The challenges to safe motherhood vary depending where in the world you live. In some areas the challenge may be to get adequate nutrition or clean water; in other areas, it may be to prevent infection; and in still other locations it may be trying to avoid pregnancy before your body is ready or getting access to prenatal care. In the U.S., it may mean avoiding being sedentary and making poor food choices, or having to deal with the high technology environment of medical birth that can sabotage the innate physiological process of labor and birth.
The biology of birth is a complex series of cause-effect processes…baby’s brain releases chemical signals to the mother and the placenta begins to manifest the maternal immune system’s rejection of the fetus.
To help the ball get rolling, relaxation (the trophotropic response) helps promote the release of oxytocin. With the help of gravity, the head presses on the cervix, amplifying the uterine contractions. After an ultra-distance aerobic endurance test, the cervix opens enough to let the baby move into the vagina and the mother’s discomfort moves from sharp cramping into the bony structure as she transitions to the strength test of pushing. She transitions. Relaxation modulates into an ergotropic — adrenal — response to gather her power.
Pushing is an interesting term…more masculine, I think, than the one I prefer: Releasing. Releasing or letting go of the baby. It’s a catharsis. In this portion of the labor another set of important processes help the baby clear its lungs of amniotic fluid, stimulate its adrenal system and challenge its immune system, as the contractions drive the baby downward. The mother’s deep transverse abdominal muscles — if strong enough — squeeze the uterus like a tube of tooth paste, to aid this expulsion. In the meantime, the labor is helping set up the mother to fall in love and produce milk. When the baby emerges and moves onto the mother’s chest, s/he smells and tastes the mother, recognizing her mother’s flavor and setting up the potential for bonding.
Any way you slice it, there are two parts to safe motherhood. One is a safe pregnancy…healthy nutrition, physical fitness, safe water, infection prevention, support and a safe environment. The other is a safe labor. In a safe labor, there is both an environment that promotes the natural process of labor and the means necessary for medical assistance when needed. Women die at an alarming rate from pregnancy or birth-related problems. Despite some progress made in recent years, women continue to die every minute as a result of being pregnant or giving birth.
What keeps us from having a better record on motherhood is often lack of care in the developing world and too much intervention in the U.S.. They are two sides of a coin. Mothers’ experience and health needs are not on equal footing with other cultural values. In places where basic prenatal care or family planning are low priorities, at-risk women are vulnerable to the physical stresses of pregnancy and birth. In the U.S., machine-measured data is paramount, even if it produces high rates of false positives, unnecessary interventions or counterproductive procedures. We are learning that obesity and sedentary lifestyles have detrimental effects, but fewer pregnant women than their non-pregnant counterparts exercise.
Despite the money spent to support the technological model of pregnancy and birth in the U.S., there are parts of the world with lower rates of maternal deaths — especially Scandinavia, Northern Europe and parts of the Mediterranean and Middle East (Greece, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Italy and Croatia). In fact, in the U.S., maternal deaths are on the rise.
It’s a tricky business. Clearly Western medicine has a lot to offer the developing world when there are medical concerns. On the other hand, importing the U.S. model could create more problems than it solves. Instead, the micro-solutions now being developed in many locations will be observed and evidence collected by organizations such as the White Ribbon Alliance and UNICEF.
There is an effective international midwives model adopted by JHPIEGO, the Johns Hopkins NGO working toward improved birthing outcomes. It assesses the local power structure, social connections, potential for trained birth assistants, and location of available transportation to create a network so that locals will know when a labor is in trouble and who can get the woman to the nearest hospital.
In the U.S., there are in-hospital birth centers that allow low-risk mothers the opportunity to labor and birth in a setting designed to encourage the innate processes. Women are beginning to vote with their feet…staying home for birth. Women are going abroad to give birth. At the same time, women are coming to this country to give birth, believing it is safer than where they are. There are several ways these scenes could play out.
But, I’ll wager, improving outcomes will involve compromise: Watchfulness and support in most births, plus better ways to assess danger and provide technology. No matter where you live in the world, the solution may be essentially the same.