Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Should giving birth hurt?

The highly entertaining channel 4 documentary One Born Every Minute, which has everyone who is either contemplating or remembering labour glued to the television every Monday night, has also given rise to a large amount of criticism from those who believe that the births depicted are all too, well, hospitalised.  The consensus seems to be that the women featured on the show, for the most part, aren't giving birth properly.  There's too much intervention; only two examples so far of breastfeeding; hardly any skin-to-skin contact despite the poster displayed on the wall of every room reminding midwives to encourage it.  And Netmums are currently discussing the disadvantages of giving birth lying down on this thread.  I must admit that I've joined in: "Why have none of these women been taught to breathe?" read my Facebook status on Monday; "Or to keep mobile?" replied a friend almost instantly.  It's both fun and easy to criticise when you're not the one doing it.

Woven in with this more general criticism are advocates of very natural births who seem to be of the opinion that, with enough mind over matter, any woman could squat down under a tree and pop out a baby in a few calmly controlled breaths.  And, in a couple of places I've seen the question: "Monkeys can do this, so why can't we?"  I think the implication is supposed to be "When we were monkeys we found this easy, and modern medicine has made it more difficult."

This annoys me, not necessarily because I think labours should be like the ones on One Born Every Minute rather than natural and calm, but because it is a very bad argument.  There are two extremely good reasons why we don't give birth like monkeys (and they both come under the general subheading "We Are Not Monkeys); one is that we can walk upright, and the other is that we can think.

Pelvises for upright walking and large brains are great for getting around and dominating the world, but they are a very bad combination for giving birth.  This excellent article explains why, as well as outlining other major differences: did you know that a baby monkey, once its arms are out of the birth canal, does the rest of the work alone by pulling itself out on its mum's fur?  Or that a monkey comes out facing its mother, whereas the crazy twists and turns that our walking pelvis has given the human birth canal mean that not only does the baby have to turn several times on its way down, but that it then comes out facing in the wrong direction to be given any help?  Where most primates can pull a half-born baby out if it seems stuck, in humans to do so without medical knowledge risks damage to the infant's spine.

I am all for home birth.  The snow thwarted us with Abigail, but next time I definitely plan to be at home (and to have a summer baby!)  But I am not going to live in denial either - birth is painful, it is hard and in some cases it's dangerous.  Perhaps it's meant to be:

To the woman he said,

   "I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing;
    in pain you shall bring forth children..." (Genesis 3:16)

Whether you look at it evolutionally or Biblically, pain in childbirth is the price humankind have paid for knowledge.

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