“Why do we, then, continue to treat women as if their emotions and comfort, and the postures they might want to assume while in labor, are against the rules?“
– Ina May Gaskin (via Birth Smart)
I’ve been intrigued for some time by Michel Odent’s description of what he calls the “fetal ejection reflex.” Personally, I would like to rename it the “spontaneous birth reflex.” Essentially, this reflex involves the spontaneous birth of the baby without coaching or conscious effort on the part of the mother. It is most likely to occur when the mother feels very safe and very private, which may be why we do not read descriptions of it occurring during many births. In an article about the fetal ejection reflex Odent writes: “During the powerful last contractions the mother-to-be seems to be suddenly full of energy, with the need to grasp something. The maternal body has a sudden tendency to be upright. For example, if the woman was previously on hands and knees, her chest tends to be vertical. Other women stand up to give birth, more often than not leaning on the edge of a piece of furniture. A fetus ejection reflex is usually associated with a bending forward posture.”
Flicked forward hips?
In the book Optimal Birth: What, Why & How, which was heavily influenced by the work of Odent, the author frequently describes spontaneous birth reflex occurring with a swift “flicked forward” motion of the mother’s hips. I found the description curious at the time that I read the book, not really conceptualizing how one would flick one’s hips forward when pushing out a baby. However, following the birth of my daughter last year, I was completely amazed to hear my husband describe the pushing stage in these words, “…you were down on your hands and knees, but then you pushed up and moved your hips forward and suddenly you were holding her.” I would describe her birth as involving an authentic spontaneous birth reflex much like Odent and Sylvie Donna (the author of Optimal Birth) describe. This is what I wrote three days after her birth:
I was down on hands and knees and then moved partially up on one hand in order to put my other hand down to feel what was happening…her head pushed and pushed itself down as I continued to support myself with my hand and I moved up onto my knees, with them spread apart so I was almost sitting on my heels and her whole body and a whole bunch of fluid blooshed out into my hands… I didn’t realize until some moments later than both Mark and Mom missed the actual moment of her birth. Mark because he was coming around from behind me to the front of me when I moved up to kneeling…I had felt like the pushing went on for a “long” time, but Mark said that from hands and knees to kneeling with baby in my hands was about 12 seconds.
Birth without pushing?
I’ve been meaning to write about the experience for some time and then I received a comment on an older post I wrote titled Pushing the issue of pushing in labor… which addresses physiological pushing vs. coached/directed pushing. The mother wrote: “I would so love to give birth without pushing..I hope I can do this without pushing but is it really possible?? If it’s possible, why isn’t it practiced more widely?”
While I did not experience such a dramatic spontaneous birth reflex with any of my other births, Yes! It IS possible. There are a variety of reasons why it is not practiced more widely, two common ones being that many mothers do not give birth in the atmosphere of privacy that facilitates the reflex and secondly because many birth attendants ascribe to the notion that 10 centimeters of dilation = time to push, regardless of what mother’s body is telling her to do. With my own first baby, I was checked at 10 centimeters and told I could push whenever I felt the urge. While no one coached or directed me to begin pushing, I felt like I “should” be doing so and so start to experiment with actively pushing a little with contractions. It took a little over an hour before my son was finally born. I never felt an intense or irresistible or spontaneous urge to push. With my second baby, I felt literally driven to my knees by the force of the birthing energy. I did not consciously push him out, but it definitely took several pushes and maybe about 15 minutes to push him out. There was a process of pushing involved with his birth. With my daughter, as I describe above, it was like an irresistible force gripped my body and she just came flying out with no directed physical or mental involvement from me.
Trusting the urge
I shared the mother’s question with the CfM Facebook page in order to get some other perspectives on births with “no pushing.” I received several comments to share with the questioning mother-to-be. Most mothers referenced the idea of pushing when their bodies told them to. It is difficult to communicate this with someone who has not yet experienced it—how to recognize the “urge” and what it really means to “push when your body tells you to.” I also suspect it is frustrating for women who are honestly and courageously seeking “answers” in order to best prepare their bodies, minds, and hearts for birth, to receive responses like, “just trust your body,” which can feel trite or dismissive to the pregnant woman who hungers to know. However, then once on the other side of the birthing bridge, we discover there are really few better answers to give. I believe the capacity to trust that her body will communicate the unmistakable urge to push comes with an environment where the mother is treated with dignity and respect. She has her need for privacy honored and that she is mentally able to surrender to the birthing process and let her body take over—no attempting to wrestle with or control the birth, but to dig deep and then to let go.
Personal experiences in birthing without pushing:
ARA shared: “I will say that with my last birth I started out with having coached pushing. Then I felt my body take over. The nurse told me to stop pushing and I told her I can’t my body is doing it on it’s own. It was the most awesome feeling in the world.”
And AK shared: “I pushed when my body said to do so. It was relieving!! lol”
EW wrote that she, “highly recommend physiological pushing over directed pushing. listen to your body. Consider hypnobirthing if you are wanting to birth without pushing, it encourages laboring down.”
DF had this experience to share: “I don’t know if this is the same thing but with my first child, the nurse didn’t listen to me when I said I thought it was time and when my midwife came to check I was crowning, I had ‘labored down’ as she called it by my body doing the work. So I only actually pushed once on her cue and my baby was here. The second child the same happened automatically I wasn’t even aware it was happening…..maybe subconsciously?”
NB shared that, “Because of my uterine prolapse issues, I do not push until the baby is essentially crowning on his own. I also don’t have anyone check to see how far dilated I am (since baby #1, that is) so when that burning feeling starts to get really strong I try a gentle little push to see what happens, and that usually initiates complete crowning… at which time, despite my best efforts, I CANNOT control the pushing urge any longer because I need to get that baby out!! ;) I think it does make ‘transition’ longer in the sense that perhaps birth would have happened earlier if I’d begun pushing before the baby slid down that far on his/her own, but it makes the pushing stage much shorter and is certainly better for the baby – and me, too, since I’m not putting that strain on my uterine ligaments until the very last seconds.”
JD shared her different experiences: “With my first baby, I felt the need to push waaaay too early. (Baby turned posterior; I had back labor contractions less than a minute apart for several hours.) I spent over an hour pushing, but I can’t blame the wonderful midwives who attended my homebirth. They told me several times that it wasn’t time to push yet. But I was in so much pain, and had exhausted all my coping strategies, and just had to get that baby OUT! Then we had a dystocia, and everybody ended up yelling at me to push even though I wasn’t having a contraction, and my very calm, collected midwife sounded worried, so I pushed some more. Lots of pushing, lots of pain, lots of tearing. My second baby was smaller and lined herself up better. I didn’t push until the very end, and she came in a big hurry and surprised everybody. Nobody told me to push, and I barely needed to. So, yes, it can be done, but there are more factors at play than your doctor/midwife. I had two very different pushing experiences, both at home with the same midwife.”
G wrote: “Unmedicated, midwife-assisted home birth, pushed for 3 hours, never really got the hang of it. Baby was not quite lined up right and was stuck, crowned, for an hour. I was exhausted and basically checked out. Eventually it was gravity that got him out – they hauled me upright and he basically fell out of me. I look back and wonder if maybe I should have taken more of a break after dilation – I FELT like I was ready to push, but who knows if I actually was. Maybe he would have labored down on his own if I’d just zonked out.”
Why isn’t it encouraged?
I’ve already addressed several reasons why and then LDM shared these important points: “It’s not widely practiced because the obstetric timetable doesn’t allow for it. The physiological urge to push will be there, for some women sooner than others. Most care providers are taught to coach pushing (after all we all know women just can’t do the job they were designed to do) and to have that coached pushing happen under certain conditions (wait for the dr! Ok, doc is here!) Some women say they never felt any urge- they may have had normal physiological signals quelled from drugs or other common labor practices and/or they were not given time to rest and sleep after fully dilating. There is such urgency to force a baby out once she reaches 10, but if she is tired and cannot feel her body pushing, then mom probably needs a nap & maybe a snack. Letting a woman take that break is unheard of in hospitals.”
And additionally, Mommy Baby Spot offered this tip: “Stay away from “helping” drugs so that your body knows what to do and learn different positions so that your body puts itself in the prime position to get the baby out with the minimum of hassle (which is different for everyone).”
I thank the women who shared their experiences for their thoughts and I wish the mother who posed the question the very, very best with her upcoming birth. May you birth smoothly, peacefully, and spontaneously in harmony with your body’s wisdom, cues, and urging!
(Note: personal experiences are reprinted directly as shared on the CfM FB page, but have had some spelling corrected for readability.)