Giving birth, among other things, fires up stress hormones. Adrenaline (the fight or flight hormone) and cortisol (stress hormone) can skyrocket upwards of 500 percent compared to their not-giving-birth levels. These findings, from a Swedish study, should come as no surprise to anyone who's ever pushed a baby out.
The researchers concluded that women who get epidurals won't feel the pain and, therefore, won't be so stressed, so the baby will come out more easily and free of exposure to potentially detrimental anxiety-producing chemicals.
That study was done about 15 years ago. This month, a book came out with the same underlying premise -- fear of childbirth increases stress hormones -- but with a completely opposite conclusion.
In the third edition of Unassisted Childbirth, Laura Shanley, a birth activist, writes that the way to reduce stress and make childbirth easier and safer is to get rid of all the typical nerve-wracking accouterment. And by this, she means not just drugs and technology, but doctors, midwives, doulas or anyone or anything other than you, your about-to-be-born baby, your partner, and perhaps your other kids.
In the book's introduction, natural childbirth guru Michel Odent, M.D., writes that "to give birth a woman needs to feel secure without feeling observed."
Some of Shanley's disciples (who call themselves "freebirthers") say they've even had orgasms during childbirth. I can't say I had those same hormones flowing during my three deliveries, 22, 19, and 16 years ago.
"Like their animal sisters," writes Laura, "women will someday deliver their own babies peacefully and painlessly at home. Women will understand that birth is only dangerous and painful for those who believe it is."
I kind of sort of get her point -- more homey equals fewer stress hormones. Though, I bet there are some of us (my husband included) who would stress out more knowing there isn't anyone around to help. (Not that we need to worry about the stress hormones of our husbands when we are the ones pushing out the babies.)
I had fairly easy pregnancies and births. Turns out, I didn't need a doctor or an intensive care unit or any kind of modern technology. But I didn't know that until after the babies came out.
I'm also not sold on the we-are-like-our-pets analogy. Most animals have wider hips and give birth to babies with smaller heads, so the whole process really is a lot easier for them.
And yet as skeptical as I am about not having an expert right by my side and a really good neonatal intensive care unit down the hall, when I read about the birth experiences of those do-it-yourself birthers, at home reaching for their own babies, I couldn't help feel a pang of envy. I kept imagining that if I had to do it all over again, what would I do?
Their stories are so alluring. But push comes to shove (literally, speaking) and even if someone told me there was a one in a gazillion chance that something would go wrong, I'd still head for the hospital.
But here's the real issue. For me the whole do-it-yourself delivery movement (if it is a movement, the numbers are still fairly small) demonstrates, albeit in an extreme way, that many women are angry about high-tech pregnancies. Maybe the freebirth activism should be seen not so much as an insistence about how we all should be giving birth, but instead a call to continue to keep the conversation going and figure out a way to make childbirth as safe, stress-free as possible, with women surrounded by caring, comforting caregivers.