How often have you heard this claim: “All that matters is a healthy baby and a healthy mum.” Many times? Yes, me too. And it makes my blood boil. Every. Single. Time. A healthy baby and healthy mum are important. I’m not here to dispute that. But it really should be the baseline that birth professionals operate from, not the only aim. Birth matters, mothers matter, mental health matters and lifelong memories matter.
I am not the only one who believes that there is more to the birth experience than a healthy baby and a healthy mother.
The amazing Penny Simkin, who is a big advocate for woman-centered birth, says “Women remember their births forever.” In a small study she found that there is almost no difference in the way a mother tells the birth story of her baby - whether it is shortly after the birth or 20 years after the birth. Most importantly: the things women remember are how they felt, how they were being treated and cared for by their care providers. Penny urges expectant mothers to invest time in creating positive memories.
Why is it so important for you to know what kind of birth experience you want?
There are lots of reasons. Here are the main two:
Firstly, everyone is different. Everyone has had different experiences in their life. Therefore every mother-to-be has different feelings about the labour and birth. It is important that you and your birth team know about your individual feelings, hopes, wishes and values!
And secondly, if YOU don’t know what is important to you, then how are you going to prepare for it? How is your birth team, your partner, your mum, your doula, your midwife, your obstetrician, going to know what you want and how you want it? They shouldn’t simply expect that what they want is the same as what you want. And if they do, please either speak up for yourself or run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. It’s your body, your baby and your kind of birth. You call the shots. You are the boss.
A spanish study has found that women experience the highest level of satisfaction with their birth when they are being cared for under a maternity model that follows the WHO’s guidelines of a humanised birth.
“Humanised birth means placing the woman giving birth in the centre and in control in order to promote the active participation of the mother. Humanising birth also means considering women's beliefs, values and feelings and respecting their autonomy and dignity during the birthing process.”
Some of the biggest factors of childbirth satisfaction were informed consent and being involved in the decision making:
“Support from the caregivers during labour was a strong predictor of childbirth satisfaction. The most important aspects of professional support were: communication, information, allowing the mother to become involved in decision-making and to express her feelings during labour.”
Penny Skimkin agrees. In ‘A Day You’ll never Forget - Importance of Birth Memories’ she says:
"The most important single factor was how [women] remembered being cared for. (...) The women who felt that they were honored, they were respected, they were listened to, they were helped, they were nurtured, they were the ones that 20 years later felt satisfied. (...) The care you receive during childbirth is going to be key in how you remember it for years to come."
After all of this I hope you agree that ‘winging it’ or ‘going with the flow’ is an undesirable mindset when it comes to birth.
What can you do to make your birth a positive experience?
Now that you know that being proactive in the preparation of your birth pays off you need to figure out what would make your birth experience positive. This list could be endless so bear in mind that there might be different aspects that are important to you.
- Location - Where do you want to give birth? At home, a birth center or at a public or private hospital? The statistics for natural births, caesareans, use of pain relief and rates of breastfeeding vary significantly in different maternity care models. Even from one hospital to another the stats will be different. Do you know the guidelines and routine protocols of your chosen birth place? Do you know their statistics on induction, instrumental deliveries and caesareans?
- Support people - Who do you want to be with you? Your partner, mother, sister, friend? Be careful to select your team based on who will actually be helpful to achieve the kind of birth you desire. If you want a natural birth but your friend is all for using all the drugs then that might not be a good match. If you know that your mum is emotional, over-protective and might cry and crumble at the sight of you being in pain then reconsider bringing her along. Professional, emotional and continuous support from an experienced doula can have a huge impact on your birth journey. A doula can help you to be involved in the decision making during your labour and birth by making sure that you receive all the information you need and you get time to discuss your options with your partner and closest support team.
- Respect - how you’re treated, how you’re spoken to, how you are being touched. Know what informed consent is - and fight for it. Ask for options. Use the BRAIN tool. Ask for time to discuss your options. Comprehensive birthing classes discuss all these things. Trusting your intuition - You may feel strongly about letting your body do things in your own time and being in a position that feels right for you. If so, make sure your care providers know about this and work together with you.
- Pain relief - You may want a drug-free birth because you have read about the side effects some pain medication can have on your baby. Some women may opt for an epidural as early as possible because of a past traumatic experience. It may be important to them not to feel any pain being associated with their baby’s birth.
- Scheduled caesarean - it’s not the easy way out. For some women a scheduled caesarean is the only way. A small percentage of women have an unmeasurable fear of anything childbirth related, for others it is medically the safest option. Unless you are that person or you know their exact reasons - be careful not to judge and be respectful.
- Infant care - how baby is treated. This can go further than the medical elements like delayed cord clamping and delaying the newborn measurements. It might be about how your baby is being touched and handled. Some parents remember confronting moments from previous births or even from seeing medical staff handling their baby siblings 30 years ago and decide that it is important to them that their baby is only touched by them or when they give their consent for the baby to be touched.
When you include these things in your birth plan ask yourself this question: What are my top three priorities? Place them at the top. Midwives don’t always have time to read the entire birth plan at a shift change or when relieving someone for a lunch break. They may only get time to read the first few lines. Also think about what parts are flexible and what parts are non-negotiable. Could you write a Plan A and a Plan B?
Once you know what would make your birth positive you can dig a little deeper. Why do you want a certain thing to be this way? Why is it important to you? Does it follow your lived values that you abide by in your day-to-day life? Is it because you’ve read some research papers on it and know the benefits? Is it related to another memory (birth-related or not) or experience?
It is much easier to explain to someone why you want a certain element to be this or that way when you have thought about it before. Midwives and obstetricians may be more understanding if they know why this is important to you.
Are you starting to get an idea of what a positive birth means to you? Or do you already know? If you are preparing for the birth of your baby, then now is the time to start thinking about it. Invest some time and thought into the topic now and thank yourself in years to come. Honestly, you are investing in your and your family’s future mental health.
Mumma, you’ve got this! Just know what you want and start making decisions that help you to get there.
If you would like some more help in preparing for the birth of your baby check out our Melbourne based birthing classes or sign up to our newsletter to receive free online education materials. Our classes are held by an amazing team and include a midwife, a childbirth educator, a doula, a prenatal yoga teacher and a lactation consultant. There is a mix of gentle birthing techniques like breathing and birth hypnosis and active labour exercises.
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