Fact check: drugs and beeping machines do not make childbirth better. Birth has built in systems to make it safer, smoother, and less painful (even empowering and ecstatic) for mamas – and for babies. Here are five of the best-kept secrets in childbirth today:
Above moment captured by Photo: Art by Jessica, serving Aurora CO & Tucson AZ
Hormones are a key player in childbirth. That birth’s (second) biggest secret and it has been totally ignored. Researchers worked hard to discover what they felt “triggered” labor and have used that to exploit nature and birthing women – they pump synthetic oxytocin into moms and babies to make labor fit their factory timetable (aka “labor curves” and hospital policies). But they never went deeper than that.
Arguably the use of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin, Syntocinon) has helped some mothers and babies – but it has caused many more problems than it has solved, especially when used for labor induction (starting labor) and augmentation (making labor go faster).
It is not the same thing as the real oxytocin that your body produces. Real oxytocin has incredible benefits to you during pregnancy, while birthing, and postpartum.
Oxytocin is your ticket to a smoother, safer birth experience. It’s true that your body opens up (dilation and effacement) and it’s true that labor can be divided (roughly) into three stages. But there’s a lot more going on – there’s a chemical symphony1 at play and oxytocin could be considered the conductor.
Take time during your pregnancy to relax and enjoy life. Oxytocin is the “love hormone” and also called the “calm and connection” hormone. It makes you feel good, and you boost production by doing enjoyable things: eating a tasty meal with friends or family, petting your dog or cat, playing with your kids, listening to relaxing music, watching a funny movie, cuddling with your lover… all of these boost oxytocin levels. Having high oxytocin levels going into birth gives you a great head start
Oxytocin stimulates strong, rhythmic contractions that help you make progress faster and more efficiently 2 Oxytocin is also responsible for a beneficial feedback loop at the end of labor (the Ferguson reflex)3. Your baby starts to move down and presses against the walls of the birth canal, which triggers an oxytocin surge that pushes baby down, which triggers an oxytocin surge that pushes baby down, which… you get the point 😉
Oxytocin also creates safety for mama and baby in the postpartum time period – it encourages strong uterine contractions that shear the placenta away from the uterine wall and firm the uterus up. Then it promotes a strong, loving bond between mama and baby (remember, it is the love hormone!)6.
It’s crucial to remember that natural oxytocin does these things – synthetic oxytocin does not7. It cannot cross the blood-brain barrier to give all of these positive effects. It only pushes the uterus to work harder (often creating danger from “hyperstimulation”) and it can subvert the body’s natural oxytocin production, creating a lack of pain relief, efficiency, and safety postpartum that requires medical intervention.
Ask for the real deal!
Did you know that birth comes with built-in pain relief?
I’m not promising you it’s all going to be roses, but I can promise you that it’ll be better than the urban legends say. Beta-endorphin, is a powerful little helper you may have never heard of.
If you’ve ever heard a woman say that she felt like she was in “labor land” or connected with all the other women giving birth (or who have given birth), she probably experienced the effects of beta-endorphin. Beta-endorphin has opiate effects, something we commonly associate with feeling “transcendent” – and it works very well during birth (I’ve experienced it seven times)8.
This doesn’t mean that it removes all the pain from birthing, but it goes a long way towards helping a woman figure out how to work with birth and her baby.
Beta-endorphin also has protective effects on your baby, helping him or her stay safe during the work of labor9.
And, just like oxytocin, beta-endorphin doesn’t stop working once your baby is born. It pairs with oxytocin and creates that euphoric rush that many mamas describe after a natural birth.
That euphoria is not selfish. It’s the reward for doing an amazing job birthing a baby, and it creates a loving bond and strong mothering instinct for mama. It also creates safety and helps the mama-baby pair establish breastfeeding.(NOTE: Want Real Mom Tested Techniques for Handling Labor Pain? Use these 11 proven natural childbirth techniques to handle labor and keep things moving right along. Get them here.)
You’ve probably heard of the “fight or flight” reflex and that it’s bad news when you’re in labor. There’s definitely truth to that. The adrenaline system is the hormonal system responsible for “fight or flight” and you want to avoid triggering it early in labor.
Why? It can really shut things down. If your body believes there’s danger, it stops labor so you can reach safety. And anything that causes you stress is “danger” – be that a hospital gown, an IV line, a vaginal exam (please decline them), someone in the room who makes you feel uncomfortable, or even fear of the pain of labor… all of those things create fear, stress, and labor slowdowns.
But later in your birthing time adrenaline comes back into the game – and this time, it’s a star player.
Your body is primed for something call the fetal ejection reflex10, which is a rather mechanical-sounding name for something that’s really very empowering. Your body will push your baby out very efficiently – and all by itself. Yep, all those ridiculous scenes with people counting to 10 while a woman’s eyes bulge out of her head and blood vessels pop all over her face were really unnecessary. Nature had the design finished – no bed and stirrups needed!
Seriously, when your body starts to push you feel that urge to push involuntarily, but your uterus is going to push with or without you. That’s actually part of what’s going on while you’re getting to the pushing stage.
Sure, you’re dilating and effacing (the cervix is shortening and opening). But the cervix is actually part of the uterus (the neck), and as it’s getting pulled out of the way, the top of the uterus forms a thick, muscular piston that pushes baby down and out.
As with oxytocin and beta-endorphin, a mama is much more likely to experience this natural hormone surge when things have not been interrupted by procedures, policies, and even forced positions (in other words, ditch the stirrups). You want to let those end of labor hormone surges happen. Some women experience this as “the shakes” – hormones are flooding so fast and adrenaline levels are kicking into high gear to kick baby out… and into your arms 😉
So far the three secrets I’ve given you have involved three hormones. There are more hormones involved in birthing (for instance, the breastfeeding hormone prolactin increases near the end of labor and helps encourage further oxytocin release and promote stress relief and mama-baby bonding). But this fourth secret is going to focus on how to get these hormone levels where you want them.
Sometimes a mama and a baby really do need medical intervention. Occasionally a mama and a baby need medical intervention. Okay, rarely, but it does happen, a mama and a baby need medical intervention. I want to acknowledge that before I get skewered through by grumpy people who want to cite exceptions.
But birth is safe for almost every mom and every baby and we create danger by forcing interventions on mothers and babies. In short we create the problems and then run in with medical technology to solve them.
A smooth, simple, less painful labor is the norm for most women.
But when you rush in with a threatening, managed, medical environment right away, you subvert everything a mama’s body knows about what’s “safe” for birthing. That early adrenaline (remember, we don’t want it until the end of labor!) kicks in and things shut down. Trying to nurture labor in a medical environment is essentially and oxymoron. Nature knows best.
Having said that, creating the right environment helps protect the hormonal orchestra of labor. It supports what nature has designed and it does create additional safety, ease, and pain relief for birthing mamas. That’s because it activates nature’s little birthing hacks. 😉
What does this mean for you, practically? It means you shouldn’t run off to the hospital (or call in the midwives) right away. It means take time to let your birthing get established while you’re comfortably at home, away from pressure, ticking clocks, and medical agendas. And once you get where you’re birthing, turn the lights down low, play a little music, and work with your baby.
Don’t get stuck in the bed, trying to make things work with beeping monitors, pushy care providers, and bright, bright lights. That all stops the hormonal flows. And when Pitocin and an epidural come on board, they subvert the body’s natural hormones. It’s a downward spiral from there.
This video does a great (and hilarious!) job of showing you what I’m trying to share with you (you may want to watch this one without kiddos in the room):
I find the “mommy wars” to be just as tiring as you do, and I don’t think we should judge another mom for her choices, or feel superior over what we have or do – be that birthing, having a baby who sleeps through the night, or anything in between.
But I also think that part of the mommy war thing is rooted in wanting to be politically correct… “don’t step on anyone’s toes.” “Don’t make her feel bad.” Yes, to a certain extent, but if we never hear other options, we never grow.
It’s a lie that birth doesn’t matter.
It’s a lie that birth is agony that “you don’t need to go through in this day and age.”
You have the right to line up for the epidural. But you should get in line because you want to.
Not because you’ve been told you can’t handle birth, so you should just get the drugs.
Not because you’ve been told that an epidural and fetal monitor make birth better.
Not because you’ve been told that what matters is a healthy baby.
There are some babies who need surgical births. There are some mamas who need invasive monitoring. But most mamas and babies need safety, privacy, and freedom.
Mamas need someone saying “You can do this. I believe in you. What you’re working for is a good thing.
Why do we support women who want to win races, climb mountains, and shatter glass ceilings in the boardroom, but we don’t support women who want to birth their babies in their own raw strength and power?
Why are we scared of birthing women?
And why are we using “mommy war” rhetoric to try and silence other women who want to tell you that you are strong!?
Why are we going to tell our daughters that they can do anything they set their minds to – except birth their babies naturally?
The mommy wars lie. You are strong and birth works. It’s not selfish, it’s not martyrdom, and it’s not impossible.
Believe in yourself, mama. You’re the best kept secret in the birthing world.(NOTE: Want Real Mom Tested Techniques for Handling Labor Pain? Use these 11 proven natural childbirth techniques to handle labor and keep things moving right along. Get them here.)