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Understanding “Natural Childbirth” (and 7 Reasons You Might Want to Do It Too)

You’ve probably heard people use the phrase “natural childbirth,” but what does that mean?  Isn’t all childbirth natural? Read on to understand what people mean by “natural childbirth” and why a lot of women choose to do it that way.

a new mom right after a natural water birth

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Have you ever had a plan for how you were going to do something but then had an experience that made you totally rethink your ways?

That’s how childbirth was for me. 

My plan (if you can call it that) was always to see an OBGYN during pregnancy and then have my babies in the hospital with epidurals. The thing was I hadn’t really considered my options; I just figured that’s what I’d do because that’s what’s done, right?

Well…when it was actually me with a big baby belly and endless questions in my mind, I realized it might not be as simple as that.

Long story short, I realized I had choices and that those choices had more consequences than I ever would have guessed.

I realized that “natural childbirth,” as people call it, wasn’t so crazy after all, and, actually, was precisely what I wanted.

Childbirth is Natural

In a second I’ll explain what people mean when they use the phrase “natural childbirth.” But first I want to make one thing clear: all childbirth is natural.

Birth is a process that is supposed to happen. Women’s bodies were created to grow and give birth to babies. Mothers’ and babies’ bodies instinctively know what to do to facilitate birth in a safe, effective way.

So whether you give birth vaginally or by c-section, in the hospital or at home or somewhere else, your birth experience was valid and you still gave birth.

What is “Natural Childbirth”?

The reason people now refer to some birth experiences as “natural birth” is because of the shift that some wealthy countries like America have made towards medical, technological births.

In America, nearly 75% of women choose to use an epidural or similar medication for pain relief during labor. Around 50% of women in the US have Pitocin given to them at some point during labor. 

In addition to epidurals and Pitocin, the majority of American women give birth amidst electronic monitors, IVs, and frequent cervical checks. Many of their births end with episiotomies and operative vaginal delivery.

Just under 33% percent of American births end with a c-section.

The point is that “natural childbirth” is the absence of all those things. “Natural birth” is when a birthing mother chooses to labor and give birth without any of the birth interventions that are common in hospitals.

“Natural birth” is also called “unmedicated birth.” I prefer this term because it’s more accurate and because it avoids the problem of conveying the incorrect message that medicated births aren’t as natural.

I’ll use “natural birth” and “unmedicated birth” interchangeably for the rest of this blog post.

Why Would a Woman Choose Natural Birth?

Women who choose to have a natural, unmedicated birth usually have several reasons for doing so. Here are some common reasons:

  • To avoid negative effects of medications
  • To be fully alert and present
  • To avoid unnecessary intervention and be able to labor freely
  • To decrease the likelihood of c-section
  • To make postpartum easier
  • To increase the likelihood that breastfeeding will go well
  • To heal from a negative medicated birth experience

All of these reasons are interconnected yet distinct at the same time. Let’s talk about each one.

To Avoid Negative Effects of Medications

Medications can be a blessing. But when unnecessary, they sometimes do more harm than good. The most common labor medications – including epidurals, opioids, and Pitocin – have real side effects and real consequences for you and your baby.

Some side effects and consequences wear off shortly after labor. Some are more long-term.

You can learn more in Medications During Labor: Is It Worth the Risk?

To Be Fully Alert and Present

Opioids can lessen pain but they also make you drowsy. Epidurals numb the pain but also block most other sensation, too.

Both of those things mean you won’t be able to experience birth in the same way as you would unmedicated. Though some may want medication for precisely that reason, many women want to experience birth to the fullest – pain and all. 

And there’s more to it than just experiencing birth unhindered. Some of the sensations you’ll feel during labor can help you know how best to manage labor, including helping you know which positions are most helpful and how to push effectively.

To Avoid Unnecessary Intervention and Be Able to Labor Freely

The thing about labor medications and interventions is that you rarely get just one. Most of the time one intervention leads to another in what is called the cascade of interventions.

The cascade of interventions can look different for every woman, but it generally includes any or all of 13 common interventions.

Those interventions range from epidurals to eating restrictions to being stuck in bed, and all have their consequences.

The cascade of interventions can increase your likelihood of a c-section and your risk of experiencing problems with breastfeeding. We’ll talk about both of those in a moment. It can also lead to preterm birth, excessive bleeding, and dissatisfaction with the birth experience.

To learn about each of the interventions in detail and what to do instead, check out The Cascade of Interventions [Explained].

To Decrease the Likelihood of C-section

If you have already given birth by c-section, I by no means want to minimize your experience. Like I said, you still gave birth and it still made you a mother.

That said, if a woman can avoid a c-section in the first place, she and her baby avoid a lot of difficulties and complications that could affect them for years to come.

In short, c-sections are unideal because 1) a c-section is major abdominal surgery, 2) vaginal births provide benefits to babies that c-sections don’t, and 3) one c-section has implications for all successive births.

It’s rare that a c-section is truly necessary. And there are things you can do to minimize your chance of getting one.

To learn more, check out C-sections: Why and How to Avoid Having One.

To Make Postpartum Easier

Unmedicated birth has real benefits even after your baby is born. For example, some medications can make your baby drowsy which will make it harder to initiate breastfeeding.

Unmedicated moms also tend to feel less drowsy. Plus, because they weren’t numb, they can generally get up and move around right away, if they want to.

Side effects of medications include an all-over itchy feeling, headaches, and increased chance of infection, all of which may carry over into the postpartum period making it that much harder to adjust to your new life.

And, of course, if unmedicated birth means you avoided a c-section, you don’t have to recover from surgery while caring for a newborn.

To Increase the Likelihood That Breastfeeding Will Go Well

As I mentioned, breastfeeding usually goes better between mothers and babies who labored without medication (including IVs). This applies to initiating breastfeeding immediately after birth and continued breastfeeding in the following weeks and months.

Breastfeeding is the best source of nutrition for a newborn and has many other benefits for both mom and baby, so it’s important that you get off to a good start.

READ MORE >> Breastfeeding vs. Formula: 25 Benefits of Breastfeeding

To Heal From a Negative Medicated Birth Experience

Unfortunately, 1 in 3 births in the US is traumatic. Surely you’ve heard the stories. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Women who give birth unmedicated usually have much more satisfying experiences.

Some women choose to do an unmedicated birth (even a home birth) because they’ve had bad experiences with medication and hospitals in the past.

If you’ve had a negative experience giving birth in the past, you don’t have to resign yourself to that. Unmedicated vaginal birth can be empowering, confidence-boosting, and transformative. 

If you feel like you need to heal from a past birth, you may want to consider preparing for an unmedicated birth next time.

Can You Have an Unmedicated Birth in the Hospital?

So if natural childbirth is choosing not to use all the typical medical interventions you find in a hospital, can you have a natural, unmedicated birth in the hospital?

Short answer: Yes.

Long answer: You certainly can, but it might be harder than if you were somewhere else, like a birth center or at home. This is true for a few reasons.

The obvious one is that with an epidural readily available, it may be harder for moms to really give other coping methods a chance.

In the hospital you also have less control over your surroundings, like how bright the lights are, who comes in and out and how often, and what kind of sounds you’re hearing. Each of those things can help or harm the kind of environment a woman needs to be able to cope well with contractions. 

The other reason a natural birth might be harder at a hospital is that hospitals have set systems and routines that can make it hard for staff to do anything other than what is always done.

Those in the medical field are trained to see birth as a medical event. And it is important that we have people who know what can go wrong and what to do when it does. But the vast majority of the time, birth will proceed safely and effectively if left alone.

So the tendency to turn to medicine and technology and to expect all women to progress through labor quickly usually does more harm than good. 

Let me illustrate what I mean with an analogy.

Putting Medical Intervention in Perspective

To understand this analogy, we need to first establish that God designed us humans to be social creatures. He designed us to need connection.

Now, the best kind of connection is in-person, face-to-face.

When we can’t have that face-to-face connection, such as when a family member lives in a different country or a friend moves to a different state, social media is a great tool. It allows us to maintain relationships and stay connected in a convenient way when we cannot be together in person.

However, social media becomes a negative thing when we use it when we don’t need to. It becomes a problem when it replaces all in-person interactions. It creates issues when we turn to it in moments of loneliness or frustration instead of turning to a real human.

The problem with social media is that if we turn to it when we don’t actually need it, we often end up with more issues than we would have had without it.

That’s how I feel about hospital births. 

Hospitals are like Social Media

God designed our bodies to work. The human body is a miracle, with all of its systems that function tirelessly and support life without our even being conscious of it.

Most of the time, the human body functions the way it’s supposed to and can even heal itself from minor injuries.

When major injuries and problems happen, doctors and hospitals can come to the rescue and save lives that otherwise might have been lost.

However, hospitals and medical intervention become negative things when we use them when we don’t need to. They become problems when they replace taking care of our bodies with a healthy diet and regular exercise. They create issues when we turn to them instead of trusting the power of our body and mind to work as they should and to help us recover.

The problem with hospitals is that if we turn to them when we don’t actually need them, we often end up with more issues that we would have had without them.

If Not a Hospital, Then Where?

Even if you are planning an unmedicated birth, you may decide you still want to give birth in the hospital. You can read about one woman’s good experience with 3 unmedicated hospital births here.

If you don’t want to be in the hospital, you have two other choices.

You can go to a birth center, which is like a mix between the hospital and home. Or you can give birth at home. You can learn more in Birth Center vs Hospital: What They’re Like and Factors to Consider and Birth Center vs Home Birth: Similarities and Differences.

Let’s Talk About “Success” With Unmedicated Birth

Real quick, I want to point out a few things about “success” when it comes to natural birth.

Unmedicated birth has always been a thing. In a time when hospitals are the most common place for birth, though, it is more of a hot topic. With so many women hoping for “unmedicated” births, we also hear strong opinions about whether or not it should be such an idealized goal.

Obviously, I’m a big fan of unmedicated births. I think the benefits far outweigh the pain and discomfort. But that’s beside the point. 

The fact of the matter is that some women who plan to give birth naturally but end up using medication feel like they failed.

First of all, that’s simply not true. No woman should ever feel that she failed because of the way her birth went.

The Analogy of the Olympian

Secondly, using that fact as fuel for saying unmedicated birth shouldn’t be the ideal goal is just not right. That’s like a high-performing athlete saying that being in the Olympics is a terrible goal after getting paralyzed in a car accident and feeling like they failed to become an Olympian.

The problem is not that the athlete or the pregnant woman had an unrealistic goal. The problem is that some other factor precluded that goal, whether it was an emergency out of their control or a different decision they made AND they chose to let that lead to a feeling of failure.

The Truth

The truth is that not using medications is a good goal. There are valid reasons a woman would want to avoid medication, as we talked about in this blog post.

But medications – epidurals, Pitocin, whatever it is – aren’t inherently bad. You and your baby will likely be alright, even if you were to use every intervention available. 

So let’s show compassion for each other and ourselves when things don’t go as planned. Birth is a miracle, however it happens.

To Sum Up

So in summary, “natural childbirth” is how people refer to giving birth without medication or medical intervention. A more accurate name for it is “unmedicated birth” because all childbirth is natural.

Women choose to give birth unmedicated for many reasons, including to avoid risks of medications, to be fully alert and present during labor, to decrease the likelihood of a c-section, and more. 

You can have an unmedicated birth in the hospital, it just might be harder because you’ll be going against the routine of a system that views birth as a medical event that will inevitably require intervention. If you choose not to give birth in the hospital, you can give birth either in a birth center or at home, which are both good options.

And even if your birth doesn’t go as planned, please don’t feel like you failed. You still gave birth. That is worth celebrating.

All that said, if you’re planning an unmedicated birth, I’m excited for you. Unmedicated vaginal birth is a powerful experience. It’s totally worth it if you feel it’s right for you.

Until next time,

Allison

READ MORE >> Is Childbirth Painful? (The Answer Might Surprise You)

READ MORE >> 5 Natural Birth Books That Everyone Should Read

READ MORE >> How to Prepare for Natural Birth (In the Hospital or Not)

Your Thoughts?

Where are my natural birth mamas out there? Any advice for someone considering unmedicated birth that I didn’t mention? I’d love to hear about your experience in the comments!

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