Over 80 percent of American women have an epidural during labor. Over 30 percent of women give birth via cesarean in the US. But there’s a growing number of women pushing back against these statistics, electing to have a natural birth.
What is considered a natural birth?
Generally the term natural birth refers to labor and delivery done without pain medication and interventions of any sort.
Wait, aren’t all births “natural”?
Yes. All births are natural, no matter how they unfold.
Many mothers are understandably sensitive about the term “natural” because it also implies that there are “unnatural” births.
Let me be super clear: There is no such thing as an unnatural birth. This article is not about mom-shaming or judging how babies are born.
That said, the commonly held definition of “natural birth” is childbirth done without medication or interventions, which is why I’m using the term for this article.
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What are the benefits of natural birth?
You have to wonder: Why would anybody want to go natural? That was my question when I became pregnant with first child Griffin. I was living a natural life at the time, so liked the idea of a natural birth. But, I was also scared of the pain. Could I really show up to it? Could I even have a natural childbirth? After all, my mom had two c-sections, maybe I would follow suit.
While not every birth can end this way, I certainly was going to give it my all to have a natural childbirth. I went right out and joined some natural birthing classes. Her’s what I learned along the way:
8 ways natural birth is usually safest and healthiest for baby
1. Improved microbiome
Baby gets huge benefits when delivered by natural birth. Vaginally born babies have more diversified microbiomes, less allergies, less risk of obesity, asthma, and diabetes in childhood and later.
2. Increased protective bacteria
Babies receive protective bacteria from the birth canal that helps build their immune system. Babies born via cesarean birth are more likely to pick up bacteria that is on skin.
3. Lower rate of respiratory issues
Passing through the birth canal in a natural birth also helps shape the head and expel amniotic fluid from the lungs which lower baby’s risk for respiratory problems like asthma.
4. Improved heart rate
Narcotic drugs cross the placenta to reach the baby’s bloodstream and can affect the baby’s heart rate during labor as well as their transition to breathing and breastfeeding after birth. Narcotic medications affect babies in the same way they affect moms, producing drowsiness, disorientation, and depression of heart rate and breathing.
Changes in the mother’s blood pressure following administration of the epidural can cause the baby’s heart rate to go down. While this problem can usually be corrected with position changes and administration of intravenous fluid, in rare cases it can lead to an emergency cesarean.
Likewise, the baby’s ability to process and excrete drugs is not as mature as an adult’s, so even though only small amounts of epidural anesthesia medications are found in the baby’s bloodstream, studies have shown that it takes babies much longer to excrete medications used for local epidural anesthesia. Some studies have found that epidurals can negatively affect baby’s immune system, and may compromise fetal heart rate and blood supply at birth.
5. Higher APGAR score
Epidurals can cause fever in mothers during labor. Babies born to mothers with fevers are more likely to have poor tone, to require resuscitation, to have seizures in the newborn period, and have low APGAR scores.
6. Improved function in the weeks following birth
Finally, some studies have concluded that babies born to mothers who had an epidural during labor demonstrate more disorganized behavior in the early days and weeks, as well as a reduced ability to initiate and continue successful breastfeeding. More studies need to be done to determine if these effects are related to the epidural or simply related to the types of births that may necessitate an epidural, but it’s just another reason to use caution when choosing interventions.
7. Higher IQ
This preliminary study suggests that natural birth may also boost brain development.
8. Reduced risk of obesity and diabetes later in life
Cesarean births are also linked to obesity and diabetes later in life. Researchers theorize that this finding could be because:
- The stress of birth may alter the activity of genes in the baby.
- Differences in gut bacteria could affect later health.
- Not being exposed to infections early in life (as c-section babies often are) may reduce a child’s immune response against it.
4 ways natural birth is usually safest and healthiest for mom
1. Recovery time is shorter
One reason that cesarean births are on the rise may be that doctors have a relaxed attitude about cesarean section surgery. The truth is cesareans are major abdominal surgery with side effects including severe bleeding, scarring, infections, reactions to anesthesia (like nausea and vomiting) and, of course, a longer recovery time.
Longer-lasting side effects can include bowel problems where the intestines don’t move waste properly and a possibility that another organ, like the bladder, could be injured.
Any incision made in the uterus has the potential to cause uterine rupture in subsequent pregnancies, a very rare but serious complication.
2. Mama won’t be in a fog from interventions
As previously mentioned, narcotics affect mother and baby in similar ways. The disorientation, grogginess, and impaired memory that comes with narcotic administration during labor not only affects the woman’s ability to move freely but also may affect her ability to remember the birth and bond with her baby in that first hour or two following birth.
3. Reduced risk of complications
Additionally epidurals can cause a number of side effects for mom. Epidural use puts mom at increased risk of severe perineal tear, cesarean birth, need for Pitocin, persistent posterior baby position, instrumental birth and complications from instrumental birth, and pelvic floor problems such as incontinence and sexual disfunction.
4. Shorter labor
In addition, during a vaginal birth, epidural anesthesia lengthens the 2nd stage of labor (pushing) by 2-3 hours, possibly because mom can’t feel “how” to best move baby or because the epidural has numbed the vagina, which normally signals the extra oxytocin release that pushes baby out. Some moms have the opposite effect as the epidural can calm and relax the pelvic muscles so baby can be pushed out without surgery.
Natural birth improves breastfeeding outcomes
Establishing breastfeeding early is the best way to ensure a long and happy nursing relationship. Pitocin use is associated with newborn jaundice and jaundiced babies are known to have difficulty breastfeeding.
Pain medication such as Demerol can interfere with the newborns ability to suck. This study concluded that this drug is best avoided during birth.
A number of studies have found a correlation between epidural use and fewer breastfed babies though no correlation to breastfeeding attempts. That means that women weren’t less likely to try just less likely to succeed. One study found that epidural anesthesia during birth correlated to ending breastfeeding by 24 weeks postpartum.
C-sections can cause breastfeeding problems. Pain medication given to you for recovery can cross over into your milk and cause a sleepy baby. Sleepy babies have trouble nursing. Also, moms aren’t always able to breastfeed within that first hour postpartum due to recovery from surgery. Some hospitals may rush to supplement, which can cause issues with long-term breastfeeding success. This study showed that women who had a cesarean section had a “significant delay in initiating breastfeeding compared with women giving birth vaginally”.
But is natural birth safe?
Women are designed to give birth.
Many doctors lead us to believe differently, but the truth is: In most cases, women are perfectly capable of giving birth to a healthy baby without any interventions. Birth is a normal biological function, not a medical event. Though we are incredibly lucky to have interventions if they are necessary, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that birth normally happens on its own.
The disbelief of this truth has far reaching consequences. One study found that women who are fearful of childbirth are more likely to have longer labors and are more likely to need instrument assistance or an emergency c-section. We need to dispel these fears and empower ourselves with the facts around natural birth.
Is natural birth painful?
Bottom line: Yes.
But pain is part of nature’s plan. Here me out: Sensation is important to birth a baby. Labor pain in natural birth helps a mom find what works for her to bring baby into the world. The choices she makes instinctively will help her contractions be as productive as possible.
Pain helps tell mom when it’s time to change positions so baby can continue down the birth canal. It also helps mom know when it’s time to push, how to push, and when to stop pushing to avoid a tear.
There are plenty of ways to mitigate the pain…
Changing positions, meditating, breathing deep, listening to soothing music, or using water are very effective ways to cope with labor pain. But the biggest helpers in natural birth are endorphins. During labor, oxytocin stimulates contractions and endorphins are released to help ease pain. Oxytocin helps mom go into a meditative state and find what works best for her during labor.
Here are 11 proven options for natural pain relief during childbirth.
Interventions like epidurals and Pitocin interfere with this natural cascade of hormones and can prevent mom from entering this meditative labor state and getting the full benefit of her endorphin surges. This can result in feeling more pain, discomfort, or anxiety.
Sometimes the epidural is turned down for pushing (a numb mom can’t push effectively) and she is flooded with pain and no endorphins to help. Likewise, when the Pitocin is turned up for stronger contractions, the mom is not supported by her body’s natural pain relievers.
The bottom line on natural birth
Please know that my intention in this article is not to condemn, criticize, or judge any mother who chooses to have any interventions. Nor is it my intention that any mother should feel bad about her labor. Birth is a mystery and each one unfolds as it needs to. Sometimes babies are even born in cars! We can steer the ship as best as we can, but ultimately, the process is much bigger than us.
I, myself, had interventions with my first birth. And my mother had me via cesarean; without that intervention, I may not be here today!
The point is to use interventions judiciously. With our high c-section and epidural rates, my sense is that many people don’t understand the full picture. We need to know the risks and benefits, then make the best choice for ourselves, our families, and our births.
How about you?
Did you have a natural birth? Why or why not?