If someone told you that you could have one of the most physically, emotionally and spiritually transcendent experiences of your life, and then gave you the map to get there, would you say no? Yet the fact that birth can be ecstatic and even orgasmic seems to be one of the best kept secrets about childbirth, and most women are not told they can do it. “Ecstatic birth it is our birthright”, says Dr Sarah Buckley, author of Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering. “Mother nature, if left alone, gives us birthing hormones that take us out of (ec) our usual state (stasis), so that we can be transformed on every level as we enter motherhood. This unfolds optimally when birth is ‘undisturbed’. Science is increasingly discovering that how a mother gives birth affects both her and her baby life-long, and an ecstatic birth – a birth that takes us ‘beyond’ ourselves – is the gift of a life-time”.
It’s the hormones that do it
Normal labour is set in motion by a hormonal interaction between the mother and the baby – ideally the baby signals he is ready to come and the mother’s body responds. Then the mother’s hormones follow each other in a predictable pattern from the start of labour, till after the baby is born. Nature has spent millions of years refining this process to create the best outcome for both mother and baby. The process is the same in all mammals, and the hormones originate deep inside our ‘mammalian’ or middle brain, explains Dr Buckley.
There are four hormonal systems active and interacting with each other during labour and birth:
- Oxytocin – the hormone of love, which also causes the uterus to contract.
- Endorphins – morphine-like hormones of pleasure and transcendence.
- Adrenaline and nor-adrenaline – hormones of excitement from the adrenals – flight or fight
- Prolactin – the mothering hormone, which also supports breastfeeding.
“Some writers have observed that for a labouring woman, having a baby has a lot of parallels with making a baby!” says Dr Buckley. “There are the same hormones, the same parts of the body, the same sounds, and the same need for safety and privacy. How would it be to attempt to make love in the conditions under which we expect women to give birth? In fact it is quite remarkable that any women succeed at all under normal hospital conditions”, she adds.
The environment for giving birth
The birth environment should be quiet and private, with the lighting dim, very little conversation, and no expectations that the woman should have to be rational. “Under such conditions a woman will intuitively choose the movements, sounds, breathing and body positions that will birth her baby most easily”, says Dr Sarah Buckley. “This is her genetic and hormonal blueprint”.
“All of these systems are adversely affected by current birth practices. Hospital environments and routines are not generally conducive to the shift in consciousness that giving birth naturally requires. A woman’s hormonal physiology is further disturbed by practices such as induction, the use of pain killers and epidurals, Caesarean surgery, and separation of mother and baby after birth”, she says.
The hormonal birth pattern is rooted in our early mammalian history and is designed to be life-saving. If a labouring animal is chased by a predator, her adrenals immediately make stress hormones (catecholamines or CAs) which antidote oxytocin and stop the labour, sending the blood to her muscles so she can flee to safety. Likewise, if a human mother doesn’t instinctively feel safe, her body will also make these stress hormones and her labour will stop. Even if she knows in her head that the people walking in and out of her room, examining her and sometimes talking quiet loudly, are not a threat, her mid-brain may get the message ‘danger – you must flee’ and her labour stop till she feels safe again.
The people who are with the mother are of great importance. They should be chosen by her, and may include the baby’s father, a friend, sister or her mother. If she is in hospital, a known and trusted doula or a private midwife who will stay with her throughout the labour can make a big difference. They can also safeguard her privacy and interpret her behaviour to hospital staff in such a way that the mother does not have to have a conversation with anyone. Instead she can remain in an altered state of consciousness, where her mammalian brain and the hormones it is making, continue to direct the course of her labour. This is especially important in ‘second stage’ labour where she pushes the baby down the birth canal and gives birth. If she can stay tuned into her inner self, she will know instinctively when to push, when to hold back, and what positions to adopt to allow the baby the easiest possible passage through the birth canal.
An ideal ‘undisturbed’ birth
In an ideal birth, the mother’s labour would start spontaneously when she and the baby are both ready. If she feels relaxed and safe, her body will make increasing levels of oxytocin, which is the hormone of love. It is also the hormone that contracts her uterus, and opens the cervix so that the baby can come out. Oxytocin is made in both males and females during love-making, especially during orgasm and some couples like to cuddle and kiss during the early stages of labour. Nipple stimulation gets the mother’s oxytocin flowing as well. To help with pain, the undisturbed mother’s pituitary pours out beta-endorphin, a natural morphine-like opiate, which induces feelings of pleasure and euphoria. “These high levels help the labouring woman to transmute pain and enter the altered state of consciousness that characterises an undisturbed birth”, says Dr Buckley. Being in warm water can also help, since warm water is relaxing and gives pain relief with no adverse side effects.
When her cervix is dilated the mother will start to push the baby down the birth canal. She becomes totally focused and at this point both she and the baby are working very hard. It’s best to keep talking to a minimum if possible, though soft, encouraging or sympathetic sounds can get through to her without disturbing her state. At the end of this phase, she will become very vocal, often making loud sounds – with few if any words. When the birth is imminent, her adrenals will again make CAs (especially nor-adrenaline) which activates the foetal ejection reflex. “The mother experiences a sudden rush of energy. She will become upright and alert, with a dry mouth and shallow breathing, and perhaps the urge to grasp something. She may express fear, anger or excitement and the CA rush will cause several very strong contractions, which will birth the baby quickly and easily” says Dr Buckley.
After the birth the mother’s CAs drop steeply. There is a surge of oxytocin as the baby is born and in fact an ‘undisturbed’ mother at this time has the highest levels of oxytocin (the love hormone) she will ever experience in her life! “The baby has also been producing oxytocin, so in the minutes after birth, mother and baby are both bathed in an ecstatic cocktail of hormones!” adds Dr Buckley. Skin-to-skin contact, as well as eye-to-eye contact, keeps these levels high. This is such an important time for mother and baby to fall in love with each other, and we should not disturb them. High natural oxytocin levels will also birth the placenta and stop bleeding, so keeping mom and baby together is a safety measure too.
When birth is disturbed
The hormone sequence in labour and delivery is very powerful if left alone, but very easily upset if interfered with. That causes a chain reaction, like a pack of dominoes going down, and what could have been a normal birth, can turn into a high-risk situation very quickly, with adverse effects for mother and baby.
If the mother goes into a hospital, she may be put onto an artificial oxytocin (syntocinon or pitocin) drip to ‘speed things up’. This can cause longer, stronger, more frequent contractions that stress the baby. They are also more painful for the mother, so she will probably require pain relief (morphine derivatives like pethidine, or an epidural). The baby is affected by the drugs, which cross the placenta, and keep the mother immobilised in bed. The mother’s progress may slow down, and more syntocinon be given. The baby is likely go into foetal distress because of the longer, stronger, more frequent contractions which cut down the oxygen he is getting and endangering his safety. So a Caesarean may have to be done to get the baby out fast.
Even if birth doesn’t end in a Caesarean, the mother who has had an epidural will find it harder to push the baby out, the foetal ejection reflex will probably not happen, and frequently the baby needs to be pulled out (by forceps or a vacuum extraction). Mother and baby are likely to both be ‘woozy’ and ‘out of it’ and bonding and early breastfeeding compromised because the baby is disoriented and his ‘breastfeeding reflexes’ may be weak.
Getting back on track
It all begins with that first dose of artificial oxytocin to speed things up. Oxytocin can’t cross from the bloodstream into the mother’s brain, so if she is on a drip she is not getting the ‘love hormone’ where she can use it. On top of that the artificial oxytocin seems to interfere with the mother’s ability to make her own love hormone. If this happens to you, or if you have had a planned Caesarean and missed the hormones of labour, get your newborn placed skin-to-skin on your chest as soon as possible, and keep him there as long as possible. If you are lying down with baby on top, your baby’s own reflexes will help him attach to your nipple. As he sucks, you will make more oxytocin in your brain, to help you fall in love with each other.
Video courtesy of Orgasmicbirth.com
“Spontaneous labour in a normal woman is an event marked by a number of processes so complicated and so perfectly attuned to each other that any interference will only detract from the optimal character”, says Dr Buckley. The only thing required from the bystanders is that they show respect for this awe-inspiring process by complying with the first rule of medicine, ‘primum nil nocere’, “above all, do no harm.”
An undisturbed birth doesn’t mean that it will necessarily always be easy, but it does mean that it will be the very best birth that can be achieved for that mother-baby pair. “Preparing yourself physically and emotionally from the beginning of the pregnancy is very important”, says Cape Town midwife, Marianne Littlejohn, who offers undisturbed births at home or in a hospital birth centre. She suggests looking for childbirth classes where there is an emphasis on dealing with any unresolved feelings that might come up during birth, and working through them before the time. Talking openly about your fears and concerns and clearing them is very important too. Marianne has also found that mothers who have been to hypnobirthing classes are more likely to be relaxed have good births.
Dr Buckley’s checklist for ‘Optimising the Ecstasy’
- Mother takes responsibility for her health, healing and wholeness through the child-bearing years.
- Chose a model of care that enhances the chance of natural and undisturbed birth (e.g. home birth, birth centre, one-on-one midwifery care).
- Arrange support according to individual needs – trust, a loving relationship and continuity of care with support people are important.
- Ensure an atmosphere where the labouring mother is safe, unobserved, and free to follow her instincts.
- Reduce stimulation of the neo-cortex (rational mind) by keeping light and noises soft, and reducing words to a minimum.
- Cover the clock and any other technical equipment.
- Avoid drugs unless absolutely necessary.
- Avoid procedures (including pelvic examinations) unless absolutely necessary.
- Don’t separate mother and baby for any reason, including resuscitation, which can be done on the mother’s chest, with the cord still attached.
- Breastfeed and enjoy it!
Jeanette planned for a water-birth at home. Being a very private person, her chosen companions were her husband and her best friend – two people she knew she could ‘let go’ with and with whom she could feel very safe. She chose a midwife she felt she could trust. Labour began in the evening, and she felt best with all her clothes off, moving around the house and in and out of warm water. By midnight she was 6 cms dilated, and her baby would probably be born in a few hours.
But when the midwife arrived, she brought a total stranger with her. She introduced this person as her ‘partner’. The arrival of a stranger upset Jeanette very much. She felt her safe space had been violated, and became tense and disoriented. The midwife and her partner left and her friend tried to calm her down, but she was unable to relax or dilate any further.
By the next day when she was still stuck at 6 cms, she was taken into hospital for a Caesarean-section. “I was very lucky”, she says, “Because my back-up doctor does things the natural way. As soon as she was born, my little girl was placed skin-to-skin on my chest and kept there – with a warm blanket over both of us. My baby attached herself to my breast, so I lay cuddling and breastfeeding her while the doctor sewed me up.
“Overall it was a good experience, though I feel strongly that if I hadn’t had a total stranger barging in unexpectedly in the middle of my labour, my baby would have been born quickly and easily in the bath at home, as we planned.”
Amber’s Home Water-birth Story
Amber Hartnell gave birth to her son at home. She spent most of her labour in a pool of water under a tree where she was able to relax and move into an altered state of consciousness. “I had heard about women having orgasms at birth, but when it happened to me it took me by surprise as it was completely spontaneous”, she says. “There was a moment when my husband and I had the sweetest kiss and I felt that kiss go right through every cell in my body and just melt me. After that I felt the rushes [contractions] get softer and softer till I felt them coming through as rolling orgasms, to the point where I was crying. It was so overwhelming. With my hips swaying [to help the baby come through] I felt like I was dancing. This was the energy I was able to birth this little being through. Instead of the energy of pain and dissonance, it was complete resonance and attunement. It felt amazing!” (From the DVD Birth as we Know it)
- Buckley, Sarah. 2009. Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: Berkley,Celestial Arts, USA)
Get the DVD
- “Orgasmic Birth” — http://www.orgasmicbirth.com It was made by Debra Pascali-Bonaro, a childbirth educator who has researched orgasmic birth
Written by Pat Törngren © 2013
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