What is Mammalian Birth?
If there’s one thing I hope my doula clients get out of their prenatal education, it’s understanding the importance and physiology of mammalian birth. What do I mean by that? Well, although we humans have the ability to think cognitively and use language—as well as the incredible ability to lip sync and count calories, the fact remains: we are still mammals.
When we get pregnant, we don’t have to know how to grow a baby. Our bodies just do it. When we go into labor (that is, if we go into labor spontaneously and have a physiologically normal delivery), we don’t have to know how give birth. Our bodies just know how to do it. We have thousands of years of instinctual knowledge in our DNA, and even though this might be our first birth, our mammalian bodies have done this many times before.
Our ability to think cognitively and use language is what sets us apart from the animal kingdom, but it works against us during birth. We know that birth works best when we allow ourselves to move from our thinking brain (the frontal lobe or neocortex) to what some call our monkey brain or our primitive brain (the brain stem). See my blog post on Michel Odent’s book Birth and Breastfeeding for more detailed, mind-blowing information on that here! If you’ve looked into the stages and phases of labor, you might remember that during early labor it’s typical for some laboring mamas to chat between contractions, make jokes, or express worry about little things like cashing a check before the bank closes. But as labor progresses, you can almost see the brain activity travel from their frontal lobe down to their primitive brain stem. As contractions get longer, stronger and closer together, the talking, laughing, planning and thinking grind to a halt. That trip to the bank becomes no longer so important. A mama in active labor knows she has to go deep within, focusing solely on her breath; she has to let go of all thoughts, surrender to her body and her baby and become a mammal again.
But conditions need to be right for her do this. Other mammals wouldn’t dream of laboring and giving birth in an unfamiliar space, under bright lights, and in a room full of strangers! So here are the things we need as human mammals to create a safe laboring environment.
I’ve heard childbirth educators joke with their students, offering $100 to anyone who will pee in a bucket in front of the rest of the class. As you can imagine, it never happens! And it’s the same with birth. It’s really difficult for us to open up and let go in front of strangers. What we need is to be left unobserved, to be trusted with the process of birthing our babies. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advising anyone to give birth alone. (Birth support is the bees knees and usually tops a mama’s list of reasons why things went so well!) But I do believe it is important to have a care-provider and/or nursing staff who can be patient, who will let you do your thing undisturbed (for the most part) and who is aware and respectful of the normal, mammalian process of birth.
There’s not much that stimulates the neocortex like light does! I’ve seen it time and again: turn off the lights in a laboring mom’s room and the labor becomes almost instantly more peaceful and seemingly more manageable. Darkness gives us permission to turn off our thinking brains. It can simulate sleep, which our bodies know is a state of safety, relaxation and vulnerability. This is exactly what we need to birth our babies. Pack a dozen flameless candles in your birth bag, so that when you get to the hospital you can turn off all the overhead lights and place those candles around the room, creating a beautiful cave-like glow.
Language can also stimulate the thinking brain. But when the lights go out, voices go down. If birth attendants are talking loudly, the laboring mama will be listening, processing and thinking, whether she wants to be or not. But what she really needs is to be able to turn these distractions off. Whispers and hushed tones create a respectful environment, putting mom back in the center if the process.
If you’re having a home birth, you can check this point off the list! You’re in your own space and you probably know your birth team intimately by the time labor kicks in. If you’re planning a hospital birth, you might have to do a bit more preparation to set the tone.
To make the space feel more like your own, you can bring your own pillow or pillowcase to the hospital. Laboring mama’s sense of smell is heightened and the faint scent of home can be beautifully comforting.
Also, think about wearing your own clothes during labor. It comes as a surprise to many that you don’t have to wear a hospital gown when giving birth in the hospital. Usually nurses like to have IV access on your arm just in case, but as long as you don’t wear a tight, long-sleeve shirt you should be fine. Although they can be expensive, prettypushers.com has some great laboring gowns you can buy ahead of time and bring with you to the hospital. It can be a nice ritual to mark the beginning of active labor, too, when you decide to put on your special labor-time clothes.
Birth is an intimate event and you want to feel totally at home with your birth team. Although you can’t control unfamiliar nurses and on-call doctors coming in and out of your hospital room, you can ask them to introduce themselves by name and shake your hand. I know this might seems obvious and we wish that all hospital staff would do this automatically, but in reality it often doesn’t happen. You need to feel comfortable in the space and safe in their hands—real human connection is so important to this end.
If you feel like any of the above points might be an issue with your care-provider, consider finding another care-provider who understands your need for support. It’s never too late to switch care-providers if you don’t feel 100% comfortable with your own.
Set yourself up for a great birth experience by better understanding your amazing mammalian roots and advocating for what you need. Let your inner birthing beast grrrrr!
For further reading, check out these books:
- Birthing From Within, by Pam England and Rob Horowitz
- Birth and Breastfeeding, by Michel Odent
- Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, by Ina May Gaskin