Labourers Unite!

Labouring moms, that is -- let's demand better childbirth

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I’ve been looking at the findings of the Canadian Maternity Experiences Survey that asked over 6,000 women about their birth experiences. Some of the numbers are appalling.

More than a quarter of Canadian women now give birth by Caesarean section. That’s higher than the 18 percent it was in 1993 when childbirth activists (more on them later) were already saying it was too high. In the 1970s, the rate was only 10 percent! Surgical birth brings risks, including infection, longer recovery and complications with subsequent pregnancies. Some Caesareans are medically necessary, but a quarter of all births? I don’t think so.

Of the women who gave birth the usual way, almost half did so lying flat on their backs. This position slows down labour, increases pain and results in more vaginal tears. More than half had continuous electronic fetal monitoring, which doesn’t make birth any safer, but does increase the incidence of Caesarean section and other “assisted” births by such means as forceps and vacuum extraction. Only about a third reported having skin-to-skin contact with their newborns right after birth — a risk-free and widely recommended measure that enhances an infant’s ability to breastfeed and regulate breathing and body temperature.

But here are the findings that make me want to scream. About one in five women said they were shaved “down there” in preparation for birth. One in 20 got enemas, for pity’s sake! These useless measures should have gone out with the hustle.

I can’t decide if I’m infuriated or just depressed that so many medical professionals, who should know better, are still foisting unnecessary and, in some cases, risky interventions on Canadian families.

Don’t get me wrong. Medical interventions can save lives. Far fewer women die during childbirth than in the past. But too many Canadian women are receiving treatments they don’t really need, which often lead to a cascade of further interventions, leading to a surgical birth or some other stressful birth experience, a difficult postpartum recovery, even breastfeeding problems.

In order to change this, we need a resurgence of the birth activism that began in the 1960s when activists started questioning the over-medicalization of childbirth and pushing for a more natural and family-centred approach. This movement included researchers and health professionals, but its real power came from ordinary women who became childbirth educators, doulas, midwives and writers because they wanted to help other women have better birth experiences. Their dedication led to many positive, lasting changes, including the return of midwives and doulas, fathers in the delivery room, widely available prenatal education, fewer episiotomies and reams of solid research that blows practices like pre-birth shaves out of the water.

But, as the above data shows, many of the childbirth battles of your mother’s generation have not yet been won.

So rise up. That starts with educating yourself about birth practices that are going to help you have the birth you want. Tell your caregiver (if I were a mom, I’d pick a midwife) what kind of birth experience you want, and ask if he or she will support you; become activists and childbirth educators like some of your mothers and aunts did. Check out Mothers of Change (mothersofchange.com), a Canadian group advocating for better maternity care. The childbirth movement is alive, but it needs more allies. Childbirth can get better — but only if you and I demand it.

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