To celebrate the first anniversary of the launch of my book, my March & April blogs will be a gift of the first chapter:
YOUR BABY SKIN TO SKIN
Coming into the World: Your Highly Evolved Baby
Reaching back …
Some days ago, in the dark of the late evening, not long after the sun dropped suddenly below the horizon, a young woman, hidden with her group in the protection of some fallen trees, felt the first cramps of her impending labour. Deep in her belly and back, sporadic waves of tension grew and eased. She rested and fidgeted through the night and walked through the days, stopping occasionally to eat, drink and rest. Her companions stayed close but un-interfering, busy as they were with surviving and finding a suitable shelter for the safe birth of their newest member.
Now, a few days later, the cramps gradually strengthen and lengthen, grabbing her attention and driving this woman into herself on waves of endorphins. As bright as the midday sun is, inside the labouring woman’s head the lights gently dim as she becomes quieter and more settled. Her companions help her into a cave shelter where she creeps into a hidden corner and hunkers down, moaning with the waves of intense power that flow through her. As the day wears on, her moans grow louder and more urgent. She is up now, swinging her aching hips, pressing her hot brow against the cold stone wall of her shelter and hanging on the shoulders of her strong companion. Oblivious to the world, she is wrapped entirely in her own experience as the hours slip by. And then, just before dusk, the cramps stop and she sleeps for a few delicious moments, listening to the reassuring hum of gentle activity around her.
So, here we are, at the very dawn of time, watching in wonder, and waiting for the moment …
Suddenly she wakes; urgent, adrenaline- filled eyes; frantically trying to get up on her haunches. Her animation alerts her companions, who now gather around her, supporting her weight and watching as she starts to gasp, grunt and urge. Throwing her head backwards, arching her back and heaving again. And now, the wave gone, she is quiet again, but attentive. And another, bigger urge, greeted with deep, throaty groans and gasps. And another, and another. It seems like forever, and just when she thinks she is nearly ready to birth, another great wave hits and the groans deepen and intensify. A sudden gasp and yelp, and now she is panting quickly with the shock of her baby’s head stretching her open with a hot burn that takes the breath out of her body. The woman, numb from the stretch, breathes silently, eyes focused steadily ahead as the moment lingers. Now the urge builds again, the stretching starts and then, emerging slowly, glistening and dark amid the wolf-like howling, a head! The baby faces away from its mother and she looks straight ahead, searching for reassurance, almost oblivious now to the nature of her work and suddenly freed for a moment or two from the stretch that made white stars dance in her eyes.
Perfectly still, silent, the baby stays, head out, aware of the cool air around its face; its body held tight inside the mother for a minute before gently turning slightly to bring it around ready to emerge. As the baby’s body turns inside, the head turns too, bringing the tiny, scrunched-up face into view. Dark skin, bubbles of fluid popping at the mouth, eyes clenched tightly shut. The mother, wondering what is emerging from her body, reaches down between her legs and the baby, in response to its mother’s touch, wiggles its head ever so slightly. Shocked, the mother draws her hands away, holding sticky fingers star-like in the air as the urgent, irresistible force of another wave rocks her body one last time.
On a wave of shiny fluid, accompanied by one long, low hum, like a grateful hymn, the baby finally slips out onto the dusty floor. The baby, lying like a landed fish between its stunned mother’s legs, takes a minute to respond. Its mother, likewise, does not grab her new baby but looks lost, unaware momentarily of quite what has happened …
… and now she moves. Hands between her legs, searching, finding her baby and drawing it up into her hot arms, close to her, where she can just see in the dim light of her cave shelter that she has a girl! The thick cord hanging warmly from her daughter’s belly to her own vagina, swollen and numb from the birth, still pulses with blood from the placenta, giving her baby enough time to adjust to her new surroundings. Even now, as she starts to cough and cry little bubbly cries, her heart is adjusting to the outside world: her circulation changing as some valves snap shut for good, no longer needed now the baby is starting to breathe for herself and her once-blue body gradually infuses to pink.
Now the new baby smells her mother, like a small, snuffly hedgehog in the dark. Her own amniotic fluid, still warm and slippery, mingling with her mother’s salty sweat. Her tongue creeps out and licks around, catching the sea tang of her mother that seals her forever-knowledge of who she must cling to now. And at the same time another sound, another sniff but this one long and deep, like the drawing in of the first sweet air of morning. The newly birthed mother, sticky hands steadying her slippery eel-child on her chest, is smelling her too! She doesn’t even know she is doing it. As the mother–baby dance begins, the new cries build and the mother, high on a sea of adrenaline, learns it by heart in that moment. From now on this cry will touch her in a way that no other baby cry has before. It is part of her own experience, a reminder of the struggle she endured to bring this baby into the world. While others may be able to turn away from this noise, it will reach straight into her heart and wrench at it until she responds. Even now, that first cry is working its purpose: mother shushes gently into her daughter’s ear, muttering and gently calling to her. No words are needed; the gentle sounds, mixed with the warm smells and touch, signal that this is sanctuary.
Before the cord has even broken, or the afterbirth pushed out, the baby bobs her head about. Her hands opening and shutting, grasping at flesh, legs pushing over and over against her mother’s damp, warm skin, gradually moving her just-landed body, heavy in the air, over her mother’s chest. She snuffles and bobs, cries and then falls quietly asleep for a moment before moving again. Creeping around, more sniffing, more bobbing. Slowly, so slowly, she searches for something of which she has no knowledge, no understanding: a nipple. Her eyes opening in the easy natural just-light, she is drawn to an area of contrast, where the flesh of her mother’s chest meets the darker flesh of her areola. No smudged line here but a sharp edge between light and dark, with an oily aroma that tickles her nose. Irresistible. She reaches her destination and then falls asleep, again! Her tired but alert mother wraps her close, beginning to feel cramping again, softer now than the sweeping torrents an hour ago but intense all the same and accompanied by a deep fullness in her vagina. Moaning and grasping at her baby, she lurches upright and the warm afterbirth falls heavily out. Another second of surprise before she turns back to her baby, who has, while her mother’s attention was away, drawn herself onto the dark nipple, pulling it deep into her mouth.
Adrenaline seeps slowly away as endorphins start to flood mother and her newborn. Eyes glazing over, the mother starts to shiver and her companions, having broken the cord and hidden the placenta from the attention of hunting animals, cover the pair and snuggle up nearby for added safety and warmth. The mother and baby, the two who have had the hardest of days, are wide awake, staring at each other in the dark, eyes just inches apart.
We will leave our primitive family now and check back over the next few days and months. They remind us of where we came from and can help us find our own way back to a calmer, more settled experience of parenting in the modern world.
Highly evolved beings
Modern life can look so very different from that of the earliest humans, but some things bind us together in our experience. Birthing our babies, bringing a new human being into the world, discovering our child for the first time – none of this has changed in thousands of years. Whatever our birth story, we are linked, down through generations as far back as you care to go, to our mothers, grandmothers, great-grandmothers, to our friends and to strangers. All highly evolved to carry, birth and protect the next generation. This simple knowledge is at the heart of this book: you and your baby are the highly evolved survivors carrying, silently and without realising it, the knowledge and ability to do just fine.
Of course, life is complex and noisy and we can’t get away from that – the house must be cleaned, the car must be serviced, the shopping must be done, not to mention the emails that must be answered! But mothering our baby does not need to be scary or fraught with impractical rules. If we can relax and watch evolution at play, just as we did at the start of this book, we will realise that, far from needing to learn how to wrestle our newborn into some book-invented, regulated creature to save us from creating ‘a rod for our own back’, our babies will show us perfectly well what it is to be a new human and we can find ourselves just simply responding. So scary to think that we should know what to do and how to teach this tiny being; how much more fascinating and creative to watch and learn from evolution itself.
The newborn baby comes with its very own set of reflexes and instincts. These have evolved over many millions of years for one purpose: to ensure survival. The process has been long and messy: in order to achieve the survival of the fittest, a lot of weaker babies have been lost along the way. This is how evolution works, whether we like it or not. Other branches of early human-like creatures became extinct while our own branch strengthened and evolved, gradually getting better and better at adapting and surviving. We developed language and social structures, discovered fire and cooking, and learned to control our environment. The rate of the explosion of knowledge and learning has been staggering and we now feel so sophisticated and smart in comparison to our early ancestors that we forget that they had to survive against the odds.
But our babies are not sophisticated like us. They are not able in their earliest weeks to make choices and conscious efforts to control their environment. They are little bundles of instinct, without critical thinking, and this is what keeps them safe.
Think about a modern birthing scene. Mentally strip away the buzzers, lights and machines, and you will see the same things happening as in our primitive birth scenario – even in assisted births, many of these things still happen, and are noticed by the midwife, although the mother may not be aware of them. Here we’ll examine what the mother may experience while birthing her baby naturally, and what she may feel without any epidural. If you had an assisted delivery or Caesarean, you may feel robbed of some of the emotions and experiences described above and grieve for them even though your baby was born safe and healthy. Turn to the Q&A section of this chapter for more on how you can capture some moments of wonder, whatever your birth story.
The importance of healthy bacteria
The baby comes into the world, generally speaking, facing downwards towards the mother’s bottom, the mother’s pelvis perfectly shaped to help this happen. This may seem odd – why wouldn’t the baby want to see the mother looking down at her? But in our ancient scenario the gloom would make seeing a face difficult, and babies cannot clearly see that far (they have no need to). There is something more important right now to the baby’s long-term survival: this baby is just about to exit a bug-free environment and enter a very dirty world! Facing the mother’s bottom as she emerges into the world allows the baby’s face to pick up some of the mother’s gut bacteria, which contain, among the bad bugs, millions of helpful bacteria that will get into the baby and help her to fight infection during the early days. What a brilliant adaptation!
But when I first trained as a midwife, and we knew a baby was about to be born, we swabbed the mother’s thighs, perineum and vulva enthusiastically with cleaning solutions. Apart from the horrible sensation of having cold water sloshed onto your delicate vulva during maximum stretch and concentration, it prevented the baby from naturally obtaining protection from the very bugs we were swilling away. Somehow we thought that babies should be born into a sterile environment because they lack the ability to fight off bugs, when all the while, had we looked back, we would have seen that evolution had taken care of things for us. Happily, we stopped doing this many years ago, but women still worry about being dirty when they give birth. Of course, the very first labour contractions usually cause the bowels to empty well before birth and, in any case, once the baby’s head is in the pelvis there really isn’t room for anything else, so pooing is not an issue. The vagina and perineum, uncleansed with chemicals, provide just the right number, type and mix of bugs to ensure that the infant skin and gut become quickly inhabited and protected.
How the ‘ouch’ of crowning protects us and baby
The birth of the head takes a few contractions, giving the vagina time to stretch gently and the baby to adjust to the different pressures in the outside world compared with those in the tightest parts of the pelvis. A very fast birth of the head can cause your baby to have quite a headache, so evolution has sorted that out for us and slowed it all down just enough. Women have huge, irresistible reflexes and urges and, in most cases, need absolutely no guidance as to how to birth their babies. Over millions of years we have evolved to do just the right things to keep us and our little ones safe. So, as the head crowns, the intense heat of the stretch causes women to gasp and pant, which, in turn, slows down the speed at which the head slides out, thereby adding protection. Women will often instinctively bring their thighs together a little as they gasp and pant away the burning and stretching and this adds further protection by steadying the pace and taking a little of the stretch off the perineum, protecting against tearing. We may wish the head could pop out double-quick, but this wouldn’t serve us or our baby at all well. And then, at the exact second the head finally births, as women we know for absolute certain exactly how a champagne bottle feels when the cork has been popped! The relief is instant, the contraction has ended, there are a couple of minutes before the next contraction comes, and, awash with adrenaline, women often start to talk animatedly, telling the midwife about their latest shopping trip while seemingly unaware that there is a baby’s head just outside their vagina! A midwife’s job is often a surreal one.
With the next contraction the baby’s body slithers out with a sudden rush, which can leave us feeling as if ‘someone has just walked over our grave’. More often than not, the midwife either quickly puts the warm newborn on the mother’s chest or suggests that the mother ‘takes’ the baby herself. Sometimes a midwife will let the baby lie, just as in primitive times, between the newly birthed mother’s thighs. In any event, the same thing happens if you watch closely: there is a brief moment during which the mother is not quite ready or aware. She doesn’t immediately engage with her baby but time stops for a tiny moment, a brief suspension in the clatter and noise. And then she shakes back to reality, takes her baby onto her chest and the sniffing begins!
Head back here next month to read the second part of chapter 1 “Your Baby Skin to Skin” and, if you can’t wait ’til then, follow this link to buy a copy …