By Calmbirth Educator Sue Power
I first had the opportunity to hear French obstetrician Michel Odent speak at a conference over 15 years ago. Hearing him describe a mammal’s instinct to find a space where they could not be observed – a space that is quiet, and undisturbed, and allows them to feel safe when giving birth – was a ‘lightbulb’ moment for me. He talked of how mammals can ‘turn off’ their labour when this space is disturbed and they no longer feel safe. As we are also mammalian, I realised I had seen this happen many times in the birthing room. Everything I was trained to do as a midwife was to observe, unknowingly disturbing this space and interfering with a woman’s natural instincts.
But how can we be in the room and not disturb this space?
How can we facilitate this process and not interfere in the unique orchestration of hormones of birth?
Many wise women, midwives, educators and authors like Ina May Gaskin, Sheila Kitzinger, Rachel Reid, Maggie Banks, Sarah Buckley, independent midwives and doulas I’ve had the honour of working alongside and observing, and so many more I could mention, have taught me this.
Sarah Buckley describes the unique cocktail of hormones for birth that are the same hormones of love-making and how the environment when giving birth should be similar to that of making love. Most people do not equate these two environments as related. Ina May Gaskin’s wisdom follows similarly with her explanation that the people you have around you when giving birth should be those you feel comfortable doing a ‘poop’ in front of. How many would feel comfortable doing a poo with a team on onlookers, especially if they were standing around telling you how to do it? Both these scenarios require a quiet, intimate and undisturbed space that also feels comfortable and safe.
Partners and support play a crucial role in creating this space. Over the time I have known Peter (Jackson) he has always referred to partners as the ‘gorillas of the birthing room’.
In the wild, the silver-backed gorilla protects the space around its mate, keeping the area free of predators and intrusion so that she has a safe undisturbed space to birth. There are many examples in nature of this space being protected. For many mammals, it is females who protect this space such as the female rat who has a female ‘aunt’ by her side throughout her labour, and diligently eats through each cord as each baby is born. Due to their long gestation period, elephants in the wild have an older ‘aunt’ who stays by the side of the pregnant cow for the last three months of pregnancy, is beside her during labour and is there to assist with the baby elephant when it is born. The rest of the female elephants in the herd form a protective circle around her and trumpet and stomp their feet keeping predators away.
Anyone who has grown up with animals will be familiar with what is often described as peculiar behaviour of their pet. How a mother cat disappears and everyone is desperately trying to find her, knowing she is close to giving birth, often unable to find her until she returns some days later with her kittens, having birthed under the house far from intrusion. The mother dog may allow her birth to be watched it if is quiet and she feels safe, but she will still find a dark quiet space in a cupboard or a dark corner of a room to give birth. If she feels unsafe the process will stop until she can find a safer place to be. Sometimes owners call the vet thinking something has gone wrong. Our concern that tells us to ‘keep an eye on things’ and a lack of understanding of what she needs, means we unknowingly slow down or stop this process.
Understanding how birth needs to be undisturbed may allow a couple to consider the ways they can create a safe and comfortable space in their birthing room to facilitate the hormones of birth. Partners can do this by keeping the environment dark and quiet, limiting interactions and talking, helping her to find a comfortable space where she can feel safe whilst providing comfort. Many times women have told me how they could hear their partner’s voice in the background, talking to the midwives, asking for things, bringing her water, knowing just what she needed. She felt safe and could relax, knowing they had everything under control.
The bathroom may also be a space that a woman may feel relatively undisturbed. This is the one place that most people knock before entering so a woman can be with her partner in a quiet intimate space together, labouring in the bathroom with the lights off or dimmed, sitting on the toilet, in the shower, or the bath. Sometimes this intimate space is difficult to provide.
One woman told me of the ‘bubble’ that she placed around herself by putting her coat over her head to create a small, dark and quiet space. She had to spend hours in a brightly lit and noisy cubicle in the emergency room while waiting for a bed to become available on a busy night. Under her coat, removed from the lights and noise around her, she felt protected in her dark, quiet space. Any time she had to ‘come out’ from under her coat she found it so much harder to manage the intensity of her contractions. It was only in her ‘bubble’ that she found she could stay focused and relaxed.
As a midwife, I have learned that I also play in a role in protecting this space and I have learned that just like the female dog who may allow her owner to observe her birthing, it is a privilege to be present to witness a woman birthing. Through this witnessing I have learnt so much about women and undisturbed birth.
As Michele Odent (1987. P. 105) so eloquently says; birth “is an involuntary process and an involuntary process cannot be helped. The point is not to disturb it.” As caregivers, we need to understand this even more in an increasingly risk-averse environment; but more importantly, birth education can provide couples with a greater understanding of how to protect this space and create a more positive birthing experience.