By Michele Ondeck,RN, MEd, IBCLC, LCCE
Sarah Buckley is a family doctor, mother of four, and author of the bestselling book Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering. She has been writing and lecturing about the hormones of birth, among other topics, since 2001. Mothering Magazine published her article “Ecstatic Birth, Nature’s Hormonal Blueprint of Labor” in 2002. She lives with her family near Brisbane, Australia. On Tuesday, January 13th, 2015, Dr, Buckley released a comprehensive report entitled “Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and Implications for Women, Babies, and Maternity Care” in cooperation with Childbirth Connection. Two days ago, Penny Simkin reviewed the report and shared valuable information on how birth professionals will be able to use this report in their classes or practices. Today, Lamaze International Past President, Michele Ondeck, shares her recent interview with Dr. Buckley. In this interview, they discuss Sarah’s thoughts on what this report means for both families and professionals. Sarah speaks to how it we are just beginning to recognize the downstream effects of disturbing the normal hormonal process that occurs during labor, birth and postpartum and what this disturbance might mean for future generations. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility.
Michele Ondeck: Sarah, thank you for the in-depth review of the hormones of labor in the Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing (HPOC) report. I am thankful for the support you received for this project from the Childbirth Connection programs with the National Partnership for Women & Families. As a board member of Lamaze International, I am proud that we were able to also provide some support to make this report possible. How are you celebrating the report’s release?
Sarah Buckley: Finishing the report has been a big milestone, not just for me but also for my family who have been very involved and supportive. We’ll be celebrating with champagne and, as its summer down here, with an Aussie barbeque.
MO: Sarah, I have been sharing orchestration of the hormones of birth: oxytocin, beta endorphins, epinephrine and nor-epinephrine and prolactin from Ecstatic Birth with parents and professionals since its publication. You have expanded, clarified, and synthesized that basic information in your report. I know that you have been working on this report since 2011. What was your inspiration to keep at it? How did you find time to review more than 1,100 publications?
SB: Yes, it’s been a long gestation! What has kept me engaged is the practical relevance of the material for mothers, babies, fathers, and families, and my own lived experiences. For me, its much more than an academic body of knowledge, it’s a paradigm that recognizes the superb design of our female bodies, and describes the smoothest, safest, easiest, and most pleasurable path to parenting. I am also lucky to receive much support and positive feedback about this material, both from maternity care providers, who gain a scientific understanding of what they are seeing every day in the birth room, and from women themselves, who realize that there are positive ways to support their hormones and increase safety, ease, and pleasure for themselves and their babies.
MO: Now with the publication of the Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing, there is the potential to educate so many more professionals in the maternity and newborn care community. How does the timing of the report fit with the changes that you see happening today that can influence professionals?
SB: I have been writing and lecturing about the hormonal physiology for more than 10 years and I have seen a significant shift in receptiveness to this perspective, especially in the last 2 to 3 years. I think we are maturing as birth professionals and beginning to think more widely about the perinatal period. The microbiome paradigm, for example, which looks at the effects of birth on the transfer of healthy bacteria from mother to newborn, is giving us solid evidence that what happens at birth can have long-term consequences.
It is also a very exciting time to launch the report because this material is very much aligned with other initiatives, including ACNM’s Physiologic Birth Initiative and the ACOG/SMFM Safe Prevention of the Primary Cesarean Delivery statement. It’s also a pleasure to me that the Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing supports and extends other current models including the Lamaze Healthy Birth Practices.
MO: You refer to the growing recognition of the significance of the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease (DOHaD) in the report. Midwives, childbirth educators and doulas among others have long discussed the unintended consequences of interventions in childbirth. Now with more recognition of the importance of the perinatal period as a sensitive period that potentially affects long term health, how do you simply explain this fascinating concept and others like epigenetic programming for childbearing families?
SB: The perspective of Hormonal Physiology is very much aligned with these big-picture models including DOHaD, epigenetics, and Lifecourse Health Development, which is a multi-system model looking at the potential for early events to change the trajectory of long-term health and development.
Epigenetics refers to the biochemical processes that switch genes on or off, which helps organisms to adapt to their environment and circumstances. We know that epigenetic changes give critical adaptations (“programming”) in early life that increase the chance of survival in the environment they have come into.
In relation to DOHaD, it is now scientifically established, and widely accepted — e.g., you read this research in the media and online — that the baby’s exposures in the womb can have long-term health effects. We also know from animal studies (with a growing interest in human research also) that early life events can have long-term programming effects, and we have even identified the associated epigenetic changes in some animal studies.
What the HPOC perspective adds to these models is the possibility that these long-term programming effects may occur not only before and after birth but also during birth, and it provides possible mechanisms for such effects. In other words, changing the hormonal experiences around the time of birth could have far-reaching effects.
In fact, we would expect very significant epigenetic effects at this time, as part of the enormous shifts involved with adapting to life outside the womb and, for the mother, optimally adapting her to the essential tasks of nurturing and nourishing her young. We have substantial animal research showing long-term effects from perinatal hormone exposures, including exposure to high doses of synthetic oxytocin.
MO: When you were doing this in-depth research on the hormones of labor. What finding(s) were most meaningful to you as a mother?
SB: As we describe in the report, this is a “consistent and coherent mosaic coming into view,” so we don’t have all the gaps filled in. However, what strikes me as a mother, and in relation to my own experiences of birth and mothering, is evidence that the hormonal processes of labor and birth, including mother-newborn contact in the first hour after birth, might switch on maternal reward systems in the brain at this powerful time, so that the new mother finds her offspring rewarding into the future. This is a critical mechanism for species survival, and ensures that mammalian mothers give the dedicated care that their newborns need- without going to a prenatal class! And after birth, these systems are reinforced for the mother by rewarding hormones including oxytocin and beta-endorphins released with breastfeeding and also with close infant contact.
I wonder if some of the problems we have with parenting in our culture, that it seems like hard work, that we can find caring for our young children boring, are because we can miss all of these sources of rewarding hormones.
MO: The forward to the report was written by leaders in medicine, midwifery, nursing, obstetrics, and pediatrics urging maternity care to support physiologic birth in order to uphold the Precautionary Principle of “do no harm.” What do you want to say to us on where to start in changing the current environment?
SB: I think one of the most powerful things we can do is to share the information in this report, including the knowledge gaps, with professionals and with expectant parents, so that we can shift our cultural understanding towards appreciating how superbly designed women’s bodies are for childbearing, how these hormonal systems can be disrupted, and that we actually don’t know the long-term effects for our children, so we should be applying precaution.
I especially want to reach high-technology settings, so that we can begin to recognize the gap between physiology and current practice and work to bridge it. In situations where interventions are genuinely needed, I want care providers to be asking “How can we safely add more hormonal physiology?” and take actions. This could be as simple as supporting skin-to-skin after cesarean, or promoting doula care for women with pregnancy complications.
I also want this report to get the attention of policy makers and funders. Physiologic childbearing is a low-technology approach that is generally inexpensive compared to our current high-technology models of care. The hormonal physiology perspective also suggests significant longer-term and public health benefits, for example through support for breastfeeding. This could give even greater benefits and cost-effectiveness in the longer-term, making it an excellent investment of health-care funds
About Michele Ondeck
Michele Ondeck,RN, MEd, IBCLC, LCCE serves the Lamaze International Board of Directors as its immediate past president. She was employed by Magee-Womens Hospital of University of Pittsburgh Medical Center for more than thirty years in a number of positions including education and research in the pursuit of improving women’s health and maternity care. She is the mother and grandmother of four. Currently, she is a director of a Lamaze International Accredited Childbirth Educator Program and self-employed as a perinatal education consultant.