What really happens during birth and how can a doula help?

Sophie Brigstocke Doula; Doula course facilitator and breastfeeding supporter

Published in JHH14.2 – Women’s Health

My introduction to birth physiology came on a nurturing birth doula course a couple of years after the birth of my two children. In supporting many families during birth I have seen first hand how impactful environment and those involved in birth can be. Becoming a nurturing birth course facilitator in 2012, and now running the company, with Florence Etienne-Jackson, I am privileged to talk about birthing hormones with new doulas as well as pregnant mothers.

Women need to be able to let go, shut off the world around them and access their primal state Click To Tweet How many lightbulb moments can you remember in your life? Those moments when suddenly everything slots into place, those jigsaw pieces re-arrange themselves and you see the whole picture for the first time. I see the same ‘eureka’ moment happening time and time again – with the individual women and families I work with to the groups of new doulas I teach, and I am both excited to see the moment happening and saddened that the awareness wasn’t there before. The moment I am talking about is around birth physiology – the understanding of how hormones work in labour and how they can be disturbed.

If I ask a random group of people to describe what happens during birth then the most common responses involve contractions, waters breaking, dilation and pushing out a baby. With the amount of fearmongering stories that people like to tell, and our media’s obsession with drama, there will often be vivid and horrifying descriptions – of women screaming, lying on their backs with their feet in stirrups, begging for pain relief, of torture-like instruments being wielded by white-clad strangers, lots of blood, a rush to the operating theatre, of life and death situations. Just writing about it makes me feel nauseous and fearful. However, it is incredibly rare in these conversations that anyone ever considers what is behind the physical sensations of birth. So, if we take a moment to look at what a woman’s body is doing during labour we can gain enormous clarity.

The prime hormone of labour is oxytocin. The hormone of love. Produced in the hypothalamus, the mammalian part of the human brain, it produces strong, effective contractions of the uterus – in the earlier part of labour contracting the muscles of the uterus upwards to draw open the cervix – and in the later stages causing effective downward surges, helping to push the baby down and out of the birth canal. Endorphins, also produced in the same area of the brain, are released alongside oxytocin and are responsible for providing natural pain relief – nature’s friends working side by side – one generating strong physical feelings, the other any necessary relief. So, in theory all should be well. A woman will feel strong sensations but her body will provide a natural antidote. However, many women report feeling overwhelmed, in pain and/or out of control. So, what is happening and why is the body not able to deal more effectively with ‘pain’?

French obstetrician, Michel Odent describes oxytocin as a ‘shy’ hormone. And this is where a lot of the problems lie. Oxytocin requires certain conditions for it to be produced, and is very easy to switch off. If we consider one of the other instances in our lives when we produce oxytocin, it is perhaps easier to see how impactful a change of situation can be. Picture yourself staying with your loved one in a beautiful hotel – a romantic setting where you have perhaps just eaten a delicious meal by candlelight, maybe enjoying a glass of champagne, and have moved from dining room to bedroom where you and your partner are alone to caress one another, undress and start to make love. The atmosphere is loving, warm and intimate. Suddenly, the fire alarm goes off – really loud sirens sounding, bright lights come on in the room and hotel staff rush in to shepherd you out to safety in the cold street. It’s not surprising that those warm, loving, pre-orgasmic feelings instantly disappear! It would also be surprising if the mood could be recreated in a hurry. Adrenalin, an oxytocin-killer, flooded the body when the fire alarm went off. It caused all levels of oxytocin to plummet, and endorphins too. During birth, adrenalin has a place, but only in the later stages – usually a hit of adrenalin is released just prior to the pushing phase, giving the mother an energy surge and impetus to clear the final hurdle. Any adrenalin released in the earlier stages of labour is generally detrimental.

What is happening and why is the body not able to deal more effectively with ‘pain’?

So, what are the main factors that impact oxytocin production and release? If we consider a mammal birthing – a cat bringing her kittens into the world for example – the likelihood is that she will choose a nesting place – somewhere dark, warm and quiet. In my childhood home it was always the back of my Mum’s wardrobe, and once we realised that was where she wanted to be we would put in a box, lined with old towels, for her to cosy and settle herself in. In our hotel scenario the environmental factors that changed were light, noise and temperature. Women need that same sense of a nesting place – somewhere comfortable and private, warm and dimly lit. In addition to those environmental factors, which affect all birthing mammals, the human female has a couple of additional challenges. The human brain has a significantly larger neo-cortex than other mammals – the thinking part of the brain, the part that helps us to develop language skills, rationalise, discuss and debate, appreciate the arts etc. During labour if a woman is stimulated in the neo-cortex it draws the focus away from the mammalian part of the brain, the hypothalamus, which is where those all-important birthing hormones are produced. We need for women to be able to let go, shut off the world around them and access their primal state – the instinctive mammalian part of themselves. Fielding questions, having people talking to them, worrying about who is going to win the next general election, is all an unnecessary distraction, which can have an impact on those crucial birthing hormones. Similarly, the feeling of being observed can cause a woman to switch off – birth is generally a private event. If we return to our labouring cat, she is likely to stall birthing her kittens until she feels unobserved, safe and private, which is very disappointing for an excited child wanting to witness her first birth! But observation is more than being watched by people. In the hospital setting it can also include physical examinations – having your tummy palpated or a vaginal examination to establish dilation – or foetal monitoring. Women generally want to be mobile, active, able to get in to whatever position feels comfortable for her without being told what to do or being limited in any way.

Bearing all of this in mind the questions we all need to consider when preparing for birth are, where and with whom? Given that we know that oxytocin production is likely to be impacted by our environment and the people around us surely we need to think far more carefully about what we would like for our birth experience than which brand of buggy to choose. As a doula I work with a wide range of women and families, all with unique circumstances impacting their choices and options. For some, once we have discussed birth physiology, the idea of a home birth becomes hugely appealing. Home is that couple’s most familiar environment – their safe space, somewhere the labouring mum knows well and can move about in without restriction. Her bathtub is clean, her kitchen contains all the foodstuffs she finds most appealing, her bed is large, inviting, comfortable. There are spaces for her partner, midwives, doula to retreat to if she wants solitude and peace. For some, the idea of birthing at home doesn’t suit, so the challenge is to create a ‘nest’ in a different setting – the hospital, birthing unit or maternity centre. Medical issues may dictate a more interventionist approach, and while a woman may be more limited in what she can do we are reminded by the brilliant charity Birthrights that women have choice and that her experience of birth is most commonly affected by whether she felt she was given options and the power to decide.

Continuity of care is a phrase being used a great deal in the birth world at the moment. In Baroness Cumberledge’s National Maternity Review 2016 she identified lack of continuity of care as one of the key factors affecting women’s experience of birth in the UK. It is certainly a huge challenge – more recent research done by the NCT and WI (www.thewi.org.uk/media-centre/ latest-press-releases-and-statements/wi-and-nct-report-finds-women-unsupported-and-midwives-pushed-to-their-limits) shows that 88% of women have not previously met the midwife who supports them during labour. This is a distressingly high statistic when we consider that familiarity breeds reassurance and calm, and is therefore oxytocin-friendly. Pioneer sites across the UK are being encouraged to look at Baroness Cumberledge’s findings and come up with innovative ways to address them; on a team that I am working on heads of midwifery are combining forces to share knowledge and ideas so that the general experience of women can be improved. But, given the limitations of our NHS and the shortage of midwives across the UK, this is not going to be resolved quickly or entirely satisfactorily.

Experience of birth is most commonly affected by whether she felt she was given options and the power to decide

For me this is where the doula comes into her element. Hired independently by a woman or couple during pregnancy the birth doula can provide such support that there is a deeply established and positive relationship in place long before labour begins. A doula becomes aware of her client’s individual needs, expectations, hopes and fears. She is able to ask her clients those all-important questions about where they feel most comfortable birthing, who they want to be there, what might have a positive or negative impact on them. She can signpost evidence-based information and research to help them come to decisions that feel right for them. She can empower, inform, challenge and nurture. The doula works with the couple and for them, but is able to liaise with the health care providers in a positive way, acting as advocate if necessary, helping to alert midwives or others to essential information about the couple, and provide practical support to the midwifery team when applicable.

The doula works with the couple and for them, but is able to liaise with the health care providers

The doula is non-medical – she certainly is not going to make decisions on behalf of the mother, nor give her judgement or opinion, but she is able to facilitate positive discussion and provide evidence. But, ultimately, if we return to the original topic of this article, the doula understands, believes and respects birth physiology. She is able to hold the space for a labouring woman and her birth partners – she will help create and maintain that essential birth nest, the environment that will help a mother let go and enter her primal state. She will be a calm presence, aware of what is going on, gently giving reassurance to those at the birth to reduce any stress levels that may impact the labouring mother.

A doula’s role doesn’t rest with birth. There is a wealth of evidence to support how doulas reduce the number of interventions during labour, the need for pharmacological pain relief, caesareans, episiotomies, even duration of labour. Significantly more women who are doula-supported breastfeed successfully and for longer. And these statistics are important because what happens during pregnancy and birth has a bearing on the future of that mother and baby. A mother’s mental wellbeing is impacted by the type of birth she has, and this, obviously, has a direct effect on the growing baby, the human baby who is programmed for connection, and whose brain is still developing and growing. If a baby is mothered by a woman who is depressed, in pain, traumatised or unwell they are less likely to get the necessary connection, feeding and bonding that they need to develop into a healthy adult. It is challenging stuff. It is my belief that doula support during pregnancy, birth and in the first few essential weeks of parenting is hugely and significantly beneficial to families and the wider community. I feel excited about the positive impact that doulas can bring as awareness of the doula role increases, more women and families choose doula support, conversations happen to look at how doulas can support our challenged NHS, relationships develop, grow and build. My long-term desire is that every woman should be able to access doula support regardless of financial circumstances. There is plenty being done to encourage that, so let’s keep the ball rolling!

Nurturing Birth provides doula preparation courses, doula mentoring and the nurturing birth directory where parents can find support they need for pregnancy, birth, the postnatal period, infant feeding and beyond. To list as a complementary practitioner on the nurturing birth directory visit.

Sophie Brigstocke recently won Doula of theYear at the 2017 annual MaMa Conference