What the World Needs Now: Love in Birthing

My granddaughter was born on July 30, the night of the blue moon. I was there, I saw her emerging, sputtering and coughing, turning from pale to pink in a minute or two. She was put on her mother’s breast before the cord was cut; in fact, the cord was not cut for a good 20 or so minutes, so that all the blood that was rightly hers would flow into her body. When the cord is cut too soon, up to a third of the baby’s blood volume may be left in it, thereby cheating the child from having all its red blood cells and oxygen. Of course, health is important. 

It was a home birth, as may seem obvious; there were two midwives in attendance, my son-in-law, and me, the gofer (go for this, go for that). In fact, it was when I was asked to go for the birthing stool from the car, that I went out and got to see that enormous full moon. “What a night to be born,” I said to myself, and it was. But the birthing stool was superfluous, as upon my return I was just in time to see the baby sliding out and her father catching her (as had been agreed upon by all the interested parties). Second birth for Shana, and, as she said, “Labor was quick and relatively easy (as far as labour goes).”

There was no trauma, no hurrying, no worrying, no yelling at the mother to push or to hold. The lights were low, the sounds gentle. The midwives boiled a batch of herbs with a whole head of garlic cut in half horizontally (good idea, I thought!), and drew a bath, dumping in the strained herbal broth. Shana got into the bath with the baby, cradling her so they were looking at each other, the baby with her back in the water, her little fists by her chin, enjoying the liquid warmth, quiet, with open eyes, gazing at her mother who gazed back at her. Stillness, joy, love – a welcoming into the world. Then they came out of the bath, the mother back to bed, the baby wrapped. She was given to me to hold while the mother was attended to, the placenta was studied to make sure there were no problems, and the paperwork was being filled.

There I sat, with my 30-minute old granddaughter. She whimpered a little, but as soon as I started talking to her, she quieted down. She seemed to listen intently. And I just sat there, glorying at the moment, thinking, what if every human being were to be welcomed into the world in this way?

“The manner in which a society greets its newborn members may have much to do with the shaping of its overall character.” This is a quote from the Brain/Mind Bulletin of January 25, 2004.  Labour and delivery in the Twentieth Century are viewed almost as a medical emergency, to be handled in the hospital with the help of technology and medical professionals. Many young parents and parents-to-be can’t even begin to imagine how people have babies without all this paraphernalia. Nevertheless, it has been done, and well, for millions of years. We simply have lost touch. According to numerous accounts from explorers in the 1700 and 1800s, childbirth among native peoples was an uncomplicated and unhurried affair, the exclusive domain of women; sometimes it was even handled by the mother with no assistance. It was also without the appearance of pain and suffering that is expected in the civilized West. Even in the early American Colonies, mishaps at birth were rare during the reign of the midwives: for example, according to the diary of midwife Mrs Martha Moore Ballard, who practised in Maine from 1778 to 1812 and delivered 996 women, her first maternal death happened after nine years of practice, and childbirth appeared to be routinely successful in the great majority of cases. In all traditional societies, women remained moderately active throughout pregnancy, attending to their normal daily chores.

Through assumptions and misunderstandings, we have the collective impression than the lack of modern medicinal intervention in the past was the main reason why people died or fell ill; we also assume that birth without medical intervention is dangerous. This myth is perpetuated by popular and scientific writings that, unintentionally or not, disparaging the ability of women to handle the event. Here is an example of subtle biased writing by a group of three well-regarded professionals: “Whether with the help of other women or alone, women living in hunting and gathering societies have no choice but to give birth as nature intended.”  (My emphasis) By pointing out the lack of “choice,” presumably drugs and surgery, the authors imply that these poor women suffered greatly. But talk to any woman who’s given birth at home as nature intended, and then talk to women who’ve run up against the technological interventions in hospitals, and you’ll find very different accounts. My granddaughter’s (as well as my grandson’s) birth was exactly “as nature intended.”

Think of a new baby as a visitor who will stay with this family for a very long time. How would one treat such a person? Ideally, one would welcome babies into this world with the attention and care we would normally lavish on any new visitor to our house.

The Leboyer method of birthing has just such an intention. This is how it works, as described in Fredrick Leboyer’s book Birth Without Violence:

The birth takes place in a dark, warm, quiet room, to minimize shock to the baby who is coming out of a dark, warm, quiet place. Harsh lights and air conditioners are strictly avoided. The birth attendant and all present speak in soft whispers.

When the baby emerges, it is put to the breast immediately.

The cord is not cut until flaccid and the baby is breathing comfortably, seven to ten minutes later. With this method, the baby does not cry, but opens its eyes right away and looks at faces.

Then the baby is gently lowered into a warm bath, to feel once again the buoyancy in which it lived until recently. It is raised and lowered, raised and lowered until it catches on to the game. Then it is wrapped and given to its mother.

Putting the baby to the breast moments after birth is the most sensible and realistic way to complete the process. The suckling contracts the uterus and helps in the delivery of the placenta. The wait before cutting the cord would allow the baby to continue to receive oxygenated blood from the placenta, while it gets used to the unfamiliar act of breathing air; this gentle transition from liquid breathing to air-breathing could avoid breathing difficulties later on. The warm bath serves to clarify the transition between the old and the new worlds. Photos in the book show that Leboyer’s method appears to produce babies that smile and gaze intently right after birth, who are happy and fearless, willing to be in the world and who, later studies show, grow into self-confident, highly intelligent children. Leboyer has a clear goal: “The point of this book,” he writes, “is not just to make birth something nice. It is far, far more ambitious: it amounts to nothing less than a plan to give birth to heroes, those extraordinary beings who seem free of fear, and so can drink fully from the cup of life.”

Imagine – just imagine – if all of our children, everywhere in the world, we’re born this way. Over time, we would have a totally different society. Perhaps peace would be possible then.

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