Thank you so much Paula for inviting me to write a guest blog. It is such an honour. I’ve chosen to tell a little of my background for those who don’t yet know me and tell a story highlighting one of the things I just don’t get about our maternity system.
Keeping Birth Normal: Why Aren’t Women Being Taught Birth Basics?
My journey into the birth world has been a little unconventional perhaps. In 2015, my home water birth was televised on the landmark BBC1 documentary ‘Childbirth All Or Nothing’. I say a landmark show because it was an undisturbed home birth which is so rare to see on mainstream TV. Anecdotally, the show was fairly seminal too. Partly, because I ingested a piece of my baby’s placenta on national TV. Anecdotally, I’d heard it might benefit and starve off the baby blues. The show apparently set off a wave of women wanting to do the same and keep their baby’s placentas to add into fruit smoothies!
But aside from the placenta smoothie sensation, the show did a great job of presenting some of the issues and diverse choices available to women and their partners when contemplating how and where to give birth.
The programme makers ‘Landmark Films’ were recruiting women who were making conscious choices in childbirth that were outside the norm and who could articulate their reasons for doing so. I think they did a really good job and still, to this day, sometimes people come up to me to say the show changed the course of their birthing experience.
As a result of being on the show, I’ve been subsequently invited to speak at birth conferences both in the UK and internationally either with storytelling or with my poetry.
This article focuses on something that happened at one of my first midwifery society conferences in 2015. The audience was mostly second and third year midwifery students although there were a handful of doulas and other birth workers. My chosen title at the conference was ‘Confidence, Positivity and Empowerment’ in childbirth.
At the time, I was working for the NHS in a Neuropsychology team in Physical Health so my job was all about how the ‘mind affects the body and the body affects the mind’. Since having my first baby in 2011, it always occurred to me that the mind/ body connection is SO important when it comes to childbirth and yet is given so little credence. There are few psychologists working within the field.
Antenatal appointments are mainly, in my experience, focused on the physical. There’s the taking of blood samples, measuring tummies, collecting samples of urine and collecting data on blood pressure. Data is collected and presented as though it’s an exact science and may be presented in a way that steers a path for those families involved, limits options and promotes fear.
How we are feeling about ourselves or our babies or the impending birth rarely appears to be on the agenda in my experience. And psychological strategies to help women and their partners help themselves are rarely presented as options. If one of the aims is to maximise comfort and minimise distress, I believe we must look further into how our minds can positively affect our bodies to give birth.
At the conference I alluded to above, one of the talks was on ‘Hypnobirthing’. It was this talk more than any other that stuck with me. But not for the reasons you might imagine. You see, I’d studied ‘Hypnobirthing’ for my own baby’s births and I knew the material well.
During the talk, the basic principles of ‘hypnobirthing’ were delivered. We learnt about how
- the practice of relaxing deeply in pregnancy and women receiving a positive understanding of how the body works to help the baby exit the womb can be really helpful
- when the woman is able to go into herself without being disturbed, she increases the chances of giving birth naturally
- the hormones affecting birth especially about the role of oxytocin sometimes called the hormone of love that makes labour progress most effectively
- steps must be taken to keep fear out of the birth room because fear can increase adrenaline levels which in turn hamper the progression of labour
We were shown a sign given to hypnobirthing women to put on hospital doors that said something along the lines of ‘Quiet please. Hypnobirthing in Progress’.
And the audience had a discussion about how having this sign really makes a difference. We heard how staff frequently act differently around ‘Hypnobirthing women’. For example, staff are often much more sensitive to knowing these women want quiet. People knock quietly on the door to enter and speak in low tones with minimal distraction or interference.
All this support for the woman and protection of her birthing space clearly gives that woman a greater chance of her baby’s birth unfolding naturally.
As the lecture went on, I became more and more dumbfounded. To me, the lecturer was describing how birth worked. Things I already knew despite at the time not being a doula or a qualified antenatal educator or a midwife.
These were things I already knew, but the audience was mostly 2nd and 3rd year students. Surely they knew already this stuff? What had these student midwives been learning in the first years of their course?
If this is how birth works, why aren’t all women being given this knowledge and therefore the best chance to give birth naturally? (should they wish to of course).
Surely, you shouldn’t have to ‘hypnobirth’ or take natural birth classes to be given this chance?
After the lecture ended, I went and sat next to the speaker and said, “Excuse me. Can I ask you a question?”
She nodded. I asked, “Can I ask, is what you’ve just said ‘news’ to these midwives?’
She looked at me slightly puzzled and said, ‘Yes. I think so.’
We later chatted about what I meant by this and for me, the following questions came up;
- How come these midwives don’t know this stuff?
- Shouldn’t we be starting off with ‘normal’ before we present the abnormal?
I want to shout from the rooftops, why is this ‘hypnobirthing’ and not just birthing?
Ultimately, what I just don’t get about maternity services is this:
Women should surely be supported to have the very best chance to work with their hormones to birth their babies?
I believe women who want to avoid intervention should be given the very best chance of doing so.
Shouldn’t ALL women and their partners know their baby’s births can be influenced by not only their own thoughts and feelings about the birth process but also the environment in which they choose to birth in and the trust of those supporting their birth space?
In my opinion and experience, there is not enough focus within the NHS on the things you can do to support yourself to have a better birth experience if you would rather avoid medical intervention. There is plenty of information about pain relief options but relatively little about what people can do to really help themselves have a better experience.
Women and their partners have to look elsewhere to supplement their knowledge, hire a doula and/ or do an independent antenatal preparation course.
And often, no-one tells them that this whole other world of birthing ‘enlightenment’ exists. Maybe it’s just something they have to find out for themselves. Through books. Through word of mouth. And even then, they’re only going to hear it, if they’re ready to.
For me, birthing ‘enlightenment’ in the modern age means: knowing your options, feeling comfortable with trusting your instincts, working through any fears and doubts so you can trust the process of birth and give yourself the best chance of a positive experience, having birth attendants around you can trust to understand your wishes and having mental tools to help you relax in all situations.
In my idealistic world, all women would have these opportunities and not just the lucky few.
Kati Edwards is a doula and antenatal educator based in Manchester, She is the creator of “The Birth You In Love Project”, a FREE mini-vid series to help women understand the basics of birth.