A woman in labor is in a very vulnerable state— she is often experiencing intense physical and emotional sensations, working hard to allow her body to relax enough to open, and preparing her psyche for the birth of her baby— this is no small feat. For many women, this is one of their greatest accomplishments and, however it goes, an experience that they will remember for the rest of their life.
I often think about other mammals in labor when I think about what a woman needs for a smooth birthing experience. After all, we are mammals, too… and even though our brains are more highly developed than our counterparts in the wild, there is something about the birthing process that unites us all, returns us to our most primal state, and reminds us of the power of our origins.
In order for any mammal to give birth, there is a universal condition that must be present: she must feel safe.
Do you think that a pregnant animal, trying to birth her baby/babies, would allow the birthing process to continue if she sensed a predator nearby? Absolutely not. The perceived danger would send her into the “fight or flight” zone of her nervous system and her body would shut down her labor until she felt safe again, knowing she was bringing her babies into a safe environment.
Women are no different than our wild sisters. Ina May Gaskin tells the story of a woman laboring at home—doing beautifully, feeling safe, dilating well— moving to the hospital, being confronted by a hostile staff, undergoing a less than pleasant vaginal exam, and showing reverse cervical dilation. Just like the animal in the wild, her body responded to the change in environment because she perceived that this was not a safe place to give birth.
The cervix is a sphincter. As is the rule with all of our sphincters, the cervix will respond best to feelings of safety, privacy, and familiarity. This is the Sphincter Law.
To give you a better sense of this, imagine being at a baseball game in a large stadium, eating too many hotdogs and feeling that rumbling, gurgling feeling in your stomach. You know you need to use the toilet right away, so you head to the public restroom. It’s packed and all of the stalls are missing their doors. It is very unlikely that 1) you would even choose to sit on the toilet and 2) if you did, that your anal sphincter would allow you to pass your stool in front of all these strangers. Most likely, you would take a deep breath, clench your muscles, and hold tight until you were able to find a private, safe place.
Because sphincters respond to safety, privacy, and familiarity, this is why your birthing environment matters so very much. If you don’t feel safe where you are birthing, your cervix will most likely not dilate… or it will dilate very, very slowly.
So first and foremost, you must choose a birthing location that you will feel the most safe in. For some, this is the most high-tech hospital they can find and for others, this is their home. Only YOU can determine this location… not your partner, not your doctor, not your parents. Trust your intuition on this one. You will know in your gut, at your core, where you will feel the most safe and secure when you are in labor trying to birth your baby.
Once you decide on your birthing location, you can then think about how you can make this place emit reminders of safety, privacy and familiarity… signals to the sphincter of your cervix and your body in general that this is a wonderful place to dilate, open and birth a baby.
Most women feel safest in a hospital setting. If this is where they feel the safest, then this is absolutely where they should be birthing, but the downside to the hospital is that for most, hospitals are unfamiliar places that are often associated with illness, emergencies, and, for some, even death. These are not associations that will serve you well when you are trying to birth your baby.
Therefore, it often takes a bit of work in a hospital to avoid entering into the “fight or flight” space, which can be counterproductive to your birthing efforts. Many women make great progress when laboring at home, arrive at the hospital and then contractions and dilation slow or even stop because the woman no longer feels completely comfortable, private, or safe. Perhaps she sees the infant resuscitation equipment in the corner of her room and becomes fearful about something going wrong with the baby, or maybe the bright lights of the room make her feel on display. Setting up the birthing room with dim lights, LED candles, soothing music, aromatherapy, flowers, etc. and bringing some of your own pillows, blankets, and clothing can often make a huge difference, as these familiar, soothing elements will encourage you to relax, feel secure, familiar, and comfortable, sending the signal to your body, baby, and cervix that this is a safe, comfortable, private place to birth.
Setting up a soothing, spa-like environment in the hospital also cues the staff into the kind of birthing you are seeking. As a doula, I’ve seen staff respond differently to women in really soothing environments than to those women laboring in a typical hospital room that has not been altered. Nurses will usually take their cues from the room… if lights are dimmed, LED candles are flickering, soft music is playing, and the soothing scents of lavender can be smelled, the nurses will usually talk more quietly and gently, and will intervene and interrupt the woman less frequently.
Your birthing environment matters greatly and can have huge implications on how your labor progresses. I encourage you to think carefully about your birthing location and the things that will make you feel your safest, most comfortable, and most relaxed. Seek an environment that your brain and cervix will respond to… it will make a huge difference, I assure you!
Ellie Lindenmayer is the owner of Joyful Birthing and provides HypnoBirthing childbirth education, birth doula support, and lactation counseling to Boston, its North Shore, and seacoast New Hampshire.