Human beings usually give birth to one child at a time. And it takes nine lunar months from conception to the birth of a child. Hence the preservation of the human species for the two million or so years that man has been on this earth has always been a near thing. It is therefore understandable that pregnancy and especially the birth of a child should have been invested with special value, as witnessed by the customs, ceremonials, rituals and other practices with which these events are associated in all societies.
It wasn’t long ago when all births were “natural” home deliveries. The birth of a baby was a common family affair attended by husbands and midwives for the most part. It was the exception when a doctor was present. There were no drugs except for whiskey, and there were no abortions either. Infant mortality was high relative to our standards and occasionally mothers would die in the process. It was probably never an easy or what we might label a “positive” experience for women of our Western culture. Somehow, early on, the fear producing tension producing pain producing more fear and tension syndrome became so established in our cultural psychology that when the medical profession came up with pain-reducing techniques they were welcomed by nearly everyone (everyone, according to one English critic, save the Church, which held that to prevent pain was to “rob God of the deep earnest cries” of women in childbirth).
The man most responsible for today’s trend toward more “natural” childbirth was an English doctor, Grantly Dick-Read. In the 1920’s he found that women who were trained physically and psychologically for birth were able to deliver their children with much less difficulty. His book, Childbirth Without Fear, was first published in 1944. A revised second edition is currently available in most bookstores not only as a testament to the man’s work but as an up-to-date guide for expectant parents.
Russian psychologists borrowed the idea of psycho-prophylaxis (mind-prevention) from Dick-Read and continued to develop Pavlovian training techniques that enabled women to respond positively to the uterine contractions of childbirth. Fernand Lamaze in turn learned from the Russians, added some breathing exercises of his own, and somehow made it all famous.
The ideas of Frederick Leboyer, another Frenchman, are being popularized. In his book Birth Without Violence, Leboyer asserts that childbirth need not be a traumatic experience for the newborn. He says that the baby should be brought into the world as gently as possible. The lights should be dim and there should be silence. Sound and light should be introduced gradually. Since infants are acutely aware, even the thoughts of those present may affect them. These practices are now being tried out in some French hospitals. It’s hard to imagine the folks at Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill going along with this, but who knows?
In the late 1960’s doctors in the Chapel Hill area began to encourage patients to enroll in Lamaze courses which were just beginning. As area hospitals became more and more accustomed to this “natural” technique (especially about letting the husband participate) the movement gained momentum and acceptance on the part of the medical community. Some nurses even stopped calling contractions “labor pains.”
The husband’s active role in the birth of his children was prescribed by Lamaze, but to an even greater extent it is advised by another “natural” childbirth advocate, Dr. Robert A. Bradley. In his book, Husband Coached Childbirth, he says, “The husband takes his place at the head of the delivery-room table on the ‘daddy stool’ which prior to natural childbirth was occupied by an anesthetist.” Pain-reducing drugs have been found to cross the placenta and affect the child. The presence of a trained husband, cooperating with the doctor and providing his wife with psychological support, will keep the mother relaxed enough for an all but painless delivery. Apparently drugs are far less necessary.
Of the 100 births each month at Memorial Hospital the father is present at 40. “Only about 20 of these fathers are Bradley or Lamaze trained,” says one nurse. She complains that the fathers with the training are more difficult to deal with. “It’s not uncommon for a Lamazer to refuse to let his wife have a pain drug even if she wants one.” She adds, “One husband made his wife walk back to her hospital bed after the delivery of their 10-pound child. She could barely stand. . . .
“Most of these Lamazer husbands want to be able to tell their friends how great it all was and don’t want anything to happen that might spoil the story. They even argue with the doctor right there in the delivery room about how the baby should be born. A few of them have fainted.”
But comments from parents who have gone through the Lamaze or Bradley experience are invariably positive and glowing. Even if it does cause a bit of confusion for hospital personnel, husbands and wives seem to do much better using these techniques than they did in the days of almost automatic pain relief, the waiting room, and little or no preparation.
Some helpful books are Frederick Leboyer’s Birth Without Violence (Knopf); Robert A. Bradley’s Husband Coached Childbirth (Harper & Row); Grantly Dick-Read’s Childbirth Without Fear and Natural Childbirth Primer (Harper & Row); Donna and Roger Ewy’s Preparation for Childbirth, A Lamaze Guide (Signet); The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, published by La Leche League International, Franklin Park, Ill.; Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May and The Farm Midwives, from Stephen Gaskin’s The Farm in Summertown, Tenn.; Jeannine O’Brien Medvin’s Prenatal Yoga and Natural Birth (Freestone); Lester D. Hazell’s Commonsense Childbirth (Tower); Katherine Milinaire’s Birth (Crown); and Raven Lang’s The Birth Book (Genesis). Other publications are available from the International Childbirth Education Association, 1414 NW 85th Street, Seattle, Washington, 98117.