Updated: Jan 12, 2021
When I meet a new mom, dad, and baby for the first time at a consultation for colic and sleep, I always open with the same topic: “Tell me about your birth.”
Mostly my request is met with confusion, wrinkled eyebrows, and exchanged curious looks. Very often they ask me “why?” straight back. After all, they haven’t come to talk about their birth; they’ve come to work out why their baby cries so much. To me, though, the two things are so inextricably linked it is impossible to understand the issues their newborn is having unless we go back to the beginning (and sometimes even farther!). Here’s why I ask that question, and why I believe that any professional working with new parents must consider the baby’s birth in order to really help:
Physical Consequences for the Baby
If a baby is born by C-section, ventouse, or forceps, my ears always prick up immediately, especially if the labor was long and involved malpresentation. I work very closely with a local chiropractor who specializes in caring for new babies, and over the years I’ve learned an awful lot from her. Imagine if your head had been crooked at an unusual angle for several weeks, and then imagine somebody was pushing your head into that position even harder for a whole day. You’d have a headache and neck ache, right? I have seen babies in obvious discomfort, several with torticollis, unable to turn their head.
Aside from the discomfort, this can also have an effect on feeding. Several moms have told me, “He just won’t feed from that side, and cries whenever we try.” They haven’t considered that it might be painful for their baby to turn his head to do so.
And when you start delving into the world of cranial nerves, the whole issue becomes more complex. During labor the baby’s cranial bones move and overlap (think of a cone-headed newborn!). This is normal, and the bones usually return to their proper position a few days after the birth, mostly as the baby is sucking: The movement of the upper and lower jaw stimulates the base of the skull via the palate. Sometimes, however, things don’t return to normal; often abnormal skull compression becomes noticeable via the baby’s feeding habits and his need to suck much more than usual. If the baby’s vagus nerve (the nerve directly linked to digestion) is compressed, this can also have noticeable effects on a baby’s digestive system causing pain.
All of this is more likely to happen if the labor is long, the baby is malpresented (babies who laid in an asynclitic presentation during labor are often more fussy), or if the baby is born via emergency C-section, forceps, or ventouse. Visiting a good chiropractor or cranial osteopath can make a profound difference for some new parents and babies. I believe it should be available on the NHS. After all, we check a baby’s hearing after birth—why not his skull and spine?
Physical Consequences for the Mother
In my utopian world, all new mothers would be visited by a chiropractor or osteopath. I suffered from hideous pelvic girdle pain during my first two pregnancies, and it wasn’t until my third that I discovered that, hey, pregnancy doesn’t have to hurt! I was literally a changed woman. I was lucky in that I only suffered during my pregnancy, but I have known plenty of women who continued to suffer after their births. It affected their posture, both standing and seated, and the constant discomfort would slowly begin to erode into their psyche. And then there is the discomfort some women experience during breastfeeding, which often means their babies are latched poorly—and we all know where that leads.
It’s not just the pelvis and spine that matter, though. I have met too many women suffering from perineal trauma, poorly stitched episiotomies, and the like, which not only cause great physical discomfort, but emotional pain as well. This can remain troublesome long after the birth itself.
Psychological Consequences for the Baby
Even those births that have supposedly been “natural” or gone “well” can be a problem. The two big culprits here are the use of exogenous oxytocin (branded as Syntocinon or Pitocin, depending on where you’re reading this), and what happened immediately after birth.
Let’s start with the artificial oxytocin. In his article, “If I Were the Baby: Questioning the Widespread Use of Synthetic Oxytocin,” Michel Odent discusses the blood flow from mother to baby via the placenta, and points out that the permeability is higher from the mother to the fetus than vice versa. And since blood travels from mother to baby easily, so, too, does whatever substance is in the mother’s blood. Odent’s concern is the “oxytocin-induced desensitization of the oxytocin receptors,” saying that “it is probable that, at a quasi-global level, we routinely interfere with the development of the oxytocin system of human beings at a critical phase for gene-environment interaction.” What does this mean? When artificial oxytocin is put into the maternal bloodstream during labor, it enters the baby as well, and can have profound and lasting consequences on his neurophysiology for the rest of his life.
Odent goes on to say:
We now have scientific evidence that explains how the capacity to love develops through a complex interaction of hormones, hormones that are secreted during many experiences of love and close human interaction including sexual intercourse and conception, birth, lactation, and even sharing a meal with loved ones. The role of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is particularly important. Natural oxytocin delivered by human touch, but not synthetic oxytocin delivered by an intravenous drip, has important effects on many organs in the body, including the brain.
Those important effects, Odent theorizes, can cause the baby to grow with damaged oxytocin receptors, which he links to rising levels of autism, anxiety, stress, and disturbed ”self-loving”—including higher levels of anorexia and drug and alcohol dependency.
Not to mention on another level how traumatizing birth can be for babies. What they are born into is traumatic: bright lights, rough handling, scratchy towels, cold instruments, latex gloves, cord clamps, silly hats and scratch mitts, injections or bitter tasting oral drops. It’s no wonder babies cry when they’re born!
(I don’t mean to imply that birth needs to be traumatic for babies. When I trained in baby massage, our instructor Peter Walker asked us, “What if the process of birth was the very first massage we receive? What if birth is a pleasurable experience for the baby?” It really made me think.)
I was intrigued to learn of the importance of amniotic fluid in calming babies. It’s kind of obvious—a baby spends nine months in amniotic fluid, so it’s what you might call “a constant.” Naturally, then, the scent of the fluid on their skin (and that of their mother) after birth will be calming to them, reminding them of home you might say. Yet, what do we do? We wipe it off, dry them, and wrap them up in a rough towel—despite the fact there is sound scientific evidence to suggest this is the wrong thing to do. Babies whose amniotic fluid is not wiped off after birth cry significantly less, and this is without even discussing skin-to-skin contact.
Psychological Consequences for the Mother
We know that the blood-brain barrier prevents artificial oxytocin from entering the brain. This might not seem important when you are told that you need an oxytocin drip to speed up or even start your labor, or when you are told it’s best you have an injection to deliver your placenta and prevent blood loss—all of which contain synthesized oxytocin—but when you understand that this results in a direct lack of oxytocin circulating in the maternal brain, the trouble becomes clear. These supposedly safe chemicals can have catastrophic effects on the bonding of mother and child, and the initiation (and even long-term success) of breastfeeding.
Oxytocin is the hormone of love, and if we are depriving mothers of it, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to work out how we may be damaging the love process between mother and baby. So often I work with new mothers ashamed to admit that they still don’t know if they really love their babies, or that it took them a long time to love them—that there was no instant “rush of love.” I have experienced it both ways. My first two births were Syntocinontastic. The first one I had “failed to progress” (or they had failed to wait—you decide!), and thus it was deemed my failure of a body that couldn’t get my baby out without a drip to ramp up my contractions. I was then injected with Syntometrine against my consent. (I wasn’t even asked. “I’m just giving you the injection for the placenta now, dear,” and I was jabbed before I had a chance to say anything.) My second birth was an induction for preeclampsia, and I was told I had to have Syntometrine because I was ill/had been induced.
Did I get that instant rush of love with those babies? No. Was breastfeeding easy? No. My last two births were dramatically different, however. My third son arrived at home, in a birth pool, in my dimly lit living room with an incredibly respectful midwife who didn’t touch us at all. Nobody but me laid hands on him until he was three days old. Oh my goodness, now I knew what they meant by “love at first sight.” Within 30 minutes of his birth (still in my arms in the pool), I would have died for him—it was as if I was a bubble of golden, warm love. I have never felt so high, drugged, or drunk in my life. This is how birth should be, and this was how it was for my last baby, too, a birth very similar to my third. The love was chemical and instant.
I look at photos of my first two births and I can see shadows of the pain and indignity I had suffered, the trauma I had endured, and my sheer relief that it was over. Those same feelings of inadequacy, grief, and confusion lasted for years after the event. Is it any wonder why so many new mothers find it hard to bond with their babies? Why it’s hard to interpret their cries? Hard to hear their instinct? We strip so many mothers of the chemical euphoria they should experience and pay no attention to the aftereffects.
Psychological Consequences for the Father
All too often we forget about the dads, but birth can be—and is—an immensely emotional event for the father, both positively and negatively. Nobody seems to care about the dads, though. Nobody holds their hands and tells them they are doing well, nobody hugs them and listens to their worries, or tells them it’s okay to cry. We expect them to be a tower of strength...but where is their support? The sooner we catch on to this, the better.
As a doula I now firmly believe my role is 10 percent supporting the mom (if birthing women are left alone, they pretty much don’t need help from me or anyone else) and 90 percent supporting the dad. It’s funny, but a lot of expectant fathers are reluctant when it comes to employing a doula. The mothers are often much keener, but the dads worry that they will feel left out. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth. Research indicates that at births with a doula present, the partner is more supportive and more involved.
When birth goes well, it can be an amazing high for the dad, too. It can help him bond with his baby almost as instantly as the mom. But when it goes bad...oh, when it goes bad. I have been at a couple of ventouse births and episiotomies now, sitting at “the business end,” and sometimes the visions and noises still haunt me. How must it feel to see your partner in distress, being cut, or having a baby pulled out of her with great force? And afterward being sent home, alone, two hours later, if your baby was born outside of visiting hours. We don’t seem to understand how traumatic witnessing a birth such as that can be for a dad, and the impact it can have upon his transition to fatherhood.
We know that when dads are supportive of breastfeeding the mother is much more likely to be successful and feed for longer. The birth can have a big impact on the dad, and that will affect the support he’s able to give to his partner.
So, what do I do with the information that is given to me about the birth from the new parents? Sometimes I’ll suggest a visit to a chiropractor, a breastfeeding counselor, or a birth afterthoughts midwife—or, rarely, a telephone call to the birth trauma association. But often I just listen, and listen some more. For that mom or dad it may be the first time somebody has listened to their story. Never underestimate the impact that being listened to can have on somebody’s state of mind.
Next time you meet a new mom with a colicky baby, think about asking her about her birth.
This article appeared in Pathways to Family Wellness magazine, Issue #61 and was written by Sarah Ockwell-Smith. It can also be found here: http://pathwaystofamilywellness.org/Parenting/five-reasons-your-birth-can-affect-your-baby-and-your-parenting.html