Since becoming a doula, I’ve mused on this thing called “natural birth.” I’ve often been asked about it, and usually that conversation begins with a bright-eyed woman wishing for an all-over romantic birth experience (often accompanied by a birth pool and candles) and hoping that my mere presence as a doula will secure such an event. Meanwhile, I try to look supportive and not incredulous. Sometimes it begins with an implied snort and me scrambling to explain why I care about such things as “being in your body,” “submitting to pain as a teacher,” or rattling off every study I can recall that shows the health benefits of natural birth both to mom and babe that doctors and OBs too often dismiss, or haven’t heard of in the first place. To both women, I recommend watching The Business of Being Born.
Look, I’m a doula. I’m no champion for unnecessary medical procedures – I don’t even pop pills on my period (although you will find me in a nightly hot bath, as I still have nerve endings). But my commitment to moms far surpasses my politics and so if she wants an epidural or scheduled section and also me there to hold her hand and make sure her partner eats and doesn’t stress, I’m there. As one of my mentors says, “We get in where we can…” wherever women want and need us. That said, I wish fewer women dreamed about what kind of birth experience they wanted and instead, for those who want the natural route, really truly asked themselves, “What will it take for me to get there?” Now, that’s a question I can begin to answer.
So, what is “natural birth” exactly and why does it matter?
By “natural birth,” I mean no medical interventions like forceps or sections, and no medication. Think of it as the only kind of birth you could have in your bathtub: raw, real, and rugged. And that’s how I like to think of it. It requires some work up front for the payoff in both health benefits to you and baby (since the body is allowed to do it’s thing without intervention and without drugging anyone) as well as easing the postpartum recovery and dramatically increasing the likelihood and ease of future natural births. There’s always a mom here or there blessed with the ability to pop out babes like Sunday muffins, but even she doesn’t know that in advance, so I say it’s better to put in the effort early. Moms also say, despite a possibly longer and more uncomfortable labor (which can be helped with a doula or trained and supportive birth partner), natural birth gives them an amazing sense of empowerment and confidence in their bodies, which seeps out into their confidence as mothers, among other places.
How can I make sure Baby and I get all those awesome benefits??!!
Of course, in birth, as in life, nothing is guaranteed. Sometimes an emergency complication sneaks up on even the healthiest mom on the block and bites her in the behind. It’s absolutely nothing you did, just that sometimes nature is weird. And sometimes – dammit! – we can’t do it all and have the most perfect, healthiest pregnancy and most perfect baby ever. We just do the best we can, which is always enough. Luckily, there are LOTS of things we can do to ensure the likelihood of natural birth. Here’s three.
1. Find health care providers you trust are skilled in natural birth: Seriously, not everyone is skilled in this. If you had pre-eclampsia or went into premature labor with twins, you definitely want the specialists for your area of need, not some general doctor. Likewise, if you want a natural birth, I urge you to go with the professionals – midwives – who train directly in that area (because the others don’t). For example, midwives regularly deliver healthy breech babies and babies 2-3 weeks past their due dates, whereas if your kid decides to turn at the last minute or act slow, your OB is likely to order an automatic section. Boom. Docs no longer get training for these cases. Midwives work in birthing centers, in homes (for very healthy women), and occasionally in hospitals. But just because they are there does not mean they know what you want or can override an unsupportive hospital policy, so make sure you ask questions, questions, questions!
2. Train for the big game (earlier than you think): Some people say birth is like a marathon. Some people say puh-leeeze, it’s not that extreme. I say both are pretty intense athletic events, and that’s enough to call for preparation of some sort. It all depends on how active you were before the pregnancy, but try to step it up a notch (before your belly grows, and you start huffing at the sight of stairs) and add in fun times like prenatal yoga, squats, pelvic tilts, and hip circles on a birth ball. Exercises and have the added benefit of reducing stress and aches, and keeping your weight healthy. Practicing ancient pain relieving techniques such as relaxation, visualization, acupressure, and focused breathing can also go a long, long way.
3. Prepare, prepare, prepare, and then let it all go: Birth, like marathons, can be a mental game and many women want to give up literally moments before the end. Choose your birth partner or team carefully with supportive, informed cheerleaders who will massage you for hours in that one-spot-that-makes-it-so-much-better, keep you moving around and distracted from labor with laughter and love, and who will never judge you no matter what goes down. Even if you’re in a hospital with an OB, your support team can make ALL the difference. Think about where you need to pull from when you’re at your absolute limit, because you may have to find a wellspring of strength you didn’t know you had. Don’t worry, it will come in handy for parenting. And know that, for all your planning, it never was your plan.
If you end up needing some assistance at the finish line, this is equally part of the mental (and often, physical!) challenge of birth – giving into the (non)plan and letting your birth and your baby teach you what you need to be taught to make you a stronger mother. Sometimes the most medicalized births are where I see the most courage and strength, and I end up saying under my breath, “I hope one day I’m as focused and prepared and open as this mom right here.” Grieve the change in plan if you need to, stay present and practice gratitude, and look for the lesson. If you’re a goal oriented person like myself, set a new one – breastfeeding exclusively for 6 months or finding an excellent pediatrician or raising a baby vegan – whatever it is, know that you are an excellent, caring mother already simply by reading this post, and there will be many chances along the way to give your child the very best.