Can cats have a positive effect on human birth?
As the second post in this 3 part series on mammalian birth, I’d like to talk with you today about cats. Yep, cats. More specifically, though, about why cats have such a positive (paw-sitive?) effect on human birth.
So I’ve been wanting a cat for a while. We have a dog who has become a bit lonely after his parents decided to have human babies 6 years ago, and is in desperate need of some company. In part, wanting a cat was to give some fellow, furry companionship to our dear old Booster. But it was really after reading the book Birth and Breastfeeding by Michel Odent that I started to give some serious thought to this potential new family member. And now, I can just consider cat ownership a part of my continuing education as a doula!
Michel Odent, the French obstetrician, author and innovative thinker in the world of childbirth who you might remember from the film “The Business of Being Born,” has a whole chapter in his book Birth and Breastfeeding reserved for cats. Why, you might ask? Well, let’s take a look…
Over his many decades of helping to deliver babies at home, he noticed that the presence of cats in the birthing space seemed to directly correlate with a fast birth. You heard that right! Cats + Homebirth = FAST LABOR! I know, it’s kind of hard to believe. But after reading the man’s books and hearing him talk on various aspects of childbirth, I will follow my man Michel to the ends of the earth. For now, let’s just go with it.
Acknowledging this strange phenomenon, and feeling curious as to why the presence of cats corresponds to a faster labor, Michel Odent lays out three possible questions/scenarios:
- Given that such a correlation does exist, could it be that a love for cats and the capacity to give birth easily are two aspects of the same kind of temperament?
- Or, alternatively, does living with cats tend to shape the personality?
- Or, indeed, could it be that cats are endowed with a mysterious power?
Ok, stay with me. Maybe people who love cats are generally people who are gentle, peace-loving, tolerant souls and those who are happy to give without expecting much in return. Maybe living with cats creates an environment of tranquility around us and a practice of detachment that helps to keep our stress hormones in check. Or maybe cats have some ancient, mystical feminine quality that we can’t put our finger on but exists nonetheless.
To the ancient Egyptians cats were considered sacred. If someone even accidentally killed a cat they were served with the death penalty. Bast, the goddess of protection, fertility and motherhood, had the head of a cat and the body of a woman, and because cats were so revered in Egyptian society they were often mummified and given in offering to the goddess. Could the ancient Egyptians have known something more about the connection between cats and birth that has been lost over the centuries?
Maybe. But this we do know: cats seem to have an uncanny ability to behave like a midwife during labor:
“Cats behave in a particularly exemplary way during birth. They are as discrete as possible. You do not see them, but they are there. In spite of their apparent indifference, they seem to know exactly what is going on, sensing the importance and even sanctity of the event. The behavior of cats during labor could be a source of inspiration for midwives of the future. To escape notice while, at the same time, being able to detect if something is wrong—this just about sums up the art of midwifery.” (Odent, p. 58)
The idea of being trusted to give birth to our own babies, with a calm, confident presence watching over the process but not interfering unduly, seems so far from many of our realities. But at the same time, when I ask my clients what their ideal birth experience might look like, 9 times out of 10 they say: calm, intimate and supported.
So maybe this correlation between cats and a faster labor is not just about either being the type of person who likes having cats around, being influenced by living with cats prior to labor, or any of the ancient feminine mysteries that cats seem to carry with them throughout the ages. My guess is that it’s probably some combination of the three. As mamas-to-be, most of us want our births to be gentle and calm—whether it’s in hospital or at home, “natural” or with an epidural, vaginal delivery or cesarean. And that’s what cats do: they create a calm, peaceful environment, and offer continuous, watchful care.
I hope there will be training for future care-providers on how to behave more like cats while attending labors. (I’m totally envisioning medical students on their rounds crawling slinkily down hospital halls on all fours, taking naps in sinks, and proudly bringing birds to their mentors desks!) But all of this really goes back to embracing our mammalian roots—we’ve got to appreciate our amazing animal bodies and take our physiology seriously. Fur real.