“Everyone is radiant with happiness. Everyone except the child. The child? You hadn’t even noticed the child, had you?”
These are powerful words from French obstetrician and author, Fredrick Leboyer, as he describes a picture of a mother, father, obstetrician and newborn.
Nearly 40 years after his publication, Birth Without Violence, 93-year-old Leboyer believes we still need to refocus birth on an extremely important participant, the baby.
At the time Dr. Leboyer retired as a hospital consultant to become an author, birth had become a very medicalised experience, heavy with procedures and interventions. There was very little focus on a mother’s experience – and even less focus on baby’s experience.
While the birth process has changed since he first became an advocate, current birth norms, and most professionals, are not focused on the baby’s experience.
But does baby’s birth experience really matter? Will baby feel, remember or be shaped by her birth experience?
Why Baby’s Birth Experience Matters
Here are 5 things you need to know about why baby’s birth experience really does matter:
#1: Baby Is An Active Participant In Birth
There’s no doubt that the mother does a lot of work during labour. Working through contractions as she dilates, constantly moving to find a comfortable labouring positioning and, of course, pushing baby through the birth canal make the birthing woman quite the active participant.
However, while we see a mother’s work, we shouldn’t forget that baby is also an active participant in the birth process. The baby must shift into the proper position, navigate through the pelvic inlet and outlet (through the mother’s pelvic bones), and pass through the birth canal to take her first breath.
When a mother and her maternity care providers recognise baby’s role, they can make decisions about birth that will help baby to play her role.
When a mother is upright and active, listening to her body’s cues about which position feels right, and when she’s able to push with the urge, she can facilitate baby’s journey.
Being upright and moving means creating the most space for baby to navigate through the pelvic inlet and outlet, and the birthing canal.
When a mother is unable to be upright and moving, the baby must work against gravity, and navigate a narrower space.
Find out more about Giving Birth Upright – 9 Huge Benefits.
#2: Procedures Can Mean A Traumatic Start
There’s no doubt that modern obstetrical procedures can save lives. Sometimes things veer from normal during birth, and in some circumstances, baby is safer out of the womb than in.
However, despite it becoming the norm in the 20th century, the need for medical assistance during labour is really the exception, rather than the rule.
When baby is allowed to choose her own birthday, when she is able to navigate the birthing canal at her own pace, and when she is gently supported out and onto her mother’s chest, her transition to the outside world is gentle.
She is welcomed into a world which seems safe, and one where she can continue to bond with her mother.
Sometimes, however, baby’s birthdate is determined by medications that cause intense contractions, or she is pulled from the birthing canal.
This less than gentle transition can leave baby feeling insecure as she enters the unfamiliar environment outside the womb.
Find out more about how inductions impact babies.
When medical procedures are necessary, the benefits of a healthy mother and a healthy baby outweigh the risks of the procedures. When we make decisions, however, it is important to keep in mind baby’s active role.
If an induction, an assisted vaginal birth, or c-section become necessary, we must still be conscious of how we treat baby in the process.
#3: The Birth Environment Can Affect Baby’s Feelings
Babies can’t articulate exactly how their birth experience affects them.
However, we need to remember that babies are conscious beings. Just like us, they have emotions and senses.
Professionals once believed that babies probably didn’t experience pain and, if they did, they wouldn’t remember it. This is what parents were taught. We now know this to be untrue. There was even a recent study undertaken by Oxford to confirm it.
Not only do babies feel pain, they process it more intensely than adults do.
Babies can’t articulate their emotions, but as well as physical pain they can also experience loneliness, insecurity, and uncertainty about the unknown.
Babies are incredibly instinctual beings. As a self-preservation instinct, they insist on remaining close to a caregiver. Babies will often cry or fuss when they need a caregiver. They might also show signs of withdrawal, in a way that might seem like contentment, in an effort to conserve energy (crying takes a great deal of energy) and to cope with fear or pain.
Babies spend 9 months continuously held close in a warm environment. They hear soothing white noise and muffled, familiar voices. Then they are born.
At one time it was common for babies to enter a delivery room, surrounded by bright lights, harsh noises and loud voices. They would be whisked away for vitals and weighing, then wrapped and placed, alone, in a bassinet. It was a world of unfamiliar sensations, with no warm body to provide security.
Leboyer encouraged a calmer birthing environment. The birth room would have dim lights and less harsh noise, and baby would be respected throughout the process. This gentler environment can create a more positive transition from womb to world. Baby first experiences the world from the security of her mother’s arms, and believes it to be a safe environment.
Read more about Pain And Feelings In Newborns – 7 Things Parents Need To Know.
#4: A Birthing Mother Has A Big Role In Baby’s Birth Experience
There are many aspects of birth which we cannot control, but there are also many which we can. Making healthy choices throughout pregnancy can be an important part of avoiding some medical procedures. This includes minimising or eliminating food or drink containing grains and sugars, and getting regular exercise.
Some mothers make good dietary choices but unfortunately still develop difficult to control gestational diabetes (GD). Having GD can increase the likelihood of an elective or necessary induction, assisted birth, or c-section birth. In many cases, lifestyle choices play a major role in preventing GD.
A healthy lifestyle can also reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure (not to be confused with high blood pressure associated with pre-eclampsia) and other pregnancy complications.
Mothers-to-be can also prepare to cope with labour and to have the tools to make informed decisions. Taking a comprehensive childbirth class can equip them to cope with normal physiological labour. It also provides them with information to make fully informed decisions, and relieves their fears about the normal process of labour.
A recent study found a good childbirth class resulted in a 65% lower epidural rate and 44% lower c-section rate compared to standard hospital birth classes. Read more about the study here.
While his words might sound harsh, Leboyer strongly believes mothers have a major responsibility to help their babies have a positive entrance into the world. He says, “What you have to understand is that birth is a challenge for a woman. To do her best for her baby, she has to face up to that challenge and not chicken out”.
He is certainly not speaking about circumstances in which obstetrical interventions are necessary to keep mother and baby healthy. He is saying that mothers can make choices to prepare themselves and cope with labour.
He also believes that for too long obstetricians have been falsely telling women they can make birth more efficient, shorter, and safer with interventions.
On this point, he says, “It is an illusion. They cannot. Just as I cannot breathe for you, or eat for you, or sleep for you, so I cannot give birth for you. Only you can give birth, for yourself”.
#5: The Birth Experience Isn’t The End
As mothers, we make the best decisions we can with the knowledge and support we have at the time. And sometimes, regardless of our preparation and support, birth doesn’t go as planned. Sometimes birth occurs in a noisy operating room, under harsh lights, and ends with mother and baby being separated for some time.
Rest assured, this isn’t the end of helping your baby have a positive transition into this world. Just as baby has senses and feelings, and can experience birth, she can also experience constant love, through challenges.
She can learn that her mother, father or other loved ones will hold her hand while she is in an Isolette (incubator). She can heal, bond and learn that she always has a warm body to provide security and love.
Babies spend 9 months in warm fluid, held in a snug environment. After birth, one excellent way to help baby with the transition is to help her experience familiar feelings and senses.
Warm baths can provide baby with familiar surroundings and mimic womb life. Leboyer strongly encourages bathing babies, saying, “Water, for a newborn, is a friend… [It’s familiar] It’s friendly. It calms”.
Babywearing in a sling, wrap or other snug carrier can also help baby feel safe and secure, just like when she was in the womb. Both of these sensations can help baby to adapt to life earth side.