No Pain, No Gain: More Women Opt for Natural Birth
The Bryn Mawr Birth Center has delivered 10,000 babies throughout its 30 years.
Covered in sweat with her legs in the air, Regina Enockson grunts, yells, then pushes, pushes and pushes some more. “There was a burst of pain, followed by what felt like a pile of rope falling out of me,” says Enockson. “My husband looked down and said, ‘It’s Grant. It’s a boy.’”
Just another post-midnight delivery at the Birth Center in Bryn Mawr.
With its private apartments, en-suite Jacuzzis and lush garden, it’s the Ritz-Carlton of its ilk. And there are midwives, of course, who assist in all-natural labor and delivery. That’s right: no epidural or pharmaceutical pain relief of any kind.
There are five licensed birth centers in the state, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Each has home-like facilities where family-centered care is provided by midwives.
Most hospitals in the Main Line area have birthing suites, but these differ from centers in the level of medical equipment used, including anesthesia. Of course, any female patient can always decline an epidural and give birth naturally at a local hospital, as well.
Women have been drawn to Bryn Mawr’s Birth Center since its founding in 1978. There’s a long waiting list for its three suites, and this month, its midwives will deliver their 10,000th baby. “To me, this is a natural process that my body is designed to do,” Enockson says.
Then again, human bodies can naturally do a lot of things that cause pain. Would Enockson have a cavity filled without Novocain so she could experience the dentist’s drill?
“Definitely not,” she says. “But that pain has a different end result. At the end [of labor], I had a baby.”
It’s the entire process—from prenatal care to postpartum visits—that makes the Birth Center unique. The holistic, wholehearted TLC and medical expertise comes from its midwives. One of them is Julie Cristol, the Birth Center’s director of clinical services. She’s also a certified nurse midwife.
Pennsylvania requires midwives to have a master’s degree in nursing, and they also have training and experience in prenatal care, lactation and non-pharmaceutical pain management.
Establishing realistic expectations of that pain and the entire natural-birth experience are among the topics covered in the Birth Center’s two-hour orientation seminar. “We want people to know what they are getting into,” Cristol says. “It’s different than what people see on TV.”
For starters, it is a messy process. “Many bodily fluids are involved, and the baby comes out covered in a lot of them,” says Cristol. “People don’t have an understanding of the earthiness of birth.”
Another misconception concerns the timing of labor and delivery. With natural childbirth, there are no scheduled cesarean sections or inductions of any kind. With natural birth, a mother goes to a hospital for a C-section only if her life—or the baby’s life—is in jeopardy. “Otherwise, the baby comes when the baby is ready to come, and the mom continues labor,” Cristol says.
At the Birth Center, midwives oversee the same standard prenatal care that comes from ob-gyns. Beginning at 36 weeks, women come in for weekly checkups to monitor blood pressure, the position of the baby, and other aspects. “Right about then, the first-time moms start to ask even more questions about what will happen when labor begins,” says Cristol. “They want to know the truth about what lies ahead.”
Enockson was definitely nervous about the pain. “In our classes, the midwives told us that labor is 80/20—80 percent rest, 20 percent pain,” she says.
But Enockson wasn’t keeping track of percentages when she was in deep labor. Her water had broken at 11:30 a.m., and she arrived at the Birth Center at 5 p.m. By 8, Enockson was having “intense contractions.” The midwife helped her into the Jacuzzi. The use of water and counterpressure is an ancient pain-management technique. “Nerve endings can only transmit a certain amount of sensation, so we replace the pain with the warmth of the water and the pressure of the jets,” Cristol says.
It worked for Enockson. So did massage and the mountains of pillows providing support to some areas and relieving pressure in others. Enockson also had a CD of contemporary Christian music and Eucalyptus oil for her skin. Repeating words of affirmation helped, too. “Don’t get me wrong: The final stage of labor lasted more than three hours, and it was unbelievably painful,” Enockson admits. “But, by then, I knew it was almost over.”
So there she was, covered in sweat—her husband at his assigned spot near her head—when she felt her baby crown, followed by his shoulders. “Then the mom reaches down between her legs, pulls out the baby, and lifts him right up to her belly,” says Cristol.
For quite some time (it can be hours), the baby stays on the mother’s belly or chest, uncleaned. “Babies emerge from their mothers covered in vaginal flora that contains microbes beneficial to preventing allergies, asthma, gastrointestinal disorders and, some studies say, depression,” Cristol says. “The smell of mom’s skin helps the baby with breastfeeding—which we begin right away, because the suckling helps contract the uterus, and that helps stop the bleeding. The way that the woman’s body interacts with her baby’s body is simply amazing.”
Amazing is how Enockson describes the entire experience. In fact, she delivered her second child at the Birth Center this past September. Was it any less painful? “Ah ... no,” says Enockson with a laugh. “But I still wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
SHE’S HAVING A BABY: The most recent birth numbers
Source: National Center for Health Statistics
3,952,841 Number of babies born in 2012
63% Fertility rate among women ages 15-44
6% Rate of births to teens 15-19
25.8 Mean age of first-time mothers
40.7% Births to unmarried women