The birth of a baby means great physical, emotional, and social changes in a woman's life. If she has consciously chosen her motherhood, she will look forward to most of these changes. In any case, she will have more control over her fate than did most of her female ancestors.
In Victorian times, women were deliberately kept ignorant about their own bodily functions. The entire subject of human reproduction was taboo. Sex organs were considered dirty. Indeed, people were not even supposed to look at themselves in the nude. Conception, pregnancy, and birth were dark and threatening mysteries. As a result, many women were afraid of becoming mothers—they were literally out of touch with their bodies.
In those days, childbirth could be a very depressing, degrading, and dangerous experience. For example, it was widely believed that a woman was destined to bear her children in pain and that such suffering was good for her since it would increase her motherly feelings. She was expected to play a completely passive role. As she had no understanding of the process of birth, she hardly knew what was happening to her. Furthermore, unsanitary conditions in homes and hospitals exposed mothers and their babies to serious infections. Thus, many women died in childbed, and many infants never survived the first few weeks of their lives.
In the meantime, medical advances have brought a drastic reduction in infant mortality, and today the expectant mother is safer on the delivery table than on the highway driving to the hospital. Similar progress has been made in the area of education. The modern woman can actively prepare herself for childbirth and turn it into one of the most rewarding experiences of her life.
The advantages of prepared childbirth were first popularized by Dr. G. Dick-Read, a British obstetrician, who believed that most of the pain during delivery was the result of unnecessary muscular tension. His method of "natural childbirth" was designed to produce relaxation through training in the proper physical and mental attitude.
More recently, the method of "educated childbirth" developed by Dr. F. Lamaze, a French obstetrician, has gained a wide following in this country. This method rests on the assumption that labor is a situation of stress, and that the woman's active participation is the best way of coping with it.
Still another method is the "husband-coached childbirth" developed by the American obstetrician Dr. Robert Bradley. This method uses an extensive training course in which the future mother learns to relax under the guidance of the father. The course takes much longer than the one used in the Lamaze method, but many parents are enthusiastic about it. The aim is a new physical and psychological closeness between mother and father and a birth without the use of drugs of any kind. (It would undoubtedly be more objective to call this method "father-coached childbirth" since not all fathers are husbands and not all mothers are wives.)
Finally, there is a new method called "birth without violence" which was introduced by the French obstetrician Dr. F. Leboyer. This method, which focuses on the child, is aimed at maintaining the natural processes with which the fetus has lived inside the mother's womb: darkness, silence, contact with the mother. Therefore, the delivery room is only dimly lit, a bath of warm water is prepared, and the medical staff is trained to perform quietly. In these surroundings, the babies are born quiet, wide-eyed, and gurgling happily. They are then immediately placed on their mother's stomach. The umbilical cord is left intact and is cut only when breathing has been well
1. Fetus ready to be born 2. Cervix dilating 3. Cervix completely dilated
4. Head appearing 5. Shoulders appearing 6. Placenta separating from uterus
established. For a while, the mother gently massages her child who is subsequently bathed in warm water. The entire procedure is aimed at lessening the "birth trauma" and takes into account that the newborn child is a highly sensitive person.
There are still other new methods of childbirth, but the goal is always the same: transforming the birth of a baby from a numbing, passive experience into a conscious achievement. More and more often men also demand to contribute to this achievement by giving support to their women, and hospitals often encourage expectant fathers to remain present throughout the entire process. Childbirth preparation classes for both men and women are offered by many doctors, hospitals, and educational groups. This kind of joint parental instruction often brings the partners much closer together and, in fact, can be seen as a very desirable part of responsible parenthood.
In the meantime, there has also been an increase in home births because many women today do not want to be separated from their newborn children and also like to share their experience with their whole family. In addition, there are now experimental childbirth centers which are not hospitals and which try to avoid a hospital atmosphere.
All of these developments are to be welcomed, as long as they are professionally supervised and as long as emergency medical help remains readily available. The following paragraphs summarize the main biological processes that are part of childbirth.