"What Really Matters Is A Healthy Baby..."

"The important thing is that you have a healthy baby....not the birth experience" is a phrase that mamas desiring a natural or home birth often hear. It is often followed by a dismissive, "You don't get any gold stars for having a natural birth anyway" type comment.

I will be the first to admit that there is a lot of truth in this statement. In fact, I do believe that the most important thing from a birth is a healthy and happy baby. But there are some ugly misconceptions that lie behind what appears to be a pro-baby statement.

-A healthy baby is somehow separate from a healthy and happy mother-

This is rarely the case. The truth is that in fact a healthy and happy mother make for a happier and healthier baby. Those that dismiss the mothers experience in the birth process forget that she has the baby within her AND that she will be the person providing the bulk of the care and love in the babies early days and months.

Do we really believe that the birth experience has absolutely nothing to do with the first moments of life? Is it actually separate from the health of the baby? Will a mother who feels violated and abused by her birth experience really be able to give all her positive energy to this new dependent life, who was in fact a player in the birth?

We are human, and so we will overcome a traumatic birth to bond with our young and love and care for them. But to think that a negative birth experience does not harm both mother AND baby is both ridiculous and shows a complete lack of knowledge about the postpartum period and the role of euphoric hormones in the birth process. (Check out some of the work by Sarah Buckley on this subject.)

Mothers and babies are by nature and spirit BOUND to one another. They are not separate beings.

- Babies are unaffected by drugs and interventions in labor-

This statement is a bunch of crap. Yes- it really is. Obviously drugs and other interventions are sometimes necessary to ensure a healthy baby. The fact that something is sometimes needed however, does not mean that its common and excessive use has no negative side effects on those who DIDN'T need it. (Think 32% c-section rate or Pitocin- lifesaving sometimes but used in almost every labor, or epidurals, the list goes on...)

Lets take a look at the drug Pitocin. It is a drug that certainly has a place in obstetrics and has surely saved lives. Yet it is so commonly used that we must wonder what it can do when NOT needed. (Should you be interested you can find many interesting known side effects of common drugs here.

From the package insert:

"Because of maternal and fetal risks, oxytocin must be administered with caution . It has been reported to cause fetal bradycardia, neonatal retinal hemorrhage, and neonatal jaundice, in addition to maternal effects . Fetal deaths due to various causes have reportedly been associated with the parenteral use of oxytocics for induction or augmentation of labor . Excessive dosage or administration of oxytocin to hypersensitive patients may cause uterine hypertonicity with spasm and tetanic contraction or uterine rupture . Abruptio placentae, impaired uterine blood flow, amniotic fluid embolism, and fetal trauma including cardiac arrhythmias, intracranial hemorrhage, and asphyxia may occur as a result . Oxytocin may inhibit, rather than promote, expulsion of the placenta and increase the risk of hemorrhage and infection."

It is obvious that this drug, though sometimes necessary, has many possible negative side effects, not just on the mother, but on the baby. We must stop pretending that a highly intervened with birth is just fine. It is not.

-The baby is alive, therefore it is fine.-

This isn't often said, but the idea that what really matters is a healthy baby implies it. A woman can have a birth experience that is traumatic for both her and her baby. She can have her wishes and self respect ignored. She can have a forced, managed, c-section birth and a baby that refuses to nurse and spends two days in the NICU. And yet the statement will be heard ringing from every hill, "what matters is the healthy baby". What they are really saying is that the baby is alive and that is all that matters.

Probably any mother would tell you (from an unassisted birther to a planned c-section mama) that in fact what really matters to her IS a healthy baby. There is however a difference between a live baby and a healthy thriving baby that will reach it's full potential.

Medicine and medical studies tend to look at things in absolute and measurable ways. So, when we look at outcomes we are looking for simply live babies or dead babies. The vast majority of mothers and babies survive childbirth today, no matter how many interventions were thrown at them or how many drugs were pumped into their systems.

Let us not forget though that we are dealing with babies. They are not born with their brains completely developed. Much of this further development will continue in the first year and will not be measurable for many years to come.

You can not tell at birth if a baby will have ADD, autism, reading problems, mild learning disabilities or other developmental disorders. These things are subtle and can take years to show up. And, even when they do occur, because of the literally millions of things that contribute to a whole person, it can be virtually impossible to pinpoint what caused the problem in the first place, especially if it happened during the birth process.

Are all of these risks proven? No, but we must ask ourselves if the benefits of exposing our babies to these drugs (especially unnecessarily) outweighs possible risk.

In the end...

When it all comes down to it I would trade a good birth experience for me for a healthy baby any day of the week. I would rather have a baby that was alive than dead and if a surgical birth was needed, then that is just sometimes how it goes.

What really matters IS a healthy, live baby. I don't think any natural birth proponent would ever argue differently.

The two deepest problems with the dismissal of the birth experience are these:

1) We dismiss the mother as nothing more than a vessel-
Mothers are an integral part of the birth process and what they experience has a profound effect on the baby weather it be medication, stress, or disrespect.

2) We dismiss the inherently natural aspect of the birthing process as useless-
In truth, a more natural peaceful birth can have a euphoric and climactic experience and is probably what NORMAL birth should be.

Mothers who choose natural birth do not do so out of selfishness. Women do not attempt home birth because they only care about their own experience. Women choose natural birth because natural birth is often the best and healthiest birth for mother AND baby.

Let us birth our babies in peace and remember that this is what will render us the healthiest baby- because that is what really matters.


Unknown said…
I appreciate your words in this article, however, I unfortunately believed too strongly in my birth exerience having to be undisurbed and natural that I did not go to the hospital when I should have and my baby was without a heart beat by the time I finally went in.
It was because I was so frightend by the hospital and the drugs and the effects it would have on my baby.
I fed myself with all the readings about how 'bad' the hospital was and you know what it saved my life, but it did not save my babies life.
Just wanted to share for all you mothers or mothers to be out there that as scary as the hospital can be (which actually all the people in there gave me a lot of love and support) the true art of surrendering is letting go of the outcome. I was a c-section baby and I am ok.
Unknown said…
I'm so sorry for your loss Ashling. :(

My first child's birth was traumatic, and resulted in a hospital transfer after his birth and a 5 day stay in SCBU, with follow up MRI and regular checkups. Thankfully he is now a normal healthy 2 year old with no developmental issues that we can see at the moment.

I did get that phrase too "at least he's fine" and I don't really think anyone really asked me how *I* was after his birth - or at least I can't remember it.

With my second I was terrified of the same happening again, or worse! At one point in the labour my husband asked me if I'd felt him move, and when I couldn't make him move, I was in tears and absolutely terrified he had already died and that nothing would be able to save him. I had a hospital induced labour, waters broken artificially but then no more interventions, and he was born pink, he cried within seconds, we got skin-to-skin. My first and foremost wish was that my baby would be well enough to not spend any time in SCBU, and thankfully I was granted that wish.

After my second son's birth I feel like a weight has been lifted. I bonded immediately and well with my second son, I had no postnatal depression, and my overall health was far better than with my firstborn. I completely agree that while the health of the baby is always the most important thing, the way in which the baby arrives is of great importance too.

But at the end of the day, my firstborn is alive, he is healthy, and I have recovered from his birth emotionally and physically.
AbbieK said…
Wonderful article, it sums up my thought very eloquently. However, I think it important to mention breastfeeding specifically. Many interventions and traumas in labour make breastfeeding less likely, and as we know breastfeeding is a hugely important factor for Mums and babies, it should be mentioned. While intervention is sometimes essential, the risks (including the risk to breastfeeding) should be made clear to HCPs and parents.
Joy@WDDCH said…
Absolutely and wholeheartedly agree, Mama Birth. Birth does matter, especially to the mother who feels she was raped during her birth, that she was unheard and a spectator instead of a participant, those who suffered PPD, etc., etc. Our births affect us long down the road, long after the birth has taken place. I think it is important for a woman to feel satisfied and at peace with her birth (whether it was an emergent cesarean that saved her baby to a VBAC to a planned cesarean or to a natural home birth or whatever!).

Ashling, I am so very sorry for your loss! I cannot imagine and my heart truly goes out to you and your family!
~*Aria*~ said…
When I was pregnant, the OB/GYN I had wasn't going to allow me to have anything but a c-section, even though she gave me 50-50 odds of even surviving. I told her I wanted to live too. "All that matters is a healthy baby." She was willing to sacrifice my LIFE.

A healthy baby needs to be balanced with a healthy mother. The needs of one shouldn't overshadow the need of the other that the other ceases to matter.
Helen said…
I'm so sorry for your loss Ashling. My daughter was also stillborn at 42 weeks. I started labor in the morning and she was perfectly healthy but at some stage that day her heart stopped. At 6pm the midwife came - there was no heartbeat. I too had spent my pregnancy reading about why I should avoid hospitals and as she was my vbac baby I opted for a homebirth to avoid all pressure to take drugs in the hospital. In the end I also found the hospital wonderful and supportive but by then she was already gone. I do feel a unmedicated birth is best for mum and baby. After my csection I had alot of disappointment to overcome. But we need to be sure that the disappointment doesnt overcome us to the point that we stop listening to our bodies in birth, just for fear of another section.
KBHill said…
while i appreciate your committment to a birth "plan," it is just that....a plan. and plans are often broken. i found this article to be full of judgment and mis-truths. my doctors and the nursing staff at the hospital were COMPLETELY supportive, nurturing and respectful of my wishes when i had my first daughter. they hung in with for THIRTY-SIX hours, before i finally had to have a c-section. my daughter was successfully delivered successfully and in my room with me the very same night. she latched on immediately i nursed her for over a year. my recovery was amazing--within 2 weeks i felt like myself again and was basking in the euphoria of new motherhood. just because someone chooses to do it a way that is different from your, does not mean the end result will be a horror story. women do a grave disservice to one another, when information is presented in such harsh either or terms. leave room for circumstances that are BEYOND your control.
KBHill said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…
I say, "all that matters is a healthy baby" only to those that are so completely obsessed with having a natural birth that they don't keep their minds open to the fact that something might go wrong.

I wish I had had a c-section, because I think my life would be a lot easier. I had placental abruption in the last few dregs of labor and it caused severe brain damage for my baby due to the lack of oxygen. I got my vaginal birth, sure, but I have a handicapped baby to show for it.

So for those that had c-sections and are all upset even though they have a perfectly healthy baby, I say get over yourselves. That's meant to be blunt, not rude. You will eventually come to terms with the fact that your birth didn't go quite the way you wanted, but that baby of yours doesn't have to have years of therapy and special programs and a life expectancy of 12. You should consider yourself lucky instead.

But I may just have that outlook because I almost lost my baby. I was heavily considering homebirth but since there are no midwives in my area, I went with an OB instead. If I would have birthed at home, my baby would be dead, even though we only live 10 minutes away. The hospital saved his life.
Liz said…
I am so sorry to read about the losses here.

I've had two good, natural birth experiences - both in a small hospital known locally for it's support of natural childbirth.

I don't want to completely diminish the importance of the birth experience, because yeah, it is important. But as the mother of a child who was born very sickly and who will have serious health concerns for the rest of her life... I would trade my good experiences for the worst experiences if it would heal my daughter. Unfortunately not an option any of us actually have, but I do think mothers should keep it in mind when they feel fearful of the hospital.

I will say that my good birth experience did put me in an excellent position when I had to immediately begin spending long days at the NICU while still caring for my son in the evening. And I am so grateful that there were no interventions in the birth that could have complicated things down the road. I have regrets in parenthood, fortunately birth is not one of them.
Rebecca said…
Prariebabydreams, I am so sorry that you have a handicapped child, and wish that you had delivered by planned cesarean instead of vaginally.

Please keep in mind that cesareans do not always result in healthier babies and do cause many more complications for mothers. My cesarean babies are healthy and were well when delivered, but I have had grave complications including a complete bladder reconstruction from the surgeries.

I don't have a lot of getting over myself to do, I'm a pretty humble Mama, but I do think a healthy Mama matters, and that cesarean delivery did not improve my babies health.

This surgery is vastly overused in the US. It is a great lifesaver in some cases, but it increases maternal mortality greatly and should be reserved for prudent cases only.
Dani said…
I'm sorry for the losses these mother experienced however they sound as if they would have happened regardless of natural birth hospital birth or homebirth. They just happened and it's unfortunate. There was no way for you to know when your baby's heartbeat stopped so going to the hospital sooner may have had the same sad result. These losses shouldn't deter us from having natural positive birth experiences no more than having a horrible cesarean delivery should deter you from getting one if absolutely medically necessary. There are scary complications that can occur in all situations. But the birth experiences and how mothers are treated are significant in a healthy baby that cannot be ignored. We cannot continue to ignore the emotions women experience during labor. A healthy baby isn't all that matters mothers matter too and that's the point being driven by this article. We are constantly told that everything that we do and experience during pregnancy effects our unborn children's outcome. However that same thought process goesout of the window when talking about birth.We are constantly told we can't eat, what drugs we can't take, what physical activities we can't do while pregnant. But then its okay to have every drug under the Sun during birth. That makes no sense too me. The experience of the mother during pregnancy and birth are equally important.I had a cesarean and I'm pregnant again and I'm preparing for a VBAC. I will only have another cesarean if it is absolutely medically necessary and that's how it should be. I have a birth outline of things I would like to happen because I also no birth is not something you can plan for.