When I first announced my most recent pregnancy, I was immediately overwhelmed by the number of questions that came pouring in from friends, family, even strangers. People have pretty strong feelings and opinions about how we “should” give birth, and they weren’t at all shy about sharing them.
Was I going “all-natural”?
Of course I would have another c-section…right?
Would I deliver at home?
Would I deliver in a hospital?
Would I use drugs?
When was I going to get that epidural?
The list goes on.
But there was never any question about whether I would need assistance with giving birth. Humans just don’t give birth alone (with the historical exception of the !Kung in the Kalahari Desert). This is for good reason!
Birthing can be a life-or-death situation for females. We have evolved big cranial cavities to house our big, creative brains. But we also have narrow pelvic outlets, due to our upright, bipedal orientation. Hence, the human fetus has to do a number of twists and turns to navigate its way into this world. Because these birthing acrobatics can be tricky, an overwhelming majority of women throughout human evolution have sought help during the process.
Without the aid of doctors and/or midwives, women and their babies risk injury and even death during the birthing process. I’m not here to lecture anyone about the benefits of one type of birth experience over another. I actually triangulated my birth strategy to ensure success: a doctor-supervised, hospital delivery, with my midwife also there holding my hand.
My two deliveries were very much facilitated by technology. I often wonder what the outcome would’ve been had I not had access to modern medicine. However, I also felt that the technocratic nature of my birth experiences needed to be tempered by some other, more natural influence. I wanted to feel more empowered and, frankly, a little more wild.
Despite also receiving top-down medical intervention, I felt empowered during my birth experience because of the guidance I enjoyed from my midwife. If you choose to employ a midwife, here are a few of the benefits that you can expect:
Our closest relatives, the primates, do not suffer from the big-head/small-pelvis delivery difficulties that humans do. However, scientists have just recently discovered that many primates choose to give birth with the help of other females. In her review of 39 births recorded across 31 primate species in the wild, Primatologist Pamela Heidi Douglas found that only five mothers delivered their babies in isolation. The use of “monkey midwives” is more common in species that do not exhibit strict female hierarchies. Perhaps this is because they, too, have discovered the benefits of oxytocin.
Oxytocin has been referred to as “the love drug” or “the cuddle hormone.” It is the hormone that is released during breastfeeding to encourage mother-child bonding, as well as during orgasm (to deepen bonding between sexual partners). However, it’s also recently been shown that women secrete higher levels of oxytocin when in the presence of other women. Female friendships are strengthened and solidified via the flow of oxytocin. The hormone also mitigates our reaction to stress – good news, given that stress can fuel development of chronic conditions like heart disease and metabolic disorders. When oxytocin levels are high, humans and other social animals also exhibit faster, more effective healing from wounds and other injuries.
From this perspective, it makes a lot of sense that women in labor would want to be surrounded by other women – not only to help ensure a safe delivery, but also to provide nurturing, calming emotional support.
Gestation and labor are times of significant hormonal flux for women. After the first trimester of pregnancy, the placenta is responsible for the creation of several key hormones (which I’m convinced were partly responsible for my own weepy dramatics during pregnancy!) Therefore, as she approaches the second and third trimesters, a woman’s hormone levels are elevated; however, they drop precipitously when the placenta is released during delivery. After growing accustomed to these hormones and their effects throughout the pregnancy, women may be jolted by a sudden, hormonal freefall.
Although more research is needed on the topic, a woman’s consumption of her placenta has been shown to reduce her vulnerability to postpartum depression, as well as to that drastic hormonal shortfall that new mothers may experience. After my own first pregnancy I suffered from postpartum depression, feeling ashamed and confused. Motherhood wasn’t at all what I had expected. The second time around, I was determined to not let this happen again; I researched my options, and decided I would consume my placenta. It may sound like something akin to cannibalism or a gory scene from Game of Thrones, but if you read the research, it might intrigue you, too! As it turned out, I was able to avoid postpartum depression the second time around.
Most midwives are willing to prepare your placenta for you, which is a huge bonus when you barely have time for a bathroom break. There are several options for consumption. You can eat the placenta like a steak; freeze it and add it into a smoothie or protein shake; or, like most women do, take it in pill form. Most midwives will dehydrate and encapsulate your placenta into pills, which you can start taking shortly after delivery.
A new study at UC Davis Medical Center found that, three days after giving birth, 92 percent of new mothers reported having problems breastfeeding; in addition, the study reported that many of these women gave up on the practice, despite its well-known health benefits. They speculate that many moms give up due to lack of support and education.
According to midwife Julia Bailey, “Many women don’t know anyone who has breastfed before. Their care providers are also uneducated. Then, when they run into problems, the only advice they receive is to wean or supplement with formula – which sabotages the whole process! It is important for women to have knowledgeable breastfeeding support from professionals who can clearly explain the barriers and how to fix them.”
When you birth with a midwife, you are more likely to have skin-to-skin contact with your newborn immediately, which helps them latch onto the breast. Midwives can also help you determine the best ways to nurse your newborn, often in the comfort of your own home.
One of the biggest problems with the conventional, doctor-directed approach to birthing is its top-down nature; unless a woman chooses to really educate herself, she may find many decisions being automatically made for her.
Many midwives can assist with your labor no matter what the setting. While hospital deliveries may throw women into a web of medical protocol, a midwife can help advocate for your needs clearly during a time when you are just trying to breathe. She can help you stick to your carefully formulated birth plan when you are overwhelmed, sleep-deprived, and in pain. She will know your preferences in detail, because you’ve discussed them throughout your whole pregnancy; and she will communicate clearly on your behalf.
It probably sounds odd that I consider my C-section in a hospital to have been a “paleo” experience. It sure wasn’t because of the protocols, or the IV, or the jello! It was “paleo” due to the support, bonding, and compassion my midwife brought to the process, elements I believe were an integral part of the birth experiences of our ancestors.