What is Active Birth?
Birth is everywhere! Everyone is born, after all, and 4 in 5 women will go through the experience (1). For some, giving birth is a wonderful life-affirming event – even describing it as orgasmic! – but for many women, labour and birth is painful, difficult and sometimes a highly traumatic event.
We all hear tales of birth and for every wonderful, natural birth there are a handful of horror stories. What’s more, the increase in fear of labour and birth, from both parents and doctors, has resulted in over 50% of UK births requiring some kind of intervention, and a caesarian section rate of 25% (2). But ironically, it is the interventions themselves that can interrupt the natural labour process, and thus make it less likely a natural labour and birth will occur.
So should we shun doctors and hospitals? Absolutely not! Birth is a natural process, not a medical procedure, and we have been doing it – successfully – for millennia. However sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the role of the medical profession is essential and should not be ignored. Sadly, the experience of many obstetricians and midwives is predominantly of medicalised birth and as a result it has become the normal way to birth. Normal for a birth to be in hospital. Normal for a large amount of pain relief to be administered. Normal for a variety of interventions to “help nature on its way”. And normal for this experience to be awful.
What is “Active Birth”?
Active Birth is a philosophy of birth that encourages women to follow their instincts and intuition during their labour and birth, and get up from their beds and off their backs during labour. Janet Balaskas, the founder of the Active Birth Movement, encapsulates it perfectly:
“The central principle of an active birth, is for the woman to be free to move spontaneously and be led by her body, adopting upright positions during labour and birth. This practice is universal and cross-cultural and makes birth easier, safer, more efficient and less painful.”
History of Birth
Throughout history and across the globe, women have instinctively chosen to give birth in upright positions. The introduction of anaesthetics to the Western mother in the 1800s, meant doctors took control in the birthing room and midwives were relegated to a secondary role. This has resulted in greatly improved child and mother mortality rates, but also an increased frequency of medical intervention in birth. The knowledge of how to birth, and how best to support a birthing mother, has been lost down the generations as girls no longer witness birth first hand but see it at one remove, hidden away behind closed labour ward doors, or worse, through the over-dramatic versions served to us by the media. I have talked about this in another blog post here.
Culture of Birth
Watch any TV programme or film, and women in labour are always depicted lying on their backs in complete agony. Well, it is not surprising she is in agony as lying on your back is physiologically the worst position to give birth in and can make the pain much worse! Many women experience birth quite differently (and more positively) from this cultural image and yet the myth of an agonising, medical birth pervades our society and perpetuates a culture of fear around birth. This fear creates stress and tension in the pregnant mother, and this, in turn, creates pain during the labour itself: an ever decreasing vicious circle of horrendous childbirth experiences.
Rediscovering Active Birth
Janet Balaskas taught pregnancy yoga in London in the 1980s. She discovered that her mums-to-be were being forced into reclined positions in hospital during labour and birth, many against their will. Janet organised a sit-in at the hospital to protest. Within 3 weeks it had turned into a massive demonstration on Hampstead Heath attended by over 6000 people and the Active Birth Movement was born.
Janet understood that birth is a complex process and many things contribute to its success or failure. Movement, positions, instinct, privacy, emotions, and support are all ingredients and the catalyst for it all is hormones which are hugely affected by surroundings and environment. She coined the phrase ‘active birth’ to help women reclaim their instincts in birth and to take control of their own births.
Janet still teaches active birth workshops all over the world spreading the knowledge that many women of our time have forgotten.
Benefits of active birth
Active birth is not about moving around constantly during labour and birth – the rests in between contractions are crucial – but it is about being an active participant in your labour, and being the one who is deciding how to birth.
Upright positions allow gravity to help, and using rhythmic movement allows the body to open up as much as possible for the safe passage of the baby. Labour is enhanced and the woman usually feels in control and on top of the labour, in which case she is much more likely to be able to cope with any pain and discomfort.
In active birth women hone in on their instincts before labour, to become aware of the ways they can help their bodies give birth so that when labour starts they already know how to move, how to position themselves, and respond to their bodies without even thinking about it. To connect with their bodies on a primal level. To give their birth partners a clear idea of how to be supportive both practically and emotionally.
Being an active participant in labour also helps to make good decisions if you find that you do need a bit of extra help. You can have an active birth with pain relief or interventions, even with a caesarian section. Understanding the body’s hormones and how they drive labour and birth, and the early postnatal period, can help to mitigate necessary interventions. Skin-to-skin with a newborn baby, and delaying cutting the cord until it has stopped pulsing, for example, gives the baby an extra boost however they entered the world.
Birth should be a positive experience and active birth classes equip couples for their labour and birth journey so that whatever the outcome and whatever kind of birth they have, even if it is wildly different from their hopes and expectations, they can look back and feel empowered by it, knowing they achieved a miracle: they gave life to a person!
Attending an active birth class can help you to prepare for birth by learning about and connecting with your body, discovering a variety of coping strategies, and creating a supportive dialogue with your partner so when you enter the birthing room – be it at home or at hospital – you are both ready to travel the journey to birth along whichever path it takes you.
Birthzang runs active birth workshops in Reading, UK.