When we think of a woman giving birth we generally imagine her lying down. While this may be the common experience of most women today but, in years gone by, women would generally give birth at home in a squatting position. It’s only in relatively recently times that labor has become located in a hospital and done with doctors. With this change to hospitalized birth women became ‘patients’ and birth became a medical condition. No one can deny that this has aided medical advancement and saved lives, but so much has been lost by birth becoming a medical experience, rather than something that’s natural.
Proponents of more traditional ways of birthing often use the term ‘natural’ birth. The problem with that is it suggests that if you birth in a hospital, lying on your back after an epidural, that it’s unnatural. Take this a step further and a c-section birth becomes something less than unnatural. No wonder the issue of childbirth evokes such strong emotional reactions.
So instead of ‘natural’ birth, how about the more semantically neutral ‘active’ birth?
Active birth means essentially being upright during labor. This does rule out epidurals in active birth because of the numbing effect) The ‘active’ part only really comes into effect once you’re four centimeters dilated, having minute-long contractions every five minutes. Before this stage of labor, it’s recommend that women get some rest, keep hydrated and eat high carb foods.
Being active doesn’t mean you have to walk around for hours or something like that. Women today have a wide array of active birth aids items like birth balls, mats, chairs, a bath, even straps hanging from the ceiling to support yourself if you squat, anything that helps you to not lie down. Some birthing centers don’t even have beds in the rooms.
Research shows that being upright can lead to a quicker, easier labor. On the other hand, lying down can be uncomfortable and actually make labor harder. This is because when lying down the pelvis tilts upwards, and the baby has to be pushed against gravity. The pelvis is also not as open as it would be if the woman were upright. If you are in an upright position, not only is the pelvis open, but the baby can place more pressure on the cervix, meaning that it may dilate more easily it’s the way the body is designed to do it really.
Active birth can sometimes decrease the chance of fetal distress. When lying flat, the baby’s weight can put pressure on the major blood in the abdomen, potentially slowing the baby’s heart rate.
Let’s be clear at this point that when medical intervention is necessary, it is valuable an important. That said, treating birth as a medical condition with medical intervention as a matter of course rather than necessity, tends to lead to more medical intervention and is a contributory factor in rising c-section rates.
Women who choose active birth do so because they want more control over how their baby enters the world. Our medical system is still largely a top down authority structure. Not being given a choice in what position they adopt or what they want to do can be distressing for women and can lead to a negative experience of her birth experience, even if it’s complication-free.
Two other important factors in active birth are that fathers are much more able to be involved. This can be helping you to get into different positions, maintaining eye contact, massaging your back to name just a few. When men are supported in being actively involved they can be wonderful to have on hand. They can be very encouraging and positive, and many women say they helped them get through the labour.
Another hugely important factor is environment. The hormone that makes the uterus contract, oxytocin, flows a lot better when you’re relaxed. The high levels of adrenaline in the body when it’s stressed stops the production of oxytocin so your labour slows down.
At the end of the day, it’s about making an informed choice. As your doctor is most likely to guide you straight into a hospitalized birth it falls on women to inform themselves of their options and to work with their health care providers to ensure the best possibility of a birth that best works for them and their baby.