What is an Active Birth?
During an active birth, women are encouraged to move around freely and choose positions that feel comfortable to them. Mothers having active births are unlikely to lie on their backs to birth their babies, although it may be a relatively common sight in a hospital birth ward. However, throughout history and across the world, women have been giving birth in upright positions, where they are free to move around.
Historically, it is believed that King Louis XIV made a massive impact on future generations of childbirth, apparently insisting that his wives should lie down on a table, so he could get a better view of the birth! Henceforth, birthing on ones back was traditionally born. That was until women eventually realised that this painful, physiologically dysfunctional way of giving birth, could result in the pelvis losing up to 30% of it’s capacity to open up for birth. From there on, the active birth movement began, giving women their birthing power back.
In a world where labour was controlled by medical professionals, the active birth movement encouraged women to take control of their births. Instead of being told what position to use during labour, women were encouraged to do whatever feels the most comfortable for them. The term active birth was created by antenatal teacher and author, Janet Balaskas in the 1980's. World-renowned and respected, Janet was born in South Africa and she currently is the Director of the Active Birth Centre in London, UK. Through intensive research, Janet discovered that women in other cultures didn’t lie on their backs to give birth. In fact they squatted, knelt and stood, surrounded by supportive women. In Western society, most women still give birth on their backs. That said, the active birth movement is now gaining in popularity, and many healthcare professionals are now aware of the benefits of giving birth in upright positions.
Genesis Maternity Clinic advocates active birth and women can use birthing stools, balls and cushions to allow for comfortable sitting and kneeling and squatting positions at the clinic. We also provide birth tubs which allow women to labour and give birth in water as the water provides support and buoyancy which allows the women to change position easily in the pool.
The photo is of Jude Polack, founder of Genesis Clinic, where she also birthed her third baby. Here she is seen moving around freely and actively,whilst in labour.
How can you benefit from active birth?
A Shorter, More Efficient Labour
During labour your baby’s head moves slowly down deeper into the pelvic canal as it emerges from the dilating cervix. In these positions your pelvis is at the best possible angle for gravity to help the process. Numerous studies have shown that this is likely to make labour shorter and more efficient.
Being free to move and choose your own positions has some other advantages too. Its easier for your uterus to do its work, so the contractions tend to be less painful than if you were lying down. Freedom of movement, free expression of sound and the natural forward tilting of the uterus helps to modify the pain and are likely to reduce the need for medical pain relief.
Less Risk of Fetal Distress
There is also a better blood flow to the placenta when you are upright and breathing deeply, so that your baby receives plenty of oxygen and there is less risk of ‘fetal distress’ developing. There is no compression of the internal blood vessels as there may be if you lie for an extended period on your back or in the semi-reclining position. Fetal distress is a common cause for a caesarean section or the use of forceps or ventouse to deliver the baby quickly. Blood flow to the placenta and the baby is optimal in upright positions.
More Powerful, Easier Way to Push
In the second stage, when you are ready to give birth, choosing a kneeling, supported squatting or standing position will help you to use your energy in the best way while you are pushing. It is much more effective and powerful to push with the help of gravity and the rotation and descent of the baby’s head is easier. There is no ideal position for giving birth and this varies from woman to woman. You may use several upright positions during this phase of the birth and can give birth in any one of them. The supine or reclining position is by far the least advantageous – working against gravity and reducing the space within the pelvis. When you are upright the pelvic joints are unconstricted as they would be lying down and this allows a degree of movement and expansion of the pelvic diameters so that the internal shape of the pelvis can accommodate the baby’s head with maximal space as it descends in labour. In the final stages, the back wall of the pelvis (sacrum and coccyx) are free to move back increasing the diameters of the pelvic outlet to make plenty of space for your baby to come out.
Enjoy Comfortable Skin to Skin & Breast Contact
After your baby is born and you are enjoying the pleasure of holding him or her in your arms for the first time, it’s a good idea to sit upright so that you can hold your baby ‘skin-to-skin’ and position your baby well for the first contact with the breast. Then, while you are welcoming your baby and the first breastfeed begins, gravity will be helping your placenta to separate and your uterus to contract down efficiently to prevent excessive blood loss.
Partners Can Get More Involved
In an Active Birth partners are often actively involved in giving both emotional and physical support. This active sharing of the birth experience can be very fulfilling and memorable and is a good start to a new relationship as parents and the start of your new family.
An Active Birth usually results in minimal trauma for the baby during the birth process. Generally the baby is likely to be born in optimal condition, bonding after birth and the first breastfeeding are facilitated and the mother generally feels good and recovers well from the birth, which makes caring for the new born baby easier.
Two important elements in an Active Birth are the quiet presence of a supportive midwife and the right kind of atmosphere in the labour room.
The room needs to be comfortable, warm, calm and peaceful so that you have enough privacy and security to let yourself go, to be noisy if you need to and to relax and rest in between the contractions without distractions.
When the lights are turned down low or the curtains are drawn and it is quiet, your body produces high levels of the special hormone called oxytocin which stimulates good strong contractions. You also produce floods of hormones called endorphins, which are natural painkillers and relaxants. Combined with the benefits of being upright, these hormones help you to forget about everything else, to sink into your labour and concentrate on the contractions. Once you can relax with it, labour usually progresses well leading to an efficient second stage and a successful birth for all concerned.
It’s important to understand that labour and birth are involuntary, in that the uterus contracts spontaneously, firstly to open the womb and then to give birth to the baby. All of this happens without your conscious control. It’s not about doing anything and is more to do with relaxing and letting it happen.
From beginning to end the entire birth process is stimulated by these hormones. They are produced by the ‘old brain’ or hypothalamus. We have this in common with all other mammals, and like them, we need to feel safe and protected in order to secrete the birth hormones effectively.
These are the very same hormones we produce when we make love, which is why the renowned French active birth pioneer Michel Odent calls them the ‘love hormones’. Think about the kind of environment you like to be in when you make love, or how mammals usually choose a warm dark and secure place to give birth and you can guess what kind of atmosphere you will need to encourage good secretion of these ‘love hormones’ during labour.
Miraculously, the hormones of birth are also promote love and attachment. In the hours after an Active Birth, both you and your baby will have a huge level of ‘love hormones’ coursing through your bloodstream which will help you to bond and fall in love immediately after the birth.
With The Help of Water
An important innovation in the ideal birthing environment for an Active Birth has been the introduction of water birth pools. In addition to gravity, water is another of nature’s elements which has enormous power to support your instinctive resources in labour. For more information on water births at Genesis Clinic please read here.
After the birth
There is no denying that going through an Active Birth and experiencing labour is a huge challenge that will probably stretch you to your limits and beyond. The moment you are holding your baby in your arms for the first time you are likely to forget almost instantly the challenge you have been through to get there. Instead, a feeling of enormous exhilaration may arise.
Giving birth is an achievement you can be very proud of. Having an Active Birth is an empowering and life transforming experience for many women. Starting from the basic wisdom that it’s best to keep upright and with a few simple modifications to the environment, I have seen over the years that most women can have a much better experience of birth than they might otherwise have done.
Article by Janet Balaskas , founder of the Active Birth Movement ~ “Active Birth And Why It Can Make A Difference For Your Birth.”