True Stories of Painless Births

A few issues ago, the Human Givens Journal published an interview with Sheila Barratt-Smith, of GentleBirth birth courses (in the UK). In this interview, she tells us about normal, pain-free births.

Now, I’m not a woman, and I’ve never given birth, and both of my daughters experienced complications while being born (so not “normal” births). So I’ll let Sheila tell us why a normal birth shouldn’t have to be painful:

Having a baby is a normal bodily function, and so it is not logical automatically to expect pain when using a part of the body for the purpose for which it was designed. Pain is a sign that there is something wrong, and nothing is wrong with normal birth.

So why, then, is giving birth such a painful chore for so many women? Sheila goes into quite some detail answering that question. But it basically boils down to two words: placebo effect. We’ve been so inculcated with the idea that birth is painful—the only natural, constructive bodily function that is painful—from top stories of labor complications (which catch our attention because they are so dramatic and relatively unusual), to jokes about the woman in labor physically hurting her partner because of the pain and adrenaline, to the mother on TV telling her child, “8 hours in labor, that’s why you have to do what I say!” Even the so-called natural birthing classes that the Missus and I took back in the day: we were told the breathing exercises were important to manage the pain. Our culture is infused with the idea that birth is an abnormally painful process.

But, says Sheila, this has not always been so, and is still not so in numerous world cultures. And she tells story after amazing story from her clients, who have given birth normally, without pain, sometimes even effortlessly.

This is all anecdotal, of course, not a scholarly research paper. But still fascinating. And it leads me to ask, “What if it’s true?” The placebo effect, it is well understood, causes the mind itself powerfully to cause and alleviate pain. It makes sense that if a woman believes birth to be painful—if everyone from her loved ones to her doctor has been hammering her with the idea—that she just might feel pain during birth. And it also makes sense that if she believes it to be a normal, natural, beautiful bodily function, that she just might relax and feel at ease about it.

In any case, I think I’m done rambling now. Click here to read the interview with Sheila Barratt-Smith.


P.S. In this interview, she does spend a lot of time talking about the birthing process she teaches, because that’s what interests readers of the Human Givens Journal. But there are a number of fascinating stories sewn throughout. If nothing else, read the one near the bottom of the first page of the article, the story of “Sarah,” who was giving birth so calmly, the midwives ignored her when she said the baby was coming, because none of the signs of painful labor were there, and her baby was practically in this world before they realized what was happening.

P.P.S. In the article, Sheila says, “In America, they have a 46 per cent caesarean rate and the second highest newborn death rate in the developed world.” I don’t want to get too deeply into it here, because this post is supposed to be light and uplifting. I do, however, want to say that you have to be careful with “rates” like the newborn death rate. Such things are political talk, designed to scare and not to uplift. In reality, a high newborn death rate—ironic but true—is as likely as not a good and encouraging sign for mothers-to-be, because it can mean that more especially premature babies are surviving birth, and many of them grow into healthy children. In places with less excellent premie care, those especially early babies wouldn’t even have been counted as “newborns.” (See e.g. this testimony by Michael Tanner; search for “infant mortality.”) In other words, excellent premie care—such as we have in here in the US—indirectly pushes up the government “newborn death rate” statistics. I’m not familiar enough with the C-section rate statistic, but factors like good premie care could also indirectly affect it (although it’s hard to see how that alone could push it up to 46%).