Hi-tech childbirth? Yes please, doctor!

Has the natural birth movement gone too far, pressurising women to reject other options? Louise Chunn talks to mothers who've found that nature doesn't always know best

CHILDBIRTH is surely one of the great unpredictables in life. Like the weather, you can't accurately foretell what's going to happen, or when. You can go to all the classes, write out impeccably PC birth plans, eat all the right foods, drink none of the wrong drinks, even avoid smelly cheeses and raw eggs. But when it comes down to the finishing line and the baby is about to be born, your experience may bear no relation whatever to the blissed-out woman on the video you and your partner watched at the preparation for parenthood classes. Because you can't always "plan" what is going to happen.

In spite of this, most pregnant women do develop a sense of what they think their baby's birth will be like. Spurred on by organisations like the National Childbirth Trust (NCT), they rule out drugs or forceps or cuts. But what happens if, in the delirium that is a long labour, you - and your baby - find you need such tools? Does the anti-intervention lobby mean that women who opt for hi-tech devices - some even choosing them well in advance - are left feeling they've failed the test of womanhood, by not delivering their baby "as nature intended".

Ms S - the health worker who was sectioned under the mental Health Act so that doctors could perform a Caesarean section on her as she was suffering from pre-eclampsia - brought such birth back into the headlines last week. While hers is a murky story (she is alleged to have said she would be glad if her death made her ex-partner feel guilty) her court case - one of seven pending - raises the whole issue of modern technology in birth. Once again, the heavy black line is drawn between advocates of the natural childbirth movement and the kind of woman who is, in the words of one who has had three Caesarean sections, "only happy when I have access to all the drugs and doctors possible".

Louisa was told when she was 33 weeks pregnant that as her baby was "small for dates" they would probably have to deliver it early by Caesarean. "I was very worried until they got to the Caesarean bit; I remember thinking, 'Yes!' I'm not one of those people who thought that childbirth was going to be some great experience. I think you only go through it to get the baby." In comparison to what she calls the "violence of other women's labours", Louisa says hers was "incredibly calm - I just strolled in and it was all over in about half an hour". She believes post-Casearean incapacity is exaggerated by those pushing the dogma of natural childbirth: "Five days after giving birth to my daughter I sprinted across the hospital car park because there was a woman giving birth in a car, and only later did I think that I oughtn't to have done it because I'd had an operation."

In contrast, Madeleine was in labour for 24 hours, with a total of three epidurals "just waiting and waiting. I was exhausted and because of the epidurals I couldn't really push." Her doctor, who she had already primed to avoid technological intervention, said he'd give her only three more pushes before taking her into theatre for an emergency Caesarean. In the event, her daughter was born by forceps delivery - "she still has a scar over her eye" - and the doctor almost dislocated his shoulder in the process. "The next day a woman doctor told me that I should never have never been allowed to take it that far, but I have to say that I was pleased that I did - even if it meant that because of the third-degree tear to my perineum I didn't have sex for about six months afterwards." She has subsequently had another baby, by normal delivery.

Between 15-20 per cent of births in Britain are Caesareans, and the medical profession is fairly consistent in believing that it is a useful method, when needed. NHS policy is to aim for vaginal delivery if at all possible - obstetricians vary greatly in their attitudes to elective Caesars as an option, and there are no separate figures for these at present. Yet a survey of 282 female obstetricians published in the Lancet showed that one third would choose a Caesarean delivery. Eighty-eight per cent cited fear of perineal damage, while 58 per cent were concerned about their long-term sexual function. Professor Nicholas Fisk, at Queen Charlotte's Hospital, who conducted the survey, says, "It is arguable that elective Caesarean is at least as safe as vaginal delivery". He argues the risks are much lower these days since most Caesareans are done under epidural rather than general anaesethetic and women are always given antibiotics to reduce the chance of infection. As he says, "They say labour is natural but you don't find a great demand for dentistry at home without anaesthetic."

By comparison, some individuals within the NCT malign it at every turn. One woman, whose twins were born by Caesarean just over a year ago, was told by her NCT teacher that it would take a year to recover from the operation and that it would have a dire effect on her relationship on her children. "All crap of course. It's just part of their anti-doctor, anti-hospital line. Frankly, the only good thing about the NCT is meeting other women who are pregnant. Otherwise, it's just alarmist and macho."

Helen certainly experienced some extreme reactions when telling people she was having a planned Caesar, even though the reasons were medical. "My yoga teacher was the worst. She treated it like a bereavement: the worst possible thing that could happen to me and my baby. Even though I felt really happy with my choice, I was made to justify it."

Lucy Turner, a London midwife, doesn't see why she should justify such a personal decision. "I think it's good to have the choice. I didn't want to take the chance of having a long, painful delivery. Instead, it was quick and easy. My husband was with me, it was painfree and I cuddled my baby daughter as soon as she was born. I had a fantastic experience and I'd do it again."

Paula Reed, fashion director of Harpers & Queen and mother of two, has seen both sides. Her first child was Caesarean and her second was born naturally. Reed says she suffered far worse, from damage to the perineum, following the natural birth: "I couldn't move properly for about a month after Alfie was born, and they even talked about having to 'refashion' me! Whereas after the Caesarean, I recovered quickly and was swimming lengths when Chloe was only six weeks old."

Caroline Flint, immediate past president of the Royal College of Midwives, will acknowledge that some women, like Paula, prefer Caesareans, but says that others are devastated by the process. "They know that they should be happy that they have a healthy, live baby and so on, but they are completely consumed with loss and grief, feeling that their bodies have failed them." She likens it to a man's experience of impotence: "It niggles at them in the same way."

Research on the subject is scanty and inconclusive. Flint cites some work by psychiatrist Judith Trowell of the Tavistock Clinic in London, showing that women who have had emergency Caesareans are more anxious mothers, and go on to have more difficult relationships with their babies. But she does not know if this would prove true for those whose Caesareans were planned in advance. On the other side, there is evidence that a particularly traumatic natural labour can also cause bonding problems for mother and baby. Dr Lorraine Sherr, senior psychology lecturer at the Royal Free Hospital and author of The Psychology of Pregnancy and Childbirth, says, "For every study that looks at problems with Caesareans, there's been another that fails to find any. It's very mixed but the most crucial issue is whether the Caesarean is planned or not."

The Caesarean rate is rising in Britain. Up until now, this has largely been put down to "interventionist" doctors, working at their own convenience or wanting to whip the baby out at the first sign of trouble, mother's wishes regardless. But, more recently, there does seem to be something of a trend for women to choose the Caesarean "option"; according to a 1994 survey more than half of obstetricians thought such patients' requests were upping the rate. Perhaps there would be more if women felt it really was a free choice. As Professor Fisk says, "The next issue is whether women should be able to request an elective Caesarean. In 10 or 20 years time women may well be offered them as a matter of course. We talk about consumer choice and there's no reason why that shouldn't be part of it."

Louise Chunn is Features Director of Vogue

Additional reporting by Emma Cook.

We would be interested in hearing readers' views on this issue. Please write to us at Real Life, The Independent on Sunday, One Canada Square, London E14 5DL.

News
peopleHowards' Way actress, and former mistress of Jeffrey Archer, was 60
Sport
Romelu Lukaku puts pen to paper
sport
News
Robyn Lawley
people
Arts and Entertainment
Unhappy days: Resistance spy turned Nobel prize winner Samuel Beckett
books
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookA wonderful selection of salads, starters and mains featuring venison, grouse and other game
News
people
Life and Style
Troy Baker and Ashley Johnson voice the show’s heroes
gamingOnce stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover
News
i100
Life and Style
Phones will be able to monitor your health, from blood pressure to heart rate, and even book a doctor’s appointment for you
techCould our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?
News
people
Extras
indybest
Travel
Ryan taming: the Celtic Tiger carrier has been trying to improve its image
travelRyanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?
Sport
Usain Bolt confirms he will run in both the heats and the finals of the men's relay at the Commonwealth Games
commonwealth games
Life and Style
Slim pickings: Spanx premium denim collection
fashionBillionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers 'thigh-trimming construction'
News
Sabina Altynbekova has said she wants to be famous for playing volleyball, not her looks
people
News
i100
Life and Style
tech'World's first man-made leaves' could use photosynthesis to help astronauts breathe
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    SAP Project Manager

    competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP PROJECT MANAGER - 3 MONTHS - BERKSHI...

    Senior Investment Accounting Change Manager

    £600 - £700 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Senior Investment Accounting Change...

    Microsoft Dynamics AX Functional Consultant

    £65000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Progressive Recruitment: A rare opportun...

    Day In a Page

    Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

    With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
    Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

    How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

    As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
    We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

    We will remember them

    Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
    Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

    Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
    Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

    Acting in video games gets a makeover

    David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
    Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

    Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

    Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
    Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

    Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

    Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service
    Billionaire founder of Spanx launches range of jeans that offers

    Spanx launches range of jeans

    The jeans come in two styles, multiple cuts and three washes and will go on sale in the UK in October
    10 best over-ear headphones

    Aural pleasure: 10 best over-ear headphones

    Listen to your favourite tracks with this selection, offering everything from lambskin earmuffs to stainless steel
    Commonwealth Games 2014: David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end

    Commonwealth Games

    David Millar ready to serve up gold for his beloved Scotland in the end
    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup 2014: Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings

    UCI Mountain Bike World Cup

    Downhill all the way to the top for the Atherton siblings
    Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

    The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

    A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

    Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

    How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
    Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

    He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star