Monday, April 14, 2008

Dear "Sarah": There IS Hope for a Better Birth!


When I read your email, my heart went out to you. I know of so many women who dread to think of having another baby... because of the trauma of labor and birth. Some of my friends, even though they've wanted another baby, have told me that they've cried to see the little pink line appear on their pregnancy test, as reality hit them and they knew that once again they would be subject to a overwhelmingly painful labor in a few short months.

I can't promise that this birth will be different for you, even if you do everything suggested. Some women have relatively easy births. And some women have agonizing births. I've learned over the years, it's not all about whether the woman is a wimp or not or whether she thinks positive thoughts, or whether she just hasn't yet discovered the pain coping technique that "works for her."

You are absolutely right. Some of the most painful and overwhelming labors are those that happen so fast. Women talk about 12 or 20 hours of painful labor, and then say, "What?! You got away with 2 hours of labor?!" In reality, what most of them don't realize is that many times a 2 hour labor is just like compressing the 12 or 20 hours that they experienced into a fraction of the time. So, yes, it is often even more overwhelming, relentless, and excruciatingly painful. There is not magic solution to slow your labor down and let it hit you with the normal intensity that most women experience, but there are certainly some things that you can do to make it a better memory.

Some women try everything and still, they have miserable labors and/or births.

For many women,
Getting prepared is good, but it doesn't fix everything.

Being well-supported is good, but it doesn't fix everything.

Being in the right environment is good, but it doesn't fix everything.

Neither does trusting your care team,

or being in water

or being upright

or being in bed

or planning to "just ask for pain meds"

or listening to music

or being at home

or being in the hospital

or eating handfuls of Vitamin C tablets

or overdosing on Calcium and Magnesium in labor

or eating more beans during pregnancy

or the hundred other things that friends, magazines,
websites and other helpful people will recommend!

Sometimes you do everything right (I'm not implying that all of the above are "right" or a good idea) and STILL your birth is a miserable experience.

But I can offer you hope. Rarely does a women come to birth well prepared, well supported, choosing the right environment and the right care provider for her situation and still hate the way it turned out.

A friend of mine who I'll call Susan has had 8 children. They've all been hospital births, mostly with epidurals. One was a forceps delivery that damaged her son's spinal column for life. One of the middle kids was a c-section for an emergency that arose in labor. She has polyhydramnios (too much amniotic fluid in pregnancy) and she has borderline gestational diabetes. Sometimes her doctors control her diabetes with insulin, sometimes she controls it with diet. She's been induced for part of her labors. Other times she's labored naturally for about 24 hours before making little progress and succumbing to an epidural.

Susan has talked about how horrible birth is for as long as I can remember. As a teenager, my mental picture of birth was partly painted by the things Susan would tell me about her births. I shuddered to think that birth had to be that hard and that for her, the only saving grace was an epidural.

When she became pregnant with her eighth and last child, I had recently taken some doula training, and offered to be at her birth. With very little experience and only a stack of books to loan her, she began unloading on me the full horrors of her past birth experiences. She explained how she never goes into a normal contraction pattern once she gets past about 5 centimeters dilation. She said, "The doctors always come in and look at my fetal monitor strip and say, 'Wow. You don't do contractions like most women. You just have one long contraction till you start to push.' "

She explained how her contractions all melt into one, and she only gets a short break of a minute or less every half hour or so. "So, you see why I can't do it without the epidural," she explained. I totally understood. If I had one long contraction for 48 hours, I'd be begging to get signed up for the epidural as well! I felt very powerless to change what her body does to her. After all, this had happened seven times now, right?

But I encouraged her to work towards what she wished her birth experience could be, even if it wasn't likely to happen that way. She began reading books on Natural Childbirth and for the first time in her life she was saying, "Oh, I wish my labors were normal so I could do them without the epidural...." She really did want a natural birth, but she felt that would be absolutely impossible in her situation. Nevertheless, she prayed desperately that somehow this baby would be born differently. My dear friend had endured 30-40 hours of torture with other earlier births before getting the epidural, and saw no point in doing that to herself again with this one. I didn't disagree with her decision, just tried to be supportive.

The day came when she wondered if she was in labor. We headed to the hospital to see. Contractions were regular, but not very painful or strong. Things were most likely just putsing around. The doctor gloved up and reached for the cervix, when his eyebrows shot up.

"Oh, my!" he exclaimed. "Have you been doing this labor for awhile?"

"Well," she said, "Kind of all day, but I pretty much ignored it and went on with my work because I had a lot going on."

"Well, you're going to be happy. You're a stretchy 7 centimeters!"

Now we looked shocked. She the most shocked as she stammered, "I've never experienced 7 centimeters without an epidural! Never! I've never been able to handle it by the time I get to 5 centimeters. Usually by then I'm climbing the walls with pain, and there is no break between contractions! And usually by the time I get to 5, I've been in labor for at least 24 hours!"

An hour later, Susan was sitting on the birth ball, still smiling and talking between contractions.

An hour later, after the doctor broke her water, she was declared completely dilated and ready to push with her next contraction. Things were getting intense at that point as she was in transition and crying, "I can't do this. It hurts so bad!"

Then for ten whole minutes, her husband, the doctor, the nurse, and I just stood and waited for a contraction that didn't happen. Susan kept looking around the room and saying, "This is so weird. It's surreal. Is something wrong? Why am I not contracting anymore?"

The doctor wisely smiled. "Oh," he said, "Sometimes this happens. It's usually just your body giving you a little break for what's ahead..."

Soon the contractions resumed and she set to work pushing, which she had never experienced without an epidural. Even though she could feel what she was doing, and was being more effective that her usual pushing, she hated the feeling. Fifteen minutes of pushing, a few screams, yelps, blowing and breathing, a few more,"I can't do it's" and "Yes, you can! You're moving your baby down" later, she had a chubby pink baby girl in her hands.

Sobbing, and panting she looked over at me and said, "I don't know how that happened like that! I can't believe I just had a baby like that! I wanted a natural birth. I never thought I'd get one, but I did! God is so good!"

Years later, she still talks about her birth to almost every woman she meets, telling them that birth isn't always bad, and there is always hope that you can have a "good" birth, no matter how many miserable experiences you've had.

She's asked me over and over again what it was that I did for her to miraculously change her birth experience. I have told her over and over that I honestly didn't do anything except answer her questions, breathe with her, get her extra pillows, and show her husband where counter-pressure felt good on her back during labor. I didn't do anything special, but her body obviously did a totally new labor pattern that she had never experienced with her seven previous babies.

I don't know what happened or why that birth was different. All I know is that her last birth radically changed her life. Instead of feeling helpless and at the mercy of a "dysfunctional body," she's never forgot how empowered she felt to push out her own baby and to see her body work perfectly fine.

I wish for you the same miracle.

In the meantime, though, I suggest that you do everything you can to prepare for the birth you've always wished to have.

I recommend an experienced doula as #1 on your list.

When you are experiencing overwhelming contractions, it makes all the difference in the world to have someone there to walk through each one with you, and keep you centered, helping you to stay on top of the pain. Of course, husbands are great and it sounds like your husband does a great job helping you through labor, but they can also be so emotionally pulled into your pain that they can't focus on your need in the same calm, reassuring way that a motherly doula can. It is optimal to have one person there to focus on whatever you want physically (back pressure, massage, cool washcloth for your forehead, etc) and one person there who is going to stay right at your face constantly during every contraction, watching your every facial expression, and listening to everything you do so that they can totally focus on where you are at "in your head" and walk you through the contraction one at a time. Find a doula who is experienced and has attended at least a few dozen births in that role. Someone who you feel comfortable with and can trust. Many doulas are certified through ALACE ( or DONA (, but other very good and qualified doulas have attended hundreds of hospital births, but have never been certified. Interview them thoroughly. Who do you like? Who seems to understand how you feel about birth and what you wish could be different? Who do you feel completely comfortable with?

My #2 recommendation would be to evaluate whether your birthing location and caregiver are appropriate and best for your situation.

You may have always went to the hospital and used an obstetrician for your births, but perhaps your situation would be more appropriately handled at home with an experienced, well-trained midwife. That is a decision that you will have to make, based on lots of research and reading. Of course, you may be a person with certain risk factors that makes a hospital birth a necessity. If so, or if you just aren't comfortable with a homebirth, then make sure that you have the best doctor (or hospital based CNM) and hospital for your particular situation. Is your doctor committed to helping you have the best birth possible? Is s/he sensitive to your wishes and needs during labor and birth? Do they adhere rigidly to protocols and procedures that are typical, but not evidence-based? Will your doctor allow you to labor in whatever position/use whatever comfort techniques are helpful to you?
Many people think of homebirth as more "risky" than typical hospital birth. It can be when not done right or not properly attended. But when properly attended, it can actually be safer for healthy, low-risk women. I encourage you to do your research carefully. All of the quality homebirth studies show that planned homebirth (when attended by a well-trained midwife) is equal or safer in outcomes for mothers and babies, with far less interventions like c-sections and forceps/vacuum delivery. Of course, there are things that can occur at home that would be better handled in the hospital, because they have the technology/machines to deal with that particular situation. But, on the other hand, there are many situations that occur in the hospital (think: under staffing, more medical errors, infection rates) that would be more safely handled at home. The risk factors for home and hospital birth are different. But that does not mean that there are more risks at home for healthy low risk women attended by experienced, knowledgeable midwives. If, after much research, you decide that homebirth is for you, do some more research and talk with your midwife about the possibility of water birth. Obviously, it's not for everyone and benefits and risks should be carefully considered. But, for many women who have really intense, painful births, having a water birth makes all the difference in the world to them. Waterbirth International (Barbara Harper, author of Gentle Birth Choices) offers lots of resources in this area.

There are many, many ideas out there for reducing the pain of labor. Some of them have been suggested in the comments section of the previous post. Many of them have not been mentioned on this blog. As I find time, I will post more ideas for you.

Regardless of who you decide to have deliver your baby, and where you decide to give birth, I hope that you will think it through carefully and research your options. Birth is never something to be taken lightly. On one hand, it carries with it a life and death responsibility, and on the other hand, it can be the most joyous, beautiful day of your life!

Plan for your birth to be better this time, know that it can be, and then take steps towards making that happen!

And whatever happens, I applaud you for your bravery to experience natural, unmedicated childbirth to give your baby the best start possible. You are among the bravest 10% of American women who experience labor with no pain medication!

1 comment:

katsy said...

What an ***excellent*** post!

I will also echo the sentiment about "12 hours of labor being compressed into 2" -- my first labor was about 9 hours start to finish, while my second labor was about 24 hours. The thing about this, though, is that my contractions in my first labor were about 2-3 minutes apart almost the whole time, while those in my second labor were more like 7-15 minutes apart the whole time. I figured it out once, and realized that I spent about the same amount of time in pain/contractions, even though the length of labor was vastly different.