hospitals will not allow you to co-sleep, but I don’t really advocate for co-sleeping with newborns anyway because of how precarious their breathing is. This doesn’t mean that they should be put in a nursery with other babies though. It also reduces the risk for the baby being given a bottle while you sleep.

(Poor babies! I want to hug every one of them!)
  • Ask to have a lactation consultant come to you if this is your first child, or you are having trouble nursing. If the hospital doesn’t have one, many can be hired from other agencies, and often midwives are also trained to help. Breastfeeding is something only a very very limited number of women cannot do. It mostly is a matter of having someone show you and the baby how, and a lactation consultant (or even a family member or friend who has nursed) is indispensable.
  • Finally, go home as soon as you are allowed! The longer you stay, the higher your bill will be, and the greater your risk of getting sick. Home really is the best place for babies.
Again, I wont say that birthing like pioneer women did is perfect. A lot of women and children used to die in childbirth, although harmful medical practices and unsanitary conditions are often more to blame than actual birthing itself. I always remember this great scene from the book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith where the main character’s aunt is giving birth at a Jewish hospital after having had (I think) ten children born and die almost immediately afterwards. She is Catholic and so the family is shocked that she would go to a Jewish hospital. When her baby is born she is not breathing, and the aunt looks away, upset that she has had another dead infant. But the doctors call for air, and they pump air into the babies lungs, and it begins to cry. This always makes me cry too, because it was something so simple, lack of oxygen, that probably made so many of her children needlessly die.
However, we live in such a great time because we can take the best of the past, all of those great traditional, natural ways of giving birth, and combine them with our modern medical knowledge and practices to make pregnancy and birth as meaningful and low-risk as it should be.

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