Undisturbed Labour – What Is It And Why Aim For One?

Undisturbed Labour – What Is It And Why Aim For One?

Undisturbed Labour

Pregnant women are often told to expect certain things to happen during labour.

Things such as making noises they didn’t know they were capable of, acting like a woman possessed during transition, and suddenly feeling the need to poo when they are pushing out their baby.

Being told to leave your dignity at the door is common, and yet it detracts from the amazing and awe inspiring process which takes place within your body.

What if birth was an experience women enjoyed?

Can you imagine smiling and laughing during contractions, feeling your body working hard?

Or do you think labour should be a long and painful grueling marathon – ending in exhaustion and weary joy as you hold your brand new baby?

The Process Of Labour

The process of labour is spoken of in three stages: first, second and third. The first stage occurs as the cervix dilates and opens. The second stage refers to the process of the baby being pushed out. The third stage follows, which is the expulsion of the placenta and membranes (bag of waters).

All three stages of labour are dependent on the release of the hormone oxytocin occurring as and when it should. Oxytocin release is enhanced in environments which include privacy, safety and support. During sex, orgasm, labour, birth, and breastfeeding, oxytocin release can be inhibited if our sense of being watched is triggered, or if there are bright lights or a high levels of noise.

In the wild, if a labouring mammal is threatened during the first stage of labour, adrenaline is released, stopping labour so the mother is able to get away to a safe place.

Humans have exactly the same stress response as other mammals. The big difference is most of us give birth under bright lights, observation and constant disruption. Our brains cannot differentiate between a real threat (sabre tooth tiger) and an imagined one (noisy staff), so they begin to initiate the process of ‘fight or flight’. Stress hormones are released. Labour begins to falter and doesn’t progress. The contractions can become strong and too painful to cope with, or more usually, weak and ineffective.

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, it interferes with the normal path of labour. Instead of moving to a safe place and resuming labour, women are subjected to interventions and assistance to make labour ‘progress’, often leading to fetal distress and instrumental or surgical birth.

See a short video which cleverly explains the phenomenon of failure to progress, here.

What Is An Undisturbed Labour?

The brain releases oxytocin in increasing amounts to stimulate contractions during labour. This helps to open the cervix and then create the powerful and forceful contractions to actually birth the baby.

When oxytocin levels are promoted, the neocortex or ‘thinking brain’ is at rest, and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge. The PNS is responsible for controlling the bodily processes that are not under our own voluntary control, such as hormone release and regulation. Birth is not a voluntary act like switching on a car engine with a key.

Find out what causes labour to start.

When a woman is undisturbed during labour and the neocortex is quiet, she is able to completely relax into the process of labour. Oxytocin is released in increasing amounts, speeding up the tempo and efficiency of contractions. When birth is close, a surge of oxytocin and adrenaline occurs, triggering what Michel Odent calls the ‘fetal ejection reflex’. This is a series of very strong, involuntary contractions, which push the baby through the opened cervix, through the birth canal and into the world.

Oxytocin has been described as a shy hormone, associated with labour and birth, sex and orgasm and love and attachment behaviours. Its ability to act in the body is diminished in environments which are exposed, unsafe, bright, noisy. Trying to be intimate in front of an audience in the full daylight would be intimidating – labouring in a bright room with strangers moving around in your space and talking to you has the same effect.

What Is The Optimal Environment?

During labour, women need protection from any factors that stimulate the neocortex or thinking brain. This part of the brain sends messages to the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), activating the fight or flight response if a threat (real or imagined) is felt.

Feeling safe and protected is something each woman defines for herself. But there are a few key elements which enhance our instinctive need for safety in labour, which in turn enables the spontaneous birth reflex:

  • Complete privacy: feeling watched and heard can inhibit the production of oxytocin. Women need to be able to move around and make noise freely.
  • Undisturbed space: those present in the birth space should be aware of how their presence can impact on labour. Voices low, not talking to the labouring woman, no touching or interference.
  • Warmth and darkness: both key factors to avoid the production of adrenaline. The neocortex becomes activated when adrenaline is released and labour slows or stalls.

It’s important for women to make the connection that their birth setting and support have a very big impact on labour and birth.

Many women choose to birth in hospital with the idea that it’s safe, yet this very environment begins the process of labour veering from normal to abnormal. Women in certain birth centres and at home tend to experience birth as an undisturbed process due to their choice of environment and support people.

Our modern technocratic birth culture has taught women to believe that birth needs to be controlled. Almost every woman gives birth in a setting which demands control over labour and has unrealistic expectations of what is ‘normal’. In attempting to prevent harm coming to women and babies, medical science interferes with the natural process of labour, from the moment a woman steps through the hospital door.

The idea that labour is instinctive and rarely needs any assistance is foreign to most women. At best, we expect birth to be long and painful – at worst dangerous and frightening. Hospital birth doesn’t have to be traumatic but policies and procedures in such an environment shows a deep distrust of birth as a natural process. Because of this, our modern society sees labour and birth as a medical emergency rather than an instinctive process women are designed to experience.

As renowned French obstetrician Michel Odent reminds us in his book Birth and Breastfeeding:

“When you consider birth as an involuntary process involving old, mammalian structures of the brain, you set aside the assumption that a woman must learn to give birth. It’s implicit in the mammalian interpretation that one cannot actively help a woman to give birth. The goal is to avoid disturbing her unnecessarily.”

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Sam McCulloch enjoyed talking so much about birth she decided to become a birth educator and doula, supporting parents in making informed choices about their birth experience. In her spare time she writes novels. She is mother to three beautiful little humans.


  1. This has pretty much been a discussion that I have had with every single one of my girlfriends when they get pregnant and nervous about L&D. They tell me it is easy for me to say, having never gone through the process myself. However, being a nurse as well as a very instictual and empathic person, it has always been my belief that childbirth is instictual. Women have been doing this for millenia with no medical intervention, sometimes on their own, sometimes surrounded by the guidance and support of a trusted and knowledgeable few. Your body is going to do what it was designed to do: labor and push out that baby.

    I remember going through my OB rotation in school and being appalled at the way women had to deliver their babies:lying flat on their backs. As well as having a catheter inserted into their backs delivering drugs to numb everything from waist down, and an artifical hormone to speed up labor.
    It has also been my experience the more scared and apprehensive a woman is, the later she goes into term and the more medical and surgical interventions are required.

    Thank you for publishing this article, you further confirmed what I already believed to be true. I hope that there are other women out there that find this as helpful as I do.

  2. I loved your article and would love to experience such birth, thank you for sharing it!

    It is my first pregnancy, I am 6 months along with di/di twin girls and living in Ontario. I was in the care of midwives and planing for a home birth, but ever since we found out we are having twins (despite no complications whatsoever), I was transferred to an OB and giving birth at home is now out of the question. I was even told by my OB that every twin birthing happens in the operating theatre, just in case they need to perform a C-section … And just in case they do, they want me to have a epidural catheter inserted in my back from early on in labour. I am very disheartened and also annoyed, because I really feel like I need my own private space and comfort in order for my body to work its magic. Instead I will have to be constantly on guard from all the medical staff poking, probing, monitoring, and shining their ultra bright lights at me. And it is hard to defend my preferences if they are always met with “we should do what is best for the babies”.

    Sorry for the rant … not many people understand what I am going through, they all think I should be happy for the hospital as giving birth at home is too risky and I must be both lioness-brave and stupid to want such a thing as a home birth.

    1. I think a big thing to remember is that they are not in charge of your body- you are! And that is a wonderful thing. I would read up on as many twin births as possible, looking for those that birthed at home and more baby friendly birth centers. Then find the similarities of their successes. It is not too late to find another provider who may be much more sypathetic as well (although I KNOW how daunting that task is). Learn as much as you can about how twin labor begins and then listen to your body and delay going to the hospital as long as you possibly can. Many women labor at home for most of it without knowing how far they have gotten. You can do this! Much love and good luck!

  3. This was most definitely my experience. I was very relaxed using my Hypnobabies tracks and was allowed to progress completely undisturbed in my home environment (we had not planned on a homebirth whatsoever). I did not realize I was as far along as I was until I felt her head between my legs. No pain, no pushing, and no tearing. Truly a remarkable birth!

  4. This is another great article! I am a mother of 3 adult daughters, a medical and birth assistant and a childbirth educator (mentor). I talk about I disturbed birt during my childbirth classes. I usually start with, ” I hope you aren’t expecting me to teach you how to give birth. You already have that knowing. You just may not know it. I hope to help you remember that”. I am a student and friend of Pam England ( Birthing From Within) She’s the one who introduced me to unditurbed birth and changed the way I teach and live my life. It is so hard to birth without all the disturbances and most women do birth in hospitals. I hope to teach women how to birth in spite of hospital policies and rules without setting up an adversarial situation. Which proves to be counter productive. Getting women back to their roots and back to knowing that birth works is a challenge. But it’s a challenge that is so important. Keep writing your awesome articles. I love reading and sharing them.

  5. As a Mother, new Grandmother and retired midwife of 30 years experience in both home and hospital births I couldn’t agree more with this article. If the mother is calm and relaxed and in the right environment with the right support she doesn’t need drugs or interventions any more than a mother cat does to birth her kittens.

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