Why Some Women Need Privacy During Childbirth

by Wendy Wisner
Originally Published: 
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It goes without saying that none of us can predict exactly how we’ll feel while giving birth until we are actually in it. Not only that, but our births themselves almost never go according to plan (understatement of the year, right?) But I know that going into my first birth, I pictured something quite a bit different than what ended up going down.

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I had hired doulas, made sure we had a birth pool available, and read a million birthing books with my husband in the hopes that he’d get involved. And while I did, in fact, end up birthing in the pool with my doulas nearby — and spent a great deal of my labor being massaged and soothed by my husband – what I didn’t realize was that there would be many moments when I didn’t want anyone or anything near me.

As in, get the fuck away from me, NOW.

There were some key moments in my labor where I didn’t want to be touched, spoken to, or interacted with. And this happened with my second child too. There were moments – mostly toward the end of the labor – where I felt an intense need for privacy, for silence, for everything in the room to melt away so I could concentrate on the amazing, wild, painful AF shit-show that was happening in my body.

I remember my friend who had given birth a year before describing certain moments of labor as intensely animalistic. She described needing a moment to lock herself in the hospital room bathroom, squat down and howl her way through her contractions – and that soon after that, her baby was crowning and she was able to quickly birth him.

That’s not exactly how it happened for me (the quick crowning part, that is!), but the principal is similar: the idea that a lot of women experience a deep need for privacy during labor, and that this somehow aids in the birth process – the opening up, the letting go that is required to push a baby out of your vagina (if that’s how you’re doing it).

It turns out science backs this up. In fact, Judith Lothian, a registered nurse, PhD., and childbirth advocate and educator, wrote an entire paper on this phenomenon for The Journal of Perinatal Education. She explains that despite the fact that we don’t live like wild animals (well, most of us, I suppose), women’s bodies react much in the same way that animals do while giving birth – and that if we are not left to labor freely and in private, our bodies are apt to release hormones that can actually halt the labor process.

“In nature, when a laboring animal feels threatened or disturbed, the stress hormone catecholamine shuts down labor,” Lothian explains. “Similarly, when a laboring woman does not feel safe or protected or when the progress of her normal labor is altered, catecholamine levels rise and labor slows down or stops.”

Pretty dang fascinating, huh?

Of course, not all of us are going to be given all that time and space during our labors. If you birth in a busy hospital environment, you might have to do what my friend did and lock yourself in the bathroom to get that kind privacy. And if your birth has many interventions, you may not be as free to move around or separate yourself completely from the medical staff bustling around you.

But the idea is that sometimes laboring women really do need a little more space than we traditionally give them – and that providing more interventions than needed, or cramming too many people into the room with the mother, can create unnecessary stress that can actually impede the flow of labor.

How many of you were having regular contractions and then when you got to the hospital, your contractions ended up stopping or slowing down significantly? Lothian explains that this might be attributed to the hormonal reaction that happens when birthing women experience stress.

“When a woman is very frightened—of pain, of the hospital, of the unknown—labor fails to progress,” explains Lothian. “Contractions can become very strong and difficult to handle or, more typically, they become weaker. In both instances, the contractions become ineffective.”

So what’s the answer here? Well, first of all, there is evidence that birth interventions are generally higher than necessary these days, and even ACOG has urged doctors overseeing low-risk women to step back somewhat and give them freedom to birth without being hooked up to a million machines. But obviously, some of these interventions are absolutely necessarily and no one is saying they shouldn’t be used when appropriate.

The idea is, though, that whenever possible, we should lay off laboring women. We should give them the space to be alone and untouched when they ask to be. We can dim the lights, keep unnecessary guests out of the delivery room, and just generally do what we can to make birth feel safe and women’s voices feel heard and respected.

Lothian believes there is a way to do that even within the busy environment of the hospital. She suggests that labor assistants (doulas) and loved ones help create a “bubble” or “cocoon” around the mother, protecting her from all the excessive noise and interactions going on around her.

“Within the bubble, privacy is protected,” Lothian explains. “Strangers are kept away (as much as possible), information is filtered, and questions, interruptions, and intrusions are kept to a minimum. Continuously supported, protected, and cared for, but not disturbed, the laboring woman can let go of fear even in a busy maternity hospital.”

Interesting, right? I LOVE that idea, actually.

Now, it’s definitely true that for some women, having a lot of people present, and birthing in a hectic hospital with high interventions are exactly the things that make a mother feel safest, and make her able to birth her baby. That is totally awesome too. And of course, sometimes an intervention-heavy labor isn’t even a choice, but it’s what is necessary to keep a mother and baby alive. No arguments there.

But for many of us, less is more. And what we want most is to be left the fuck alone while we bring new life into the world. And maybe there is something to that desire. Maybe it’s actually as nature intended it to be.

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