By Christina Gebel, MPH, LCCE, Birth Doula
Christina Gebel, MPH, LCCE, Doula writes a reflective post examining current birthing conditions to see how today’s practices might be interfering with the the normal hormonal physiology and consequently impacting women’s ability to give birth. Times have certainly changed and birth has moved from the home to the hospital. A slow but steady increase in out of hospital births is examined and Christina asks us to consider why women are increasingly choosing to birth outside the hospital – and what do hormones have to do with it? – Sharon Muza, Science & Sensibility Community Manager
“Pregnancy is not a disease, but a beautiful office of nature.” These are the words of Victoria Woodhull, the first female candidate for President of the United States in 1872.
The world in which pregnant women find themselves today looks a lot different than the time of Woodhull’s campaign run. For instance, hospitals didn’t become the mainstream setting for labor and delivery until the 1930s and 40s. While modern medicine has undoubtedly helped millions of women who may have otherwise died in childbirth, mothers and birth advocates across the nation are beginning to ask if we are paying a price for today’s standard maternity care. With increasing protocols and interventions, pregnancy is viewed less like the office of nature Woodhull spoke of and more like a pathological condition.
The Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing, a recent report by Sarah Buckley, systematically reviews existing research about the impact that common maternity practices may have on innate hormonal physiology in women and fetuses/newborns. The report finds strong evidence to suggest that our maternity care interventions may disturb these processes, reduce their benefits, or even create new challenges. To find out more, read an interview that Science & Sensibility did with Dr. Buckley when her groundbreaking report was released.
Let’s examine something as simple as the environment that a woman gives birth in. In prehistoric times, laboring women faced immediate threats and dangers. They possessed the typical mammalian “fight-or-flight” reaction to these stressors. The hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine caused blood to be diverted away from the baby and uterus to the heart, lungs, and muscles of the mother so that she could flee. This elevation in stress hormones also stalled labor, to give the mother more time to escape. Essentially, she told her body ‘this place is not safe,’ and her body responded appropriately by stopping the labor to protect the mother and her child during a very vulnerable time.
Today, mothers are not fleeing wild animals but rather giving birth in hospitals, the setting for nearly 99% of today’s births, where this innate response may cause their labor to stall. The sometimes frenetic environment or numerous brief encounters with unfamiliar faces may trigger a sense of unease and, consequently, the fight-or-flight response, stalling the mother’s labor. Prolonged labor in a hospital invariably leads to concern and a need to intervene, often by the administration of Pitocin, synthetic oxytocin, to facilitate regular contractions. Arrested labor could lead to further interventions up to and including a cesarean section. The fight-or-flight response may be further reinforced by these interventions, as they potentially come one after the other, in what is often referred to as the “cascade of interventions.”
This is just one example of how a woman’s body’s natural physiology can go from purposeful to working against the labor, the mother and the baby. Epinephrine and norepinephrine are both necessary in labor and delivery. In fact, at appropriate levels, these hormones support vital processes protecting the infant from hypoxia and facilitating neonatal transitions such as optimal breathing, temperature, and glucose regulation, all markers for a healthy infant at birth.
Recent data show that mothers themselves may already think what the Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing report suggests. The series of Listening to Mothers (LtM) studies, a nationally-representative survey of childbearing women, shows a shift in mothers’ attitudes towards normal physiologic birth: In 2012, 58% of mothers agreed somewhat or strongly that giving birth is a process that should not be interfered with unless medically necessary, up from 45% in 2000. According to 2013 national birth data, out-of-hospital (home and birth center) births have increased 55% since 2004, but the overall percentage is still only 1.35% of all births nationwide. While low, this shows that a small core of mothers are voting with their feet and choosing to give birth out of the hospital. Though their choice may seem extreme, they’re not alone. In the LtM data, which only surveys women who have given birth in a US hospital, 29% of mothers said they would definitely want or would consider giving birth at home for a future birth, and 64% said the same of a birth center. All this raises the question: What’s happening in a hospital that is leading mothers to consider other settings for their next birth?
One answer to upholding women’s preferences, autonomy, and the value of normal physiologic birth is a mother’s involvement in shared decision making with her provider, along with increasing access to models of care that support innate physiologic childbearing, like midwives in birth centers. Increasing access to these options may present a challenge, as demand seems to outweigh availability.
Leslie Ludka (MSN, CNM) has been the Director of the Cambridge Health Alliance Birth Center (Cambridge, Mass.) as well as the Director of Midwifery since 2008. Like other birth centers, the center has seen a steady increase in demand each year, with patients coming from all over New England. Ludka sees many barriers to having more birth centers available including finances (the reimbursement for birth not being comparable to an in-hospital birth), “vacuums in institutional comprehension” of the advantages of the birth center model for low-risk women, and the rigorous process to be nationally certified by the Commission for the Accreditation of Birth Centers (CABC), requiring “a great commitment and a lot of support by all involved.” In order to overcome these barriers, Ludka suggests marketing the safety of birth centers to the general public, sharing outcome statistics for women and infants cared for in birth centers, and educating insurers and providers about the overall benefits and financial savings of midwifery and the birth center model. With supportive policy and better understanding on the part of insurers, the public, and healthcare institutions, models like the birth center could become more plentiful, more easily meeting the demand.
Women’s bodies are sending subtle messages that our current healthcare system is, at times, not serving their needs. It’s time to respond to these messages, beginning by viewing childbirth foundationally as a life event and not first as pathology, and adapting our models of care to speak to this viewpoint. If we fail to do so, we run the risk of creating excess risk for women and newborns.
It’s been 143 years since Woodhull ran for president. We’ve made progress in getting much closer to seeing our first woman president, but with childbirth, perhaps our progress now starts with looking back in time.
About Christina Gebel
Christina Gebel holds a Master of Public Health in Maternal and Child Health from the Boston University School of Public Health. She is a birth doula and Certified Lamaze Childbirth Educator as well as a freelance writer, editor, and photographer. She currently resides in Boston working in public health research. You can follow her on Twitter: @ChristinaGebel and contact her through her website duallovedoula.com