Birth Witnesses

Birth Witnesses

Guest post by Bonnie Padgett

In this so-called Age of Information, we have iPads and smart phones, mega computers and micro chips, and a world of knowledge at our fingertips.  We are not limited by the resources in our community when we can reach out to virtual communities that span the globe with the touch of a button – forums full of ideas, innumerable news sources, websites for all schools of thought and up-to-the-minute research from leading experts in every field.

So why, then, are new and prospective mothers still so naive when it comes to the act of childbirth?  Why, despite our best efforts to educate ourselves, are we still in the dark about the whole process until those contractions hit and we begin the journey through labor ourselves?  I, myself, was included in this group, although I did everything I could think of to educate myself prior to my daughter’s birth.  I read books on what to expect, took classes hosted by my hospital, toured the birthing facility, joined an online forum of moms, and Googled everything I could think of related to pregnancy and birth.  I spent months practicing Hypnobabies for a natural birth, discussed my wishes in detail with my doctor, and, after studying ample examples and recommendations, formed a ‘birth preferences’ list for the doctor and hospital.  I knew what I wanted and what I didn’t want when it came to birth.  At the same time, I knew my “plans” would likely not go as expected, but was prepared to make informed choices along the way.  I had ideals and contingencies, preferences and plan Bs.

However, when all was said and done, I found myself totally unprepared for the experience of labor itself.  I had read about contractions, witnessed videos of women in labor, seen and practiced techniques for comfort and relaxation.  None of that prepared me for the anxiety and unknowns that flooded my mind as my body began its natural next steps.  I realized just how little I knew about the hours ahead.  How uncomfortable I would feel with nurses and midwives going about the “day to day” routines of their jobs, and by doing so how secondary I would feel to the process.  How defenseless I would feel to contradict or decline an expected treatment, especially under the medical staff’s disapproving glares, and with no one to support clueless me and my equally unknowing husband.    While a doula certainly would have helped in easing my fears and strengthening my resolve, I think my inability to grasp what I was a part of, indeed, the central part of, would have still left me bewildered and terrified in those hours.

After my daughter’s birth, I found myself struggling to comprehend what had just happened to me.  Although everyone assured me this was a fairly ‘normal’ labor, I had no point of reference on which to base that comment.  I realized the short video clips online and in class captured only key moments in a much longer, more complex and nuanced process.  Those huge gaps left in my knowledge of labor are what left me so unprepared to defend myself and my baby against treatments I didn’t want, didn’t need, and had previously decided against but found myself, in the moment, succumbing to.    I tried discussing it with my mom, who explained that she’d felt the same way when she had me (her first child).  She concluded the only way to truly understand birth was to experience it yourself.

The only way to understand birth is to experience it yourself.  The ONLY way?  That comment stayed with me, haunted me.  I became a doula after my daughter’s birth because I wanted to be able to provide women with support and knowledge that could give them a different experience, a better memory than what I had.  I just couldn’t believe that there wasn’t a way to understand birth at all except to experience it firsthand.  Certainly there wasn’t always this fear and unknown around birth that we each face today.  Not always.  I began studying that idea.  What about other cultures?  What about our culture, historically?  What about The Farm?  There wasn’t always this myth and mystery about birth!  I realized there was a time (and in places, there still is) when women banded together for births.  Mothers, sisters, cousins, daughters, aunts, friends.  They came together and comforted, guided, soothed, coached, and held the space for one another during birth.  These women didn’t go in it alone – they were surrounded by women who had birthed before them.  Women who knew what looked and felt right, and what didn’t.  Women who could empathize with them and empower them.   In addition to that, girls and women were raised in a culture of attending births.  Daughters watched mothers, sisters and aunts labor their babies into this world.  They saw, heard, and supported these women for the long hours of labor, so when they became mothers themselves, the experience was a new, but very familiar one for them.  Birth wasn’t a secretive ritual practiced behind the cold, business-like doors of a hospital.  It was a time for bonding, learning, sharing and sisterhood.  Girls learned how women become mothers, and mothers helped their sisters bring forth life.  It was a sacred and special part of the birthing process that has become lost in our institutionalized, over-medicalized, isolating and impersonalized system today.

While I certainly don’t expect us to throw our entire system out the window in favor of simpler times, I think the rush to technology and medical advances certainly left some essential elements of birth in its wake.  Elements such as women supporting women.  Listening to one’s body.   Intervening only when necessary instead of as a matter of protocol.  And perhaps, most importantly for us all, the community aspect of birth.   This has lead me to believe that in order to truly educate ourselves about birth, to improve the way we birth, and the way we prepare for birth and prepare our sisters and daughters for birth is that we need to provide the women we love (especially those of childbearing years) the opportunity to witness and participate in our births, because only when you are present for a labor and birth can you begin to fathom the process, the emotions, the physiological changes that one goes through. If we can allow women the chance to witness and share in our births – the way it was done historically – and how it is done now at sacred places such as The Farm – we can give them a chance to prepare for birth in a way we were never able to. They can see firsthand the role of a midwife or doctor (and the roles those care providers don’t play). They can observe the benefits of a doula, they can have the opportunity to doula themselves – caring for and soothing a woman in labor.  They can observe the power of changing positions, the instinctual side of birth that leads each woman to listen to her inner voice to bring forth her child.  They can witness the time, energy and atmosphere it takes to birth a baby. I truly wish that more women were invited into the birthing setting by close family or friends so they could witness normal birth and understand it as best they could before they do it themselves. This is one of the keys, to me, to normalizing birth for every woman.

As a ‘birth survivor’ myself, I understand the trepidation some women feel at including more people in this personal and – unfortunately for some – traumatizing event, and I respect that, but I would like to offer a few thoughts about opening your birth to ‘birth witnesses’.  First of all, my initial reaction to the way my daughter was birthed was “that was not how it was supposed to be!” followed shortly by “I don’t want anyone I know to have to suffer through that humiliation, degradation and pain!”  Those sentiments led me down the path of trying to discover a way to share with the women I love what childbirth could be, and what it should not be.  My best answer is to let them witness a birth experience and let them form their own opinions about what works for them and what won’t, so that they can be better equipped going into the experience themselves – empowerment!

My second thought for you is to think of those women you would want to share this experience with – do you have a younger sister? A daughter, niece, or friend who may one day become a mother?  Don’t you want to offer them the best opportunity for a great birthing experience?  Think of the presence they will bring to your birth, in turn.  These are women whom you love the most in the world.  They are going to be calming, happy, supportive presences in your birthing place (and if they’re not, I recommend they not attend).  These women want to see you succeed. They want what is best for you and your baby.  They are going to know you better than any doctor or midwife or doula, making them naturally better able to comfort you and support you.  Their love and warmth will be a welcome and helpful addition to your birth, as well as an educational experience for them.  And, if you, like me, were scarred or traumatized by your first birth, that type of love and unconditional support might be just what the doctor ordered, so to speak.

Like all things in this life, I don’t believe there is a universal approach to anything.  I don’t think that inviting birth witnesses into one’s labor is right or necessary for everyone, nor do I think that every woman must witness a birth to be adequately prepared.  For most women in our country today, though, I think there are many benefits – to the laboring mom and to her support team.    If you do want to invite birth witnesses into your experience, I recommend you consider the following as you prepare for your birth:

  • Think about where you are birthing and how many people are able to attend.  Many hospitals have limits on the number of people who can join a woman in a delivery room, but you may be able to rotate some of them in and out, giving a few women a chance to participate. Some birthing centers are more flexible, especially if you explain your intents, and your home of course is the an ideal option for including birth witnesses.
  • Think about who will best help you as well as who most will benefit from the experience.  This is YOUR birth after all.  Your needs must still come first.  If there is someone whose presence may cause friction or tension, you may not want to include them.   Birthing mothers need calm and relaxation.
  • Consider inviting witnesses no matter if you’re planning on a natural birth, an epidural, induction, or other intervention.  There is something to be learned from every birth experience, so don’t discount your ability to help because of the way you choose to birth. It is the physical presence at a birth that offers more to women than the type of birth.  They will form their own opinions about what they are comfortable with while watching and learning from you.
  • Talk to your witnesses beforehand.  Let them know you’d like them at your birth and why.  The idea of being present with birthing women has become a strange one for many people since it has fallen out of vogue, and explaining that they can help you by being present, and that you’d love for them to be there to witness your birth may warm them up to the idea.
  • Consider hiring a doula.  The doula can become a support for you, your partner and your other attendants, offering explanations and information, ideas for support, and helping to control the atmosphere and activity in the room so that it is ideal for your birth.

In the end, do what is best for you and your family.  Remember, the point of including birthing witnesses in the experience is to help you and to help someone else.  Even if you invite just one friend, a sister, or a niece to join you, you are helping to transform that woman’s view of childbirth and offer her an experience and education that she will carry with her for the rest of her life.  If we all became birth mentors for just one woman, think of the tremendous change we could affect for the next generation of birthing women.

Bonnie Padgett is a proud mother and wife, and an active member of the birthing community in Atlanta.  Bonnie is the owner of La Bonne Mama, which offers labor doula services, childbirth and newborn care education, birth art and placenta encapsulation services.  For her next birth she is planning a homebirth and her sister, sister-in-law, and niece will be invited to share in the experience. You can visit her online at, or

11 thoughts on “Birth Witnesses

  1. Pingback: Choosing Birth Witnesses « Talk Birth

  2. Great post. When I was 4 years old I was there for the homebirth of my sister, which helped immensely to prepare me for the birth of my own daughter 20 years later. And when I gave birth to my son, that same younger sister (then 24 herself) was there with me, witnessing her first birth.

    It’s almost like a way of “paying it forward” so to speak, and I definitely agree that women would fear birth less if they had the opportunity to be a part of other women’s births more.

    • That is very cool, Alyssa!

      I should have mentioned in my immediately preceding post introducing this one that I was present for the births of my three younger siblings!

  3. Wow. That was very, very moving.
    I had 5 unassisted births (7 kids total) and I’m very much a solo labor/birther (with husband near by and sometimes in support). I had some births with my kids there, some not. I did feel it important for them to see normal birth. This is a lot of food for thought. Very moving!

  4. I think that this article is correct. But the trouble is that if a woman has her birth in a hospital the “witnesses” may see a birth that traumatizes them as well as the mother who is birthing. The only really peaceful way to have a baby is to have it at home. And unfortunately only a tiny percentage of births happen at home.

    Only a tiny percentage of women even consider this. And it is hard to know how to accomplish it for a first time mother unless she is already “plugged in” to the birthing community.

    I have been passionate about birth since I was a teenager. But my own first birth was decidedly unpleasant. Later and for years afterward I would tell people that I was glad I was in the hospital because it would have been so much worse at home with no medical help in sight. It was years before I realized that that was completely wrong.

    If I had been at home with support from a midwife and a doula I might have had an amazingly GREAT first birth. All of the things that made it so bad were generated by the practices of the hospital at that time. It was 1962 and though my mother and my husband were there, they were not allowed to be with me. They had to wait in the waiting room.

    I was alone. Lying on my back in an empty room without music or even book or magazine to look at. I was scared and uncomfortable and no one paid much attention to me. I was given an enema, shaved unceremoniously and left alone to watch the clock and count the tiny holes in the accoustical tiles on the ceiling. It was horrible.

    Because my water had broken before I came to the hospital they examined me rectally. (so that they would not introduce germs into my vagina). They could only do an examination while I was having a contraction. This was horrifying to me and very painful.

    The only time anyone was with me was when a nurse would stick her head in the door and ask, ” Are your pains any closer together?”

    There was a period of time when a kind nuse came in and sat with me and held my hand. That was the only time I was somewhat relieved of my fear. She made me feel safe. But then she said her shift was over and she had to leave. After that I was on my own again. Screaming, begging God to make the pain stop. Totally out of control because they gave me Demerol and it made me drunk. I was not familiar with feeling drunk and it made it impossible for me to keep myself “together”.

    My entire labor was less than 8 hours but at the end they wheeled me into the different room, the “delivery room” and gave me gas. I still remember that mask over my face and the relief I felt that the pain would be over.

    What I did NOT know was that I was fully dialated and had my baby within 20 minutes. They pulled him out with forceps….sigh. After I woke up I was so groggy I barely cared about my baby. They brought him for me to see and then took him to the nursery for the night. (he was born at 5 pm) I did not see him again until the next morning. We were both still groggy.

    I asked a nurse about trying to nurse him. She said ( I SWEAR THIS IS TRUE) “Oh your milk won’t come in for a couple of days. There is no point in trying to nurse him till that happens.”

    I was just barely 20 years old and I did not know much about babies and nothing about nursing. In the end I managed to nurse my baby, but it was not due to any help from the hospial staff. In fact the general feeling there was that babies got better nourishment from formula because it was “enriched” with vitamins. Human milk was thin and watery and sort of bluish color compared to the creamy fomula. I felt guilty for wanting to feed my baby my own milk.


    I was determined to do better the next time. I had 4 more children and those births were fantastic! It would have been fun to show that sort of birth to another woman, but they were still all in the hospital. Lucky for me it was before the time of all the interventions they use now. I never had pitocin, or an IV or fetal monitor. It was assumed that I would carry my baby till it decided to come and labor started on its own. My third baby was 3 weeks late and they did not give me a hard time about that nor try to induce me. No one told me it was dangerous or tried to scare me into rushing the baby. It came when it was ready. And strangely ….both of my daughters had 3rd babies who were 3 weeks late. (But they had to fight to keep their babies from being induced.) All of the babies were just fine.

    Anyway, I think it is a wonderful idea for women to bring they sisters, younger cousins, neighbors and children of neighbors and family but only if they are going to see something that is at least somewhat empowering rather than a medicalized event not unlike and appendectomy. (if it is a C-section)

    Why is there so much secrecy and WRONG information out there about birth. I can only guess that the medical profession planned this blackout on good news about natural and home births. Was this so that they could get women to trust only them and do just what they are told? I hate and despise that attitude. I will do all in my power to pry the hands of medical people away from all birthing women.

    TRUST BIRTH, says Carla Hartley. And I agree with her. Birth is safe. Interference is risky.

  5. What a great article. I just had my first child 3 weeks ago and though I had my birth in the hospital, it was incredibly empowering. I was in active labour for 3 hours and was in the hospital for 25 minutes before I pushed my baby out naturally and without any assistance. Other than the last 25 minutes pushing the baby out, I had my sister-in-law witnessing my birth and I hope it was a positive experience for her that will aid her in her births.

    Labour was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it is completely doable for me, and I was -relieved- that my body could do something so naturally that it had never done before, and never witnessed before. My midwife and doula and especially my husband were my support and I could not have done it without them.

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