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Language and Communication Around Birth

Birth Preparation

Story by Calmbirth Director, Karen McClay

The Australian College Of Midwives (ACM) asked the Director of Calmbirth Karen McClay to write an editorial on Language and Communication Around Birth for their ACM Australian Midwifery News magazine. Here is her editorial piece. 

“You are going to influence the psychological and organic life of your patients today and that may continue 20 years from now. So, you had better know what you are saying. You had better be willing to reflect upon the words you use, to wonder what their meanings are and to seek out and understand their many associations.” This statement by Dr Milton Erickson is especially true for the language around birth.

Over the years, as a midwife and childbirth educator, I have so often observed the impact that language has on a woman’s or person’s experience of birth at both an emotional and physical level. For a positive experience, it is essential for women and people to feel safe and well supported during their birthing journeys, and what lays the foundation for this is the way we use our language and communication. Unfortunately, though, feeling safe and well supported is not the reality for far too many women and people in our maternity system.

Given the rising rates of PTSD and birth trauma in women and people in Australia, we need to look seriously at the way we are communicating and interacting with our pregnant and birthing women and people in our care.

The current language around birth is often fear-inducing, coercive, and at times, outright threatening and disempowering. How often have you heard statements leading with “we allow you…” “we don’t/won’t let you…”, “you’re only…”, or statements such as “your baby is too big”, “you won’t be able to cope unless…”, and the big one, “if you don’t your baby will die” all fear-inducing, coercive and at times outright threatening and disempowering. And because there is also a non-verbal component to our language, it may not have been the words as such but rather the tone in which something has been said or the body language at the time of the caregiver.

But our communication can be far more subtle. Look at the way a birthing room is set up with the bed front and centre with all the lights on; the CTG machine, resus cot and emergency equipment in a prominent position with posters of emergency acronyms on the wall; people walking in and out of the room with no regard or respect for the woman’s or birthing person’s privacy.  Hence, our language and communication around birth too often diminishes the personal autonomy and choice for birthing women and people. It is no wonder that so many women and people in our culture are disempowered when it comes to birthing their babies frequently leading to negative experiences.

The good news, however, is that we can change this culture, and it is much easier than we think. All it will take is for each of us to become mindful about how we communicate with the pregnant and birthing women and people in our care and the language we use in doing so, both verbal and non-verbal.

Ask yourself these simple questions:

  1. Is my language promoting choice and autonomy?
  2. Is my language non-judgemental, inclusive, and individualised to the needs of each woman and person in my care? Is it trauma-informed?
  3. Is my language building their confidence within themselves and with their support team?
  4. What messages is this clinic or birthing space conveying?

Once we start to do this at an individual level, the ripples of change will be set in motion, and we can start to have conversations as a collective as to how we can change the culture of language and communication in our units and then in our system. Imagine what this would do for the experiences of the women and birthing people in our care?

If you would like to explore more about language and communication around birth and how this influences the emotional and physical journeys of women and birthing people in our care, join me for one of my workshops:” Understanding the Mind-Body Birth Connection”.

Photos by Beth Lindsay from Natural Focus Birth Photography


Battino, R. & South, T.L. (2005) Ericksonian Approaches: A comprehensive Manual. 2nd Edition. Page 65.Crown House Publishing, U.K.

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