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OUR BABIES, OURSELVES PART 1: The Pain of Childbirth

by Sarah on January 12th, 2011

What I’ve decided to do over the next few weeks, is chat about some of the topics that I found really interesting in Our Babies, Ourselves.  Because it’s such an insightful book, I thought it’d be worth looking at it in-depth. The first thing that really struck a cord with me, was the issue of pain in childbirth.

Because I practiced Hypnobirthing before I had Lily, I was rather convinced that I wasn’t going to feel much pain. I was of the opinion that it was society’s fear of childbirth over the last few thousands of years which had created the pain. Animals don’t feel it as badly as humans do because, for them, there is no hype around labour. I was wrong in my beliefs, purely because they weren’t based on fact.

According to Meredith F. Small, the author of Our Babies, Ourselves, there are two main reasons for pain in childbirth.  The first is bipedalism (humans walk on two legs, not all fours) and the second is that we have larger brains than any other primate species.

Our pelvis is an odd shape compared to other primates, to allow for us to walk upright. And our sacrum (tail bone) is wider and thicker, plus it angles into the pelvis, to support our internal organs. This creates a seriously difficult route for our babies to follow in birth, compared to other mammals (p.8-12)

All primates have large brains compared to their bodies when they are born. Humans’ brains grow far more than any of the others in the first couple of years after birth. This explains why our babies are so helpless for the first few years of their lives – their brains are still developing. If they were born with an adult sized brain, childbirth would be impossible! (p.11)

Why I’m explaining all of this to you is to make a point. Pain in childbirth is real, and there are real reasons as to why it exists: because we walk upright and because we are intelligent beings with large brains. Painful labour seems a small price to pay in return for becoming the incredible species we have become.

And as anthropologists, Karen Rosenberg and Wena Trevathan explain, what’s even more beautiful about it all, is that because labour is difficult for our species, it has formed greater bonds between mother and baby (p. 13). This is because of the hormones we secrete to deal with the pain, and because something is triggered in us after knowing what a difficult time our baby just had entering the world. Our difficult labour has also forced us to depend on our partners, midwives, doulas and gynaecologists to support us during birth, because it is extremely hard to carry it out entirely on our own. And so, through childbirth, beautiful relationships are formed, such as mine with my midwife, Mandi.

I think it’s important to know the facts about labour, so that you can go in feeling armed with knowledge and support. Millions, and millions, and millions of women before you have given birth, and although it can be painful, this pain is what has made us into the special species we are today.

PS. Although I no longer believe that labour pain is created by fear alone, I still FULLY support the concept of Hypnobirthing. This is because the mind is an incredibly powerful tool which you can use to reduce, or even eliminate the pain altogether. Just another example of how amazing humans are!