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Mothering › Pregnancy Articles › How to Have an Empowered Birth; or the Second Longest Post in the History of this Blog

How to Have an Empowered Birth; or the Second Longest Post in the History of this Blog

In December I visited a labor and delivery ward at a prominent hospital in Boston. There were four women in active labor while I was there. They were all young and healthy with no risk factors of any kind.

Three were having their first baby.

One was having her second.

One was a vaginal forceps delivery after the woman was given an epidural and pitocin (a synthetic hormone that mimics oxytocin and is used to intensify contractions) and had spent most of the labor and two hours pushing flat on her back, one was a vaginal delivery with a second degree tear by a woman who was also given an epidural and pitocin and who also delivered flat on her back, and two were Cesarean sections.

The doctor I was shadowing wasn’t sure why the two women—both of whom had wanted natural births—were sectioned. But she did know that neither of the C-sections were emergencies. “I think it was for failure to progress.”

I can’t stop thinking about one of those women. She was laboring happily, walking the halls with a smile on her face, her partner shuffling along behind her, stopping to buttress herself against the wall when a contraction washed over her. She looked so healthy and alive. She was so present in herself. She looked to my inexperienced eye like the last person on earth who would need to have a C-section.

With the epidemic of Cesarean operations in America today, how do you avoid an unnecessary C-section? How do you have the kind of birth you want? How can you own your own labor and delivery and trust your body and your baby so that you feel euphoric when you remember your birth experience instead of depressed and disappointed?

1. Read the right books

If you don’t want to know anything about labor and delivery until it’s your turn, it will be very hard for you to be empowered when the time comes. It’s a good idea to read up on the process.

But what you read makes a huge difference.

I recommend you, your partner, and anyone who you want to be with you while you’re in labor, read the following books, in this order:

1403533Simply Give Birth by Heather Cushman Dowdee. This is a little known collection of very empowering birth stories where the focus is on the woman and her baby and not on the birth attendant or the intervention. Many of these are stories of women who chose to have unassisted births though Cushman Dowdee did not set out to collect unassisted birth stories per se. Though some of the writing is uneven and some of the narrators might be a bit too woo-woo for you, every story is empowering.

Unassisted Childbirth by Laura Shanley. Even if you just read around in this book, you will learn so much from it. Shanley tells her own incredible birth stories (she had all of her babies unassisted. The first with four of her partner’s male friends watching!), shares birth stories by other women, and also tells about her philosophy that birth is a natural process and that laboring women should trust themselves. She talks, too, about the importance of mind over matter and of teaching yourself to think positively about the birth process instead of dwelling on fear or pain.

Childbirth Without Fear: The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth by Grantly Dick-Read. Though this book was written in the 1930s, it is tremendously empowering and affirming (and the book that inspired Shanley and her partner to think outside the birthing box.)

Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin. This book is for both midwives and pregnant women. It includes many of the birth stories in Gaskin’s Spiritual Midwifery, as well as all of the technical details about childbirth. Though I don’t agree some of Gaskin’s approach (she and her midwives tend to interfere more than I would have been comfortable with when I was in labor), the book is a tremendously helpful, detailed, and well-written resource.

2. Mediate every day, say positive affirmations, and tell yourself that you will have a peaceful, fun, sexy labor

Next I’ll be telling you to hug trees. Thinking (if you prefer that word to the more woo-woo one) about the kind of birth you want, imagining yourself in labor, and psychologically preparing yourself to be the calm center in the eye of the storm can help tremendously. You can simply practice breathing. Breathe slowly and count each breath up to ten and then start over again. As you breathe and count imagine your body opening up, imagine the baby coming down the birth canal, imagine that you and your baby are a team working together in a dance that will change both of your lives.

3. Eat well and exercise, you’re preparing for a marathon

You wouldn’t try to complete a marathon without training first.

Being pregnant is a fantastic excuse to spend a lot of time exercising without feeling guilty that you should be _________ (fill in the blank: working more, spending time with your spouse, cleaning the house.)

Do the exercise that works for you: biking, hiking, pre-natal yoga, swimming, running, walking, dancing. You know this already but exercise really helps prepare your body for labor.

Yes, of course, you should eat well and exercise to prepare for an empowered labor. But even if you're in excellent shape, does that insure that you will not have unnecessary intervention during labor? Unfortunately, no. The best way to insure no unnecessary intervention is to have a home birth

Yes, of course, you should eat well and exercise to prepare for an empowered labor. But even if you're in excellent shape, does that insure that you will not have unnecessary intervention during labor? Unfortunately, no. The best way to insure no unnecessary intervention is to have a home birth

4. Think carefully about WHO you want at the birth

This is not a very popular opinion but honestly if your partner or your mom faint at the sight of blood and are totally panicking about you having a baby, maybe you don’t want either of them there.

Sometimes men can interfere with the labor process, especially when they bring their own fear and baggage into your space.

If you think your mother is going to miraculously morph into the attentive person you always wanted her to be while you were growing up, don’t be surprised when she’s reading a manuscript in the labor room and ignoring you completely, that’s what she’s done your whole life and it’s not going to change now just because you want it to.

Women in labor are very vulnerable to suggestion and they need to have supportive, kind, loving people to help them through every step of the birth. The father of your child can be an amazing source of strength and comfort. But in some cases he can be a hindrance. He isn’t doing you any favors if his energy is negative. Choose loving, supportive, kind, patient, experienced people to be with you. It’s also a good idea to have a friend who isn’t afraid of being your advocate if you butt heads with hospital staff.

If you don’t have close friends or relatives who have been through labor and who you want with you, hire a doula.

5. Stay out of the hospital for as long as you can (or have your baby at home)

The best way to have a safe and empowering birth is to have your baby at home. If you don’t believe me, ask Aneka, who had a safe and wonderful home birth after three hospital C-sections.

If you still don’t believe me, watch “The Business of Being Born,” the movie by Rickie Lake that made the ACOG so upset that they issued a hostile, anti-home birth statement in response.

If you’re lucky to have a birthing center nearby, have your baby there.

If a hospital is your choice:

• Forget about timing contractions and going to the hospital when they are less than five minutes apart. Don’t go to the hospital until you feel like you can’t stay on top of the contractions for one more second.

Forget about going to the hospital if your water breaks. Stay home and watch a movie. Stay home and watch two movies. Conveniently forget when your water broke and don’t tell the hospital staff how long its been. They’ll want to put you on an unnecessary timeline and also might start you on unnecessary medications and unnecessary intervention.

First time labors can last a long time, much longer than the doctor has patience for. As a first-time mother what you feel is overwhelming may actually just be early labor. The longer you labor at home the better the outcome for you and your baby.

For most women having a baby is pretty intense.

Maybe you’ll be crying out during the contractions but laughing at yourself during the lulls.

Maybe you’ll enjoy being the center of attention or be mortified by the fact that you’re defecating in front of several people (to say nothing of losing all sorts of other bodily fluids in a public forum—it happens to all of us.)

Maybe you’ll keep your romantic sentiments and tell your partner you love him or her or maybe you’ll scream, “THIS IS YOUR FAULT, YOU DID THIS TO ME AND I’LL NEVER FORGIVE YOU!”

In a rush of body fluids, a baby girl was born. The doctor put her right up on her mother’s chest. “She’s so small,” the new mom said quietly, patting the floppy baby who was lying on her tummy, her voice full of awe and exhaustion. “I’ve never seen a newborn before.”

The whole world changes the moment your baby is born. When you first look into the baby’s eyes you meet someone you’ve never seen before but have somehow known your whole life. You have a lifetime to get to know each other better. What better way to get started than owning your labor and delivery and having the birth experience you want?

The longest post (in case you’re wondering): A Daughter with Special Needs

Related posts:
Our DIY Birth
The Epidemic of Unnecessary C-sections
One Mom’s Home Birth After 3 Cesareans!

If you have children, what kind of birth experience did you have? If you are expecting, what kind of birth experience do you hope to have? Experienced moms and dads, what advice do you have for pregnant parents preparing for labor and delivery?

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Tags: books to read about birth, empowered birth, empowered birthing, home birth, how to avoid a C-section, meditation during pregnancy, staying home in labor


Comments (32)

I like the vibe of your article. I would just add that before deciding to have your baby at home, you and your healthcare provider should be very sure you're low risk, and keep in mind there ARE risks to not being in a hospital, however slight. An alternative is to research the hospitals in your area and find one with a low rate of C-sections and the lowest rate of epidurals/inductions. These are signs that the hospital's policy is not to intervene unnecessarily. I very much agree with your idea to research labor and delivery extensively, so you can make the decision you feel most comfortable with. Don't just take your doctor or midwife's opinion as fact.
thanks for a great post and the reading suggestions. I'm due with my second child in Feb and thinking about a natural birth this time around. I need all the information I can get! .-= Emily @ Random Recycling´s last blog ..Must Have for Mommy &amp me class =-.
I'm so glad to hear that Childbirth Without Fear is still in print. That is the book that convinced me that I could take control of the birth of my sons instead of playing the passive role of patient--way back in the early 60s. Vera .-= Vera Marie Badertscher´s last blog ..12 Gifts for Your Holiday Reading =-.
Thanks Jennifer for the very informative blog post. Will send this to my daughter who will deliver in May 2011. And, the reading suggestions. Excellent.
This is all great advice, Jennifer, and you've done a ton of research for moms-to-be. Here's the thing, though, as you know as a mom of more than one: There's no one-sized solution for all when it comes to labor. Expect the unexpected, I'd add. And relinquish any sense that you can control things (something that's tough for many of us to do, I know.) Like lots of pregnant women I had a doula, a game plan, a general sense of what kind of birth I wanted (non-interventionist, drug-free, a view of the Golden Gate Bridge to focus on while I pushed my baby out;). Lucky for me, I got all those things (though, trust me, I didn't give a @$%^&#! about the view when my son was ready to emerge into the world.) I toyed with having a homebirth but in the end thought it might be too stressful on my partner (we'd had a couple of friends try that route and things went awry), and, yes, we also knew folks who had babies at home without a hitch. Anyway, I went the hospital route and followed the advice to stay home as long as possible, including after my waters had broken, and that really wasn't the best thing for me. Long story short, I crawled into the hospital on all fours (the looks from couples waiting for scheduled C-sections were something that still make me laugh, though at the time I didn't give a hoot) ready to give birth right then and there. We figured out later on that I was in transition when I was getting into the car to go to the hospital and, ready to push, for the entire 10-minute drive (which felt like 10 hours). Now, that was pretty stressful on my son's dad, who left the car, unparked and doors open in front of the E.R. Me? I was in my own zone. I always thought if I'd been blessed with a second and opted for a hospital birth again I would high-tail it over there at the first contraction. I know my story is the exception, not the rule, but I offer it as an example that every birth has its own timing. I'd suggest that it's important to listen to your own body, too, though of course the first-time around you're not sure what to expect or what things mean. .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..Farm Together Now =-.
There have been a huge jump in C sections in New Zealand as well. Up from 9% in 1980 to 25% currently. 15% of births are pre-booked for a C-section. Huge costs to the health of the mum and baby as well as the strain on our health system. Shocking, really. .-= Melanie @ Frugal Kiwi´s last blog ..Patchwork Living- Project- Happily Ever After =-.
This whole C-section epidemic scares the pants off of me. It's such a natural process - I can't imagine messing with something that evolution has perfected. .-= Stephanie - Wasabimon´s last blog ..Homemade Marshmallows =-.
I think it is so important to be informed about all aspects of birth and all eventualities. When I had my children I wish I had someone with all your knowledge to guide me through the process ahead of time. I blindly put myself in the hands of the professionals. Although nothing unusualor unfortunate happened, sometimes I wonder if I had spoken up, refused to be induced, and refused the episiotomy, if things would have gone smoother and I would have had an easier birth/recovery. .-= sheryl´s last blog ..Catch Up on Five Important Health Stories =-.
Wonderful, strong post, Jennifer. It brought back so many good memories of my own two natural childbirths -- even if they were in hospitals. When it came time to push, I'm pretty sure I could have performed in front of an audience; I mean -- who cares at a time like that? .-= Ruth Pennebaker´s last blog ..Determined to Live Happily Ever After =-.
These are all great suggestions and a great service to pregnant women who don't want to end up getting sectioned. I think we need to interview our health care providers more thoroughly, too. I'm not sure what the right questions are, but you don't want to find out during labor that you've got a doc, nurse, midwife or someone else who is going to pressure you to get the baby born in record time. .-= Alisa Bowman´s last blog ..Writing That Should Have Never Been Published- Part 3 =-.
Sarah, that's a harrowing tale. My hair is standing on end! How long was your laboring overall? .-= Stephanie - Wasabimon´s last blog ..Homemade Marshmallows =-.
I am also worried about the epidemic of C-sections and wonder whether anything can be done about it besides spreading information as you do here? I particularly found this sentence to be oh so true: "When you first look into the baby’s eyes you meet someone you’ve never seen before but have somehow known your whole life." My firstborn entered life in France, so there was a whole other dynamic going on of having learned natural childbirth in a foreign country. I was promised my husband could stay with me. Then, right before wheeling me into the delivery room, he was whisked away. This action by the clinic staff totally unsettled me, creating anguish in addition to non-stop contractions. They put me to sleep and used forceps. Total labor time was almost 24 hours. So, I had a HORRIBLE first birth. But, the minute I looked into my son's eyes, I totally forgot about the pain ... .-= Alexandra´s last blog ..Whats New On the Bookshelf =-.
Harrowing? In hindsight it's kinda funny, to me. As for the length of my labor, depends how you count it. I'd been walking around for a couple of weeks already a couple of cms dilated (if that means anything to you, it's an indication that labor is pending) and apparently having contractions I couldn't feel but were detectable on a monitor. That said the "actual" labor (the, um, ouchy part) lasted under 5 hours, more than half of which was spent at home. .-= sarah henry´s last blog ..Farm Together Now =-.
I think it's also important to find out more about the hospital where you give birth. I know we're talking about c-sections here but at the hospital where I gave birth to my first there was a 98% epidural rate. During our orientation class we were told essentially that unless the baby was crowning when you got to the hospital--you'd have an epidural. Since it was my first, and I was nervous, I didn't think to do it any other way.
I had two natural births in a hospital. No one pressured me to consent to interventions, but things went pretty smoothly both times. The biggest issue was the IV. I wouldn't hear of having one. "You realize that in an emergency, not having an IV in will delay care?" The nurse accepted my refusal, but it made her nervous. She should have been flattered that I had complete confidence in her ability to save me and my baby in a real emergency. After my first delivery, I was very dehydrated. I had thrown up a few times, and not had enough water during labor. They wanted to provide me with fluids, but I felt that I'd be hampered by the tubes when trying to hold and nurse my baby. I said no, I like to drink my fluids. I was so thirsty and hungry after giving birth (it's hard work) that I ate two breakfasts and drank two pints of milk and two giant bottles of water within the next two hours. I was peeing like crazy - so there. No matter how prepared you are, however, you never know what you'll get as far as a labor and delivery experience is concerned. I assumed that my second baby would be easier. In reality, labor was longer, and I had very painful back labor. Pushing was much easier the second time, and I had a much less serious tear. It was actually really frustrating to be in back labor for so long, because I really had convinced myself that everything would be quicker and less painful. Oops.
Thanks for the suggestions, Jennifer! I'll have to file this away for when I'm a mom-to-be someday. :)
There seems to be a never-ending amount of information for to-be parents to think about and make decisions about and your articles shed intelligent light on subjects that many probably do not realize they needed (or wanted to) think about until after the fact--as in the pregnancy/birth.
Excellent information and resources to empower women in the midst of pregnancy and childbirth choices. .-= Donna Hull´s last blog ..Orta San Giulio- Northern Italy At Its Best =-.
I agree completely! I am a labor and delivery RN and a certified HypnoBirthing instructor. What frustrates me more than anything is when women and their partners come in for a scheduled induction and don't know why they are getting induced nor what an induction entails! Very few know that they will have to be monitored continuously and won't be able to use the tub or walk the halls. Ask questions and do some research before heading into this very important event. Ultimately a healthy mom and baby is the desired outcome so it is important to be flexible too!
I enjoyed the article, however I have to echo Sarah in a way. I do think it's a little irresponsible to place such an emphasis on waiting until the very last second to get to the hospital, without also warning women that they should be prepared to have their baby unassisted if they choose to do that, just in case! When I had my first baby I had had so much drilled into me by books, articles, and even the information my midwife gave me about how if I could talk through the contractions it wasn't time to go in yet...if I was still in a good mood it wasn't time yet...if they weren't getting stronger, longer, and closer together it was false labor (mine started out two-three minutes apart and never got stronger, longer, OR closer until about 5 minutes before I started pushing!)...lots of moms are in false labor for weeks...first time moms go late so it must be false labor...it's going to get a lot worse, this is nothing (nope, never got worse, again, until 5 minutes before pushing). I did make it to the hospital, but just barely and if I had known what I was doing I would have had him at home unassisted since I started pushing when I was still at home. Now, I am pregnant with my second and planning for a homebirth, but I were going the hospital route I would plan to go in much sooner - as soon as I thought it was likely I was in labor. Because getting there already pushing really doesn't make for an "empowered" birth...at least it didn't for me. It just created serious chaos and pain.
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