I was so excited to receive Tina Cassidy’s book, Birth: The Surprising History of How We Are Born, in the mail the other day. It’s a great, quick historical overview of the various accoutrements of birth. Something I appreciate about the book is how much it brings the trends of today into perspective.
And Cassidy shares an insight I hadn’t thought about before; did you know that we are the only mammal species that needs assistance to give birth?
“Although most animals seek solitude for birth, almost all women in labor ask for help or surround themselves with company. It’s as if somewhere, deep inside our brains, we cannot fathom how that baby’s big head can make a graceful exit. It’s a notion that causes fear, which triggers a cry for help in labor and delivery. According to American anthropologist Wenda Trevathan, such an impulse to call for aid could be an adaptive response to reduce mortality in a species more prone to obstetrical problems. This behavior probably developed around two million years ago, she says, along with the advent of consciousness. Once our brains were advanced enough to know that birth could be dangerous, the onset of labor made us scared. Fear often leads to the release of the hormone epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, which can stop contractions. To alleviate that fear — to keep labor progressing — women began asking for help from people they felt comfortable with: other women. Monkeys in labor often stop contracting when they know a human is watching them. Women aren’t necessarily different. After laboring at home for hours, many find their labor stalls when they arrive at the hospital, surrounded by the unfamiliar. The phenomenon is so common that doctors and nurses self-referentially call it “white-coat syndrome.” For women, being among strangers can retard labor.”
Aha! It’s no wonder that births attended by doulas show statistically shorter labors, a reduction in emergency c-sections by half, and a sixty percent reduction in epidural requests. How amazing, that a thing as simple as attending a birth and soothing and supporting a mother will translate into physiological relief and better outcomes. I see this at every birth — sometimes a mother will respond right away by becoming calmer and more in control with something as simple as gentle coaching, an encouraging smile, or rubbing her back. I think this does have a lot to do with the degree to which a mother feels safe during her labor.
Later in the book, Cassidy discusses how relatively short our species’ gestation time is and argues that this has something to do with the fact that our pelvises haven’t evolved to be open enough to birth any larger of a baby. She says that many call the first three weeks of a baby’s life the fourth “trimester” since it is a time of such rapid and critical development. Unlike baby giraffes or deer, human babies can’t hop up and run around at birth!
These facts, taken with our physiological, perhaps evolutionary, need for assistance during labor led me to thinking about how crucial interdependence, nurturing one another, and skilled support is to our survival. It makes me feel joyful to know that I am part of this ancient, evolutionary plot!
By the way, Tina Cassidy has a great blog to go along with her book. Check it out here.