As the Royal College of Midwives ends its ‘normal birth’ campaign, Maria Lally wants to know: what took them so long?
When I was pregnant with my first child, in 2010, my husband and I attended our local NCT class and took part in one of the ‘fun’ learning games the instructor put on. She pointed to around eight of us in the class and asked us to stand up.
‘Right, this is how many people will be crowding round you if you give birth by Caesarean. And who would want that?’ Taking her point, we all shook our heads and started the next game, which was listing the cons of intervention in childbirth (‘Lack of bonding with baby’ – tick!).
So, the following month when – despite a birth plan – I gave birth after a horrible 24 hours that ended in little pain relief, but lots of intervention and stitches (and my baby being resuscitated), I felt a huge sense of failure.
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So I welcome news that the Royal College of Midwives has finally decided to end its 12-year campaign championing ‘natural birth’. They’ve decided to overhaul guidance, which suggests that epidurals (pain relief injected into the lower spine during labour) and Caesareans (not something people who are too posh to push have, but largely life-saving operations for both mother and baby) are in some way abnormal.
Professor Cathy Warwick, the chief executive of the college, has said the campaign ‘created the wrong idea’ but denied that it had compromised safety. I disagree.
The number of babies left brain-damaged at birth by NHS mistakes has soared in recent years and official figures show claims against maternity units has risen by almost one quarter in the last year alone, with safety experts blaming the ‘cult-like fixation’ on ‘normal births’.
At this point, I’d like to say most women in the UK have healthy and safe births. But among my own friendship group there have been several near misses. And the emergency intervention with my eldest, Sophia, was because – I was later told when I complained to the hospital - I’d been left to push too long without intervention, which only came right at the end when her heart rate was dropping.
Another friend knew she was giving birth to a baby with a rare heart condition, who had to be whisked off within minutes of birth for a surgery. The consultant she saw in pregnancy advised a Caesarean, but when she arrived at hospital in labour the midwives insisted she try to give birth naturally. After 25-plus hours in labour, with no progress and baby’s heart rate dipping, they conceded and gave her the Caesarean she wanted from the start.
I have story after similar story. The good news is we now all have healthy children. But why were we made to push our luck?
When I had my second child, in 2013, haunted by the horrors of my first birth, I asked for an epidural. ‘No, no, Mummy, you can do this on your own,’ said my midwife. Which brings me to my second point. What if dentists suddenly launched a campaign for ‘natural dentistry’ and encouraged us to breathe our way through root canals and tooth extractions? When I asked my husband this he laughed and said people would never stand for it. So why have women been talked into natural births when, in some cases, intervention is the way to go?
The other thing I remember my NCT instructor saying is that childbirth is the most natural thing in the world. ‘Women have been doing it for thousands of years without any help whatsoever,’ she beamed.
‘Yes,’ said my late stepfather, a jaded seen-it-all-before GP, when I airily told him I was considering a drug-free home birth, ‘but women used to die in childbirth a lot more back then too. Childbirth is natural, but it’s also one of the biggest killers of women in some parts of the world.
‘In the UK we have the techniques to make it incredibly safe, so why not be open to some of those techniques if you need them?’ he asked.
Wise words indeed...