I am a midwife, childbirth educator, lecturer, doula, and natural mother of eight children. This is not a medical reference; I do not proclaim to give medical advice. Anything stated here is from personal experience, research, study, and opinion. Each woman has the responsibility to do her own research, consult with her own medical team, and make her own decisions about pregnancy and birth.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Why do we labor?

Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim
Faris, A few hours old.

Everyone knows that labor precedes birth.  But why must we have it?  For first-time mothers, it's a journey into the unknown.  There are so many mysteries and horror stories around it that some just skip the whole thing and opt for a drugged c-section! Opting for major abdominal surgery (and accepting all the risks that come with it) is astounding to me!

So what is this thing called "labor" and is really that bad?  Is it something so dreadful that we should schedule surgery just to avoid it?

I hope you enjoy reading this article.  Please let me know if you have a story idea or would like to share your birth story. Now on to the article...Why do we labor?... 

Webster defines labor in relation to birth as the physical activities (as dilation of the cervix and contraction of the uterus) involved in giving birth; also : the period of such labor.  

Medically speaking, there are four things that are measured during vaginal exams and used to assess the "progress" of labor.  These four things are cervical dilation (opening), cervical effacement (thinning), stations (decent of the baby into the pelvis), and presentation (what part of the baby is coming out first). 

But is that all labor is?  Is it just the physical changes of the expectant mother's body preceding the birth?  Could there be more to it or bigger reasons for it?  

 It wasn't until the last century that women even had a choice about how to deliver their babies; "natural" (vaginal, non-medicated) was all there was.  In that same time frame births have moved from the comfort of our beds in our own homes, to the cold delivery tables of the hospital and medical technology has taken over the birth process. 

Ironically, women have become increasingly terrified of labor.  Horror stories of what was "done to me" in the hospital resonate and instill fear in women from all walks of life.  Maybe the coincidental timing of this increased fear and the move to the hospital is not an ironic coincidence at all!

With advances in medical technology has come the option to bypass labor by opting for major abdominal surgery to get our babies out of us.  Sadly, many women fear the pain of labor so much that they go this route thinking that they are avoiding some horrendous event that is inevitably looming in their future.  I have to repeat myself, "Opting for major abdominal surgery (and accepting all the risks that come with it) is astounding to me!"

In my training as a childbirth educator, I've come to realize there is more to labor than the medically measured "progress" factors.  Many things that cannot be measured are also happening in preparation for birth.  Some of these are related to the mother, others to the baby.

First of all, we can consider the gradual and steady increase in labor pains as a warning to the mother.  This warning usually allows her to reach her birthplace and notify her birth attendants and companions before the event occurs.  Imagine if we didn't have this warning.  It would be a sudden shock and serious problem if women went from their daily routine to just dropping their babies without warning, regardless of where they were!

Next, the mother undergoes a huge transformation during labor.  She goes from the status of "pregnant woman" to that of "mother."  At some point during the labor she reaches the emotional readiness to move on.  Even if she was enjoying pregnancy and in no hurry for it to be over, the physical and emotional exhaustion that comes with labor will usually help her to adjust and be ready to get the pregnancy overwith and move on to caring for her baby.  Labor causes an emotional "letting go" or surrender that is necessary and helpful in this important transition.

Beyond the medically measured progress marks of labor noted above, there are also various unmeasurable physical changes taking place within the mother.  Her breasts may still be preparing for nurishing the coming babe; her pelvic cartilige may still be softening to accomodate the passing baby; her body may still be producing the "mothering" hormones that are released during lactation and facilitate her mothering instinct.  No one can really judge when all of these unmeasurable things are fully ready.

As for the baby, there is also need for physical and emotional transitions as well.  The baby must emotionally transiton from the quiet, dark, warm, safe environment of the mother's womb to the loud, bright, cold, unsure wolrd outside.  Could it be that the shock and uncomfort of passing through the birth canal provides the baby with the emotional transition needed to let go of his/her comfort zone and emotionally adjust to the new environment?  Could the physcial squeezing that takes place during labor and vaginal birth be a preparation for the baby's instestines which will pass the first bowel, as well as preparation for the lungs for the first breath? 

I'm always concerned about all of these factors being bypassed when a cesarean is scheduled without a trial of labor first, or when labor is induced artificially.  I realize that in rare cases these medical interventions may be necessary.  But I also belive that they are more often initiated without real need.  Consider this fact:  an obstetrician once confided to me that EVERY baby born by cesarean must be rivived at birth, whereas naturally born babies are usually breathing on their own right away. 

So why do we labor?  Maybe the truth is that we just don't know all that there is to it.  From my point of view, Allah has given us the perfect plan for birth, why risk altering it?

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