While hospital birth still remains the most popular choice among women in the United States, many women are turning to more natural surroundings for giving birth. With infant and maternal mortality rates skyrocketing in the US, mirroring out-of-control rates of the use of risky medical interventions, some women are choosing to take a different path in their search for safer birth.
One of these paths is unassisted childbirth or “UC.” Unassisted birth is also called by other names, such as freebirth and family birth. Unassisted childbirth is the practice of giving birth outside of a hospital setting and without the aid of a hired medical professional such as a doctor or midwife. Mothers who practice unassisted childbirth come from all walks of life.
With the maternal death rates in the United States climbing year after year, some mothers have turned to unassisted childbirth due to its association with lower incidence of interventions and its popular association with safer outcomes. In a nation where maternal mortality rates increase with the incidence of obstetric intervention used, these women are choosing to abandon a system that seems to have already abandoned them long ago.
According to this report from The Huffington Post, the United States is now the only developed nation whose maternal mortality rates are climbing as its peers are seeing drops in deaths around the time of childbirth. The US has the highest rates of infant and maternal mortality rates in the developed world. Even some third world countries have lower perinatal mortality rates in both infants and mothers than the United States. And the most striking aspect of all of this is that the United States spends more on maternity care than any other country in the world.
Many women choose the path of unassisted childbirth because of abuse inflicted on them by doctors and hospital staff. This abuse is commonly reported and ranges from verbal to physical abuse, even life-threatening and scarring abuse. Some women are made to endure horrifying ordeals. More than once, women have been court-ordered to undergo cesareans, losing all rights to their body or to make their own medical decisions. Most mothers who choose unassisted childbirth do not do so for their first baby. Most of the women come into UC after experiencing abuse at the hands of their caregivers. I interviewed several women online who have had and are planning future unassisted births to find out how these mothers feel about unassisted birth and about the treatment they received in previous hospital births.
“[Hospital birth] terrifies me. After having been birth raped during my son’s birth, I will never go to hospital unless it is a true emergency, and even then I am afraid my bodily integrity will be denied. I am scared they will ignore my rights to informed consent and denial of certain procedures. I am scared of getting abused again by the people who are supposed to be helping me in my time of need.” — Ingrid H.
“Giving birth in a hospital makes me feel defensive. I feel bullied and intimidated. Every time the medical establishment talked me into something that I didn’t want, I felt taken advantage of, and disappointed in myself and embarrassed that I let it happen.” — Lindsey M.
“Thinking of my previous (4) hospital births gives me literal panic attacks. It makes me want to throw up.” — Aimee J.
“Terrified, insane. I know how you are treated there, and I know how demeaning it is. I know it is abusive and dominating crushing an individual’s strength for the sake of ease for the staff.” — Ramona R.
“We had planned an unassisted birth with our 3rd child. Just a few days before his birth, my father began ranting & raving, yelling and insisting that our baby would die. I’ve been dealing with my father’s bad behavior my whole life, but my husband lost all confidence at that point. I agreed to deliver at the hospital because I felt that I needed his support for a UC. It was by far my longest, most painful birth, & I felt pushed and bullied by the nurses the whole time. When we found out we were pregnant with our 4th, we didn’t even have to discuss it. We knew that we would have an unassisted birth and we would not tell our parents the plan.” — Lindsey M.
After hospital and midwife-assisted ordeals that can result in severe depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder, it is no wonder some of these women fire their care providers and pursue gentler alternatives for better outcomes.
Many women are also unhappy with the quality of care they receive in pregnancy. Most mothers experience lengthy waits in offices before getting to see their doctor and even then, conversations with their OB tend to be very short and concise. Obstetricians very rarely discuss proper nutrition, exercise, physical care, and childbirth education with their patients. Some mothers feel as though they are not being informed and are treated only as numbers on a page in a manila folder. Some women who choose unassisted childbirth choose to do their own prenatal care as well, saying that they are able to perform the same tests themselves that a midwife could and they can research more comprehensive care than doctors offer in their services such as fitness and nutritional education.
One mother, Ingrid H., explains her self-care routine: “I did my own prenatal care. I did the same vital things a Dr. would have done. They included: weight, blood pressure, pulse, temperature, clarity/color of urine, testing urine for glucose, protein, and blood, noting vaginal discharge, fundal height, noting fetal movement, noting fetal position, noting edema, and noting contractions.” UC mothers who wish to have an ultrasound can request them during OB visits.
Interest in unassisted birth in general has sparked worldwide interest. So much so, in fact, that Lifetime has announced its plan to air an “unassisted” birth reality television show called Born in the Wild. Many advocates of unassisted birth are skeptical of the show’s intent. While the idea of watching mothers giving birth in a natural setting seems empowering, beautiful, and educational, most practitioners of UC are concerned with the fact that the women on the show will not actually birthing unassisted as emergency medical personnel will be with her as well as a camera crew.
Michel Odent, a world-renowned French obstetrician and proponent of natural childbirth, has done research on the neurological and hormonal functions in women in labor, showing that when a woman is observed by outsiders during childbirth, it causes changes in her body which hinder her birth and can increase the mother’s risk of developing complications due to her body’s natural inhibition.
Aimee J., a mother of four babies born in-hospital and now a mother of a five-week-old born unassisted at home writes, “I cringe thinking about this new reality show. For me the whole point of unhindered/unassisted is to not be around the fear. It honestly makes me sad for those that will watch thinking they are watching true unhindered births, when it really won’t be. They will see fear, hospital transfers, medical intervention and it will make the UC community look crazy.”
Having an unassisted birth does not mean that a mother is anti-hospital or anti-doctor or that she will not seek medical attention when necessary. On the contrary, mothers who birth unassisted transfer their care to an OB or hospital if a health situation arises which requires assistance or if they need assistance in labor for exhaustion or complications. Proponents of UC believe that hospitals are for medical emergencies but that childbirth and pregnancy are not medical emergencies in and of themselves.
Lia R. writes, “for all of my pregnancies/births if anything felt or seemed off, I would absolutely go in – evidenced by the fact that for my fourth, I did, even though my initial plan was to do unassisted prenatal for her.”
And Amanda H. explains, “If an emergency or situation I was uncomfortable during pregnancy or birth were to arise, I would seek medical care immediately. I would never put my ‘wants’ above the safety of my baby or myself.”
While outsiders may have difficulty understanding what it might be like to give birth without a medical professional present, mothers who birth unassisted unanimously describe their experiences as beautiful, joyful, and empowering. These women enjoy birthing in quiet peace with their loved ones around them to offer support. Amanda H. writes, “there is a freedom, a brilliance, a spiritual awakening that occurs when birthing alone. You are free to listen to the voice within yourself. You are completely open to the needs of your own body and your baby within you.”