The American Way of Birth
(Which is being exported to the world)
Each year nearly 4 million babies are born in America. Fewer than 5% of these births occur naturally. The term “natural” has become meaningless, and the term “normal” is confused with what is typical. Obstetricians are trained to view birth as “a catastrophe waiting to happen.” The typical birth in this country is neither normal nor healthy. What has become the norm is a system of aggressive interventions known as “active management” of pregnancy, labor, delivery, and the care of newborns. We have a misconception that following doctor’s orders and going to the hospital to have a baby guarantees health and safety. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Today 90% of all babies born in hospitals begin life with drugs in their system. We are not talking about street drugs such as cocaine, but about drugs given to mothers by physicians and nurses—artificial hormones to stop, start or speed up labor; drugs and narcotics to sedate, and anesthetics to numb sensations. None of these drugs have been fully tested on babies to ascertain the full extent of risk they pose for a baby’s liver and brain.
“Conception, gestation, labor and delivery are the physical metaphor for how the divine comes into physical form. And so, there is really no more sacred ritual than human labor and delivery. And if we are going to change what happens around it, we need to see it for the sacred ceremony that it really is.
The woman giving birth needs to be treated as the very special being that she is, for the future of humanity to be something better than is has been. The seeds of violence, I believe, are sown right in the delivery room.”
—Dr. Christiane Northrup, obstetrician, from the video Giving Birth: Challenges & Choices
Ironically, we still assume that babies do not need to be anesthetized while undergoing the blood drawing, IVs, spinal taps and other painful procedures done on their behalf in newborn nurseries. Media recently reported on a study on circumcision designed to determine whether it or not it is preferable to use anesthesia to reduce the pain and trauma newborn boys experience in this procedure, which is still done on 60% of them. The researchers stopped the study early when they found they could not ethically condone doing the procedure either way because of the obvious pain and trauma inflicted. From start to finish we assume that routine invasive tests and procedures performed on mothers and babies must be safe or they wouldn’t be done. Yet each and every one of them carries a price tag: risks and hazards that must be carefully weighed against possible benefits.
All of these interventions—from the IV and electronic fetal monitor, to the episiotomy, forceps, vacuum extractor and cesarean surgery have short term effects on the birthing process and immediate and often long-term effects on the physical and emotional health of mother and baby. Things done that simply inhibit the natural and spontaneous behavior of mothers and babies and pose additional risks, for example: restricting what a woman eats or drinks in labor, restricting her movement during labor or delivery, not allowing her to touch her baby as it is emerging, and separating her from the baby at any time after the birth.
The simple act of placing a laboring woman in a room dominated by the presence of a clock and asking her to take off her own clothes and put on a hospital gown can unconsciously alter her behavior and change the natural rhythm of her labor. Parents make their decisions based on false trust in the medical model for birth and from a lack of accurate information.
The Failure of Modern Medical Prenatal Care
However, prenatal care in the U.S. is mostly done by doctors and nurses and visits are very short and focus on the medical and technical aspects of pregnant. What is seldom address are the life style issues that definitely affect the health of a mother and the growing baby inside of her and the likelihood of prematurity, low birth weight and problems in birth.
Questions prenatal care needs to address, and resolve, cannot be handled in a 6-10 minute visit once a month, or every week in the last month, of pregnancy. These are the very questions that most skilled midwives around the world want to know about with a woman are caring for. They understand that the following questions can definitely affect everything…how easy the pregnancy is, how well the baby is growing and developing in utero, how normal and natural the birth is likely to be, how healthy the baby and mom are afterward, and how easy the woman’s postpartum and mothering will go. Every care providers (doctor, nurse, midwife, etc) needs to take the time to find out these things, and help their women understand the important of making life-style changes BEFORE the pregnancy or, at least, as soon as possible:
Is this woman getting enough, and good quality, food?
Does she consume more than a small amount of coffee?
Does she regularly drink soft drinks (especially if they contain artificial sweetener)
Is she using alcohol, and how much?
Is she smoking, and how much?
Other questions to be asked are:
Are there toxic chemicals in the food, air and water she takes?
Is she using household cleaning products that have toxic chemicals?
Deeper questions include:
Is she in feeling physically and emotionally safe?
Is she able to relax every day, or is she under constant, or chronic, stress?
How much social support does she really have in her daily life?
How does she feel about herself most of the time?
How does she feel about her life?
How does she really feel about this baby growing and developing inside her?
How anxious is she woman about the birth?
How anxious or unsure about being a mother?
Ideally women and men would be addressing these even before conception, to create healthy body, mind and spirit before they bring in a new soul. One day this will be part of the culture but for now most people won’t have a lot of support for making necessary changes in anything that we’ve listed above. Women and men need to find people who will understand and support them in making real changes they need to make. Some won’t even know where to look or where to begin.
A natural food or health food store is a good place to start. Plus think about finding, or changing to, a practitioner who knows about these things and realizes how important they are.
Most childbearing women in the U.S. lack the kind of attention, preparation, support and care they need and their baby must have. When every woman has full prenatal care that addresses all of the above, which means midwife care, we will see improved outcomes for babies and mothers.
Instead of giving the attention to mothers and babies AFTER the birth, on risky, painful and very costly drugs and other intervention, money currently spent on high-tech control and management of normal birth could be used to improve the quality of life of women who are poor, live in unsafe settings, lack the ability to speak English, or lack good quality health care.
Disturbing Statistics and Trends
When we compare the U.S., to wealthiest large nation, to the rest of the world, we discover some shocking facts. Depending on how you compare infant mortality, neonatal mortality and perinatal mortality, the U.S. rank between 22nd and 40th on the list. Much poorer nations, such are Cuba, are doing better tan we are in terms of the number of babies who die. The rate of our mothers who die from birth-related conditions shows that at least 13 other countries are better than we are. Finally, when you look at the rates of babies born prematurely or low birth weight, which is responsible for most of the deaths of babies and for many long-term health problems, the U.S. is has the worst statistics for “modernized” nations. Last year 1 out of every 8 babies born in the U.S. are born too small or too early, and that number has been rising every year. Some will defend our poor statistics by pointing out that the U.S. has the capability and spends the effort and money to save the smallest babies and that there are many multiple births (twins, triplets, etc) in the U.S. due to high-tech fertility procedures. Those 2 facts are true but do not account for the number of babies who die in the U.S.
The bad outcome statistics in the U.S. used to be defended by people who said it was the poor who were ruining our statistics. They could point to how 1 in every 4 women wasn’t going to prenatal care. That changed, with a national policy to give prenatal care to all women, regardless of race, poverty or social class. Today more than 95% of pregnant women in the U.S. receive prenatal care
But we have created a growing underclass of neglected, overstressed and under-educated mothers, especially among minority populations and our youth. We have also created a generation of neglected babies born to working poor, middle and upper class mothers who are expected to work full-time without any possibility of breastfeeding or relating to their babies during the entire work day.
Science over nature
Our crisis-driven, artificial approach to birth has led our nation’s parents to believe that, when it comes to birth and babies, what is man-made or artificial is better than, or at least as good as, what is natural. This has created generations of mothers accepting the heavily marketed belief in the ease and benefits of artificial formula and bottle feeding and accepting full-time day care for their infants as young as two weeks.
A brand new longitudinal study of breastfed babies in New Zealand, reported in the American Journal of Pediatrics, finds clear evidence that breastfed babies not only have higher IQs but perform significantly better in high school than non-breastfed peers. The typical American response: let’s isolate and manufacture the component of breast-milk that we think may be responsible and add it to formula! In the 1997 special issue of Newsweek on the child zero to three, the only mention of breastfeeding referred to the special value of breast milk for premature babies. No mention was even made of the mother, whose value it can be assumed, lies only in some chemical component of her milk that we can produce artificially.
We are living with the results of creating generations of babies and mothers who are insecurely bonded because they have been deprived of enough intimate contact and stimulation together in the days and months following birth. Their mothers often must go back to work just three weeks after giving birth. When we rear children in the paradigm of artificial birth we perpetuate fear, which increases problems and continues the process of dis-empowering women and parents. We’re causing pain, suffering and trauma to babies. And we take much of the joy out of living.
Societally, we live daily with the results of poorly functioning immune systems in adults due in large measure to a lack of breastfeeding and excessive stress early in life. Parents and the general public never hear of the relationship between trauma and neglect at the very beginning of life and later chronic anxiety, addiction, depression or violent behavior. Suicide statistics among children grow every year, along with such conditions as Attention Deficit Disorder. And with them come the ever-increasing tendency to resort to more drugs to fix the problem.
The American way of birth is now aggressively marketed around the world as the standard for excellence. One of the hallmarks of our system is the management of birthing mothers and newborns by two separate medical teams, each protective of their own domain and largely unaware of how what they do has been caused by, or affects, the other. The result of our approach to birth is a strange mix of isolation combined with sensory overload, lack of privacy combined with deprivation of appropriate attention, and an undervaluing of the entire experience mothers and babies have. Birth is a critical experience in all our lives and it sets physiological patterns in our brain and nervous system that can last a lifetime.
The Birth Paradox
Normal birth is a continuum that does not end when the umbilical cord is cut. The hours right after birth are the optimal time for setting the tone of the symbiotic (mutually dependent and beneficial relationship) mother-baby bond that began during pregnancy and is designed to continue through the first year. All during this time a mother and baby ought to be treated as the unique and vulnerable pair that they are. That is the primary paradox of birth: human beings are both innately competent and powerful, yet exquisitely sensitive and vulnerable.
The beginning of the mother baby relationship not only tends to set the course for their continued relationship but also affects all the relationships in the family. Fathers are very important in birth and their importance in the lives of mothers and babies cannot be underestimated. However, it is the mother-baby pair that must be understood as of primary importance.
Current birth, day care, and employment practices do not recognize the importance of this mother-baby pairing and continually disrupt it. These destructive practices are driven by misconceptions and fueled by a profit-driven philosophy. Aggressive management and intervention not only alter the natural rhythm but often create a domino effect, where one intervention creates problems that lead to another. The result is often a mother ~ no matter what her economic or educational level ~ who feels insignificant, lacks confidence in her mothering abilities, and a baby that is maternally deprived, artificially over-stimulated and emotionally undernourished. Separation anxiety
The standard maternity leave in America, when there is one, is three weeks without pay. There is no standard paternity leave. Parents must resort to using up unpaid parental leave if they want to spend intimate time with their babies at the beginning of life. Mothers, and fathers, are given an untenable choice: either stay home full-time and be denied pay, social status, a community of peers, or go back to work and leave their baby in the full-time care of others. For more and more Americans, there are no close relatives nearby to turn to. No matter how beautiful and stimulating the setting or how low the ratio of caretakers to babies, the result is an underpaid, and usually undereducated, class of professionals minding our babies. The turnover rate among day care workers is among the highest of all professions.
All these important birth-related issues are missing from our public discourse and media. There is an underlying misconception that “as long as your baby is healthy, everything is fine.” We have not begun to fully understand all the elements that go into creating health. What we must create is a model for normalcy. Otherwise there is nothing to stop us from moving ever onward in the direction of creating artificial separation between ourselves and those we love most.
“When birth is complicated it is especially important to handle the complications while maintaining a commitment to these same principles of normal and natural. For these mothers and babies are the most vulnerable to birth trauma” from the video Giving Birth: Challenges & Choices
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