How Do Women Really Learn About Birth?

April 2015 123“I usually claim that pregnant women should not read books about pregnancy and birth. Their time is too precious. They should, rather, watch the moon and sing to their baby in the womb.” –Michel Odent

Related to a previous post about the difference between information and knowledge, I have been pondering how women really learn about birth. Where does birth knowledge they can really use when they need it come from? Is it from birth classes, reading, or from other sources? Though I teach birth classes and believe that childbirth education has important value, I continue to return to thought that what women truly need to give birth does not come from (traditional) classes and it doesn’t come from books either.

Ever since I posted the above quote from Michel Odent on my Facebook page, I have been reflecting back to my pregnancy with my own first baby. Personally, I love books–-of all sorts-–and reading is the top way for me to learn about anything. I think some of the best preparation I did before having my first baby was to read and I always give a recommended reading list to my clients. And, while I “hear” the sentiment in the quote and honor it, my personal opinion is that in our current birth culture it is nearly impossible to go into birth just planning to “go with the flow” and let labor unfold without expectation (if you are birthing in the hospital that is—because the hospital is FULL of expectations and those will often run right over your flow).

When I was pregnant the first time and approaching my first birth, I was hungry for birth information and keenly felt the mystery and unknowableness of the challenge I was about to face. I described it as feeling like I was preparing for the biggest test of my life, but without knowing what the test was. So, how did I learn what I needed to know about giving birth? AND, perhaps most importantly, what had I learned before birth that actually spoke to me while in labor? What did I use and how did I learn about that? Obviously, women are different and have different learning styles and each birth is different, but reflecting on these questions, several things arise as most helpful for me in real preparation:

  • Other women’s experiences—these were frequently what floated through my head during labor and were what I drew on for information and guidance, not “technical” childbirth books, but the stories and opinions and reflections I had read in birth stories and from the participants of the newsgroup
  • Birth art—I created a series of needle felted birth goddess sculptures during my pregnancy that had a “message” for me (that what I needed to give birth—that wild, intuitive knowledge—was already inside me).
  • And yes, reading (and to some extent, classes). I didn’t necessarily use or remember things that I’d read (other than other women’s “voices” through birth stories), but reading definitely helped me prepare—so, while I was not necessarily conscious of book or class-knowledge when I was actually in labor, I was informed by it, yes. During all my reading what I really wanted to to figure out and know was, how am I going to do this? This is the same question that most women who come to my classes have (and my answer is really, “you just will”). The books that were of most value to me were Birthing from Within and An Easier Childbirth. These were the books that had “right brain” lessons to share, even though it was the “left brain” books that I “studied” harder.
  • Yoga—I spontaneously adopted poses used in prenatal yoga during my first labor without even knowing it was “prenatal yoga.” It was an example of how the knowledge already existed inside my body and spontaneously arose when given the space to do so. I also used yoga poses during my other births—not consciously (“I think I’ll try child’s pose now”), but spontaneously and instinct-driven.
  • My blessingway experience/memories—particularly the chant Woman Am I, which I hummed over and over again during my first labor.
  • Voice—talking to myself (inside my head or our loud), verbally coaching myself.
  • My husband—his presence just there with me. I felt like we were one person. This isn’t something I feel like you can “train” for. It too was naturally arising and just pure.
  • Holding a fused glass touchstone and having my favorite pillow (in my third labor, it was holding my goddess of Willendorf pendant).

For me, it all came down to FREEDOM and space for me—I was not in an institutional setting, I was in my own “nest” and that was very key for letting my own body’s wisdom unfold and find expression.


A powerful pre-birth lesson in my body’s wisdom actually came from an assassin bug (of all things!). Assassin bugs have very potent, poisonous bites (and in some countries carry hideous diseases). During my first pregnancy I was bitten multiple times in the night by one of them. I had bites on my face (lip) as well as in a row on my arm. The bites caused swelling, ongoing stabbing pain, and joint aching (as well as intense palm-of-hand and sole-of-feet itching when they first occurred). I turned this into a practice experience for myself in coping with labor—figuring that, like labor, this was something uncomfortable and out of my control, but that would eventually pass and that my body would take care of without my needed to actively do anything about it. The stabbing pain was also intermittent (like a pulse), so I thought that was good practice too. I practicing “softening” around the sensations and “being” with the discomfort. I reminded myself that my body knew what to do and that it would heal itself. And, guess what? It did. Each day as the bites healed, I would marvel, “look how much my body knows! Look what it can do without me even knowing what or how it is doing.” Of course, it took several days of stabbing and aching pain for this process to occur, whereas my first labor involved only 5 hours of intense sensation as well as several preceding hours of totally manageable sensation and my subsequent labors only involved 2 hours each of fairly intense sensation. This experience in watching my body take care of itself using its own inherent wisdom was a potent (and unexpected) lesson for me in approaching my first birth.

10 thoughts on “How Do Women Really Learn About Birth?

  1. Pingback: Practical Ways to Enhance Knowledge for Birth « Talk Birth

  2. Just a quick comment to say how much I have appreciated your postings about practical knowledge and knowledge versus information. This is a focus we have had from the start at Birthlight, for birth education and also after birth with babies. The points you make are very helpful, thank you so much for your clarity, awareness and readiness to share your ideas and teaching resources. We would be happy to reciprocate, particularly with yoga practices we have found most effective.

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  6. I think one of the problems with the way women in our culture learn about birth is that, so often, women wait until they are pregnant, or trying to become pregnant. It would be more beneficial (and more natural) for young girls to be surrounded by women of all ages and stages, learning and supporting. “Sex ed” doesn’t come close to giving girls the information they need to have positive attitudes towards birth. It almost seems like talking to young girls and teenagers about the beauty of pregnancy and birth is taboo, or at least there is a lot of embarrassment (on both sides) surrounding the issue.

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