Natural Birth: Should You Have A Drug-Free Childbirth?

Rachel Henley knew she wanted a natural childbirth even before she got pregnant with her now-2-year-old son, Bradley. “I loved the idea of bringing a baby into the world using just my body,” she says. She reached her goal of delivering her son at a birthing centre without any medication, but says it wasn’t easy. “The pain was pretty intense and I had a 30-hour labour,” she admits. (She stuck to her birth plan and used meditation, massage and a variety of positions to help make it through.) “However, I didn’t have to recover from pain medication, which was a plus,” she says.

Although Henley says she would have another natural childbirth, she’s quick to add that she can see why it’s not for everyone. So what exactly does it mean to have a natural birth and who is a good candidate? We asked birthing experts for the lowdown.

What is natural childbirth? 

“Natural childbirth refers to a labour and delivery with limited, minimal, or no medical intervention, such as intravenous medications, continuous fetal monitoring, assisted delivery with forceps or vacuum or a cesarean section,” says Dr Alyssa Dweck.  It can occur in a birthing centre, hospital or at home.

Natural birth advocates favour a variety of delivery positions including squatting, all fours (hands and knees), kneeling or leaning against something (a chair, an exercise ball or your partner) or delivering in a bath of warm water.

Instead of medication for pain management, you’ll have the option to use natural pain relieving methods, including hydrotherapy, hypnosis, massage, breathing exercises and acupressure, says Dr Dweck.

What are the benefits of a natural birth?

In addition to the possibility of a quicker recovery, since you’re not dealing with side effects from medication as well as the physical symptoms of giving birth, here are a few other benefits to having a natural birth:

1. Many mums feel empowered after natural childbirth, because they delivered their babies using their own body and instincts without medical intervention, says Dr Dweck.

2. Your birth coach may form a special bond with the baby. “Having the support of a partner, family member or close friend during the natural birth process strengthens the bond between that person and the baby,” says Julie Marks, a certified midwife.

3. You may have an easier time pushing, since you’re not numbed by medication, says Allie Sakowicz, a certified doula.

4. You may be able to get up and walk sooner. “You won’t be numb from the epidural or groggy from medication,” says Dr Dweck.

What are the drawbacks of having a natural birth?

While the benefits to having a natural birth are clear, there are cons as well:

1. The pain may be more than you can handle. For Molly Dryer, it was too much. “I had planned on having a natural birth, but it got to the point where I just couldn’t take it,” she says. She opted for an epidural and was glad she was at a hospital, where it could be administered.

2. You might need more medical intervention than normal, if something goes wrong. “If an epidural is not in place and the baby’s heart rate drops, the cord prolapses or some other emergency occurs, the mum may be put under general anesthesia for birth and be exposed to the additional risks of general anesthesia,” says Sakowicz.

An epidural is a targeted, less intense form of anesthesia, and the mother is still awake and involved in what’s happening. Under general anesthesia, the mum is completely asleep and there are more side effects.

3. Home births come with extra risks. The Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RANZCOG) does not endorse planned homebirth. RANZCOG states that this is “due to its inherent risks and the ready availability of safer options for labour and delivery in Australia and New Zealand.” However, you can eliminate this risk by delivering at a hospital or birthing centre, where essential medical interventions are available if you need them.

Is natural childbirth for you? 

Natural birth requires stamina and the ability to cope well with the pain, points out Marks. Here are some other things to consider while deciding whether this type of childbirth is for you:

Yes, if these things apply to you…

  • You’re expecting only one baby
  • You’re at least 37 weeks pregnant at the time of delivery (considered full term).
  • You have a partner to help you. “You need to have a good support system, someone who is going to encourage you through the labour process,” says Sakowicz.
  • You have a doula, obstetrician and delivery facility that supports natural birth.
  • You have attended birthing classes on pain management and have techniques at the ready, such as massage, breathing and visualising.

Maybe not, if this sounds like you… 

  • If you don’t have a high tolerance for pain, natural child birth may not be for you.
  • If you are pregnant with twins or triplets.
  • If you have certain medical conditions, such as diabetes, where you may need medication during your delivery. 

What’s the best way to prepare for a natural birth?

1. Take childbirth education classes and research birth methods. The most common methods are Lamaze, Calmbirth and Hypnobirthing, says Sakowicz. “Each has a different philosophy and approach to childbirth,” she explains. “Plan to start researching childbirth education around 20 weeks of pregnancy, as some classes can be up to 12 weeks long.”

2. Create a birth plan. Think of this as a one-page “birth wishes” list, which may include things like moving freely during labour, not being hooked up to an IV and delaying newborn procedures such as the Vitamin K injection.” It’s important to go over this with your obstetrician, midwife, and/or doula before your due date to ensure that they are comfortable with all of your wishes and are aware of them. Also, be sure to bring a few copies to the hospital to distribute to your nurse and other staff members caring for you.

3. Consider hiring a doula. Doulas are non-medical professionals who specialise in helping women achieve their birth goals. While doulas do not perform clinical tasks such as checking blood pressure or fetal heart rate, they do provide emotional support, physical comfort techniques and information to labouring women.

4. Tour your hospital or birth centre. Make sure you feel comfortable with the environment and the pain management options offered there.

More information for pregnant mums:

Photo: Getty