The imminent arrival of the royal baby is focussing the nation's minds on childbirth. Aside from being a duchess, Kate Middleton is in fact typical of the average pregnant woman in the UK. According to the national statistics, most first births in the UK are to mothers aged 30-34. Kate is a mere 31. While the media is speculating about the sex of her baby, I'm wondering about her birth experience.
In my pregnancy yoga classes, the talk often turns to the merits of natural births versus C-section. In general, women who attend ante-natal yoga classes are keen to experience the former (One Born Every Minute hasn't put them off). And in London, where I teach, there's a huge interest in this type of birth with couples scrabbling to secure places in National Childbirth Trust (NCT) classes and on hypnobirthing courses.
Many of my students are older than pregnant women in other parts of the country. And despite their wishes, an increasing number end up having Caesareans. In 2012, 25% births in the UK were by C-section and this figure rose to one in three births when the mother was aged over 35. These figures will rise again this year because women over 40 are now being advised/booked in for inductions when they reach 39 weeks (research published in January says this will reduce the risk of stillbirth).
When the birthing centre and Helios homeopathic kit have to be abandoned and women are wheeled into the labour ward for an 'emergency' C-section, the psychological effect on the mother can be devastating, leading to feelings of inadequacy and post-natal depression. While we discuss this eventuality in class, it saddens me that natural births appear to become medicalised so rapidly. For example, many hospitals won't deliver breech babies because midwives lack experience/it takes too long. We know that the NHS is stretched and have read horror stories of women travelling 65 miles because wards are shut due to staff shortages. But it doesn't have to be this way, does it?
Illustrious US midwife Ina May Gaskin believes much of this intervention is unnecessary. The C-section rate at her Tennessee birthing centre The Farm, founded in 1971, is just 1.4%. Heralded by Gwyneth Paltrow, an absorbing award-winning 2012 documentary Birth Story: Ina May Gaskin & The Farm Midwives about the activist and her birthing techniques is circulating arts cinemas right now and will be shown at the Screen on the Green in Islington on Friday 12 July. In keeping with the hippie nature of the film, all profits from the screening will benefit maternal health and newborn charities.
Natural birth isn't for everyone and the footage of ecstatic naked couples probably won't be embraced in Buck House, but if a woman aspires to this type of birth then she should be offered the means. By its nature, birth isn't a medical procedure but with all the blood tests and clinic visits it often seems that way. Too often a first time mother's birth experience involves a long, lonely experience in hospital, accompanied by a shell-shocked partner. Birth Story is pertinent right now because it demystifies birth, encouraging us to share our stories and support each other through this transformative experience.