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Childbirth in the Media: Scary on Many Levels

This article about portrayals of childbirth in the media is really interesting. Never mind the dramatic “war stories” mothers sometimes tell about labor, the depiction of childbirth on screens big and small would scare even the toughest young woman. For a long time I’ve hated seeing childbirth depicted in films and TV, because I do think it gives a false impression of extreme danger and unbearable pain.  Some personal pet peeves:

  • Women immediately know when they go into labor.  Latest example: Snow White in Once Upon a Time has a single pang, and cries, “The baby’s coming!”  Reality: you walk around for weeks having contractions, weird pains, and a somewhat dilated cervix, always wondering if labor is really starting or you have three more weeks of this to enjoy.
  • Women giving birth naturally in an emergence situation need to be told when to push (usually by an untrained male bystander).  Reality: authority figures standing around telling women when to push are an artifact of epidurals and such that make women unable to feel what is happening.  Most women can push just fine without coaching, breath-holding, or counting, if they’re unmedicated. Memorable offenders: Lost, Fringe.
  • Women scream and yell and are out of control the whole time.  Sure, this is more dramatic or funny in a movie.  But it makes people think labor is a giant crisis, when there are different stages, some calm, some that involve yelling for some moms. Every comedy about pregnancy ever has used this trope.
  • Women lie flat on their backs. This is the worst position for giving birth, short of actually standing on your head with your legs crossed. Again, almost every TV depiction of birth, including reality shows, has this.
  • Speaking of reality shows, they want to create drama and tension, so just about every birth becomes a life-threatening crisis at one point or another.  There’s not a lot of advertisers clamoring to buy spots during a show that depicts a mother sitting in a tub, closing her eyes, and occasionally giving a soft moan.  (The fact that many of the emergencies shown may be iatrogenic is a topic for another post.)

Birth isn’t THAT bad, in most cases.  It is, after all, a normal bodily function.  I won’t lie – my births involved pain and a LOT of work, but I’ve had stomach viruses and headaches that made me wish for anesthesia a lot more than labor did.  And I never once turned to my husband and screamed, “You did this to me!”

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Natural Childbirth – No Medals Required

Sometimes when you talk about planning for a natural, drug-free labor, people will protest and tell you, “You don’t get a medal for having natural childbirth, you know.”  The underlying message is that going drug-free is some social power play, motivated by a need to feel superior.

While it is fun to wow people with what a badass I am for having had natural childbirth, the thought of one-upping other moms was the farthest thing from my mind when I was deciding where and how to give birth.  I did a lot of research and asked a lot of pointed questions (one midwife took me aside at a tour and asked if I was a nurse).  I decided on natural childbirth outside a hospital, not for a medal, but for:

My births were not exactly fun or easy.  I didn’t have any powerful spiritual experiences, and I don’t feel the pain was necessarily a rite of passage.  But I felt safe.  I felt my babies and I had the best chance for health and wellbeing, and I trusted that if an intervention was suggested, it would be truly necessary and prudent, not just procedure or an aid to the convenience of the medical staff.  I felt very secure that my care was both philosophically respectful of me as a person, and based on the best available evidence.

Who needs a medal when you’ve got that?

(Picture credit: Moms Deserve Medals, which produces medals for all mothers, regardless of birth circumstancs.)

Would you, could you, in a pill?

After giving birth, truly dedicated earth mothers don’t just delay cord clamping or ceremonially bury their placenta under a tree.

They eat it.

Why would they do this?  It’s not completely out of left field.  Many mammals, including herbivores, eat their placentas.  We don’t really know why yet.  Some people have taken this fact, together with the information that the placenta contains iron, estrogen, and progesterone, and concluded that eating your placenta will restore nutrients and hormones lost during labor, and help prevent such problems as anemia, low milk supply, and post-partum depression.  Most people seem to go for having the placenta dried and made into pills (“encapsulation”), to cut down on the ick factor.  Advocates of the practice are passionate and certain, employing a lot of bare assertion and very little actual evidence.

Check out some of the breathless claims from this placenta-preparation service:

The placenta has great restorative properties to assist you with your postpartum recovery.  It contains many vital nutrients including iron, protein, vitamin B6, and the hormones it excreted during pregnancy. Just as it supported and nourished your baby, the placenta, when carefully prepared, nourishes the postpartum mother. It supports lactation and assists in the involution of the uterus to it’s non-pregnant size. It facilitates an easier postpartum recovery by increasing maternal energy and easing transitions.

Placental Services also gives this citation:

“181 out of 210 women who were given dried placenta to increase milk supply had positive results and saw an increase in their milk supply.
Placenta as a Lactagogon; Gynaecologia 138: 617-627, 1954″

Now, first let me say, if you would like to consume your baby’s placenta on the off chance it will do you good, I suppose you should go for it. I don’t see much harm. If it does nothing, you might lose some money to a professional encapsulator. (Of course safe handling is important, just like with raw beef or chicken or whatever.) But really, whatever floats your boat.

I’ll also grant that it’s possible that placentophagy could have some benefits. It’s not completely ridiculous, the way homeopathy is. It’s at least feasible that recouping iron and hormones could be beneficial.

But here’s my problem – this is at best a hypothesis. It’s testable, but hasn’t really been tested (as far as I can tell, that study didn’t use a control group, and the sample is small to boot). It’s a pretty big leap from “animals do this” and “it contains hormones” to “ingesting dried placenta prevents depression and low milk supply.”  There’s also no particular reason to think that, say, iron from your placenta would be more beneficial than a Walgreens iron supplement.

And why are people so eager to make that huge leap? Because it’s “natural.” You won’t see this wide-eyed credulity when it comes to vaccines, for damn sure. People who avoid ingesting acetaminophen or corn syrup jump at the chance to chow down on placenta, because that’s what sheep do. It just doesn’t make sense to me. And I’m worried about the general mentality because it leads to distrust of science-based medicine and encourages faith in altmed woo – something that occurs in nature and seems like an alternative to Big Pharma products catches on fast, but any inquiry into whether it’s true is ignored.

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