Is Natural Childbirth Right for You?

Rachel Henley, from Chicago, IL, 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 center without any medication, but says it wasn’t easy. “The pain was pretty intense and I had a 30-hour labor,” 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 meds, 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 labor 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 Alyssa Dweck, MD, an ob-gyn at the Mount Kisco Medical Group in Westchester County, New York. It can occur in a birthing center, hospital, or at home. 

Natural birth advocates favor 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 tub 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 moms 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, Certified Nurse Midwife in the Department of Obstetrics & Gynecology at Loyola University in Maywood, Illinois.

3. You may have an easier time pushing, since you’re not numbed by medication, says Allie Sakowicz, a Certified Birth Doula in Chicago, Illinois.

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 there are benefits to having a natural birth, 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 mom 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 mom is completely asleep and there are more side effects.

3. Home births come with extra risks. “Although the absolute risk may be low, planned home birth is associated with a twofold to threefold increased risk of neonatal death when compared with planned hospital birth,” says Dr. Dweck. The reason: If complications do arise and there’s no hospital nearby, the baby might not be able to get life-saving treatment in time. However, you can eliminate this risk by delivering at a hospital or birthing center, 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 labor process,” says Sakowicz.
  • You have a doula, ob-gyn, 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 visualizing. 

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, Bradley, 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 labor, 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 ob-gyn, 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 specialize 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 laboring women.

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

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Photo: Getty