by Kristen Tea
The first book I ever read about pregnancy, birth, and babies was Ina May Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery. I wasn’t interested in becoming a midwife, and this was several years before I even thought of becoming a mother, but it looked interesting so I picked it up. It rocked my world. I had never thought of birth in such earthy terms; I had never considered mother-directed birth, and I definitely hadn’t thought that birth could be pleasant or even pain-free! I feel so fortunate to have discovered this book, discovered this whole world of thinking differently about birth before I actually gave birth. By the time I was pregnant years later, this was already my new normal.
I re-read Spiritual Midwifery just days after I saw that positive sign on the pregnancy test, and I found a number of other blogs, articles, and natural parenting books that were incredibly helpful in preparing for my son’s arrival. Being fully informed about the plethora of existing parenting choices is invaluable. The beginning of my pregnancy was the beginning of my quest for knowledge, and I have been continuously awe-struck by the information I have found. Evidence-based pregnancy, birth, and parenting choices have been lost —particularly in the Western world — in a history of doctor-controlled scenarios, where personal opinions sometimes trump factual information. Learning about these issues through my own research has been the most empowering experience. I also found as a new mother that being knowledgeable can help ease some of that new-mom panic, which I imagine all moms go through at some point.
One of the most valuable pieces of information about pregnancy health that I learned was the difference between whole food prenatal vitamins and synthetic prenatal vitamins. Synthetic vitamins are made in a lab; they are not as easily absorbed and there is some evidence of health risks. Whole food vitamins are made from real foods; fruits and vegetables, and they contain easily absorbed bioavailable micronutrients. This is particularly important in the case of folate vs. folic acid. We all know that pregnant women are told to take folic acid because it can prevent birth defects, but folic acid is the synthetic version of folate. Folate is found in a variety of foods like cauliflower, beets, and lentils; greens like spinach, romaine, asparagus, parsley, collards, and broccoli, and organic/free-range liver from cows or chickens. A diet rich in these foods as well as other whole foods is essential to a healthy pregnancy. Eat organic whole foods whenever possible, and eat a variety of colorful, seasonal fruits and vegetables, lots of leafy greens, plenty of healthy fats, some grains like oats and quinoa, and free-range/organic animal products. Invest in a fun, nourishing, whole foods cookbook or two, and explore the amazing food blogs out there, some of them mom-oriented. For quality prenatal vitamins, Green Pasture‘s fermented cod liver oil and Vitamin Code‘s raw prenatal are both high quality, food-based options.
Avoiding pesticides, whenever possible, is an important part of having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby. When tissue is rapidly growing and cells are multiplying as they do when a fetus is growing in the womb, it’s an even more vulnerable time for chemicals to have negative effects. Exposure to BPA during pregnancy has shown to cause neurological and behavioral issues in children, so limiting canned food and plastics containing BPA is critical. Another significant aspect of avoiding everyday toxins is using natural body products and household cleaning products. Check out your local health food store for non-toxic cleaning products, order online, or make your own. My current body products include baking soda for shampoo, apple cider vinegar plus essential oils for conditioner, coconut oil for lotion and hair product, and locally made non-toxic soap for parts that need it. If baking soda and vinegar for hair-care sounds crazy to you, try looking into the No ‘Poo method! It cleans hair, keeps it balanced and conditioned, and leaves it smelling awesome. Coconut oil for lotion is my absolute favorite; it is nourishing and moisturizing for skin, without leaving it greasy. It has anti-viral properties so it’s actually protective. Making homemade lotion is easy enough. For store-bought or online options, Earth Mama Angel Baby, Owl Heart, Aubrey Organics, California Baby, Ava Anderson, Weleda, and Dr. Bronner’s are some favorite non-toxic products.
Taking care of your body with pregnancy-friendly exercise is an effective way to prepare for birth. There are copious amounts of yoga-for-pregnancy DVDs available, as well as some free videos on youtube. Ina May Gaskin famously said, “Squat 300 times a day, you’re going to give birth quickly.” This gem of knowledge I didn’t learn until after I had my son, and I feel that preparing my body for the marathon of birth is something I want to focus on next time around.
During my pregnancy I read a number of different books specifically about birth, but one thing I didn’t do that I will definitely do next time was watch a whole bunch of birth videos on youtube and other birthy blogs. Watching women have beautiful, wonderful, lovely natural births, whether at home, in a birth center, or in a hospital is extraordinarily inspiring. Seeing birth this way can completely revolutionize the way we think about it, as can learning about the Bradley Method, gentle birth, woman-directed birth, Hypnobabies, orgasmic birth, water birth, natural birth, and homebirth. The media spin on birth is, unfortunately, overwhelmingly negative, with a screaming woman being rushed through hospital corridors, always laying on her back, being shouted at to “Push!” by various nurses and doctors, legs up in stirrups. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Being aware of different birth choices is essential to preparing for the best, safest birth possible. Watching The Business of Being Born was a crucial step in my journey; I had no idea that medical professionals have the potential to interfere with a woman’s birthing process so much that they actually endanger the mother and child, rather than helping and protecting. The United States in particular has a shockingly high neonatal and infant death rate, the worst in the developed world, actually. The US cesarean birth rate is around 33%, while the World Health Organization states that a rate of 5%-10% is optimal. This means there are unnecessary c-sections taking place, which increases risks to both mother and baby.
Hiring a doula and a midwife can lower the risk of c-section, as well as other birth interventions. Remember that you are hiring your doctor or midwife, and you can fire them if you disagree with their model of care. I saw three different care providers before I found one I was comfortable with. What I liked most about my doctor was that she answered all of my questions, never seemed to be in a hurry, supported my right to refuse vaccines for my baby until I had further researched the topic, she doesn’t recommend or perform circumcisions, and she respected my birth plan. Writing a birth plan is a wonderful way to prepare for birth, regardless of whether or not the plan is adhered to. I chose a hospital birth with a doula for my first birth; any future births I hope to have at home. In my birth plan I stated that I didn’t want my son to be removed from my sight for any reason aside from a real emergency, and I asked that my informed consent be required before any potential interventions were performed. I asked that all weighing, measuring, etc. wait until after birth, and be done bedside. I also requested that there be no mention of time, nor any mention of drugs like Pitocin or epidural. I wanted to be left alone to birth. I was, for the most part, and my doula played a big part in supporting me. Some couples wonder why they would need a doula when they are there to support each other, but doulas can also be great encouragement for dads/partners. Having a plan in case of emergency is also wise. Being prepared in an emergency situation is invaluable, particularly in terms of bonding and breastfeeding.
Learning about breastfeeding before I gave birth was one of the most beneficial steps I took on my journey. I knew I wanted to have uninterrupted skin-to-skin time with my new baby, so I told every nurse who asked that I did not want my baby taken to the nursery. Whisking babies off to the nursery is an outdated practice that is harmful to breastfeeding and bonding. Bonding after birth is wonderful and valuable. It stimulates important hormones for both mother and child; it helps with milk production and also assists babies with learning to nurse. Breastfeeding is a learning experience for both mother and baby. It’s another instance where watching videos can be very helpful; reading about what a correct latch looks like and actually watching a baby nurse with a good latch can be helpful in different ways.
Early in my mothering journey, I read in one of the many amazing breastfeeding blogs out there that the World Health Organization recommends at least two years of breastfeeding, and more as long as both mother and child wish. I was surprised at first–I had barely seen a baby being breastfed in my life, much less a toddler. But further reading showed that full-term breastfeeding is not only the healthiest choice, but it’s also normal around the world. There are significant dangers to formula feeding, so starting out right was important to me. I didn’t allow any nurses or family members to give my new baby a bottle, and I pretended formula didn’t exist when I got home. I spent those days nursing every hour or so while awake, getting plenty of skin-to-skin contact with my son. Unfortunately, because I wasn’t sure what a good latch should look like, we had a bad one, which caused me some pain. I was determined to avoid using formula though, because I had read about the risks of even one bottle, so I pushed past that roadblock with the help of nipple cream, comforting hot rice socks, and eventually nipple shields. Nipple shields are generally not advised during those first fragile days of establishing the breastfeeding relationship, but I used them briefly enough that it wasn’t an issue. I felt scared and clueless in the beginning, trying to figure out how to get my brand new floppy baby to nurse properly, but with a little trouble-shooting and some confidence in my body, we made it through. I am so incredibly grateful that I never gave up.
I went on to nurse my son for over 3 years J Breastfeeding provides so many health benefits, and emotional blessings as well. Sleep-deprivation is made easier by cuddling up and nursing. Those moments when I felt like an inept new mom without a clue went by so much smoother because all my baby wanted to do was nurse, and I could provide that for him. I did baby-led weaning when he started showing interest in food around 10 months, but he still nursed often and I was thankful to have the best possible food to provide my baby with — my milk. When he started crawling and walking and subsequently began getting bumps and bruises, nursing was a better band-aid than anything else. When he was a toddler and having stereotypical two-year-old moments, nursing provided comfort and bonding that I really can’t imagine doing without. Full-term breastfeeding has been an invaluable gift to myself as a mother, and to my son. All while significantly decreasing the risk of cancer for both of us, and saving me thousands of dollars!
Cloth diapering, babywearing, and cosleeping are some other wonderfully beneficial options that also happen to save a decent amount of money, and a new mom’s sanity. My doula lent me a variety of cloth diapers, which are ridiculously cute, thrifty, and good for the environment! Cloth diapers paired with Elimination Communication helped my son become “potty-learned” by two years old. EC is a gentle, fun way to help children become diaper-free.
Babywearing has numerous benefits. Those first few days home with my new baby were full of doubt about how I would be able to care for my baby and tend to everyday household tasksóand then I discovered the Maya ring sling and the Ergo! I remember the first time I had him safely snuggled up in the sling while I was doing dishes and he fell asleep; I suddenly understood the pure brilliance of babywearing. I had read about how keeping babies near decreases crying, increases milk production, and promotes healthy development, but it was when I realized I would be able to take walks, go out to dinner, and do household chores with my sweet babe safely sleeping on my chest that I became a true fan.
Cosleeping saves money usually spent on cribs, and it goes hand-in-hand with breastfeeding. Cosleeping is defined as sleeping in close proximity to your baby, which includes bed-sharing or room-sharing. Safe cosleeping is essential, and when practiced safely, it is the healthiest way for children to sleep. Babies who experience comforting, nurturing, safe night-time parenting theoretically become confident, comfortable sleepers.
One of the most encouraging phrases I heard in the beginning of my mothering journey was that parenting doesn’t end at night! It’s true. Night waking is normal. It’s normal in those first many months, and it’s normal when they get their first teeth, and it’s normal when they get their first cold, and when they start crawling and walking and learning new words. I still wake up once or twice a night, but I am generally able to get myself back to sleep without assistance. Babies need our assistance. Some babies could be called “good sleepers;” others not so much. But every child deserves the presence of a caregiver when they are in need, even if it’s after the sun goes down. Because babies have no object-permanence and no concept of time, being responsive to their needs is a fundamental part of building a strong bond and a secure child. Room-sharing is a great option for those who aren’t comfortable sharing a bed with their baby. I personally chose to keep my newborn son in a bassinet right next to my bed for the first couple weeks, and then when I was less sleep-deprived I brought him into my bed and we’ve been bed-sharing ever since. I have grown to cherish nighttime parenting, knowing that these years when he really needs me are limited.
I have walked this path of natural living and peaceful parenting with my son, from pregnancy to our current exploration through positive and gentle discipline. The benefits of these philosophies have been practical, nurturing, loving, and genuinely natural. I eventually found a term for everything I had learned throughout my pregnancy, and everything I was practicing as a new mother–Attachment Parenting. Attachment Parenting (AP) has its foundations in attachment theory–the theory that infants must form a strong, safe, bonded attachment with at least one caregiver in order for emotional health to develop correctly. AP nurtures that bond to the fullest, providing babies with the connection they need to thrive and grow into secure children, and eventually emotionally healthy adults.
For more resources on Attachment Parenting and natural living, follow the links throughout this blog post. What are your favorite pregnancy, birth, and post-partum resources?