Positive Birth News

birth stories, news and articles to encourage and inspire


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Birth leaves an imprint on mothers for life

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Wise words from Justine Caines OAM in the foreword for Birth Journeys. The moment of birth and the hours and days that lead up to it are dismissed by many in our society including mothers.

While the Birth Journeys book steers clear of birth politics as much as possible and leaves it to each reader to draw their conclusions and make their own well informed choices, there is a clear message from Justine’s foreword that is carried throughout the book – through the introduction, birth stories, story editorials and information pages: “birth matters and how you feel matters – don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.”

You only need to ask your mother, your aunty, or your grandmother about her births to see the impact birth has had on her. Even as she denies the importance of birth and comments that she doesn’t know what all the fuss is about, the emotional and mental impact of her birth experiences is written on her face and betrayed in her voice. A family member told me she didn’t see why people thought birth mattered so much…and then went on to share her birth stories. She spoke of pain, frustration, fear and pressure put on her, the sense that she had failed and couldn’t give birth. Her feelings of disappointment and anger were still strong more than 40 years after her first birth.

How do you have a positive birth? One that leaves a positive imprint on you? A good place to start is reading the journeys of other women who have been able to have positive births to see what is possible and learn from their stories.

Birth Journeys contains 29 detailed, beautiful and powerful positive birth stories chosen with input from midwives, doulas and mothers to be. It also includes information from Australia’s midwives, doctors, doulas and birth educators including Assoc Prof Hannah Dahlen, Dr Sarah Buckley and midwife/academic Rachel Reed.

The latest special is 50% OFF the ebook until Jan 2nd 2014. Download the ebook from www.birthjourneys.com.au for just $7.50 AU.

What if you are reeling from a bad birth? A “bad” birth may look “normal” or “good” from the outside while on the inside it has left you feeling sorrow, pain, disappointment, anger, guilt or hurt in some way. Birth trauma can be from any kind of birth where you have felt frightened, unsupported, in danger, unheard, or violated. If a mother is hurt or cut down in the process then the birth outcome is not optimal.

Reading stories of women who have healed from bad experiences, or who have explored their feelings as they have prepared for a more positive and empowering birth next time is helpful for many women. The message of Birth Journeys is “YES your feelings are valid. And healing is possible. You don’t have to feel this way forever.” You may have been let down by carers who did not keep you feeling safe, loved, respected and heard. You may have been set up for a negative birth by our culture of fear of birth and denial that birth is important for parents as well as babies. You may have been let down by a system of care that failed to provide the best care for you as an individual. Whatever reasons or lessons are revealed by your story, a different story is possible next time. Birth Journeys shares many stories from women who have walked this path too – each with a sensitively written introduction so you can pick and choose the best stories for you.

A good place to begin your journey to healing and a positive birth next time is talking to Melissa and Debby from www.birthtalk.org and getting hold of their book “How to Heal a Bad Birth” when it comes out soon. Melissa and Debby also wrote a piece for the Birth Journeys book on how to heal from a traumatic birth.

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Guess what? You’re a Mammal!

Are you ready to admit you’re an animal? A mammal like a chimpanzee, a dolphin, a giraffe, an elephant or a cat?

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We have become so civilised and socialised that we go through the day forgetting we are mammals. Birth is a great leveller, because labour asks us to let go of self-consciousness and tap into our inner mammal.

I was confronted, horrified and mortified by the birth video shown in the antenatal classes at our local hospital. I don’t know why this video was considered appropriate to show a group of nervous and inexperienced adults who had never seen a real birth before – only dramas on TV. The only birth that looked like something I could handle was the one where the woman had an epidural and I had already decided I didn’t want to have a needle in my spine or risk the effects of an epidural on my labour.

Even the birth described as a ‘nice, gentle water birth’ was way too much for me. Labouring women looked sweaty and messy, their bodies were heaving, their sounds were animalistic and almost sexual. I felt like I was prying on some very private moment that I wasn’t meant to see. I certainly didn’t like the idea of behaving like this myself! It was terrifying to think of losing control like that in front of other people (this should have been a clue that I needed privacy!).

No matter how much I prepared for my first birth with reading and learning, I was still uncomfortable with the raw, animalistic nature of birth and I couldn’t imagine myself in this state. I needed to feel completely safe and unembarrassed before I could really immerse myself in labour.

During my second birth I was able to trust, relax and let go completely. The experience was powerful and pain free for me and a straightforward, safe and much faster birth for my son. I didn’t need to rehearse or learn how to give birth. It was instinctive. This is how it is for other mammals – most of the time. And this is how it may be for humans – most – but sadly not all of the time.

If you want your baby’s birth to be natural, normal and safe, then it is wise to understand and accept the nature of birth. Birth is raw, physical, animalistic and instinctive. Your mammalian body does know what to do but it needs the right conditions. You need to make sure your human self-consciousness doesn’t get in the way. To birth your baby, you need to feel safe enough and comfortable enough to let yourself move instinctively, to feel able to tear off your clothes, to moan and groan, to be loud, or to be inward, withdrawn and private, and to do whatever feels right for you. The hormones that drive labour have evolved to work when you feel safe, unobserved and willing to give yourself over to birth. The bottom line is you need to feel comfortable with being a mammal!

If you are uncomfortable watching a DVD of a woman in labour then don’t avoid them. Watch a whole lot more, but do choose your viewing wisely. Gentle natural births that show women moving around, making labour sounds, or entering into deep states of relaxation, and being supported and nurtured by carers and partners can give you a positive and realistic image of what labour can be like. Water births are probably the least confronting to begin with. Animal births may be a good way to ease yourself into watching births too.

In contrast, viewing frightening, stressful births and emergency scenarios do more harm to you than good. Don’t imagine that reality birth shows will help you prepare for an emergency, just in case one happens. The only thing that will help you in an emergency is knowing that you can trust your carers and that you will be treated with love and respect as well as medical expertise. Focus on ensuring you have that relationship of trust, respect and nurturing with your carers and supporters instead. This will serve you well, no matter how your baby is born.


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Doulas and Partners

Why would women have a doula when their partner will be there to support them?

Men attending their baby’s birth is a relatively modern phenomenon. My father was not present at either my birth or my brother’s birth and in the 1970s this was the norm in Australia. Fathers are now expected to be present and to shoulder a large part of the birth support role. Now many men want to be there. They want to support their woman and they want to see their child into the world. But how prepared are today’s men for this new role when their own fathers were at work or down at the pub when they were born?

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Consider that first time partners have (most likely) never seen a birth. If it is your first birth, then the chances are you haven’t either. Your partner (most likely) hasn’t read positive birth stories, watched gentle birth DVDs and has consumed less information than you.

They have (most likely) been told sensationalised and frightening birth stories including stories from men about seeing their partner in pain, seeing blood, poo, vomit, fluids and very intense and stressful situations.

Your partner is also carrying the legacy of their own birth story and they have (most likely) not reflected on their entrance to the world and what this has taught them about birth.

They may be frightened – but they’re probably not about to let you know because they want to be a rock for you. Your partner may not have gone through the same journey of learning and transformation as you in preparation for this birth and the transition into parenthood.

If this is not your first birth, then your partner may be distressed by the memory of your last birth. Even a straightforward and uncomplicated birth may have been a shock. They will have had less opportunity and less support than you to debrief and integrate their experience.

Men don’t get to meet up with other men post-birth and swap experiences the way women do. Men don’t usually get to go to birth circles or have heart to heart discussions about their experiences and feelings. They don’t get to do prenatal yoga and meditation where they can bond with their baby and visualise the birth they want and how they want to feel. They will have had less opportunity to do the healing and growing needed to go into another birth feeling ready, open and strong.

Your partner has a huge emotional investment in this birth. It must feel like the lives of the two most precious people in the world are in a boat out at sea and your partner is waiting, hoping, and willing that they will see both you and your baby safe in the harbour at the end of birth.

A doula won’t take away from your partner’s role, nor destroy the intimacy of experiencing this rite of passage as a couple. However a doula can support and reassure your partner so he can support you throughout the birth. Your partner deserves this support as much as you do!

Some ideas and resources to help your partner feel positive, supported and ready for birth too!

Becoming Dad is a blog, a facebook page and a movement created by Darren Mattock: Connect your partner up with Darren’s community for support in the transition into fatherhood. http://becomingdad.com.au/how-can-dads-make-a-difference/

Men at Birth is a collection of men’s birth stories edited by David Vernon (also a contributor to Birth Journeys) (Scroll down the linked page to find this book)

Beer and Bubs is a childbirth class for men held in an informal, friendly pub environment. Men have the chance to talk with a father who has done Beer and Bubs before and since experienced the birth of their baby, as well as learn from childbirth educators. Available around Australia.

Cheers to Childbirth is the book that grew out of the Beer and Bubs program, written by Lucy Perry with birth stories from celebrity dads.

Birth Journeys – positive birth stories to encourage and inspire contains three stories which share men’s experiences of birth (so do pass these stories over to your partner if you have the book!). These are Lachlan and Bree’s story of their first birth, Christian’s story of his second daughter’s birth in the water (she was born in the caul!), and Chris tells the story of his second baby’s home birth. There is also a piece by David Vernon on how men can prepare themselves to support their partner during labour.


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Beyond Birth: The List

I still remember the day.

We just had our first visit to the hospital antenatal clinic and we were so excited to receive a bag filled with brochures, discount vouchers, guides to pregnancy and labour, and advice about all the products we should have now that we were about to become a family of three.

We were paying off a new home and a new car. We would be going from two incomes to one. We didn’t know how much money we would have. We didn’t know much about babies at all. The only time we had changed a baby’s nappy we had to fasten it together with bandaids!! (I’m not kidding!)

Now we had this list to tell us what we needed. We would be alright.

But there was a problem. This list was enormous. Apparently our baby was going to need an incredible number of things to survive and thrive! Not just milk, nappies, clothes and a place to sleep.

Nappy wipe containers with heaters, special wedges to keep him from rolling over in bed, nappy dispensers and special nappy bins, disposable nappy bags, a portable change mat and nappy change bag, a change mat cover for a change mat to go on a change table, a bouncer, a rocker that played music and had pretty light, mobiles that spun around and played music, play mats, bottles, special teats and formula just in case we couldn’t breastfeed, a steriliser for cleaning the bottles, a bassinet, a cot, a cot mattress and linen, dummies, blankies, lovies and onesies…what were we getting ourselves into?

This was going to cost thousands. Already my stress levels were rising. How could I be a good enough mother when I’d already failed the first step? I couldn’t afford all these things on The List.

So we did something radical! Instead of starting with everything we decided to buy the minimum and see how we went. We bought a beautiful convertible cot, we were given a pram, we bought modern cloth nappies, some beautiful linen for the cot and the basic clothes (singlets) the rest we were given as gifts. And we had the all important car capsule on hire. My big luxury was a rocking chair – a beautiful cane rocking chair that I just had to have.

We had no change mat, no change mat cover, no bassinet, no dummies, no blankies or lovies, no steriliser, no bouncer, rocker, nappy wipe warmers or any of those extras. Most of the items on the list got a firm line through them.

And, it actually worked out fine. Our baby didn’t want to sleep in his cot much. He preferred to sleep on my chest. And it turned out I don’t like rocking chairs. But apart from that we didn’t waste much money!

After our son’s birth we bought a baby bath, a change mat and a modern take on the old fashioned very simple bouncer. As we got to know our baby we experienced how useful these would be and we were able to buy the items that suited our needs and our baby.

And perhaps because we didn’t have everything on the list we had to rely on ourselves to soothe our baby instead of using devices.

We felt the joy and exhaustion of dancing around the lounge room (we got to practise our ballroom dancing at the same time and now my husband does a great foxtrot with a tiny baby in his arms). We learnt new songs and remembered old lullabies to hum or sing to our baby as his head was snuggled over our shoulders or beneath daddy’s neck. We bought good baby carriers as we learnt that our baby wanted to be held in our arms and the pram became a shopping trolley. We learnt that in truth, what babies and new parents need most is left off The List.

So here is My List:

  • Love – love for yourself, your baby and your partner
  • Patience – with yourself, your baby and your partner
  • Support – yes, you need and deserve support. Don’t try to do this all by yourselves.
  • You – your baby needs to be in your arms, on your chest, and preferably at your breast. Your baby needs to be held close by you. At first this is a very physical closeness and babies want to be held by you as much as possible. Later as your baby grows up this is an emotional and mental holding close as you keep in tune with how your child is experiencing the world and provide stability, love and reassurance. And forever it is holding your baby in your heart – no matter how old they are now!
  • Breast milk (or the best substitute available for your baby’s needs if this is not an option)
  • Somewhere safe for your baby to sleep (cot, bassinet, arms reach co sleeper, baby hammock, well researched safe co-sleeping)

There are many practical things you will need and want to help you care for your baby. These are the simplest and most important ones on my list.

  • Breastfeeding – bamboo breast pads, nursing bras and a good breastfeeding pillow. Some breastfeeding tops or stretchy T shirts and long tummy covering singlets to wear underneath. The phone number of your local ABA group and the breastfeeding hotline. Better yet, go along to meetings and make contact with your ABA group in your last months of pregnancy. If you need support after birth these women will be there for you!
  • Baby clothes – soft, natural fibres, without intricate fasteners and no appliques (cute as they are the underside of a heavily appliqued top can’t be that comfortable for a little baby)
  • Nappies – of your choice. Cloth nappies are amazing these days and all in one pocket nappies are my first choice. There’s nothing wrong with buying a mix of disposable and cloth nappies to see you through the early days if you’re not sure about washing all those cloth nappies and their inserts. If you decide to use disposable nappies think about those with the least environmental impact if possible. But the highest priority for me was nappies that worked, nappies that didn’t break (no more bandaids to fasten a broken disposable please!!) and nappies that were comfortable for my baby. You may like to learn about elimination communication too. I have friends who have great success with this approach to toileting and baby care.
  • Wipes – bamboo velour cloth wipes, disposable wipes – I quite liked Gaia and other eco brands.
  • Change mat – buy a nice comfy one with good high sides to help keep your baby from rolling. Don’t go for seatbelts though! Get soft and easy care covers and make sure either cover or mat has a water resistant layer for little change time accidents.
  • Change table – (yes we got one second time around!) yes they are very useful. You can judge whether you need one or not.
  • Baby wraps – nice soft really big ones. Don’t bother with ones less than 1m square as they won’t last long. Baby cocoon wraps look quite good too for keeping your baby snug and secure feeling. But both my babies hated being wrapped from quite early on and I didn’t wrap for many months.
  • Lotions and Potions – tea tree oil to make up a weak antibacterial wash for wiping your baby’s bottom if needed. Olive oil for their skin. There are many beautiful products for looking after baby’s skin. Look for simple ingredient lists and be aware that your baby’s skin can react to the same products that another baby’s skin loves. Take it slow.
  • One baby sling or carrier – a stretchy or woven wrap like a Moby wrap, Hug a Bub or any of the many beautiful woven wraps is my first choice after two quite different babies. You can buy different kinds of slings and carried nce you know what suits you, your baby and your lifestyle. You don’t really know until your baby is here. Please don’t buy a carrier that pins your baby to your body with their legs dangling straight down. Do look for carriers that an older baby almost sits into (such as the ergo carrier) as this is much better for their body.


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Making Good Decisions for a Positive Birth – looking at reasons for not having a doula

During my first pregnancy I remember thinking: “A water birth!? What if the baby drowns?” “A doula!? I don’t want a stranger watching me in labour!” “Hypnobirthing – that sounds scary and just plain weird. I don’t think imagining I’m on a tropical island is going to help when I’m in LABOUR!”

Each of these emotional reactions prevented me from learning how these options could have helped me to have the natural birth I wanted. My decisions came from misinformation (don’t always trust what you read in magazines!) and a deep fear of surrendering to labour, letting people in and being vulnerable and exposed. (for my second birth I went on to have a doula, a water birth and listened to hypnobirthing CDs!)
Make Good Choices

The best decisions are based on a consideration of evidence and an honest and deep reflection on our feelings, fears and needs. When discussing doulas and many other choices in birth, I hear a lot of reasons why couples will NOT have a doula or choose birth preparation or labour options that could be positive and helpful like hypnosis, meditation or water birth. Just like my reasoning above, often these decisions are not based on research or a true consideration of the couple’s feelings, fears and needs. Perhaps they are based on misconceptions or fears like mine were.

When we dig deeper and look beneath the surface level reasons we have the opportunity to learn a whole lot more about what we are really frightened of, worried about, and any unspoken needs or expectations we may have. Then we are in the position to make really good decisions.

Here are four common reasons people give for deciding to not have a doula. You may find this a useful discussion if you and your partner are considering having a doula and some of these concerns have come up.

1. A doula is too expensive
Find out about student doulas who may work for free or a minimal cost because they wish to gain experience yet may be very well suited to supporting you. While they may not have as much experience, you will benefit from their passion, commitment and up to date knowledge and they will often have an experienced doula as a mentor. Find out about doulas who offer flexible payments or low fees for low-income families. Many doulas will accept payments throughout your pregnancy and post birth. So, if you have not asked several local doulas what they charge and what are their options for payment, then you can’t honestly say “it’s too expensive”. You don’t know until you ask!

If this reason is a block for you,  ask yourself:

How much is birth support during this important transition worth?

What is the value of a relaxed, safe, positive beginning for you and your baby? Or the value of feeling well supported throughout pregnancy and birth?

And a confronting question: how will you feel if a shattering, traumatic birth could have been avoided if you had a doula by your side?

2. We don’t want a stranger there
If you are birthing in a hospital maternity ward, then most of the people you come into contact with will be strangers. If you have a private obstetrician, the midwives will probably be unfamiliar and your obstetrician often won’t be there until the last few minutes of your baby’s birth. If you had a team of midwives for antenatal care, you may not get a midwife you are familiar and comfortable with during labour. You may have several midwives as their shifts change during your labour. If a paediatrician, anaesthetist or registrar is needed, they will usually be a stranger too.

You will come across a lot of strangers during your labour and the days afterwards in the maternity ward. If you don’t want strangers at your birth then think seriously about where you are giving birth and who you are allowing into your birth space. Consider adding someone familiar to your birth team who will protect you from the impact of these strangers.

A doula is someone you choose to get to know, become comfortable with, and have with you during labour and after birth. You will meet your doula many times before birth to get to know each other and feel comfortable. If you choose the right doula for you then she will not feel like a stranger. Through all the shift changes and different people you may meet, she will be a familiar and friendly support person coming along with you. Everyone else might be strangers but a doula will be one person you do know apart from your partner.

If this is a block for you, ask:

Is thinking of a doula as a “stranger” really valid? 

Am I (or is my partner) afraid of having a doula there?

What is it that makes us uncomfortable about this idea?

And what does this teach us about our needs for birth?

Are we meeting these needs in our other birth plans?

3. We don’t need support 
You deserve the best support around! The more supported, safe and comfortable you feel, the easier it will be to birth your baby. Why not have as much support and help from respectful, educated, professional, experienced people as you can get?

Even couples who have prepared as well as they could for labour can end up feeling lost, alone and overwhelmed. Chrissy Grainger (Birth Journeys contributor and doula) explains that she became a doula because “I previously coordinated a support group for pregnancy and birth and was seeing so, so many women have all the information and support during pregnancy, [only] for the birth to go pear shaped.” Continuous support during birth was what was missing for many of these women.

Unless you have continuity of care with one midwife, and you are her only birthing mother at the time, your midwife will not be there with you all the time. If you have continuous monitoring or a IV drip set up then there will be people checking up on you often – but they may be focused on measurements and machines rather than supporting you. Hours of labouring can become stressful for even the most prepared couples when you are uncertain how things are going, what is normal, what is going to happen next and how much longer it will be before your baby is here.

Also ask:
Why don’t we need support?

Are we expecting support from other people (eg, a relative, friend, midwife, doctor) and will they be able to meet our expectations?

Or, why don’t we want support and what does this teach us about what we are wanting from this birth?

Are we trying to prove we can do it by ourselves, and if so, why?

Are we are seeking an intimate, personal experience of birth, and if so could a doula help to preserve and protect this?

4. I don’t want to be told what to do or be mothered
There are many different doulas and they each have a different personality, a different age and stage in life, a different relationship to offer you. It seems very unlikely that any doula would tell you what to do, make you feel like a child, or take ownership out of your hands, especially if you tell her that you do not want to feel like that. Doulas want to support women to take ownership of their own births. It is more likely that if you choose the right doula for you, she will protect and preserve your birth space, your rights and your needs. A doula knows that birth is not about her – it is about you, your partner and your baby.

On the other hand, there may be other health professionals in a hospital, birth centre, or child health clinic who may “mother” you and make you feel as though you have been placed in the role of a child. There may be others who will tell you what to do without honouring your ownership of this birth, or your motherhood of your child. A doula can help to protect and cushion you from the impact of these interactions and reaffirm that you, your baby and your partner are at the centre of this birth.

Also ask:

What would an ideal birth support person be like for me?

Would it be beneficial to have my kind of support?

And if you want to dig deeper still, you may wish to consider:

Am I worried that letting someone in to support me will take away my power?


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What You Really Need to Know About Labour – and where you’ll find it

When we are uncertain or facing something new, we often turn to guide books and people that tell us what to do, lists of tips, books that tell us what to expect and make everything seem black and white, straightforward and under control – predictable. A predictable birth would be nice, wouldn’t it!

But how far will this knowledge really go in preparing you for your own unique labour and birth? Not far enough!

When I was preparing for my first birth I focused on learning about pregnancy and labour from experts, guide books and the hospital antenatal class. I wanted to be well prepared and give my baby the best beginning possible. I read some birth stories (in Ina May’s clasic book Spiritual Midwifery but they were a little too alternative and hippy for me at the time. Never having experienced labour I found it very hard to imagine what it would be like and these stories were hard to relate to. The women were not like me and the stories were set in a different country, a different time, and a different culture. The way of speaking about birth and the feelings these women described were too much of a leap for me! I couldn’t connect with them. (I suggest reading the newer Ina May’s guide to childbirth instead).

The information I had taken in and given highest priority was how I would know when to go into hospital. And to judge this, I needed to know what the different stages of labour were. I thought they would be clear, distinct stages based on the clear, predictable flow charts and diagrams of the antenatal classes.

Even though I had come to believe that birth should work and I was determined to have a vaginal and drug free birth, I was still scared. And very honestly, who wouldn’t have some level of fear going into the unknown? Focusing on this kind of information about birth made it seem more controllable and less unpredictable. It made me feel a bit safer but really it was false confidence.

I had expected that a first labour would begin slowly and it would take time for the contractions to reach five minutes apart and then three minutes apart and then closer and closer together until transition. I thought there would be a roughly thirty minute second stage, then the birth of my baby and a syntocinon injection in my thigh at the moment of birth. The birth of the placenta would follow in five minutes or so.

Once my labour began, I learnt that birth is not predictable and it is not black and white like the nice neat charts in the antenatal class! My contractions were immediately five minutes apart when I awoke in the morning. I couldn’t rest, ignore them and pretend it was just another day because they felt strong. Although I knew that first births could take several days, the pattern of contractions I was experiencing didn’t match the description of a slow first birth. With contractions 5 minutes apart and strong enough to need my attention, I concluded that I must already bein active labour. I thought this baby might be born before the day was over!

I went straight into “being” in labour, using my yoga and active birth positions, my meditative breathing. I stayed on my feet nearly all day because I found this position most comfortable and I knew that an active upright labour would help me give my baby a natural and drug free birth.

In fact, my contractions stayed at five minutes apart for most of my 28 hour labour, moving to three minutes apart after about ten hours of labour and then spacing out to ten minutes apart when I arrived at the hospital. I had responded to early labour as though it was active labour. And this set me up for frustration and disappointment, as well as exhaustion and weakness due to not eating or drinking enough.

When the second stage took over two hours I felt a mix of exhaustion, helplessness, fear and anxiety. Much of this stemmed from expecting a 30 minute second stage based on the charts we were shown in class. I knew my labour was pushing the boundaries of what labour in my hospital was expected to look like and I was surprised they had let me push for so long. I knew I was approaching the deadline for the second stage till the birth of the baby.

It was not only incredible fatigue, but fear of what alternatives were just around the corner (a caesarean? I was terrified of that) that prompted me to ask for a vacuum extraction. My baby was crowning but I didn’t believe I could go on and no one there could have convinced me otherwise! I imagine that continuity of care with a midwife or doula might have made all the difference because they would have known me well enough to reveal the fear behind my choice. I would have trusted their words when they told me he was really very nearly here and I could go on. Nonetheless it was my choice and at least I was in control – no one took ownership out of my hands or pressured me into the choice.

When my placenta did not arrive smoothly and easily as I had expected after the syntocinon injection (it was presented as the only way to birth the placenta and avoid a haemorrhage) the midwives pushed and pulled to get the placenta out. I was feeling frightened. I knew my placenta was not behaving in the way it was expected to. Anything outside of the norm on the charts we had been shown in our classes might mean further medical assistance was required. It wasn’t a pleasant experience, but I avoided an operative removal of the placenta that would have been the next step. Like my baby’s birth, the birth of his placenta had required patience but once the syntocinon injection was given there was another deadline to meet.

This rough birth of my baby’s placenta no doubt contributed to the uterine infection I suffered from 10 days post-birth. It landed me in the emergency ward at 3am. It was a bit scary with a newborn! On the other hand, the private room where my husband was allowed to stay, all our meals and plenty of care and baby support from the midwives and nurses actually gave me a chance to recover from my post birth exhaustion and shell shock. By the time I went home a week later I felt a little more ready for motherhood.

I share this part of my first birth story because it is just so common for women to be surprised, confused and misled like I was when their first birth does not match the descriptions, the timings and measurements given in classes and guidebooks.

In the effort to communicate clearly and simply how an average labour is expected to look in a particular hospital and when they would like you to present to the maternity ward, labour is distilled down to a series of distinct stages. Measurements of contractions and dilation and your mood are focused on as the key indicators of progress. While you may find it useful to focus on these details to distract yourself from labour, this behaviour keeps you in your head, using your thinking self. It doesn’t help you to slide into the instinctive and internal state that nature intends us to enter during labour for optimal pain relief and progress.

If there is a mismatch between your expectations of what a “well-behaved” labour looks like and the reality of your labour, it can lead to assumptions about how your labour is progressing (or not), unwarranted excitement or anxiety, fatigue, disappointment and fear. Each of these emotional states may have a negative impact on the progress of labour and the choices you make during labour as a result.

A medical, technical, scientific model of labour doesn’t teach us all we need to know, or prepare us for our own experience of labour and giving birth.

What does teach us what we need to know about birth?

Starting in childhood, we have gathered another kind of knowledge about birth. This is the knowledge we have gained from the stories we have been exposed to from family, friends, TV, books and the media.

Sadly, these stories are rarely positive, reassuring or inspiring. Many women have grown up surrounded by birth stories of frightening and dangerous emergencies, complicated births or the belief that birth doesn’t work. These stories tell us to expect pain, danger and complications and quite naturally we often respond with fear and anxiety about birth. Once pregnant, many of us are further exposed to unasked for and unwanted discouraging stories.

Personally, I remember a nutri-grain commercial which showed a mother lying on a bed, gripping the sheets and screaming in labour with a line like “raising an iron man is a mother of a job”. While amusing at the time, this gave me a powerful image of what labour would be like. Media like this made me dread giving birth. (If you can find it on YouTube please send me the link!)

If you consider, for a moment, the impact negative stories of birth have, the vivid images, the words, and the ideas they have planted in your memory and your imagination, then it isn’t so hard to see the incredible value of positive stories.

The knowledge held within positive stories is different to the information we gain from text books or instructional classes. Stories are personal, emotional and evocative. They contain a very potent kind of knowledge that has a deep impact on us because it is emotional as well as informative. Stories speak to our hearts and minds. Stories also educate us on the shades of grey that are left out when we read instructional guides.

Positive birth stories that we can relate to gently show us what is possible, let us into a woman’s deeply personal experience, and offer us the opportunity to learn from her. Stories can take us into the world of labour and birth both physically and emotionally in a way that textbook descriptions can never do. Stories give a sense of what it feels like to experience birth and give the knowledge that every labour and every birth is different.

When we read a number of stories we start to recognise how different ways that labour develops – we can see labour building and recognise changes in the woman’s feelings, thoughts, her instinctive behaviours, her needs and how she responds to these.

We hear women describing the days leading up to birth, sharing how they suddenly, urgently needed to “get things done” shortly before labour begins. Others share how they had an emotional release, crying and crying, in the days before labour – clearing their mind and body of stress and anxiety. And other women insist “No! I’m not in labour!” when their behaviour indicates that they are, even if their labour is not following the pattern they expected.

This teaches us that there are many different signs that labour is imminent and sometimes we can be caught by surprise because we are looking for signs that aren’t there or missing those that are. We also learn that sometimes early labour takes days and sometimes women are not aware of being in labour at all. Sometimes women wake in the night when they are suddenly thrust into a fast, active labour lasting only an hour!

Through positive stories we learn the thoughts, feelings, movements and actions that women find beneficial in labour. We see how they breathed, the way they walked up and down, climbed stairs, swivelled their hips, used yoga poses, knelt on all fours, bounced on a birth ball or squatted. We learn through other women when these movements were most comforting or useful. This gives us knowledge of the many different ways to labour and we learn that if one position or movement isn’t quite right, we will remember something that another woman tried and have the confidence to give it a go. We don’t feel as reliant on someone to tell us what to do because we have inherited the experience of many other women through their descriptive and detailed stories.

We see how partners, doulas, mothers, sisters, or friends support women physically and with encouraging words. And we can see how sometimes these words and actions make the woman feel amazing, and sometimes she swats them away like a fly because it just isn’t what she needs right now! This teaches us the value of having the right support people and also that we can’t predict exactly how we will be feeling and what we will want! We need support people who are completely there for us and not focused on themselves and their own feelings. We also see the powerful impact of negative or frightening words on labour and this lets us know we need to protect ourselves from the impact of these – a doula is a good choice for this role.

We get inside women’s heads and we hear the words she said, thought or remembered that were helpful. And if we find ourselves in a similar situation, her words come to us and become our own words. We learn about the sounds she made – did she roar like a lion, did she moan and sing, did she chant, or was she completely silent? We see that none of these are good or bad despite what different birth preparation methods may tell you! There are many ways to be in labour. We learn that it is important not to judge ourselves by the sounds we make or don’t make. While we may have an intention to be calm and quiet, we may find vocalising more helpful.

We learn that labour can be many different things – a wild and crazy ride, a calm, a focused meditation, a determined and demanding physical and emotional marathon, a joyful and ecstatic experience.

From reading many women’s stories, we can learn to recognise some pivotal moments in labour. The overwhelming and vulnerable moment when a woman feels she cannot go on, or she wants to give up and just have her baby in her arms by any means is a defining moment. This is a moment when she needs support, faith and sometimes to be challenged and reminded of what she is doing. This moment is one that has the potential to shape us as mothers.

Stories also take us through the caesarean birth experience and help us to appreciate how this may also be made a beautiful and powerful birth. We can also learn how other women coped with a change in plans or unexpected and frightening circumstances. These stories are very powerful. They teach us that we can’t be guaranteed a perfect birth and this is perhaps the wrong goal to set our sights on.

The reason positive stories are so informative and empowering is that they pass on the wisdom and memories of women who have had positive births and they provide us with information for all our senses. Reading positive stories builds confidence in our own ability to cope with birth because everything we read and connect with becomes part of our own knowledge, our own images and memories. Now we are able to go into labour with a whole library of helpful ideas, positive experiences, encouraging words, reassuring images and memories of how to birth – even if we have never given birth before!

Reading stories from women who have had positive and empowering journeys show how incredible birth can be and reassure that giving birth is something we too can do. They prepare us for the many possibilities in birth and help us to work out how we may have the best birth for our unique circumstances. Reading positive stories may help women to acknowledge fears and concerns and begin to move beyond these to a more confident and positive perspective.

Positive birth stories show that no matter how you choose to have your baby, and no matter how your baby needs to be born, it is possible for you to feel safe, loved, respected and honoured throughout this experience. When you feel like that, you will have ownership and a positive feeling about your baby’s birth. Your baby will have the best welcome into the world – into the arms of a healthy, whole mother.

Birth is Not Therapy is a wise piece by Chloe Bayfield and every woman contemplating a VBAC or any birth after a previously hurtful, disappointing or traumatic birth should read her story.

Chloe is absolutely correct. We should not expect a particular birth, like a natural birth, a drug-free birth, or an ecstatic pain-free joyous birth to be the answer or to heal our hurts and make us whole.

My second birth was joyful, pain-free, empowering and inspiring! I did feel like a goddess! Yet it doesn’t erase the impact of my first birth. Birth can truly be wonderful, empowering and awe inspiring – but only a woman can do her healing for herself. It is her own emotional work, her own reflection and learning, her own story to process and integrate… and it can be like peeling back layers of an onion.

Each time I revisit my first birth story, I discover more – more grief, more tears, a little more anger, and more lessons for me. Strangely, I now also find inspiration and a greater understanding of myself. And this somehow makes meaning out of a birth that while not outwardly traumatic – left its mark on me.

It is each woman’s journey that changes her and makes her feel strong, wise and whole again and this journey goes well beyond birth.