Mammals, both wild and domesticated, chose a safe, sheltered place to birth their babies — alone. While the inner mechanisms of labour are complex, the overall plan is simple.
The undisturbed mother labours efficiently and quickly while she is safe, and the final moments of birth are an amazing expulsive effort.
Western culture has focused heavily on the pathology and medical aspects of birth over the last few hundred years, fostering a deeply rooted fear and distrust of the birth process.
Today, 96% of births take place in high tech settings, with the view to avoid disaster in case something goes wrong.
Yet the bright lights, noises, constant disturbances and lack of privacy interfere with the spontaneous, involuntary process of birth.
More is not always better. The United States is a shining example, sporting some of the highest newborn and maternal death rates in the developed world. Even in Australia, one in three babies is born by c-section, well above international recommendations.
Humans are the only mammals who need assistance during labour. And sadly, normal parts of labour are no longer seen or even recognised by doctors and midwives.
What Is The Fetal Ejection Reflex?
The term ‘fetal ejection reflex’ was first used in the 1960s when Niles Newton was researching the effect of environment on the birth of mice. Her research showed the response of mice to fear and stress in their environment.
Extremely high levels of adrenaline during late labour can trigger the fetal ejection reflex. This surge triggers strong, rapid contractions which move the baby from the uterus and into the birth canal. The pressure of the baby in the vagina stimulates the Ferguson reflex, which is the uncontrollable expulsion of the baby, which happens when nerves in the pelvis are stimulated as the baby descends through the birth canal.
This biofeedback sends messages to the brain to release more oxytocin, resulting in two or three strong contractions. The baby is born quickly and easily without voluntary pushing from the mother.
When Does The Fetal Ejection Reflex Occur?
Michel Odent, renowned French obstetrician, began to use the term fetal ejection reflex in the 1980s in reference to women in labour. He noted that a fetal ejection reflex can be triggered by a sense of danger late in labour, when it’s more productive to birth the baby than for labour to stop, as would happen in early labour if there was a threat.
The fetal ejection reflex can also occur spontaneously, when the mother has experienced a completely undisturbed labour. She feels completely safe and supported, has privacy and is not disturbed by noise and bright lights.
It’s rare to see a fetal ejection reflex in hospital settings, as women are often disturbed during labour — either by routine procedures or interventions. It’s possible that a woman will experience the reflex if they are threatened with interventions or feel fear for their baby’s safety in the last stage of labour.
During active labour, the woman may appear to be in a sleep state between contractions. There may be a pause in contractions for minutes or hours just before the birth reflex happens – this can be concerning to care providers who may want to check baby’s heart rate. If necessary, have them do it as quietly and unobtrusively as possible.
The onset of the spontaneous birth reflex may happen quite suddenly. A huge surge of adrenaline floods the mother’s bloodstream and wakes her out of the labour trance. Rachel Reed, author of the midwifethinking.com blog says, “the adrenaline is Nature’s way of clearing the endorphine'd ‘stoned' state women get into, so they can be alert as their baby arrives and ready to protect.”
Often during this reflex women express fears and the sense of being overwhelmed by it all (i.e. “it’s too much, I can’t do it, I want to die”). They may move into an upright or leaning forward positioning as a series of intense and involuntary contractions occur, moving the baby out of the uterus in three or four expulsive efforts. There is no ‘pushing’ effort on the part of the mother.
Most care providers and birth attendants instinctively try to reassure women when they are expressing fear and uncertainty. Care providers may begin telling the mother to push or not to push, or suggest checking to see if she is fully dilated. All these efforts to assess the situation can interfere with the birth reflex, as it stimulates the mother’s ‘thinking brain', the neocortex.
The adrenaline release and shutdown of labour is a protective mechanism which has been necessary for the evolution of species.
It’s no longer required for humans to give birth but the response is still present, and if triggered at the right time, can allow women to birth their babies easily and safely. Often this reflex is missing in vaginal birth due to unnecessary interventions or disturbances to the mother during labour. Women chose to give birth in hospitals because they believe it’s safer, but should be aware of the impact their environment can have on the natural process of birth.