Evidence suggests that positive communication and interactions throughout the birthing process significantly affect the woman and her partner’s experience. This in turn can affect both her mental and physical health, as well as her relationship with her baby after the birth (Harris & Ayers, 2012; Reed, Sharman & Inglils, 2017). Researchers from the University of Liverpool in the United Kingdom, suggest Maternity care providers should use sensitive phrases that show respect for the woman as an autonomous adult and decision-maker for her birth experience (Mobbs et al., 2018).
During a recent birth I attended as Doula for a Calmbirth couple, my clients were having their second child after a five-year gap. The couple had previously experienced a traumatic birth induction with their first-born, and did not want a repeat experience of that birth. She recognised her own anxiety and put resources into place to cope with her birth journey including the use of Calmbirth techniques, optimal fetal positioning moves and having the support of a doula, against the wishes of her private Obstetrician.
This couple laboured for three days at home whilst baby remained in an occipital posterior position, but she remained strong and relaxed. Upon finally attending hospital to continue labour she was assessed by her Obstetrician and had made slow progress with cervical dilation.
Her midwife said a positive comment, “Oh that’s good, you’ve progressed!” But this was very quickly turned into a negative experience when the Obstetrician stated, “No not really, she was 4 cm this time yesterday and is now only 5cm – 24hrs later”. The room fell silent.
Her Birth Specialist followed up his comment with “I will give you two more hours and then I will come back and see you. If you have not progressed further, I will be breaking your waters, and I will be documenting that”.
It was not so much what he said, but how he delivered his plan that felt heartless and cold. Both birth professionals left the room, leaving behind a deflated, wounded Mother and an angry Father. My client burst into tears describing his comments as “mean”. Yes, they were indeed mean and disempowering. Her contractions had gone from 3 minutely and strong, to 15 minutely, but with the clock now ticking before further intervention ensued.
I had to think quickly. I put on my favourite relaxation track “Flying” by Peder B Helland, and encouraged my client back onto her knees over the fitball, rocking with her eyes closed, whist her partner commenced light touch massage. I began reading out the Calmbirth “Birth Rehearsal” script that I had thankfully stored on my smartphone. I prayed no-one would walk into the room and ruin the calm environment we were creating again. Magically, I noticed within ten minutes my client’s contractions had returned to three minutely and strong, and a gentle, silent tear rolled down the cheek of her husband as he watched his wife return to a place of calm and strength.
Together as a team, we managed to turn this birth experience around at a pivotal moment with the help of Calmbirth techniques and my client progressed to full dilation, and with assistance was able to have the baby rotated at the very end to birth naturally.
Our language can transform and empower birthing mothers or destroy their confidence in their body’s ability to birth. Language matters as a way of respecting women’s views and ensuring that they are empowered to make decisions. As birth professionals we need to be slow to speak and quick to listen to our birthing couples. We have much to learn from them.
Harris R, Ayers S. What makes labour and birth traumatic? A survey of intrapartum ‘hotspots’. Psychol Health. 2012;27(10):1166-77.
Mobbs, N., Williams, C., & Weeks, A. (2018). Humanising birth: Does the language we use matter? The BMJ Opinion accessed via https://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2018/02/08/humanising-birth-does-the-language-we-use-matter/
Reed R, Sharman R, Inglis C. Women’s descriptions of childbirth trauma relating to care provider actions and interactions. BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth. 2017 Jan 10;17:21