First Baby, induction with midwives in a hospital: Natural Childbirth without pain? Yes!
My Birth Story
by Valerie Larenne
Before I became pregnant for the first time, I was one of those women that thought “natural childbirth” was for granola-bar hippie types (at best) or fanatical masochists (at worst). It was most certainly not for me – a modern woman of the 21st century! I never once questioned whether or not I would have an epidural if I should be so lucky as to get pregnant! Like a lot of women, I envisioned driving up to the hospital the day I was due and screaming, “Give me drugs, NOW!!” the second I walked in the door. After all, everyone I know who’s had a baby had had an epidural, and why not take advantage of the wonderful tools available to us now through the “miracle” of modern medicine? Case closed, slam dunk, right?
Well, as it turned out, the day I found out I was pregnant was also the day that my eyes began to open about the realities of childbirth. It soon became clear to me that the medical establishment in which I had placed such blind faith was not necessarily treating my pregnant self with my and my baby’s best interests in mind. Now I am not saying that I think they intended me any harm per se, rather I think they (meaning the traditional OB/GYN model) have become so burdened by the threat of costly litigation and so hamstrung by the insurance industry, that they have been forced to “manage” childbirth and mold it to serve their needs, not the needs of women. And if I could shout to the rooftops so all pregnant women could hear, I would tell them that you are stronger than you think, you can have your birth YOUR WAY, and birth is something to anticipate with joy, not dread with fear (as our culture would have us do.)
So, here’s my story. And let me tell you, it has a very happy ending! I started my journey down the commonly trod path – straight to the “best” OB/GYN I could find in my area. At only 10 weeks, we had an internal ultrasound and heard a heart beating, and I thought I would burst with joy. I had been trying for so long to have a baby that I was beginning to wonder if I would ever be able to conceive. And here was proof, right there on that gray monitor with that ocean-like whooshing sound that I was about to become a Mommy!
But this was also when I started to see that the journey I had embarked upon was not what I was expecting. Because I was the ripe old age of 35 when I found out I was pregnant, I fell into the category of “advanced maternal age” which is medical-speak for “you’re an old lady and we’re going to watch you like a hawk.” The first choice I was then forced to make was whether or not to have an amniocentesis so they could determine if my child was suffering from some terrible genetic deformity or disease, and if so, I could promptly terminate the pregnancy to end both of our sure-to-be suffering. I carefully read the literature and discovered that I had a greater chance of having a miscarriage from the procedure than I did of carrying a sick baby, so I promptly opted out. I decided that I could accept a less than perfect baby with love, but I would never be able to accept the loss of a perfectly healthy baby just so the doctors could peek into my womb. I quickly became irritated by the repeated questions from the doctor about this stupid test, and whether I knew what I was doing by refusing it. “Yes, I do, thank you very much. Now would you please, pretty please, leave me and my body alone?” I also learned that higher resolution ultrasounds are able to detect a wide range of abnormalities. And best of all, they are totally non-invasive. I had one at 20 weeks and it put my mind totally at ease about the health of my baby.
I was already becoming very protective of my baby and less confident that the doctors were interested in what I had in mind for my birthing. With each visit to this “expert,” my sense of unease began to grow. At each visit I felt like nothing more than a cog in their giant baby factory machine. He seemed dismissive of me in general and cautioned me not to talk to my mother or girlfriends about any questions or concerns I had. With a wink and a smile he said, “If you have a question, talk to me. When you start talking to other people, you’ll just get confused.” “Hmmm,” I thought. “Really? Do I honestly look that stupid to you?” Clearly this was not a good sign. So I thought my growing discomfort had to do with the fact that my doctor was a man. “Shame on me”, I thought, “I’m just so used to my female doctor, I can’t relate to this guy. Surely if I have a female OB, I’ll feel much better.” So I sheepishly asked for a change of doctors and was excited the day I met with my “new” OB.
Prior to meeting with my new female OB, I had been reading a lot of books about childbirth. The most valuable of these was “Birthing from Within” – a book that had been recommended to me by a friend from graduate school who I learned had birthed both of her babies without drugs at home. I thought her birthing choices were not for me (in fact, before having my experience, I thought she was crazy), but I was interested in reading something besides the totally useless “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” book.
Reading this book caused a revolution in my thinking about birthing. I learned all sorts of things the doctors never tell you about what it means to “choose” a medicated birth – and also that in most cases, it’s not even a choice. I learned that if you go into your birthing experience without any knowledge about the process, you are completely vulnerable to what the hospital and doctors have in mind for you.
Many books have been written about what is involved with a medicated versus non-medicated birth, so I will not attempt to repeat it all here. Just suffice it to say that a choice to have drugs is by no means a neutral one and every pregnant woman owes it to herself and her baby to at least become educated so she can make an informed choice. I would never say that having a baby without drugs is “good” and therefore for everyone and that having drugs is “bad” and to be avoided at all costs. But what I think is bad is the lack of balanced information available to women from their doctors (more about doctors versus midwifes later). Believe me when I say that they are trying to do what is convenient and less potentially litigious for them. They are not necessarily in business to advocate for their patients, especially when what their patient wants does not fit the standard model.
Women have to help themselves by becoming informed and being strong enough to stick up for themselves. Don’t ever forget – you are hiring the doctor. It is not the other way around. Just because s/he has a fancy degree does not mean it is somehow a privilege that s/he is serving you. You have the power to set the agenda for your birth. And if you feel your caregiver is not letting you set the agenda, then you need to find another caregiver. This is very important! Don’t give up until you find a caregiver who will support you. Which brings me to a word about “doctors.” For the pregnant woman, it has been my experience that a midwife is far better than an OB/GYN. This choice is a real no-brainer, as far as I’m concerned. From my experience, doctors act as if they are the ones who “deliver” babies when it fact it is the woman who gives birth to her baby. Babies are born by women, not delivered by doctors. Pizzas are delivered, not babies. The reason midwives are better is all a matter of perspective. For most OB/GYN doctors, pregnancy and birth are viewed as potentially problematic situations to be managed and controlled. Midwives view pregnancy and birth quite differently. They view it as one of the most natural aspects of womanhood and treat you more like a very special person who happens to be pregnant rather than just another patient who needs to be “cured.” Compared to doctors, midwives have much lower rates of the following: episiotomies, epidurals, and C-sections. And unlike most OBs who leave the real work to the nurses during a woman’s birthing time only to show up at the last minute to “catch” the baby, midwives are with the birthing mother during the entire birthing process. They are skilled in techniques to help the birthing mother such as perineal massage (to prevent tearing), emotional support, and post-birth help such as assistance with breastfeeding.
So this brings me back to my experience with the “new” doctor I was all excited about. Unfortunately, she was even worse than the male OB. I don’t normally obsess about details like a person’s shoes, but she pranced into the exam room in a pair of what I can only describe as open-toed Barbie shoes that seemed so totally inappropriate for a doctor that I could see little else. I could not imagine this woman in the delivery room dealing with all the blood and fluids involved in birthing a baby. And when I started going over my list of more-informed questions (because at this point I had learned enough to decide that I wanted to have a natural birth), she was visibly annoyed. When I asked her, “How will you support me in my desire for a natural birth?” she looked at me like I had just landed from the planet Mars and instead of answering my question, she said, “Well, you wouldn’t have a filling in your tooth done without novacaine now would you?” Let’s just ignore for a moment that this is a totally irrelevant analogy. The fact that she was dismissive of my desires was all I needed to know to take my body and my baby out the door. That was when I began my search for a midwife in earnest. There would be no OB/GYN for this mama!
Unfortunately, I live in a place where very few hospitals allow privileges to midwives. And I wanted to be in a hospital “just in case” I needed to be. Luckily there are a few enlightened places within comfortable driving distance from me that do allow midwife-assisted births. The hospital where I ended up birthing my son was in Laguna Beach and it was fabulous. They are very supportive of natural approaches to birth and they provide much more individualized care. Unlike the other baby-factory hospitals where most women in this area go to have their babies (don’t ask me why!) their monthly births average around 60 compared to well over 400 at the place my original doctor works. In addition, their birthing rooms are labor-delivery-recovery, which means you stay in the same room from start to finish and they have a “rooming-in” policy which means your baby stays in your room with you during your entire stay.
In addition to finding a supportive team of midwives, I was eager to take a birthing course that would help me have the natural birth I had now come to desire so strongly (I’d come a long way, baby!) I had learned from friends that Lamaze was pretty much useless so I looked into a program called “Hypnobabies” which sounds a lot wackier than it really it. Hypnosis for birthing is not like hypnosis as night club act! Rather, it is a program that teaches a woman how to go into a state of self-induced hypnosis to assist during her birthing. The human body produces natural analgesics that can be put to use through a disciplined mind. And this course teaches the skills necessary to tap into this natural well of pain management chemicals. I don’t mean to make it sound like I am especially brilliant or skilled in this. Honestly, anyone can do it. It’s just a matter of desire and commitment. I can’t tell you how many times I have heard women say “I’m pretty tough and I’d like to do it naturally, so I’ll just go to the hospital and see how it goes” (I said this before I became educated about all this stuff!) But that is about as smart as saying, “I think I’d like to climb Mt. Everest so I’m going to take the first plane I can find to Nepal and see how it goes.” Any difficult physical task such as running a marathon or giving birth requires preparation – both physical and mental! Natural birthing courses such as the Bradley Method and Hypnobabies provide this necessary training.
Now that I was committed to a natural birth, I took my self-hypnosis practice seriously. I practiced daily and did everything I could to surround myself with nothing but positive birth imagery. I stopped watching all those dramatic birth shows on TV, I stopped listening to other women’s “horror” birth stories and soaked up anything I could find about positive birthing information. During this process, I became very excited about the impending birth of my son. As I got closer and closer to my “due date”, people would ask me “Are you getting nervous yet?” and I could honestly say that I was not nervous but happy about my upcoming birthing and in a state of hopeful curiosity. I felt confident and excited, NEVER nervous and afraid.
About a week and a half before my son was due to arrive, I awoke at 6:00 am and as I was getting out of bed, I had a very unusual sensation. It felt like a little bubble burst in my bladder(?) and a little gush of liquid ran out of me. I had always thought of my waters breaking as more like Niagara Falls, so I wasn’t sure if what I had felt was my waters breaking or a little “accident.” Something about it just didn’t feel right, though, so I called my midwife to say that I thought my waters had broken. Sure enough, the Niagara Falls effect occurred shortly thereafter, so there was no doubt in my mind that this was the day my son would be born. I was not having any contractions, so the fact that my waters had broken was a bit of a problem. Once the waters break, the clock starts ticking towards artificial induction of labor if things do not proceed. And this was something I was determined to avoid if at all possible.
My husband and I spent the day in a sort of Twilight Zone state as the day continued with no significant contractions. I visited my midwife at noon to discover that I was only ½ cm dilated and 50% effaced. We agreed to meet at the hospital at 6:00 pm that night and she explained that we would have to consider pitocin between 12:00 am and 2:00 am if no further progress had been made.
Prior to my son’s birth, we had hired a doula trained in the Hypnobabies process to assist us with the birth. Carole arrived at our home about an hour before we needed to leave for the hospital. She brought with her a special hypnosis script to help release my mind from anything that was holding my body back from starting my birthing time. It was an incredible experience. I felt as if all the molecules in my body melted away and I entered a deep state of relaxation. During our drive to the hospital, I listened to the Birth Guide CD (from my Hypnobabies class) with my eyes closed. Our arrival at the hospital was relaxed, peaceful, and stress-free. Nothing at all like you see in the movies where the mother and father are rushing in the doors screaming and making all sorts of commotion!
Once I was admitted to the hospital, my midwife administered a prostaglandin suppository to help ripen the cervix. Still, progress was slow in coming. When it seemed that nothing much would happen that night, my parents left to go home to sleep, and our doula went with them as she needed to go back to pick up her car. Like magic, the minute the people who were “waiting, waiting, waiting” for me to have the baby left the scene, my birthing waves began in earnest. It seems like my body needed to be in a little cocoon with just Josef and I in order to get truly ready for the birth of our son. It just goes to show how powerful the mind is!
My birthing time began at around 10:30 pm and lasted until 4:45 am the following morning when our son, Jordan, was born. For a first pregnancy, this is a fairly short birthing time. And thanks to the time compression phenomenon common while in hypnosis, those six hours felt like even less. During that time, my doula, midwife and Josef helped me through each birthing wave with a variety of measures such as showering, changing positions, rocking on the birthing ball, warm back compresses, gentle massage, scented fans, and soothing words that helped me stay deeply relaxed throughout each one. During this time, I recall only quiet, loving words and caresses. My eyes were closed mostly the entire time, and I had the feeling of being in a soft safe place.
My own method of flowing with the waves came from deep within – something not practiced in the class – and something that I can only describe as primal. With each wave, I found that I would instinctively hum. There was something very soothing about certain tonal sounds and I varied these with each wave until I hit the right note to get through to the end. As a regular practitioner of yoga, I also found the “ohm” sound helpful as well. I recall feeling intense pressure, but not “pain” in the traditional sense of the word. One of the most helpful things about this time was I was not constantly being told how far I was “progressing.” The only time I was told how far I had dilated was when I was at 7 ½ cm, and I remember thinking, “Well, if I’ve gone this far without needing anything for my discomfort, I can certainly go all the way!” I was really excited to learn that I had come that far all on my own. The only other “progress report” I received was when I was at 9 ½ cm.
My pushing phase of labor lasted approximately an hour and a half and was the most challenging part of the journey. Not in terms of “pain” but only in terms of “work.” It seemed that with each series of three to four pushes, I felt that I had given it my all, only to find that the baby was still inside. It was frustrating at times in the sense of being physically exhausting, like running a marathon, but not painful. I recall the soothing sensation of warm compresses, but no pain. I recall Carole repeating these words to me “Your body is sending anesthesia ahead of your baby.” Clearly, my body was doing this! I had no feelings of discomfort when my midwife reached in to help fully open my cervix. (I have since learned that this procedure can be excruciating, but I did not experience any pain whatsoever!) I had no feelings of discomfort when my son crowned. There was no “ring of fire”. Nothing. The only “discomfort” I experienced during this time was the work my abdomen was doing to help push the baby out – kind of like overdoing it on the ab machine at the gym.
When my son was born, he was placed immediately into my hands and I brought him up to my chest. It is a moment I will never forget! His bright little eyes were sparkling and he took to my breast within just minutes of his birth. He was alert and very much engaged in the world. And from the moment of his birth, I felt absolutely nothing but pure joy. All the frustration of the pushing phase vanished and I was giggling. And there was no pain in my body. I had a minor tear that was quickly and painlessly repaired (also without anesthetic), and from that moment, I did not need anything for pain because I did not feel any pain.
So I’m living proof that it’s true. You can give birth without so much as an aspirin. I did it thanks to the loving support of a trained doula and midwife, a supportive and engaged partner, and the mental tools (that came from my Hypnobabies practice) to have the birthing I was hoping for. The biggest gift I feel that I gave to myself and my son in this process was being fully present, in both mind and body, for the incredible experience of his birthing. It is my hope that all women can take back their own innate strength to empower themselves through their births, and this is one way to do it! Before I had my baby, there were plenty of people that were polite when I told them of my plans to deliver him “naturally” but clearly doubtful that I would actually be able to do it. After my incredible experience, no one in my circle is a skeptic any more. There are times I worry that my desire to share the tale of my son’s birthing verges on religious zealotry, but when I hear women who have been so sadly disappointed by their less-than-empowering births (and there are so many!), I want every woman to have the opportunity to experience the birthing I did.