When I began sharing Calmbirth with couples over 17 years ago, my intention was supporting people to have safer, calmer more comfortable and positive birth experiences.
While that intention remains, my experiences and learnings have shown me that our basic human needs – safety, connection, and knowing that when we are in need, someone will be there for us – that these needs are central not only to a safe, calmer more comfortable and positive birth experience, but also central to avoiding trauma and developing healthy secure attachment as a foundation for relationship.
What’s the relevance of Calmbirth here?, and how does a deeper understanding of the Autonomic Nervous System help?
In Calmbirth we share knowledge and practices to support birthing couples to access their Parasympathetic Nervous System’s Ventral Vagal branch – the Relaxation response – which reminds the birthing Mum’s body it is safe, ensures adequate blood flow to the uterus and baby, lowers the metabolic rate to conserve energy, increases oxytocin and endorphins, reduces stress hormones, and facilitates the desired hormonal blueprint for love and bonding.
It makes sense to avoid activating the Sympathetic Nervous System – the Fight and Flight Response – which we understand is stimulated under real and perceived threat, in the presence of fear, and to meet higher intensity physical requirements.
However the Sympathetic Nervous System is not our only innate response activated in the face of fear or threat. The body’s wisdom has an alternative. If we are not able to fight or run away, just like any other mammal, we will “play dead” – freeze, shut-down, collapse, or dissociate. Here we see an activation of a more primitive branch of our Parasympathetic Nervous System, the Dorsal Vagal branch. In this state, we are immobilised, cannot think or communicate clearly, and cannot access resources to move towards safety. While this response is life preserving in the short term, in birthing it can leave a residue of trauma, with ongoing negative impacts on the mother-baby bond, family dynamics, and development of healthy secure attachment in the child.
Why may a birthing mum go into Dorsal Vagal shutdown?
Because there is too much too soon too fast (overwhelm), because she can’t fight or run away (epidural, disempowering beliefs, not being informed she choice), she is not being/feeling listened to, the foucs is on the baby and not her, and no one is there for her (caregivers role is clinical care, partner is overwhelmed and feels helpless).
How do we know someone is in this Dorsal Vagal state of shut down?
We may see blunt facial expression, pale skin tone, eyes distant, inability to move or respond. Fainting can be an acute Dorsal Vagal response.
How do we support someone back into a more workable Ventral Vagal state?
There are various ways to support a person back into the workable Ventral Vagal state of the Parasympathetic Nervous System, or what Stephen Porges who established Polyvagal Theory refers to as the Social Engagement System.
It’s crucial we are present and calm in our own body, and that we move and talk slowly and with warmth.
The aim is to gently bring the person’s awareness back into their body and the present time, through their senses , while offering resources that felt unavailable earlier. I may place my hand gently on theirs and saying “feel my hand on yours,…I’m right here with you..” I may intentionally breathe in sync with the person, gently squeezing their hand in sync with their breathing. I may ask them to look at my eyes, mentioning “look into my eyes, see I’m here with you”. I may remind her to talk to her baby. I may suggest she moves her body in some way, says the word ‘no’, pushes her hand against mine, focuses on her IN breath for a few breaths. These actions help shift the body out of the passive disempowered Dorsal Vagal as they reflect the more energised response of the activated Sympathetic Nervous System response.
Offering Calmbirth couples an understanding of these branches of the nervous system and tools for accessing the workable Ventral Vagal state helps not only support a calmer more comfortable birth, but ensures that even in the intensity of birth and unexpected outcomes, a birthing woman experiences the life-affirming safety and comfort of knowing and sensing connection – with herself, her baby, and someone who is there for her.
For more information on birth trauma and photo taken from https://www.birthtrauma.org.au