Your Body and Your Birthing Environment - What You Need to Know

Let me ask you a question. Have you ever been to a public toilet, sat down to do a number 2 (yes, I mean poop), then realize you forgot to lock the door when a stranger suddenly opens it wide and tries to walk in? Yes?

Follow up question. When this happened, did you lean back and continued your business peacefully, unbothered by the person who just opened the door on you, or did you startle, tense up and hold back perhaps?

If you're anything like most people, you probably prefer to go about your toilet business in privacy and peace, undisturbed. And yes, this preference also applies to parents, even though many parents, like myself, get ourselves used to having an audience once there are toddlers in the house. For us, the public bathroom scenario is less likely to be caused by you not locking the door, and more likely to be caused by your impatient toddler unlocking the door and swinging it open for you. I know I'm not alone in this.

But let's back up. Why am I going on about bathrooms and pooping in this post titled Your Birthing Environment? Don't worry, there is a connection.

Have you ever heard about something called The Fetal Ejection Reflex or the Natural Expulsive Reflex (NER)? During a normal and healthy labour, this is a reflex that will kick in at the end of labour when your cervix is fully (or almost fully) thinned and opened and your baby is ready to move out from the uterus, through the birth path, and out in to the outside world. The top (fundus) of your uterus has gathered strength and is bearing down on your baby, while sphincter muscles at the vaginal outlet open and pulsate to move the baby down and out. This is a natural and involuntary reflex in a birthing woman's body, that under the right circumstances will automatically expel the baby when the time is right, without any forced pushing on the mother's end. It's involuntary because you cannot and do not need to control it, it happens by itself.

You see, nature has it all figured out like that. If we trust in our bodies and in birth, there is really very little we need to actually do to make things happen. In fact, we are often better off doing and intervening less (unless there is a medical necessity of course), as this can actually interrupt the natural process.

Now, what you need to know about this automatic reflex is that it works best in the right environment. And by right environment, I mean an environment where you feel safe and calm and where you have privacy to let go and give in. Hence, the bathroom comparison.

Sphincter muscles are circular muscles located in different places in the body, usually remaining closed and contracted until it's their job to release and open to allow something to pass through. In the book Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, the midwife Ina May Gaskin describes what she calls the Sphincter Law. Some of the basic rules of Sphincter Law as she describes them are:

  • Excretory, cervical, and vaginal sphincters function best in an atmosphere of intimacy and privacy (think of a locked bathroom door).

  • These muscles do not respond well to commands.

  • A sphincter muscle that is in the process of opening could close down if the person becomes upset, frightened, or self-conscious.

  • The state of relaxation in the mouth and jaw is directly correlated with the ability of the cervix, vagina and anus to relax and open to full capacity.

(Ina May Gaskin, 2003, Ina May's Guide to Childbirth, p. 170)

Now, keep these basics of Sphincter Law in your mind while you consider the typical birthing scene in just about any movie or TV drama. A woman on her back with her legs up, surrounded by nurses and doctors she probably does not know, being told to hold her breath and push with all she has.

There is absolutely nothing about this scene that gives us a picture of calm, privacy and trust in the woman. Commands are being yelled at her, strange people are coming and going while she is at her most exposed and vulnerable state, checks are being made according to procedures, bright lights are often directed at her. It gives us the feeling that birth is always a medical event, one that women cannot accomplish without someone telling her what and how to do it.

The problem with this is, that an environment li