Monday, November 03, 2008

Normal Birth: the baby

What is normal for a baby?
What conditions are optimal for a newborn child as the transition from life in the womb to life out here takes place?
What does a baby expect, in a normal physiological sense, in those moments after birth?

Recently I watched a wildlife documentary from Africa, following the annual migration of wildebeest. As the birth of a wildebeest calf was documented, the point was made that the cow and calf needed to forge immediate bonds essential for survival of the young. Senses of smell, taste, and hearing become central in the attachment between mother and child.

I believe the human mother/infant bonding process is no less dependent upon these normal, physiological factors. I believe our 'advanced', medicalised birthing rituals have become so accepted that we as a society have all but forgotten the importance of natural, normal forces that are keys to normal birthing. Our babies deserve the best start that we can provide for them. That best start is, without a doubt, being born strong and energetic, free of mind-altering drugs, and being taken by the mother to her breast with no unwarranted interference from other people.

During pregnancy a baby gets to know one person - her or his mother. The way that woman moves and breathes and talks and reacts: this is all home ground for that developing fetus. After birth the baby is absolutely at home in the arms of the woman who has carried him or her through the past nine months. Her voice is familiar; her laugh brings a memory of the laugh inside that warm safe place, when the little one learnt that with the laugh, or the embrace of the loved one, comes a surge of good hormones.

Not only does the baby recognise her mother's movements and sounds; she is also prepared for the microbiological world of her own mother. Her blood stream is already primed with antibodies to any organisms that the mother's immune system has encountered. As the newborn child is held naked against her mother's naked breast; as the mother whispers words of welcome and kisses the little nose, the baby's skin, digestive and respiratory systems are quickly populated with the normal bacterial flora from the mother and her home.

As a mother enters the most demanding stage of normal labour, as she experiences that altered state of consciousness, she may feel extremely weary. A thought flashes through her mind "how much longer can I keep going?"

Then, with the birth of the baby, the tiredness leaves her. A surge of adrenaline and other stress hormones passes through her, and her baby, supporting the birthing effort. The baby's body is physiologically primed to respond, and make the amazing adjustments that are essential in normal birth. There are several simultaneous events: the cooling of the air on his face; the change from a warm, dark, uniformly fluid filled environment to the air, light, and sound of our world. As the baby's chest moves out of the birth canal, his arms passively move away from his body, free from the previous constraints. That physical action draws air into the lungs, and together with the other complex changes initiates normal breathing. Changes in blood flow from the heart to the lungs happens simultaneously, quickly reducing the blood flow to the placenta, as the newly opened lungs take over the job of providing essential oxygen. Baby's eyes are open; pupils dilated; all senses fully primed. Smell, sight, hearing, touch, taste - and the baby's mind is recording and processing every sensation.

This is a mere thumbnail sketch of the amazing transition that happens every time a baby is born in harmony with the natural birthing processes.

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