‘I trust birth and I trust my body’: The natural birth movement promotes choice, empowerment

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<p>Sherry Hopkins of Well Rounded Mama. PHOTO: STEPHANIE GONZALES</p>

“It was just a beautiful experience, being in a safe comfortable space,” says Stacey Gamble of her all-natural, nonmedicated home birth. After witnessing a conventional hospital birth just two weeks before her due date, Stacey decided that was not the way she wanted her baby’s life to begin.

As she recalls of the hospital birth, “There was a constant pressure to medicalize everything. A constant threat of C-section at any time if it was taking too long or she wasn’t progressing fast enough. They would ask, ‘Are you sure you don’t want medicine; are you sure we can’t get you something?’ It was not the experience I wanted at all.”

What Stacey wanted is often referred to as “going natural.” This route sometimes includes one of the different levels of birthing facilitators, a doula, certified midwife (CM) or certified-nurse-midwife (CNM). A doula’s role is mainly to provide physical and emotional support during home or hospital births. CMs and CNMs have progressively more medical and technical training respectively. Stacey asked Sherry Hopkins, president and founder of Well Rounded Momma, to be her midwife and preside over a home birth for her in the Gambles’ home.

Well Rounded Momma is a local business that provides pregnancy, birth and postpartum support and offers classes and workshops on subjects such as breast-feeding, holistic pregnancy and parenting. Hopkins also oversees operations at The Homestead, a birthing center designed to give clients a home-birth experience. Well Rounded Momma also connects doulas, CMs and CNMs to prospective clients.

Stacey’s husband, firefighter Cody Gamble, supported her decision to have a home birth and shares a perspective with many in the alternative-birthing movement that childbirth is a healthy, natural part of life and not a medical problem requiring hospitalization. He also sees added risks with having a hospital birth.

“Anytime you put a healthy person in a hospital there is a chance they may come back with something just due to the fact that it’s a sick-people warehouse. We had the baby in the comfort of our own home and that was awesome,” says Cody.

As a firefighter, Cody has EMT training and says that delivering a baby is considered a basic skill. He’s aware of the medical interventions used during labor in hospitals and believes the procedures are often unnecessary and not always in the best interest of the mother or baby.

This is where the natural versus medical perspective comes into sharp focus. The issue is not that any single medical intervention disrupts natural childbirth altogether but rather that a “cascade of interventions” is set off once the first one is initiated. This cascade frequently ends in a C-section that could have been avoided if natural methods had been relied upon to begin with.

The first intervention is often a synthetic form of the naturally occurring substance oxytocin, which is called Pitocin. In most local hospital labor and delivery units, it is commonplace to hear nurses say they are going to “pit” a patient; this is what they are referring to. Similar to its natural counterpart, Pitocin stimulates contractions, but the intensity and frequency of the contractions it stimulates are much greater. Pitocin is also thought to intensify the pain experienced by women in labor. The increased pain may then lead to a greater desire for pain medication via an epidural. Side effects that can occur with use of Pitocin, as described on the package’s own labeling, include low Apgar scores, central nervous system damage or brain damage to the baby and even fetal death. Among the risks commonly associated with the use of an epidural are increased time in labor, increased risk of perineal tear, increased risk of C-section. Those subscribing to the natural birth method view these procedures as working in concert to displace the human body’s own biological mechanisms for pushing out baby and dealing with pain.

As Stacey says, “I trust birth and I trust my body. I believe in my care providers, that they have my best interest at heart. They are trained, intelligent and competent women who would know if a problem was arising and would transport me to the hospital if something did happen, which is what hospitals are for.”

For most women electing to go in any alternative direction other than a fully hospitalized medical birth, the move is about choice and empowerment. In the hospital environment, even with the help of a doula and a preapproved birth plan, women sometimes feel themselves stripped of power over their own bodies. Hospital culture has a tendency to support the idea that doctors know what is right, not mothers. All they have to say to get a mother to question her own judgment is, “Aren’t you concerned for the safety of your baby?” A question that can put a lot of pressure on a mom trying to hold out against an intervention.

“I would love to advocate for home birth on every level, but the truth is, most women just don’t feel safe there. That’s not what the media has been telling us for the past 80 years,” says Hopkins.

Accepted medical knowledge is that due to certain risk factors, 10 percent of women should definitely have their babies in the hospital. Yet, as Hopkins says, “We have about 1 percent who are having home births. You have 10 percent that are even thinking about unmedicated births, so you are looking at like 90 percent of the community that are going to the hospitals, and these are really low-risk women.”

Dr. Steven Harter is a local OB-GYN and a proponent of alternative birthing methods. He is an even bigger champion of women building a relationship of trust with their doctors so that when an intervention may be a good and cautious route to go, the patient can feel she is part of the decision-making process, not just be told what is going to happen next. He says he is often shocked at the reasons some of his clients were told they needed C-sections in the past, and that they felt manipulated when they learn that maybe the surgeries weren’t necessary.

Harter is optimistic that the medical community may start to taper off use of unnecessary interventions. He points to positive changes on the horizon. He says the hospitals he works with are open to having birthing tubs in the room and going along with a birth plan. He reports that Summerlin Hospital now asks every woman who comes through the door if they want skin-to-skin contact immediately after delivery. And if they don’t know what that is, the hospital is required to educate them. As he says, “The hospitals are coming around to the fact that natural childbirth is OK.”