In America today, childbirth has become a medical condition requiring constant surveillance and interventions in an institutional theater designed for efficiency. Whether laboring women require such interventions is questionable since birthing is a natural event which our bodies are biologically designed to do. A calm environment actually sets the whole thing in motion.
In the article “Fear versus Trust: The Impact of Fear on Birth Experiences and Maternal Outcomes,” researchers from the Birth Wisdom Project reveal why the United States ranks 34th in maternal care among developed nations.
Investigating whether women trust their innate ability to give birth or whether fear overrides trust, researchers revealed the impact of this on birth experiences. Fear is associated with higher interventions and C-sections while no or low fear is associated with positive birth experiences. Remaining calm during labor improves birth because it supports the neurohormonal physiology of birth.
Safety and trust are essential for childbirth. The brainstem governs these reflexes. Oxytocin promotes labor contractions. Prolactin and endorphins are responsible for pleasurable feelings during birth. The release of these mood-enhancing hormones is inhibited by certain environments.
During stress the amygdala activates adrenaline which stops labor by disrupting the flow of oxytocin. Diverting blood away from the core and toward the extremities, adrenaline mobilizes fight, flight or freeze responses. Less blood available for fetal oxygenation promotes fetal distress. Failure to progress labor and fetal distress are two common reasons for interventions.
Traditional societies viewed birth as a natural event. When the process began including physicians, the notion arose that birth was perilous where anything could go wrong. Hospitals then became the safest place to give birth.
Five percent of births do need medical technology. But for the remaining 95%, medical intervention carries risk. One researcher noted “evidence that obstetric practices are more effective than traditional non-interventionist methods doesn’t exist.”
Researchers conclude that “surveillance and interruptions lead to an unconscious level of anxiety and tension that cause the body to release adrenaline which interferes with the hormonal cascade of birth and the automatic expulsion reflex.” When fear and tension restrict blood flow to the uterus, this causes the cervix to tighten resulting in painful childbirth.
Midwives unanimously agree that the environment affects birth. Hospital births offer a clinical setting and physician-decided timelines and interruptions while a birthing center or home birth offers a nurturing private environment and mother-guided choices.
Mammals prefer giving birth in quiet dark places, unobserved and undisturbed. Midwife Ina May Gaskin notes that birth is one of the few bodily processes requiring such relaxation to progress. Feeling vulnerable or guarded interrupts the oxytocin necessary for birth and slows down labor, indicating fear as a major influence. A relaxed state releases the oxytocin, endorphins and prolactin needed for easy spontaneous births.
Understanding the hormonal birth cascade prenatally is helpful. Women who feel safe, calm and certain of their ability to give birth tend to experience a cascade of birth hormones which are associated with ecstasy, love and bliss. Calmness and relaxation are essential to the numinous experience of childbirth.