There are plenty of resources that explain the benefits of natural birth. But–let’s be honest–even those that start out with scientific reasons (of which there are many) tend to start sounding pretty flowery by the end. I can understand this. It’s hard to stop it. We natural birth advocates do tend to be a bunch of hippies. And once you’ve experience natural birth, it’s hard to resist poeticizing the experience: the rush, the adrenaline, the feeling of empowerment. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s the reason why we love natural birth.
But read the comments on any article about natural birth, and you’re almost certain to find at least one person who criticizes that mindset. Why glamorize pain? they ask. What’s the point? Do you think you’re better than me? Giving birth naturally doesn’t make you an earth mother goddess. It just makes you a glutton for punishment. Or that’s what they say.
And while I can write endlessly about the wonderful experience of natural birth, I’m not going to. Because that’s not why I chose a home birth. And frankly, even though my first birth wasn’t painful at all (maybe a little uncomfortable at times, but nowhere near as bad as, say, the flu), I feel strongly that no one should choose a natural birth–especially not a home birth–just for the experience. For me, it was the most wonderful experience of my life, and I’d go through it once a month if I could skip the pregnancy and baby part, but that’s not why I did it. All those commenters who argue that having a wonderful experience shouldn’t be more important than having a healthy baby and mother–of course they’re right. The reason to have a natural birth is not to have a great birth experience. The reason to have a natural birth–and yes, a home birth, if that’s the best chance you have of getting a natural birth–is because it gives you the best chance of having a healthy baby and mother at the end of it. Here’s why.
Because your baby needs to be with you after birth. For me, this was the top reason why I chose a home birth. I toured most of the hospitals in Atlanta when I was pregnant with my daughter, and at the time all of them routinely separated mothers and babies, at least briefly. Some of them keep the baby in the room while they clean it up and wrap it, and then give it to the mother. They don’t consider that separation. But I do. I didn’t want my baby to be taken away from physical contact with me, not even for an instant, unless it was truly necessary. Which most of the time it isn’t (and many treatments for newborn problems could be completed on the mother’s chest, although they rarely are done that way). In an Atlanta hospital, my best chance of continuous contact with my newborn in the moments and hours after birth was birthing at home. And yes, I got that with my birth. I caught her when she came out, and I was the only person to touch her for the first hour (my husband may have touched her while I was holding her–I don’t really remember!–but nobody held her but me). Does that make me an earth goddess mother? Of course not. Does it make me a birthing rock star? No way. There’s nothing superstar or strange about wanting to hold your baby when it’s born. It’s normal. And it’s good for you and your baby: it promotes breastfeeding, it helps your uterus contract, and it reduces postpartum bleeding. It’s nice for bonding, too. But most importantly, for me, it’s less stressful for your baby. Do those first few minutes of separation while nurses clean the baby up really make a difference in the long-term health of your baby? No. But they are stressful for many newborns. For me as a mom, they would have been extremely stressful, simply because of my own background and experiences. And why stress a healthy baby and mother unnecessarily?
Because it helps you birth effectively. Avoiding drugs during birth has nothing to do with wanting to be supermom. It has to do with wanting to be able to listen to your body as you’re birthing, because if you feel what’s going on, then most of the time, you’ll know what to do. There’s a reason why they won’t give you an epidural in the hospital if you’re close to pushing–epidurals make it harder for your to push effectively. Even when birth is incredibly painful, those feelings are what guide you to birth effectively. Discomfort during contractions tell a mother to move into a more comfortable position, and most of the time, the position where she’ll feel better is also the position that will help the baby move out more effectively. And when it comes to pushing, avoiding drugs means you’ll know exactly when and how to push–for most women, it means you won’t be able to help but push exactly in time with the contractions. This makes you less likely to tear and less likely to need interventions like forceps or vacuum (which have a lot of risks associated with them, for both baby and mother). Does this work all of the time? No. That’s why interventions sometimes are necessary. But most of the time, it works great. Which is why I’d rather plan for a natural birth and only have interventions if absolutely necessary.
Because it helps you relax. Ok, I know this sounds counterintuitive. Being in pain helps you relax? It depends–plenty of women relax a lot better with an epidural (and sometimes an epidural can help your birth progress a lot more smoothly because it enables you to relax; I know women who planned a homebirth but transferred for this reason). But if you’re prepared with natural relaxation and pain relief methods, and they work for you during labor, then natural labor–especially if you’re at home–can help you relax because you stay in control. This is a very personal issue, and it’s different for every woman. But what’s the same for every woman is the fact that relaxation helps labor progress. Adrenaline in early labor will stop labor (and for good reason: if a laboring woman sees a lion stalking her, she needs to stop laboring and get away from the lion first). So yes, for some women, the relaxation that comes from medical pain relief helps labor move forward. But for me, this is what made a home birth absolutely necessary. I’m terrified of hospitals–even the smell in the lobby makes me hyperventilate sometimes (yes, I have a phobia). And the attitude in many hospitals toward birth can be scary: the second something goes slightly “wrong,” even if it’s just slowness to progress (which is often normal) or a slight deceleration in the baby’s heart rate (which can also be normal sometimes), in some hospitals, the situation is immediately treated like an emergency. This is good when it really is an emergency. But it can also turn a situation that was fine into an emergency. If everyone around the laboring mother is freaking out and worrying, then she’s not going to be able to relax, and something that might have been a small, self-correcting problem can turn into a true emergency. And avoiding drugs can also make you feel more in control, which is helpful for staying relaxed.
And though I can’t speak for all midwives, I think that a care provider who’s experienced with natural birth is more likely to act calm and relaxed in the face of an emergency, even while she’s reacting with the speed necessary to the situation. She’ll do what needs to be done, but she won’t freak everyone out about it. Care providers who are used to natural birth are usually more comfortable with a wider range of normal in labor–they don’t expect everyone to progress exactly according to the average curve. I know that plenty of obstetricians will react calmly to emergencies, too. But in a hospital, there are a lot of attendants–chances are at least one of them is going to get nervous. Nervous people around a laboring woman is not a good idea.
Because natural birth hormones make you high. You’ve probably heard about the rush of endorphins that most women experience as their baby is birthed drug-free. Yes, this is fun (seriously. Fun), but the reason to do it is not because of the experience. It’s because it promotes bonding and confident parenting. Please don’t take this the wrong way–of course all mothers bond with their babies, no matter how they birth. And all mothers know how to parent (we just need to trust ourselves!). But I do think that a mother who experienced the hormonal rush has an emotional head start, especially in the early weeks. Again, please don’t take this the wrong way–many mothers experience postpartum depression, including mothers who have drug-free births, and drugs during labor do not cause that. But for me personally, I think that birthing naturally made me feel more confident as a parent, especially when my daughter was a newborn. My birth experience gave me huge confidence in my body, and that translated into confidence in my parenting ability. Now, I realize I’m a naturally confident person anyway, so maybe my birth experience didn’t really affect that at all. But for me, it was a conscious connection that I made. When my daughter was fussy and I couldn’t comfort her, or when she woke again in the middle of the night, I would often think, “Hey, I birthed her naturally after 36 hours of labor! I can handle another night waking, no problem!” Are women who birth in other ways also confident mothers? Of course they are–and they should be. But for me personally, it helped me trust myself. And I believe strongly that the most important thing any mother can do is to trust herself.
Does this kind of confidence-building experience override the need for a healthy baby and mother? Of course not. When interventions are necessary, they’re necessary. But is it a reason to avoid unnecessary interventions? I think it can be. For me, it’s reason enough.