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What About The Baby?: The Dynamics Of A Normal And Healthy Birth

By Anne Margolis, CNM

On the physical level, birth happens naturally by a complex series of biological events believed to be initiated by the baby. When baby is ready, it is her biological priority to navigate down the birth canal with help from the contractions of the mother’s uterus and her instinctive pushing, gravity, and mobile positioning. An immediate connection to the mother and breastfeeding are crucial after birth to begin bonding and for the baby’s healthy development.

The baby can experience anything that interrupts this process as invasive, overwhelming, and scary.

In his book, Birth Trauma—A Baby’s View, Graham Kennedy explains the significance of how we treat birth:

The birth process is more than just the means through which we come into this world. It is the first major period of transition in our lives. This transition from our experience of being intimately connected with our mother, whilst in the womb, to gradually separating and individuating, once we leave the womb, affects us not only physically but also emotionally and psychologically. The effects of this transition can range from mild to severe depending on the nature of the birth.

Birth is tough enough without even considering interventions. Going down the birth canal includes twisting and turning the body, head, and neck, as well as compression and pressure. But we as a species have handled it just fine, born into a calm community of love and support, soothed in the warmth and comfort of mama’s chest, quiet surroundings, soft lighting, on-demand breastfeeding, and babywearing.

If babies feel overwhelmed and frightened, this feeling can be locked into their bodies as trauma until they work it out of their systems after birth. It also can impact them for a longer period of time, developing into behavioral and learning difficulties in the child’s later years.

We know from decades of research in neurology, embryology, and psychology that newborns are born fully aware and conscious. They are exquisitely sensitive, and therefore vulnerable to acute or chronic stress and trauma. Consciousness actually begins in the womb. Drugs, alcohol, nicotine, poor nutrition, and certain infections in the mother can drastically affect the unborn baby—altering DNA and genetic expression, as well as physical, mental, and emotional development. What Mom eats, drinks, breathes, thinks, feels, and experiences goes right to the baby. So do her stress hormones.

We are learning that trauma during childbirth is not only stored by newborns as nonverbal memories, it impacts their lives at a critical time in their development. This trauma can affect short- and long-term physical and mental health, and their entire neurological system, including learning capacity, mental orientation, emotional stability, and stress management. The fight-or-flight stress response creates a strong memory in babies and leads to similar responses to future stressors. Eighty percent of children with sensory processing disorder, ADHD, developmental delays, and autism have a history of birth trauma.

“Babies are far more conscious and aware, even as newborns, than we realize,” Kennedy says. “They are also incredibly sensitive to what is going on in their environment. Unlike adults, babies do not have the option of fighting or fleeing as a response to threatening or overwhelming circumstances. As a result, the only option left available to them in these circumstances is to freeze. This makes them much more vulnerable to the effects of overwhelm and traumatization than adults, or even older children.”

So, what are some of these threatening and overwhelming circumstances?

The Damage of Technological Births

The typical hospital birth today includes an array of drugs and procedures. These are administered to incite stronger, more frequent contractions, to numb the pain or to sedate entirely. But, a baby is also susceptible to anything the mother has been given.

In addition to being flooded with their mom’s stress hormones (from fear, impersonal treatment, and being coerced into unwanted interventions), babies experience direct trauma from the aggressive way they are often ushered into the world from the comfort and connection of the dark cozy womb of their mother.

Just think for a newborn, what it’s like for them to:

  • Experience induced labor that make contractions stronger and more intense

  • Feel the effects of numbing drugs which are known to influence their microbiome and disturb the healthy balance of bacteria

  • Sense a hooked object breaking the water bag around them

  • Have an internal probe screwed onto their head to monitor continuous heart rate and contractions

  • Be pulled out by forceps, vacuum, or cesarean

  • Have their umbilical cord immediately clamped, cutting off their lifeline of blood and oxygen (as well as other nutrients, antibodies, and stem cells) as they transition to using their lungs instead—often resulting in the need to be resuscitated

  • Be born into a world of bright lights, often rough handling by strangers not trained to appreciate their conscious experience

  • Get tubes stuck down their throats to suction them

  • Have their vision blunted by antibiotic ointment in their eyes

  • Be given vitamin K and hepatitis vaccine injections, and poked for blood tests

  • Get probes put on them for screening procedures

  • Be taken to the nursery away from their parents by strangers, then left alone for hours in hospital cribs

  • Be given formula and pacifiers instead of their mother’s breast milk and skin-to-skin contact

This is routine and standard in most hospitals in the United States and other developed countries. I am not including the effects of NICU treatment and procedures for some, or being strapped down for medical circumcision for others.

The standard, technocratic birth today just doesn’t encourage a safe, quiet, intimate, and private environment for mother and baby to flow naturally within it. This type of maternity care does not promote trust or give baby the message that it is safe, kind, or comfortable to be here. It certainly does not help to enable a tender bond to develop between mother and baby. Instead, it elicits a baby’s instinctual fight-or-flight stress response. And when there is fear of harm, overwhelm, helplessness, and an inability to fight or flee, the nervous system gets stuck in trauma. It’s no wonder that some babies are so “fussy,” or won’t breastfeed with ease, or experience colic.

In Pathways issue 44, David B. Chamberlain, Ph.D., describes the situation families face today:

While in the hospital, all mothers and babies are on professional turf where everything is regulated by hospital protocol designed not for patients but for staff. […] Even in the most lenient hospital environments, parents must expect to insist upon continuous contact with their baby, as well as privacy, or they will not get it. […] The mental and emotional damage done by birth technology to infants in the last century has followed our babies into childhood and right into adulthood, and has made necessary the development of reconstructive therapies for body and mind.

Effects of Standard Birth

When looking at birth from a baby’s perspective, it does indeed sound traumatic and unfathomable, but these practices are all too common and routine—and evidently, they contribute to poor outcomes.

The U.S. ranks near the bottom as compared to other modernized countries in terms of maternal and newborn morbidity and mortality, despite high rates of medical and surgical interventions. Twenty-three percent of all births performed in U.S. hospitals are induced; this means the mother is given drugs and chemicals to provoke more frequent and intense contractions. And, 65 percent of those women will also be given epidurals on top of that to cope with the unnaturally intense pain from the medications. Furthermore, 33 percent of births in America wind up in a C-section. These numbers no longer seem ordinary when compared to natural births, 95 percent of which deliver healthy babies without intervention.

Although babies can’t verbally explain their trauma to us, the symptoms they endure because of their traumatic births are the language with which we can begin to translate for them a solution. Think of an adult in a stressed or post-traumatic state—poor appetite, trouble sleeping, expressions of angst, irritability, and irregular breathing come to mind. Babies are not so different. Don’t mistake these symptoms as those of simply a “fussy” or “difficult” baby:

  • increased heart and respiratory rate

  • increased startle response, reactivity, jerky movements

  • irritability, fussiness, being inconsolable, excessive crying (here, a baby is usually labeled as “fussy” or “difficult”), or not crying at all

  • poor sleep or excessive sleep

  • feeding difficulties

  • bonding issues; decreased eye contact; glossed, divergent eyes

According to William Emerson, a leading authority on the matter,

Most parents and professionals consider it ordinary for infants to awaken during the night, cry for long periods, have gastrointestinal distress, or be irritable. Few parents or professionals have seen trauma-free babies, so few have experienced babies who are symptom-free. In addition, few have glimpsed the human potential that is possible when babies are freed from the bonds of early trauma.

In his book, Kennedy paraphrases Emerson as saying further,

The effects of early trauma do not have to be a life sentence. With appropriate therapeutic support, they can be fully healed. Nor is there an age limit beyond which these early traumas can be treated.

Babies aren’t simply the adorable bundles of joy whose lives begin on the day they’re born. They are thinking and feeling beings that have a big job to do in transitioning from Mama’s womb to the outside world.

According to Chamberlain,

Leading researchers now sing the praises of infants. Harvard’s Berry Brazelton calls them “talented”; Hanus Papousek, a German pioneer in infant studies, calls them “precocious”; famed pediatrician Marshall Klaus calls them “amazing.” Professor T.G.R. Bower, one of the most innovative of all infant researchers, declares that newborns are “extremely competent” in perception, learning, and communication.

The research to fully understand who these amazing beings are is still unfolding and is only now gaining momentum.

When thinking of trauma, we largely conjure up images of disastrous and catastrophic situations. There is a significant amount of research, however, that shows us that any highly intense situation—especially where there is overwhelm, fear and helplessness—can have just as significant a traumatic effect on our health.

And, we generally know that the traumas that have the deepest roots in our lives are the traumas that happen the earliest, all the way back to experiences of young childhood— including birth and womb time—when we were fully conscious but not yet verbal.

This may sound overly dramatic, but it is backed by science and solid research. Being born is a big and tender step in our life. We don’t pay enough attention to the psychological impact of childbirth on newborns. We assume that babies are not aware and won’t remember the pain of transition or the insensitivity of their care.

While it may not be written in our conscious memories, experiencing birth remains in our very cells, and is certainly within our subconscious, influencing much of our behavior, reactions, and perspectives later in life. How we react to stress at work or pressure from loved ones in our adult lives, and how we make our toughest decisions, can be traced back to how we experienced birth, when the response to stresses within the nervous system was developing.

All the eggs a woman will ever carry form in her ovaries while she is a four-month-old fetus in the womb of her mother. This means our cellular life as an egg begins in the womb of our grandmother. Each of us spent five months in our grandmother’s womb, and she in turn formed in the womb of her grandmother. We vibrate to the rhythm of our mother’s blood before she herself is born, and this pulse is the thread of blood that runs all the way back through the grandmothers to the first mother. —Layne Redmond, When the Drummers Were Women