What Women’s Bodies are Telling Us

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What Women’s Bodies are Telling Us about Modern Maternity Care

This article appeared originally on http://scienceandsensibility.org on June 18th, 2015 by Sharon Muza.

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

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.”