In recent years we have seen a shift in western birth culture, a shift towards reclaiming normal physiological birth.
While this shift seems newer in mainstream culture, it is the result of decades of education, research and advocacy.
Birth Pioneers We Really Love
There have been some amazing birth pioneers over the decades pushing for a change and working to save the art of midwifery like care.
Here are 7 of our favorite birth pioneers and advocates.
Birth Pioneer #1: Fredrick Leboyer
French obstetrician, Fredrick Leboyer is known for giving babies a voice in the birth experience. Decades after birth had moved from home to hospital, Leboyer recognized the complete lack of attention paid to the impact the birth experience can have on a baby.
As a retired hospital consultant turned author, he published the still relevant Birth Without Violence.
Why we love him:
At the time Leboyer published Birth Without Violence, birth had become an extremely medicalized event with little attention paid to the birthing mother, and even less paid to the baby.
“Everyone is radiant with happiness. Everyone except the child. The child? You hadn’t even noticed the child, had you?”
Leboyer’s powerful words began a movement towards recognizing baby’s experience in the birth process.
As a society, we had moved so far from normal physiological birth that was the norm for much of human history. By comparison, birth had become a violent experience for mothers, and especially for babies. Few mothers were being allowed to listen to their bodies and move as needed to facilitate a baby descending into the birth canal, being born, and going straight to her chest.
Instead, many mothers were confined to beds and at the mercy of their obstetricians. Many births included heavy medication, some babies were forcibly removed with forceps, and upon birth they were whisked away from their mothers.
Leboyer recognized the impact a traumatic start can have on babies. He believed a gentle start was necessary for babies. His book was recently republished as he still believes we haven’t quite grasped the importance of gentle births for babies.
He continues to be a bit controversial, as he was the first time he published the book. While not everyone agrees with his approach, there’s no doubt his work advocating for neonates has had and continues to have an impact on birth culture.
Read more about Leboyer and the birth experience: Why Baby’s Birth Experience Matters – 5 Things You Need To Know.
Birth Pioneer #2: Michel Odent
Michel Odent is a French obstetrician and childbirth specialist who has caused us to question how we treat birthing mothers and their babies. He has proved the importance of a women feeling safe in her birthing environment. He has been a strong advocate for births in a home-like environment, such as birth centres and home births.
Why we love him:
Michel Odent started practicing as an obstetrician during a time when little thought was given to the hormonal process of labour. There was little attention paid to the birthing environment and the immediate bonding period following the birth.
Michel Odent was the lead obstetrician at Pithiviers. His attention to the birthing environment was unmatched in other facilities. He believed women need privacy, autonomy and the space to follow their instincts. He even ensured beds were not placed in birthing rooms in a way that would suggest the birthing mama should give birth on the bed.
He believed in the importance of feeling safe in a familiar environment for birth. Expectant mamas and their families were encouraged to frequent the facility for events other than their prenatal appointments.
He believed in the importance of building new mamas confidence. He did this by eliminating routine mother/baby separation which was common in the era of large hospital nurseries. Mothers were encouraged to go home shortly after birth or staying for an extended period of time. He found days 3-5 postpartum to be the most difficult for many nursing pairs and discouraged discharge during that time.
Michel’s research and practice at Pithivers hospital in France has since been used to educate birthing professionals and families, leading to better birthing environments for many.
Michel’s many books, speaking and even film appearances have helped to spread information about the importance of hormones, birthing environment and bonding. He is known for introducing the idea of birthing pools and home-like birthing rooms.
Following his years at Pithiviers he went on to practice home birth. He felt home birth allowed women to truly follow their instincts. Though he is now a retired medical doctor, he continues to educate professionals and the public with books and continued primal health research.
Birth Pioneer #3: Sheila Kitzinger
Sheila Kitzinger was a British social anthropologist that specialised in pregnancy, birth, postnatal period and early parenting. As an author and educator she encouraged western cultures to revisit traditional birthing practices. These practices can produce better outcomes for mother and baby, physically and emotionally.
Why we love her:
As an anthropologist Sheilia Kitzinger provided unique insight to the importance of normal physiological birth. She encouraged us to refrain from judging traditional cultures to see that we could learn from them. She began questioning the technocratic birth culture and how the cascade of interventions began impacting birth, the postpartum period and bonding between mother and baby.
She brought a unique view as an anthropologist. She had the ability to look beyond just the medical implications of interfering with birth. She questioned the reason healthy low risk women received high risk care. She questioned the “system” and its non-evidenced based practices.
Sheila Kitzinger believed low risk women should have the opportunity to birth at home. Her experience learning from other cultures reinforced her belief that treating low risk women as high risk creates a high risk situation.
Sheila Kitzinger passed away in 2015 but her many books continue to educate western cultures about the importance of facilitating natural birth and supporting postnatal mamas. Her books cover nearly every topic related to pregnancy, birth, the postnatal period and even through to becoming a grandmother.
Sheila Kitzinger will be greatly missed but we are extremely fortunate she left behind such a library of knowledge behind.
Birth Pioneer #4: Henci Goer
Henci Goer is an award winning medical writer, international speaker and expert of evidenced based maternity topics. Henci’s writing speaks to the modern woman in such a way she will acknowledge the importance of birth despite much of western culture’s lack of interest in it.
Why we love her:
Henci Goer doesn’t just advocate for a specific type of birth, she provides us with evidenced based information to make wise decisions. She encourages open dialogue with providers. She helps birthing women be confident in their choices and their ability to discuss their care with medical professionals.
Every birthing mother should feel confident relaying their birth desires to their midwife or doctor. The information shared in Henci Goer’s book The Thinking Woman’s Guide to a Better Birth provides the tools to do just that. From highlighting the c-section rate concerns to choosing birth location, her information helps make it easier to think through birthing options.
Her evidenced based information can help one make sense of the confusing maternity care system. Birth is a normal physiological process, but making decisions about birth does not always come so easily. Her wisdom and wit come through in her writing and speaking engagements.
We are fortunate she has made it her work to provide us with these wonderful tools to make sense of having a positive birth in our modern birth culture.
Birth Pioneer #5: Maggie Banks
Maggie Banks is a midwife educator, author and former home birth midwife. She is a strong advocate of birthing options, especially home births.
Why we love her:
Maggie was a practicing midwife for 27 years, 25 of which were spent as home birth midwife. While birth has been in homes for generations, much of the 20th century saw a shift to hospital births. With this shift we saw more interventions, longer births and surprisingly we did not see better maternal/fetal outcomes for healthy low-risk women.
Maggie was a practicing midwife during the 1970’s and 1980’s when there was a resurgence of home birth midwifery care in New Zealand. Her strong drive for research and continuing education led her to writing which allowed her to reach many women and birth professionals.
Her book, Breech Birth Woman Wise, is a major reason we love her! Vaginal breech birth is a dying art in many obstetrical communities. There was a time when very few new birthing professionals learned the skills necessary to attend a vaginal breech birth. Many professionals were taught c-section was the best and safest option for breech birth. This is still the case in a number of western birthing communities, but her book is a tool for change.
Breech Birth Woman Wise is written in a way which educates the professional but also speaks to birthing mamas making decisions about their upcoming births. Her ability to educate professionals means providing more birthing options for countless women.
Every birthing mama deserves the evidenced based information to make fully informed decisions and access to professionals confident to support those decisions.
When you think of your birthing pool, when you think of your midwife, or when you think of your home-like hospital experience remember these great pioneers. Their contributions forever changed and continue to change birth culture. They are all fierce protectors of healthy, normal birth. They fought against the medical norms of their time. They fought to ensure women have birthing options and safe birthing environments. We are forever grateful for these amazing birth pioneers and advocates.
Birth Pioneer #6: Grantly Dick-Read
As a practicing physician in the 1900’s, Grantly Dick-Read practiced as many other physicians of his time did, he frequently administered pain relief during childbirth in the form of chloroform.
Over time, his interaction with a woman who refused chloroform lead him to researching natural birth. He compiled his research and experience into a book and birth preparation method. He published Natural Childbirth in 1933 and Childbirth Without Fear in 1942.
Why we love him:
Grantly Dick-Read was initially a practicing physician who was a product of the current birth norms of his time. In the early 1900s, birth began moving from the home to hospitals and there was a belief all women would benefit from pain relief. Why feel contractions if you don’t have to?
What many didn’t realize was how complex normal birth physiology was, and how facilitating normal birth physiology improved outcomes for both mother and baby. Initially, the benefits and risks of anesthetics during labor hadn’t been properly weighed up. One could also argue that we still don’t always properly weigh up the risks and benefits of elective birth interventions, making his work just as relevant today.
Once Dick-Read encountered a woman who declined chloroform and went on to have a birth she perceived as not painful, he became interested in birth physiology. In studying birth, he developed the fear-tension-pain syndrome theory.
The fear-tension-pain theory was rooted in the belief that the fear of childbirth can lead to tensing up in anticipation of contractions, and this tension leads to more perceived pain due to the physiological impact of fear.
He believed proper prenatal education, reducing fear, and breathing to release tension is a vital part of natural childbirth.
“Healthy childbirth was never intended by the natural law to be painful… birth is carried out by natural processes from beginning to end, influenced by natural emotions and perfected by the harmony of the mechanism [with the woman] conscious throughout the progress of her baby’s birth, so that she can truly fulfill herself emotionally when she sees and welcomes the child emerging from her womb into the world.”
He also believed that natural childbirth meant a baby is not separated from its mother and placed in a communal nursery, and that a woman can have her husband with her for birth – something not at all common during the time he was a practicing physician.
His work remains controversial today in main stream obstetrics, just as it was during his time. However, regardless of how one feels about childbirth, his work was a vital part of understanding normal birth physiology and the importance of childbirth preparation.
Birth Pioneer #7: Robin Lim
Our list is in no particular order, and while Robin Lim is #7 here, she was CNN’s #1 in 2011 when she was named their CNN Hero of The Year.
Robin Lim, a US citizen living in Indonesia, has helped thousands of women have healthy pregnancies and give birth to healthy babies.
Lim is a midwife, a profession she chose after her sister and sister’s child died during childbirth.
Why we love her:
There are many amazing birth pioneers and professionals out there. Lim holds a special place in our favorites for the selfless work she’s done for years.
“Every baby’s first breath on Earth could be one of peace and love. Every mother should be healthy and strong. Every birth could be safe and loving. But our world is not there yet.”
Lim recognizes that birth is a normal physiological process which can unfold peacefully. However, she also recognizes the importance of access to a skilled birth attendant and how vital that is for the safety of mothers and babies.
Why is Lim’s work so vital? Approximately three out of five women in South Asia give birth without a skilled birth attendant present, according to the United Nations Population Fund.
Lim offers free prenatal care, birthing services and medical aid to families in Indonesia where access to affordable care is out of reach for many. The average family earns about $8 per day, yet a birth in a hospital can cost $70 and a c-section upwards of $700. While that may sound cheap compared to our costs, making just $8 a day means these fees are an impossibility for many.
Lim is filling part of the gap for these families by offering her services to those who need it. Having lost her sister to childbirth, and needing medical assistance for her own birth complications, she is well aware of the importance of access to prenatal and childbirth care.
Seven years after she was named CNN Hero of The Year, we still have quite a bit of work to do to reach a place where all women have access to care and loving support during childbirth. However, thanks to Lim’s work, thousands of women have received and are continuing to receive access to much needed maternity care.
Want to be better informed about birth? Check out BellyBelly’s 10 Best Childbirth Books To Read For A Better Birth Experience.