Can Your Environment Significantly Affect Your Birthing Experience?

Post by Contributing Writer, Beth

When I gave birth to our first child in 2008, I was largely unaware of anything to do with natural childbirth. I had an OB-GYN as my care provider during my pregnancy, and planned to give birth in the best big-city hospital in our area. I didn’t know that I had any other choice, or why I could possibly want anything different.

When the day finally came (after being induced at 41 weeks), I had labored at home for a few hours when my husband and I decided it was time to head in. I lay on a horribly uncomfortable and tiny “bed” in the assessment room for four hours, having extremely painful contractions every few minutes, and no one to offer advice or encouragement except my husband – who felt rather helpless.

We didn’t know simple things like the fact that walking would help labor progress faster, or that a bath or shower would have helped with pain relief. After becoming completely overwhelmed, I finally succumbed to an epidural. My son was born after a total of 14 hours of labor. In retrospect, I am so thankful that we didn’t end up with a snowball effect of interventions, as happens to so many women after having an induction and/or epidural.

It was one of the most miserable experiences of my life, and I felt the complete opposite of empowered. I was terrified. Finally seeing his sweet little face was reward enough for all of it, but I had no idea that it didn’t have to be that way.

When I was pregnant with our second in 2010, I had a friend who was my doula, who taught me about natural childbirth. I devoured any resource I could find on the subject. She assured me that I was totally capable of having a drug-free childbirth, and that I had the power to decide what my birthing experience and environment would be like (barring unforeseen circumstances, of course).

After laboring mostly at home, I birthed our daughter in our small-town hospital after a completely drug-free labor, with a doctor that respected my wishes (such as delaying the weighing and cleaning for several hours while we bonded and breastfed). I enjoyed this birth experience so much more. My ultimate dream is for a midwife-assisted water-birth in our home, but due to my current rural location, it’s not possible.

I am now pregnant with our third and living in the same small-town, and am blessed to be under the care of a midwife in the city. We drive an hour and a quarter each way for each appointment, and we will be driving the same for the birth itself.

We are currently deciding between a city-hospital-birth with our midwives, and birthing with our midwives in a bed & breakfast in the city. My largest concern with this decision is for my environment. I’ve recently been learning about the delicate and intricate role of hormones in birthing, and how they can affect progress and experience.

If the environment causes a birthing woman to be fearful or inhibited in any way, then the necessary hormones for a successful birth are affected.

In Orgasmic Birth, Davis & Pascali-Bonaro explain that oxytocin, which is known as the bonding hormone, “facilitates bonding through entrainment. In this physiological process, the heartbeats and breathing rhythms of lovers become synchronized, and intimate partners in birth show synchronized brain wave frequencies.”

On the other hand, what happens when there is fear present in the mother or those around her? Stress hormones called catecholamines are released, and pain increases. Adrenaline is one such hormone – it contracts the circular muscles of the uterus and cervix, which must relax in order to open. The result is increased pain and impaired circulation, which often leads to fetal distress.

Fear is not the only thing that messes with our hormones, however. In a study published in Birth and the Family Journal, it was documented that labor will stop or significantly slow in all mammals if they are being observed.

It is of utmost importance to carefully choose who will be present during your labor and delivery. You want people who you can trust to be supportive and encouraging. A typical hospital birth, like my first birthing experience, with doctors and nurses coming in and out like a revolving door is not usually conducive to an enjoyable birthing experience.

Knowing these things, I am leaning toward the B&B, rather than the hospital. I don’t want to be subject to hospital policies that may interfere with my wishes, such as having doctors and nurses entering the environment uninvited. (There are also other reasons to avoid a hospital birth, such as foreign bacteria, and other undesirable interventions, which I don’t have time to discuss today.)

I do know one thing for sure, which is that I desire a satisfying and enjoyable birth experience insofar as it is possible and safe for the baby and myself. I believe that the environment I choose will help me achieve this, and that knowledge truly is power.

Do you agree that your environment affects your birthing? Have you personally experienced this?

Beth is a natural redhead, wife to a pilot husband and mama to (almost) 3 little ones. She is passionate about missions, motherhood, and finding the beauty in everyday life. She blogs from the Canadian prairies about the art and soul of audacious homemaking at Red & Honey.

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14 comments to Can Your Environment Significantly Affect Your Birthing Experience?

  • Liz Forde

    Thank you for the insights! It makes sense that our body would physically react to being anxious and thus incurring more pain and the slowing of labour. Another example (not academic), can be found in tampon use (for those of us who use them). The muscles in our vagina contract when we are uncomfortable and literally clench together. Not allowing anything to get in or out of our bodies. It is pretty much impossible to insert a tampon when one is not relaxed. Taking this into consideration, I can totally see how difficult it would be to birth a child when feeling fearful and uncomfortable.

    [Reply]

    beth@redandhoney Reply:

    @Liz Forde, That’s a great comparison, Liz, and you’re right – it totally does make sense when you think about it. Sadly, most women these days (thanks to the medical establishment’s propaganda) don’t even believe it’s possible to relax and enjoy the birthing experience. Not that it will be “easy” or necessarily pain-free, but overall enjoyable and empowering.

    [Reply]

  • Naomi

    I am so thankful that I read Orgasmic Birth days after I found out I was pregnant. And I am also thankful that from the start neither my husband or I wanted our babies to be born in a hospital (especially not our local one!)

    [Reply]

    beth@redandhoney Reply:

    @Naomi, Naomi, I am so glad you had such a great experience from the start, and didn’t have to wait until your 2nd/3rd! If I ever move back to ON you can be sure I’ll be having that home water birth :)

    [Reply]

  • Kallie

    While I respect the idea of not birthing in a hospital, I would not have had it any other way. I had all my babies in a hospital, with doctors and nurses coming and going. The doctor that delivered my first was a resident and with my second there were nurses in their practical experiences. I loved it all. I was in a nice, private room. I had access to private showers and jetted baths. And, I had the opportunity to help teach new doctors and nurses.

    Both of my births were completely drug free and lasted less than 6 hours. I also had the comfort of knowing that no matter what happened, the medical professionals were right close by in the event that something went wrong. This was particularly reassuring to me.

    Not all hospitals and OB-GYN’s are horrible. Not all hospital births are wrought with unavoidable drug interventions and most doctors and nurses are respectful of your wishes.

    I respect everyone’s right to choose where they give birth. I do believe that it is important to be comfortable. But, I do not believe that just because it is a hospital, that it is off the table. Good things happen in hospitals. Don’t be so quick to write it off. Sometimes you just need to make your voice heard.

    [Reply]

    Beth Reply:

    @Kallie, I’m so very glad that you had positive experiences with birthing in a hospital. It sounds like you weren’t in much danger of unwanted interventions anyway, if your labours were short and complication-free.

    I understand the feeling of wanting to be close to medical care in case of an emergency, however I also know that statistics show that home births are just as safe if not safer (they are actually statistically safer in Canada, where I live), due to other less-talked-about risk factors of being in a hospital.

    I definitely don’t think all doctor and hospitals are horrible (when it comes to birthing). I do know that doctors generally have a vastly different view of labour and birth than I do. The medical community generally sees birth as a medical issue, whereas I see it as a normal event in a woman’s life – something that women’s bodies were designed to do. This fundamental difference in birth philosophy inevitably produces differences in how the process should look, which is why, personally, I prefer to avoid the hospital.

    If you agree with the idea that birth is a medical issue, rather than a normal thing, then I can see how you would prefer to be in a hospital.

    I am glad we all have the right to choose, and my only hope for others is that they are able to make their choice with full knowledge and understanding (as I did not, with my first).

    Thanks for your input!

    [Reply]

  • Thanks for writing this, Beth!
    For my previous birth, I had a home waterbirth, and it was a wonderful experience. I had a very long pushing phase, though, which given the typical hospital policies in our area, I probably would have ended up with undesirable (to me) medical interventions. I’m glad I was at home with my midwives! :)

    For this next birth, I am now living in a different area. I drive 1.5-2 hours for my midwifery appointments in the city, but my midwife will drive to our home for the birth (and we’re renting a birth tub for a waterbirth). I giggled at your choices… since our home is a B&B, I’ll be giving birth in one! :)

    Blessings on your upcoming birthing!
    Michele

    [Reply]

    beth@redandhoney Reply:

    @Michele, I’m glad you were at home too. Great example of how a hospital birth could potentially cause unwanted/unnecessary interventions.

    Oh how I wish my midwives would drive here, but sadly, they don’t (I think because there are only two of them?). And how fun that your home *is* your B&B. Can’t get much better than that! :)

    Thinking of you with your birth coming so soon!

    [Reply]

    Michele Reply:

    @beth@redandhoney, Thanks! :) Yes, it took lots of phone calls & interviews before I tracked down my midwife, who is willing to travel. She’s definitely a blessing. Hope you have a wonderful birthing & babymoon!
    Michele

    [Reply]

  • lilmarsbar

    I totally agree with you that environment can influence the course of labor. It really was stressful when I was pregnant with my daughter, and people simply couldn’t see how there was any benefit to planning a home birth. During the course of my birth, I was transferred to the hospital, where I continued to labor with my midwives. It was quite a few hours before an emergency situation cropped up, but I distinctly remember the way my ‘every three minutes, 90 second long’ contractions disappeared once I got to the hospital. It was just not at all a good environment for me to labor in. I do feel that if I’d continued to labor at home (as would have been the case if my temperature creeping up hadn’t seemed to suggest a fever was on the way, at which point we transferred to a hospital) I wouldn’t have had that disruption in my labor. I’d avoided pitocin for 49 hours of labor, but caved once they started to mention the ‘c’ word since I knew that, for low risk women, you are far more likely to end up with a dead baby after a c-section than a vaginal delivery. But still, it wasn’t my own body doing the labor….it was the pitocin. (Add to this that I really don’t believe in pitocin use for anything but a medical emergency…the reason they wanted to expidite labor was because of my daughter’s persistent tachycardic heartrate. Else I would likely have still refused). The pitocin which I believe became necessary because I was in a hospital environment and didn’t feel safe, thus causing the strong contractions to die down….

    I did have a c-section, and now it will be yet another go-round to attempt a home birth. Because now everyone is hell-bent on suggesting that the minuscule chance of uterine rupture means that I absolutely should deliver at the hospital. But in my mind, for ME? Hospital = dysfunctional labor. I know it’s not like this for everyone, but I have very vivid memories of my labor becoming dysfunctional. Maybe I would consent to deliver at a hospital (ie. show up to the hospital pushing), or I might go to the hotel that’s 5 minutes away from the hospital and only transfer to the hospital if there are red flag appearing in my labor, or just labor and deliver at home.

    But imagine me trying to explain to people that the c-section birth of my daughter has convinced me even MORE than I NEED to birth at home?!? No one gets it. And there aren’t free standing birth centres in Ontario, so that’s not an option….

    I did find a midwifery group in my area that is willing to allow me to VBAC at home as long as I know the risks. They are also open to transferring if red flags appear during my labor, as am I. But I’d feel disheartened if I HAD to birth in a hospital because the associations I have with my in-hospital birth are not positive ones.

    That’s just my experience, however. And some women really don’t care where they give birth and dilate just fine in a hospital.

    [Reply]

    beth@redandhoney Reply:

    @lilmarsbar, That is quite the story. Most people would be guided by fear in your case and want to birth in a hospital because we’ve been brainwashed that it’s the best and safest place. Your self-understanding is admirable though, and I hope it gives you the birth that you desire! (Does this mean that you are pregnant with number two!??)

    [Reply]

  • lilmarsbar

    Hey Beth,
    We’re not preggers yet, but trying for #2, Lord willing :). I am hopeful that things will work out for a VBAC when the time comes. Best wishes for your upcoming birth – I’m sure it will be a great time for you all as a family :)

    [Reply]

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