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