Here is a quest entry from Dr Rosanna Gilderthorp, Clinical Psychologist and Hypnobirthing Teacher from Mind, Body and Baby.
I don’t normally give advice. As a psychologist I have spent a decade learning how to help people find their own answers to their difficulties. As a hypnobirthing teacher I want to empower people to make their own choices about birth not make them for them. BUT on this subject I just feel so strongly I can’t keep my opinion to myself. I’m going to force it on you all and I don’t care if it is controversial.
One Born Every Minute, the highly successful TV programme that starts a new series tomorrow evening, is making birth worse for UK women. It really is and I am going to tell you why.
Your threat (fight/flight/freeze) system can’t tell the difference between real, lived experiences and imagined ones. This is because the threat response is governed by the oldest part of our brain and this has remained pretty much unchanged since we were reptiles. It is only capable of perceiving threat or safety. There aren’t shades of grey for your average iguana.
It is the newest part of your brain however that, amongst other things, holds your ability to imagine, plan and worry about the worst case scenario. Input from your senses can directly trigger the threat response but so can input from this new part of the brain. This is useful because sometimes it is the fact that we are able to imagine the worst case scenario that stops us making mistakes that other animals might make. For example, we imagine getting run over so don’t step out in front of the car. Unfortunately it also means we can trigger our own threat systems by just thinking about something scary.
Think about it and you know I’m speaking the truth. Why else would horror movies or pictures of spiders make your heart race and your palms sweat? The problem is if we see enough negative/scary images of a particular thing they build up in our brains over time and convince us that it is something we should be scared of. This problem is compounded if what we are watching is supposed “reality TV”. And this is where OBEM becomes such a problem for women who want a comfortable experience of birth. The media bombards us with the kind of births that make dramatic TV, i.e. the scary ones. From Downton Abbey to Coronation Street you have been subjected to images of women screaming in agony, waters gushing in public, baby’s heads emerging in car parks and even mum’s dying in childbirth since you were a child yourself. People also like to tell their most dramatic stories so tales of woe are more likely to be the birth stories that you hear over coffee with friends and family. The success of OBEM is down to the fact that people love that drama in the same way they love horror movies. A little bit of fear stimulates us, activating the threat system when we are actually safe can feel good for a short period, the producers choose to show births that fulfil that need for drama and that is fine. But not if you want to birth comfortably.
The truth is that birth does not have to be as it appears on OBEM but it most likely will be if your brain has been primed to activate your threat system at the first sign of labour. Once your threat system is activated the birthing body recieves a huge hit of adrenaline. This has many damaging effects but these are the big 3:
1. TENSION! The muscles of the uterus will become tense. Baby’s head will therefore come into contact with rigid, hard wall of muscle and that will hurt. Furthermore the vertical muscles of the uterus will continue trying to pull up the horizontal muscles that are supposed to dilate the cervix. But they won’t want to go anywhere. Muscles working against each other = PAIN.
2. LACK OF OXYGEN. Adrenaline tells your body to send its oxygenated blood to the extremities to enable you to run away. This means it takes the valuable oxygenated blood AWAY from the uterus, making it inefficient and slowing labour down and taking valuable oxygen away from the baby. This is a common reason for babies to become distressed during labour and increases the likelihood that medical intervention will be needed to get them out quickly. The mother is likely to become more scared when medical interventions are suggested, more adrenaline is produced and the vicious cycle continues!
3. LACK OF OXYTOCIN. Adrenaline inhibits oxytocin, the hormone that starts labour and keeps it progressing. Without it surges (contractions) are likely to slow/stop. For the reasons given above the baby may well be becoming distressed at this point and this is when many medical interventions are offered/needed to get the baby out safely.
This reaction to threat during labour has evolved for a sensible reason. In our evolutionary past if a lion were to come into your cave you would bloody well want your surges to stop so you could get out of there and resume your labour later. It is less helpful however when what you are scared of is a long painful labour however as the fear itself is what is creating the problem!
Of course our imaginations can also work in our favour. Lizzie Yarnold credits her sporting improvements over the past four years to visualising/imagining the tracks of the Winter Olympics. Her body has primed itself to take the exact twists and turns of those courses as a result of imagining them, even though she wasn’t able to physically practice on them.
If you still feel sceptical spend a couple of seconds imagining your favourite dinner. Imagine you come home to find the house filled with the smell of your favourite food, think of what it looks like, smells like, tastes like, feels like in your mouth. The fact that you’ve probably got some saliva production going on right now shows you the strength of the imagination and the power it has over our primitive bodies.
In hypnobirthing courses we harness the power of our imaginations for good. By filling your daily life with positive birth videos, positive birth stories and affirmations you can train your brain to tell your body to relax and be excited when the first signs of labour come along. Hypnosis helps the brain get into a more receptive state to accept these new ideas about birth but essentially we are just re-programming it so instead of all the images from OBEM flooding your system you get wonderful images of empowered and comfortable births instead.
Therefore I urge you, if you are expecting a baby at the moment, please don’t watch OBEM tomorrow. If you want some birth experiences take a look at these stories from hypnobirthing mums instead. I’ve even made a Pinterest board dedicated to positive birth stories. There are births of every type on there, hospital, c-section and home birth but they are all of empowered women and their birth partners totally bossing their births. That is what you need in your life right now. Ditch the drama and prime your brain and body for the birth you deserve!
If you like the idea of a distinctly non-dramatic birth (drama is not needed whatever turns your birth takes) book a hypnobirthing course. There are online and in-person options available so whatever your situation, we will get you feeling positive about birth!
By Dr Rosanna Gilderthorp, Clinical Psychologist and Hypnobirthing Teacher from Mind, Body and Baby. Rosie specialises in helping women overcome traumatic births and prepare for positive birth experiences the second time round. She provides online therapy and specialist hypnobirthing courses as well as services in Plymouth where she lives with her husband and two young children.