As birth moved from the home into the hospital, many of the elements of home birth that supported labor were lost. But an expectant mother can make a completely respectful space where she feels safe during the natural vulnerability of labor.
For most of the history of mankind, laboring women retreated to quiet, dark, private places to labor. They were surrounded by women who were familiar with birth, had experienced it themselves, who acted as quiet coaches. Women were advised and encouraged, fed and massaged. They were in their own personal space, wearing their own clothes, acquainted with everyone in the room. The space was a safe place to birth, physically and emotionally.
When the Obstetric profession was created in the early 1900s, birth moved from the home into the hospital. Hospital birth was marketed as safer and cleaner, and eventually, as pain-free. Through this transition, many of the elements of home birth that supported labor were lost.
Sterile, bright hospital rooms that could only offer one form of support — chemical — drastically changed the birth experience, and over time, we lost the oral tradition of how to give birth. The general thoughts about birth centered around pain, danger and helplessness, and that was passed down through the generations. Many mothers go into labor unsure of what to expect and scared. These negative thoughts are interfering with the progression of labor, but the blame is rarely placed there.
Lack of privacy is behind what Ina May Gaskin calls Sphincter Law. She says that sphincters are shy and will only open in private, uninterrupted places. This includes the cervix and is so important in labor. When women feel threatened, embarrassed or self-conscious, their bodies can stall or even reverse dilation. For a woman to be able to relax and focus, she must be in a place where she knows she is safe despite the natural vulnerability of labor. Safe to move, make noise, be naked, throw up, cry, laugh, love… a completely respectful space. Creating this space involves several things.
1. A Care Provider You Trust. The first is choosing a trustworthy care provider. Not just someone who is educated and certified, but someone whose demeanor is respectful and puts the mother at ease. Someone who shares the same values as the mother. A person she can trust professionally and ethically. This trust should be established at each appointment, as both patient and provider get to know each other, questions are asked and answered and they see each other as partners to achieving an optimal birth experience.
The way women are made to feel during labor has long-lasting effects on their mental health, so this is about more than just a healthy baby and healthy mother. This is about finding someone who respects and includes the mother throughout pregnancy and birth, so she feels informed and involved in her baby’s care, well before the birth.
2. Choosing a Birthplace. A trustworthy care provider will help you choose the right birthplace. Truthfully, the right answer here is going to be different for everyone. I’ve known women who have spent time in a hospital when they or a loved one were ill, and it is a place of security. They saw good providers give good care that brought great outcomes. They feel safe and comfortable there and so it is a good place to give birth.
Other women associate hospital visits with pain or loss. Others have never never spent time there at all, so it is an unfamiliar, mysterious environment. For them, that environment could be enough to distract their mind from the work of labor and inhibit progress and so being out of the hospital is where they will feel safe and be able to labor effectively.
3. Surrounded by Supportive People. Women need to only allow people into the birth space who understand the process and do not bring their own preconceived expectations or fears into the birth space. The attitudes the woman perceives from her supporters will absolutely influence how she views herself and her birth. Pain specialist Julie Bonapace says pain is not pain until it is perceived by the brain. Physical pain and mental suffering, which contribute to with negativity and fear, can create a cycle of pain. But, the pain signal can be changed before it reaches the brain when the mother feels a soft touch, hears comforting words, thinks joyful thoughts. We know that fear prolongs labor — those present will be able to shorten labor and make it less painful just by bringing encouragement to the birth room.
Each woman’s safest birth environment is going to look different based on our own perceptions. But the more we know about what promotes smooth labors, the better we’ll be able to choose our optimal birth space.