Myth 27: “Natural” Childbirth Is Natural For Everyone

childbirthThe tools and methods used or not used to deliver babies are “natural” subjective only to the culture with which one identifies.

The American definition of “natural” childbirth has come to mean giving birth in a well planned, carefully constructed environment that includes pre-selected attendants, a special location, formal training in birthing techniques, and a determination to exclude pharmaceuticals and the tools of modern medical environments.

In “The Myth of ‘Natural’ Chldbirth” by Mary Ellen Stanton, C.N.M, M.S.N., published in the Journal of Nurse-Midwifery (1), Nurse Stanton says, “It is a commonly held myth that women from traditional societies who deliver their babies in mud huts in Africa or in the South Pacific deliver ‘naturally’ without pain and without need for intervention.” She explains that their experiences of childbirth are as essentially “natural” to their culture as hospital births are to others and no methods of childbirth are uniquely superior to others, although “some modern practices are much more effective and safer than methods used in traditional societies”.(1)

According to Nurse Stanton, here are some of the various ways childbirth is experienced “naturally” throughout the world:

  • Expression of pain is universal. There are no cultures in which pain and fear are not expressed.
  • In the U.S. childbirth is private and attended primarily by a male stranger. In some other cultures childbirth is semi-private and only attended by females. In still other cultures childbirth is a community event where the woman spreads her legs and anyone interested in checking it out can stop by and do so.
  • People induce labor by various means including: breast stimulation, sexual intercourse, herbs, vaginal lubrication, abdominal manipulation, hot bricks pressed on the abdomen, friends beating and kicking the abdomen, hanging the mother from a tree and community members pulling on the abdomen, gagging the mother so she will spasm, slapping and yelling at the mother, episiotomy, and stretching the vagina.
  • All over the world women give birth utilizing every variation of sitting, standing, kneeling, leaning and squatting. Some use birthing chairs, stools or rocks.
  • To induce the expulsion of the placenta mothers are asked to blow into a bottle or use snuff. The mother is shaken. People talk soothingly to the placenta, tie a string from the big toe to the umbilical cord, or remove the placenta manually.
  • The umbilical cord is cut with teeth, fingernails, or surgical instruments. It is covered with dirt or feces. And in Jordan, “the cutting of the cord is delayed several hours so that the child may ‘drink in the power’ from the placenta. The placenta is then wrapped in rags and kept under a grass mat under the newborn who is next to his mother in bed.”(1)
  • Immediate breastfeeding is common in some cultures, but not universal. Some cultures fast the baby until the mother has expelled all of her colostrum and her milk has come in. Some feed the baby during that interval with milk from wet-nurses or other other liquids and solids. After that, if breastfeeding is continued, attitudes toward that method of food delivery vary from indifference, tension-producing, and expedient to bonding, sexual (masturbating boy babies), and celebratory.

Rituals surrounding the birth of babies are culturally defined and as diverse as can be imagined. Based on observance of cultures the world over, certainly no “right” way to deliver a baby can be defined. And as for “natural”, we can leave that to be defined as whatever makes the mother feel the most comfortable.

It should make all mothers-to-be more comfortable to know that the kind of preparation one has prior to giving birth does not increase or decrease ones risk of having a cesarean birth or the need for the use of forceps. The Department for Woman and Child Health at the Karolinska Institute in Sweden conducted a randomized study of 1087 mothers-to-be.(2) Some of them received “natural” childbirth training and some received general childbirth and parenting information classes. At the time of birth both groups had 52% epidurals, 66% spontaneous births, approximately 20% cesareans, and approximately 15% instrumental delivery (foreceps). “There were also no statistically significant differences between the groups in the satisfaction of the childbirth experience or postnatal parental stress (measured at three months).” (2)

Anything goes! Give birth under a huckleberry bush while whistling the theme song to the Andy Griffith Show. If that’s “natural” for you its good enough for me. Just pick the method that doesn’t unduly stress you out and deliver that child so you can get busy cuddling it.
“The Myth of ‘Natural’ Childbirth”, Mary Ellen Stanton, C.N.M., M.S.N., Journal of Nurse-Midwifery, Vol. 24, No. 2, March/April 1979

“Effects of natural childbirth preparation versus standard antenatal education on epidural rates, experience of childbirth and parental stress in mothers and fathers: a randomised controlled multicentre trial” International Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology (BJOG), 27 maj 2009, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0528.2009.02144.x.

12 Responses

  1. Just pick the method that doesn’t unduly stress you out and deliver that child so you can get busy cuddling it.

    I would add, don’t go around acting smug to other parents about how you did it. I recently read the most disgusting post from a woman who said that it’s true that women who had c-sections didn’t bond as well with their babies as *she* who did it right did. Talk about eyeroll deserving.

    • My wife had a c-section and in one of the “congrats” cards we got the first line was an apology about having a c-section. grrrrrrrr

  2. Dying from childbirth is also natural. There are some natural things that I can do without.

  3. What a bunch of nonsense. One’s expectation for childbirth may vary by culture, but it is nonsense to say that one is not better than another. Of course not covering your baby in feces or sexually molesting them is better. That many children and mothers are forced or expected to give birth in filthy conditions does not invalidate that giving birth in a clean environment is better for mother and baby. So sad to see a nurse making such subjectivist arguments.

  4. Kim,
    I think you may have overlooked the part where Stanton says, “some modern practices are much more effective and safer than methods used in traditional societies”, but “better”? Are you advocating for moms to pass judgement on the values and mores of cultures you don’t understand?

  5. I’m glad to see this article, truly. The way we’re making out childbirth here in the states is that if you’re not laying on your back with a doctor between your legs you’re doing something wrong.

  6. Thanks for this article, it was very interesting. I remember reading a history of breastfeeding book – I think it was by Sheila Kitzinger? – long ago, and found that across the world and throughout written history there were all sorts of different ways breastfeeding was treated – there was, as you contend here, never a universal “natural” way to do it.

    On a sidenote, I’m a bit shocked to read of a 20% c-section rate in the Swedish study. I was under the impression the Scandinavian countries have a more prevalent midwifery model and also have C-section rates far lower than the 25 – 30% in the United States.

    I thought this article had interesting points re: the US c-section rate:

    “Recent studies reaffirm earlier World Health Organization recommendations about optimal cesarean section rates. The best outcomes for mothers and babies appear to occur with cesarean section rates of 5% to 10%. Rates above 15% seem to do more harm than good (Althabe and Belizan 2006).”

    I had a hospital birth with my first child and a midwife-attended homebirth with my second. I personally think the culture, expectations, and preparations for these two different births most definitely affected the outcomes. But that’s just me and my story.

  7. You’ve missed the entire point about what natural childbirth means. There is a very specific meaning and it does not mean how one woman feels like defining “natural”. You have completely confused the term natural with customary. There is a very big difference.The examples you gave above are not all examples of natural births. I advise that you go back and research how “natural childbirth” is being used and how it is really defined and you might want to include a correction here.

    Your last paragraph absolutely shocked me. “Anything goes?” Just don’t stress yourself out? What about the baby? What a selfish outlook on birthing, just do it anyway you feel like, no matter what the impacts to your child are, and then go ahead and call it “natural” to make yourself feel better about drugging your baby with narcotics, deforming its head with forceps, shocking it into breathing, cutting the umbilical cord too soon before it can breath, etc, etc…. Just as long as it “doesn’t unduly stress you!”

    I thought this blog was supposed to debunk myths, not create new ones.

  8. Any method that produced a living baby and a living mother at the end of the process would have been considered “success” at any time in human history, up to about 30 years ago.

    This ridiculous insistence on a “perfect” childbirthing experience is merely the start on the road that leads to perfectionist parenting and the sort of hovering that ruins children’s development and independence.

  9. Amen, J Cline.

    I’m personally sick to death of the Mommy Wars. Either way, you’re having a baby.

  10. Natural childbirth is best for mother and baby. Less risks and less complications all around. Take Bradley childbirth classes and find a CNM to work with. Most women can give birth the way Nature means for them to.

  11. “Are you advocating for moms to pass judgement on the values and mores of cultures you don’t understand?”

    I understand that customs such as hanging a woman from a tree and pulling on her abdomen, or covering a baby in feces, are primitive and unhealthy. I pass judgement on such practices without hesitation.

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