A woman I met once told me about an extraordinary place to visit. She spoke about it with such enthusiasm and love that I had craved knowing more about this wonderful place. When I pressed her for more details she said she could not remember much about it!
The place was called Labourland, she told me, and she had visited there four glorious times yet her memory for the details was pretty fuzzy. It was a journey actually, she elaborated, not really a trip. It was full of challenges, rewards and satisfaction, pure ecstasy and love. When a person returned home, she stated, they were completely transformed.
Wow, I thought –having heard from others who had been transported to a completely different location during birth, how do I get a ticket to this place?
Positive birth stories are not unheard of; yet they seem contradictory to the typical story we hear. The tragic portrayal of women on shows like the Birth Story who suffer terribly and appear to be saved by medications and interventions are more the norm.
How can different women have such polarized experiences during birth? The short answer is: Hormone Soup! Each woman, along with her baby, cooks an intricate and delicate “soup” of hormones to labour and birth. Certain conditions encourage the perfect soup, and certain conditions interfere.
Making the perfect soup
Support, preparation and trust for the birth process are the keys to hormonal balance. Balance can mean the difference between the woman experiencing exertion as opposed to exhaustion, pain versus suffering, and normal stress versus distress.
When a woman is supported by her partner, doula and caregivers in a way that allows her to birth instinctively, she will begin to produce her soup. When she has been prepared prenatally, her upbringing, or exposure to positive birth stories she will trust birth. She will trust her body to complete this ancient process. Then she will intuitively follow her blue print for labour. When she is in hormonal balance she will only use her ancient and primitive mind to birth. Soon her ‘soup’ will contain the perfect balance of natural opiods, oxytocin and stress chemicals which allows her to completely leave behind left-brain thoughts and thinking that interfere with labour. She will surge with hormones that transform her into a primal state where she can birth and it is then that you will see the lioness emerge.
The key ingredients are:
Oxytocin. This hormone is often referred to as the hormone of love due to the role it plays in social bonding. It is present when you are enjoying the company of those you care for; it keeps a woman relaxed throughout her pregnancy so she can enjoy quality sleep. It lessens the release of stress hormones, and acts to promote regular uterine contractions. It peaks at birth (ejecting the fetus) and floods the woman with the hormone causing her to be addicted to her baby. It is also present during sex as it contracts the smooth muscle for orgasm and ejaculation. During breastfeeding it promotes skin to skin, bonding, and milk ejection. Synthetic versions of this hormone used during induction or augmentation do not have the same affect.
Natural Narcotics. During times of emotional or physical stress, our body naturally accesses the internal pharmacy. These hormones cause feelings of euphoria, reduce one’s perception of pain, and cause both an addiction and amnesic effect. Like a runner’s high causes that person to seek the experience again, it clears memories of the birth causing us to birth more children.
Our body easily accesses these hormones during labour if the woman is supported and allowed to birth intuitively. This in turn allows her to cope well, encouraging more natural opiods. This is why a non-medicated mother often looks very medicated. She is on a natural high. When her contractions become more intense, her body will release more opiods to cope. Many women report birth as a peak and ecstatic life experience due in part to oxytocin and natural opiods.
Stress Hormones. These body chemicals have the purpose of protecting the body during stress. They are commonly referred to as fight-or flight hormones because they allow the body to shunt blood to the extremities so a person can run, increase blood glucose for a surge of energy, and will make a person very alert. The fetus naturally produces some of these hormones as well in response to the normal stress of labour. Normal levels cause the baby to be alert at birth, help the baby maintain their body temperature and causes the lungs to absorb fluid so he/she can breathe.
For short duration, these hormones allow a woman or a fetus to cope. They are harmful for longer periods. High levels of stress cause blood to be shunted away from the uterus which slows contractions and causes fetal distress. It also increases her muscle tension which increases her pain.
When a woman is in hormonal balance during labour, these stress hormones are kept low enough that they can still serve a positive purpose. This helps in second stage for pushing and preparing the mother to ‘protect’ her infant while it allows her to respond to pain, sends a message to the brain to release more opiods.
Fear. Fear is very contagious. During labour, even a well-prepared and grounded woman can begin to begin to feel scared when either her supporters or caregivers are fearful. Our western culture is very fearful of birth and generally accepts a medicalized view of what is actually a very normal process. Even our language surrounding birth is fearful: trial of labour, fetal distress, ineffective contractions, vaginal birth after caesarean, and so on.
This cultural view of birth affects a woman long before ‘sperm meets egg’ and it is difficult for women to feel trustful of their bodies because for the most part this goes against the grain of what society has taught us.
If a woman appears ‘stuck’ in labour, it is often helpful to ask her if anything is holding her back. Revealing her fears or emotions to a supporter may help her to release that feeling, reduce her adrenaline, and return to hormonal balance.
Thinking. The left-brain should not need to be activated at all during labour. If a woman is thinking (wondering, worrying, being irritated by a sound etc.), then she is not able to fully access the primal mind that is central to birth.
Supporters should reduce the amount of language they use to communicate to a labouring woman, using touch and the breaks between contractions to discover what she needs. The hormonal release she is experiencing comes deep from within the mid-brain, not from the language centre, so it is best to keep that areas of the brain quiet.
Ineffective support. This does not necessarily mean that the supporter is uncaring, absent or harmful. Support is ineffective when it is provided in a way that disempowers the woman. This includes rescuing, discouraging her from listening to her body, feeling afraid, and using protocols that do not encourage successful labouring.
Disturbing. Talking during contractions, turning on lights, increasing her pain by requiring her to move unnaturally during contractions (lie on her back, get on the bed, etc). Correcting her instinctive coping technique, observing her, opening doors, are disruptive behaviours that will all interfere with her ability to birth intuitively.
Past Experiences. Birth is part of the sexual continuum in a woman’s life experience and it is inherently sexual in its movements and sounds. Encouraging her sounds gives her permission to feel uninhibited. One should be aware that if a woman’s past sexual experiences have been negative or abusive then this can re-emerge during birth. Supporters control the memories that go back in. If they stand over her, expose her, or control her then they reinforce to her that she is a victim.
Women are built with a physiological map for birthing. The best way to support her is by not being a roadblock!
Originally published in Birthing Magazine 2009. Deb Grasza is the current President of the Calgary Childbirth Education Association. She is a certified prenatal educator whom has taught classes to over 500 couples.
The information provided in this article is for informational purposes only and is the opinion of the author. It is not a substitute for professional advice from your primary healthcare provider. Always consult your healthcare professional.