The cult of ‘natural’ childbirth has gone too far – Commentary

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Three things happened this month that took me back about four decades and not in a good way. One was a ‘National Breastfeeding Month’ banner hanging from our own swing bridge another was a photo of Sophie Gregoire Trudeau breastfeeding her son and the third was a tweet from Jamie Oliver praising his wife – and by extension himself – for the “composed, natural birth of their fifth child.”

In and of themselves all of these things are good and beautiful. Except that somehow, over time, privileged couples – some of them rich and famous – have established that birthing a child and feeding it should only be done naturally. Natural is the new/old mantra of this set: it makes anything other than a vaginal birth sans medication, followed by having the baby latch on to mom’s breast without fanfare, the only way to go. The problem is in doing so it subtly suggests that C-sections, pain medication and bottle feeding are unnatural and just not quite up to snuff. (Google “celebrities using natural childbirth” and I swear that you’ll throw up in your mouth a little while rolling your eyes a lot!)

There was a time when I thought this was about shaming women or trying to control them but now I am not so sure. I’ve really come to distrust the word natural. In my humble opinion it is merely code for “this crap costs buckets of money and mostly doesn’t work.” The natural myth has become entrenched in modern issues from the anti-GMO movement to the anti-vaccination kerfuffle. Mostly affluent westerners are embracing a romanticized idea of the natural. It’s a kind of quasi-cult-like rejection of modernity. Perhaps it’s not about control and although it mainly affects women it’s not about them.

One hundred years ago every birth was natural and 500 women of every 10,000 died in childbirth and infant mortality was above 10 per cent. Today maternal mortality is 1 in 10,000 and infant mortality is around five babies per 10,000. Those awful numbers did not come down naturally. They came down thanks to science and education.

In places like Angola where women give birth naturally with other women assisting, infant mortality is an astounding 180 per 1,000 births. In other words, it is double that of Canada 100 years ago. Closer to home, my own maternal grandmother died in her early 40s during childbirth. Our massive reduction in mom and baby deaths was achieved through ultrasounds, gestational screening and by physician-assisted delivery with emergent access to surgery and neonatal support.

It’s been a long time since I was pregnant – my ‘baby’ will be 40 soon – and I confess that I drank the kool-aid too. I was lucky that I had a relatively easy labour and delivery so nobody had to pay a price for my embracing of a somewhat kooky birthing trend. Later an enthusiastic, slightly manic La Leche League advocate visited me and sold me on breastfeeding as the only option and I bought that too. Selling natural is not new. Oh, and natural does not come cheaply.

Of course, there is also nothing wrong with an non-medicated birth either. Women should be able to choose to pop junior out whilst singing Kumbaya under a waterfall surrounded by fields of daisies but it’s wrong to feel like you’ve failed if a C-section needs to be performed. A healthy baby is the goal and as long as you keep your eye on that prize whatever you choose is equally valid. No one should feel one iota intimidated by the celebrity that chooses no meds, no doctor and no formula. Remember, these are the same people who go back to being a size zero  four weeks following the stork’s arrival.

In poor countries the breast likely is best due to a lack of safe drinking water and the perfidy of companies that have pushed third-world moms to use pricey formula, which mothers then had to adulterate to stretch them further.

It is a handy and mostly beneficial thing that women are equipped with breasts that often provide nourishment for their children. But I’ve seen too many women stress and weep with the pain of cracked nipples and a lack of milk production but who grit their teeth because they think formula is ‘bad’.

Researchers at Ohio State University compared 1,773 sibling pairs, one of whom had been breast-fed and one bottle-fed, on 11 measures of health and intellectual competency. The children ranged in age from four to 14 years. The researchers recorded various health and behavioral outcomes in the sibling pairs, including body mass index, obesity, asthma, hyperactivity, reading comprehension, math ability and memory-based intelligence. The study found no statistically significant differences between the breast-fed and bottle-fed siblings on any of these measures. Many of the long-term benefits attributed to breastfeeding may be an effect not of breastfeeding or breast milk itself but of the general good health and prosperity of women who choose to breastfeed.

Like other movements, the push for natural birthing began with a real need for change. But like everything we do, we seem unable to maintain balance and instead swing wildly to extremes. On a somewhat separate note, while I adore modern dads increased involvement in all things baby, I beg you to stop using the royal ‘we’ to describe your child’s birth. Until you squeeze an eight pound anything through your penis, your supportive “atta girl” back rubs and ice chips are appreciated, but please give credit where credit is solely due, okay?

As one writer/doctor/mother said recently, “By the 1980s the original natural birth movement had accomplished all it set out to do. They should have packed up the placards and congratulated themselves in a job well done.” Instead they kept going into an area not supported by science. She adds, “They went from ‘Women should have a choice in how they give birth’, to ‘anything other than natural childbirth is wrong and dangerous’.” And that simply isn’t true.

Giving birth is not usually a lovely, romantic experience. It can be but it can turn into a medical event pretty quickly. As for natural….well, you are still going to squeeze a wriggling eight-pounder out of a space that seems less than ideally designed for the job in an experience both joyous and agonizing. Whatever else you do, that should be plenty of natural for most of us to handle in one lifetime.

Photo credit – thesun.co.uk

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Dale PeacockFollowing a career in the hospitality sector and the acquisition of a law and justice degree in her 50s, Dale embarked on a writing career armed with the fanciful idea that a living could be made as a freelancer.  To her own great surprise she was right.  The proof lies in hundreds of published works on almost any topic but favourites include travel, humour & satire, feature writing, environment, politics and entrepreneurship. Having re-invented herself half a dozen times, Dale doesn’t rule anything out.  Her time is divided equally between Muskoka and Tampa Bay with Jim, her husband of 7 years and partner of 32 years.  Two grown ‘kids’ and their spouses receive double doses of love and attention when she’s at home.

28 Comments

  1. Dawn Huddlestone on

    Bang on, Dale. My daughter – a healthy, happy, soon-to-be 13-year-old – was born by C-section. I was in tears two days earlier, the night before a scheduled induction, because our lovely bundle still hadn’t arrived 10 days after her due date and I felt like I had failed at the whole birthing thing already. Add an epidural and 17 hours of labour followed by a C-section, and it was anything but a ‘natural’ experience (and at that point I was too exhausted to care any more). Breastfeeding came naturally, thankfully, but in the hospital the woman in the bed next to me was in tears because her newborn wouldn’t latch on properly. I agree that healthy babies are the goal and we shouldn’t shame others – intentionally or not – into thinking that anything but a non-medically assisted birth is ideal. Why can’t we just be supportive of whatever experience choice or circumstance brings?

    • Veronica Leonard on

      I wholeheartedly agree with your last sentence, Dawn. However, this article is doing more tearing down than building up. The language the writer used (from the word “cult” to insulting involved fathers) was the opposite of supportive. It was shaming. And definitely not a piece of journalism that will help achieve what your last sentence expressed.

    • The very real mommy “shaming” and minefield of expectations is probably just a key reflection of our increasingly polarized and inadvertently or not, intolerant, mean society. All for adult debate and big differences of opinion. But I wonder how “we” expect to successfully teach kids not to bully, demean etc. when being a Judgey McJudgerson adult is both acceptable and often subtly encouraged?

  2. Cassandra MacNaughtan on

    How can you shame women for wanting a natural birth?! Spread and share love, not judgement! So disappointing that this article was even published

  3. I happily disagree, Dale. I don’t think it’s a cult, or ‘kooky’ trend. As long as it is done with those educated in what they are doing, with the support of qualified professionals, based on individual cases and situations. What was best for me, no drugs, isn’t best for another. I am happy we can make choices in Canada. The best ‘trend’ now entrenched in healthcare is the gov’t-paid midwives who gently ease our grandbabies into the world. What with the toxins in our environment, I’m happy, finally, educated women are breastfeeding their babies.

  4. Cassandra MacNaughtan on

    Shame on the Doppler for running an article that shames mothers, fathers, natural birth, breastfeeding and support groups (le leche league).
    What is this world coming to that wanting a natural simplified birth and hoping to avoid major surgery followed by having a newborn, having an involved and proud father, wanting to breastfeed because it is ‘likely'(?seriously?) better then formula, is placing you in some kind of cult? How judgemental and shameful!

  5. Although I agree that all birth choices should be respected that is not at all what this writer has done. The shaming in this article is shocking. From involved fathers to breast feeding. I feel like I just read the wild, unsupported rantings of an angry woman. And to the Doppler, shame on you for publishing such a rude and biased article. Disgusting!

  6. “It’s a kind of quasi-cult-like rejection of modernity”….
    Having had a hospital birth and a natural home birth (both by choice and informed research) I can safely say I would chose the latter 100 times over. Do I tell people this? Absolutely. Was I brainwashed or pushed or (and I resent the implication) duped into a natural birth – not on this planet.

    “Except that somehow, over time, privileged couples – some of them rich and famous – have established that birthing a child and feeding it should only be done naturally”
    For every mother who makes a choice of how to birth their baby based on what the celebrity world dictates (do these women exist???) there are the 99% who make their choice based on fact, suitability, medical consultation, personal reference and free choice.

    I too could spout unsupported facts and unreferenced ‘facts’ gleaned from online skimming but that would be an insult to writers everywhere. Yuk.

  7. Appreciate your accepting, tongue-in-cheek take on recent Leah McLaren column, celeb Instaposts etc. etc. Dale. So much competitive pressure and constant judgement dished out to all parents, especially new mothers, these days. Plus social media, most celebrity stars on it completely gloss over life’s messy reality, all the support and resources the privileged few have to create the appearance of simple, “natural” perfection, fostering very unrealistic expectations for most women. At the end of the day, it’s all about sometimes tough, very personal choices that we are fortunate to have. Let’s lighten up on each other and really recognize that as long as the outcome is healthy, well-cared-for kids, life is very good indeed. If we do have energy to “divide and conquer” perhaps that can be devoted to child hunger (endemic in much of Canada), illnesses etc.

  8. Hmm. I’m a little surprised about the comments that this article was shaming to women and their partners who give birth naturaly. I totally agree with Dale. Choice and safety is the most important. And as for putting down involved fathers–I didn’t get that sense from this article at all. I think we need to recognize that the effort, pain, discomfort and ecstasy of childbirth is something that only women experience and that should be honored and recognized. We need support and we need the involvement of our partners but I agree that we might be belittling the truth by too much emphasis on the word “we.” I gave birth naturally twice (many years ago) and I was so grateful that my breasts worked because I am/was small breasted and had grown up feeling pretty inadequate in that department. I found it so convenient to be able to feed my child whenever–wherever. The big problem I encountered had to do with other people not being comfortable with me breastfeeding my child in public. This–while Playboy magazines graced many of the coffee tables of many a middle-class living room. Enough said about that!!
    I’m just glad we live in times when fathers and mothers can be involved with midwives and/or doctors in all the decisions and choices that have to be made around the amazing process of birth as much as they want to be. And if a C-section is what has to happen–I’m grateful it can!! I know many a wonderful woman whose life and baby was saved because of a C-section! Good article Dale.

    • Thanks Meg…..you ‘got’ it. I confess that I’m also a bit surprised by some of the reaction.

      As a woman and a mother I completely support whatever women do with their own bodies and for their children. I thought it was clear but perhaps not as much as I intended.

      I don’t usually reply to Opinion pieces. Once I’ve had my say I really prefer that others have theirs too and leave it at that. But I felt that a brief reiteration of where I stand works well in conjunction with your comments.

      My statement re: dads ‘taking credit’ was a bit tongue-in-cheek; I am completely in awe of how young fathers are participating so fully in their child’s lives. It wasn’t always so.

      As to my use of the word cult, it was used in its perhaps less popular meanings: 1) a situation in which people admire and care about something or someone very much or too much and 2): a small group of very devoted supporters or fans. I truly do believe that we are much too influenced – even unknowingly – by what celebrities say and do and it is this following of the cult of celebrity that I am gently mocking.

      Liz was very kind to take responsibility as editor for the heading – and indeed she could have eliminated it – but it was my heading.

      Thanks to all for commenting.

      • Hi Dale
        I hope the reactions you have aroused with the piece do not discourage you from stating your opinion in the wonderful energetic intelligent way that you do. I always enjoy your writing and often learn something new.
        Keep up the good work!

      • Thanx for the article Dale! I read it…I think…as you wrote it…to point out any way a person chooses to deliver it the right way. It may not be the original way they intended or it may be, but being able to have choice is all that matters without any one external to the process thinking they have a right to chime in! I totally chuckled with your “we” comment. My friends know that is a pet peeve of mine lol….”we” are not pregnant and “we” are not giving birth…..”we” will be parents after I (and I wish I could make that more capital than it is lol) am pregnant, after I carry around that massive belly and put everything aside for 9 months and after I go through whatever I need to, to give birth. Then and only then does it become “we”. Sorry you got some unfriendly feedback, but I guess that’s what opinion pieces are for!

  9. Further to my comments above, I did think the word “cult” in the headline was overly provocative! Headlines are usually the domain of editors and not writers. I’d be interested to know if Dale chose that word or whether that was a juicy way for editors to attract readers.

    • Elizabeth Rice - Doppler Publisher on

      That’s very insightful of you Meg. 🙂 While I will not answer your question directly, I will say that as the editor of that piece, I take responsibility for every word.

    • Esther Jennings on

      I have to agree wholeheartedly with Dale. Medicine has come a long way and with each advancement has come many positive health outcomes including lower mortality rates. The resistance puzzles me as women choose risky home births over a controlled hospital birth where emergency surgical intervention could save both Mom’s and babe’s lives if things go wrong. But women have the right to choose and the best position, I am finding, is not to judge based on my own personal experience or preferences.

    • Meg, in Dale’s response to you, she stated that the title was hers (including the “provocative” word “cult”. I would not expect anything less of Ms. Rice than to decline to point that out, and to stand behind the piece and its writer 100%. I wrote a piece for the Doppler once, and I know how conscientious Liz is; as she made suggestions to improve my submission (including the title). She did not accept it until she felt that she could support it.

      And Esther, regarding the dangers involved in using midwives: As long as you are using a certified midwife, with hospital privileges, you need not worry.

  10. This woman just did an angry rant and published it. I am all for supporting women and their birthing choices. All she has done is made parents and celebrities that birthed naturally and breastfed feel badly because they are in a “cult”?! She should have written an article supporting women who had c sections and those who experienced breastfeeding problems. A much better use of her time. Not bashing natural births. We need to be more supporting and stop dividing the birthing community. My first passed away in hospital after she was born. So for our second we had her at home. It’s a personal choice. We are all moms trying to survive. No reason to shame any family on their birth choices. We all need more support during birth and afterwards. I suggest looking into making peace with your birth. Or come out to a birth circle to see what the birth community sees as helpful.

    Huntsville Doppler Not very helpful or supportive. I suggest you contact your local midwife to get up to date information and proper stats.

  11. All this article does it alienate the women that do things naturally it doesn’t stand up for the women who don’t. That banner is hung because I as a breastfeeding mom should be able to feed my son wherever i need to just as much as a mother who is bottle feeding it’s not that it’s better it’s that there is more judgement. I totally support fed is best because it is so don’t alianate breastfeeding just because it makes you uncomfortable.

  12. Marcia Kuehnen on

    It would have been a very different message if the opinion conveyed supported all mothers in how they choose to give birth and parent, including pain relief, c-section and formula feeding. But calling them(/us) “kooky” and shaming natural approaches in regards this transformative experience in a woman’s life is what is so appalling to me.

  13. Aside from the logical fallacies, and the straw man arguments, and the shaming of women who make a choice for natural child birth, the author’s position on breastfeeding is just plain wrong. Health Canada, the Canadian Dietary Association, Canadian Pediatric Society, the American Pediatric Society (to name a few) all recommend breastfeeding in the first 6 months, because it is best for the baby. Hopefully mothers to be won’t use information gleaned from this author to make make an informed choice.

  14. Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC)

    *The SOGC does not promote Caesarean sections on demand but promotes natural childbirth. The decision to perform a Caesarean section during labour and delivery should be based on medical indications.
    Are these doctors part of the”cult”? They used that “natural” word right in their recommendations.

    Health Canada
    Breastfeeding is the normal and unequalled method of feeding infants. Health Canada promotes breastfeeding – exclusively for the first six months, and sustained for up to two years or longer with appropriate complementary feeding – for the nutrition, immunologic protection, growth, and development of infants and toddlers.

    It seems breastfeeding makes a difference to them, though the author believe s it makes no difference.

    The author’s “views” on these topics are sadly misinformed. If it was comedy they were trying to achieve, the laughs are at the expense of some very good choices.

  15. Craig Nakamoto on

    I am also surprised at the number of comments on this article, but a good opinion piece ought to be thought-provoking and generate discussion. It looks to me like a lot of people did not quite get what Dale was saying.

    On the other hand, I think I have to disagree with the idea that natural childbirth is a fad or movement that has gone too far. I think of it as a correction. I believe modern childbirth has certainly gone too far in North America. Childbirth is not an illness. It does not need to be treated – UNLESS there is a problem. In most of the rest of the world, if you told someone you were seeing a doctor because you were pregnant, they would ask you what was wrong. Modern childbirth is a bit of a disaster. Births are often scheduled, medications are used regardless of whether they are needed, women are not allowed freedom of movement, and don’t get me started on the paranoia generated by standard testing / statistics.

    I think both parents should be involved and that there should not be any judgement on any decisions they make. That being said, you can only make informed decisions if you understand what is going on and what your options are. I felt sorry watching other parents taking a few hours course (or none at all) and leaving the entire experience in the hands of their doctors and nurses. Like most really important life events, I recommend that you educate yourself in advance and be prepared for all outcomes.

    We took a Bradley birthing course which was surprisingly conservative in nature, and while it advocated “natural childbirth” it certainly did not rule out medications, c-sections or hospital births. The goal of the course was to make sure both mother and father were well informed on the process of birth, the medications (when they are useful and when they are not), possible emergency situations, how the hospitals work, etc. It was one of the best courses I have taken – and certainly one of the most useful. This stuff should be taught in school.

    We used the same group of midwives to deliver both of our children and they were also very conservative. They had collectively delivered more babies than you could imagine and most of them worked as nurses in the OB/GYN section of the hospital for decades before becoming midwives. They certainly did not recommend home births over hospital births, but they would try to support your decision. However, if they thought you were at risk for any complications, they would not perform a home birth.

    I am thankful for modern medicine and emergency medical care, and we are very fortunate to have it. But when it comes to childbirth, I think we have to recognize that it is a “natural” process and not a medical condition. If “natural childbirth” is a cult, I hope it quickly becomes mainstream.

  16. I am not sure why you have chosen to knock natural childbirth and breastfeeding this way. it is critical to remember that the only milk humans are predisposed to is mother’s milk. The multi national companies like Nestle would love your article, as they have been pushing formula over breastfeeding on women all over the world. Perhaps babies do not show the adverse effects of formula when they are young, and yes when breastfeeding is impossible, an organic non-GMO based formula may have to be the alternative, but for goodness sake, Dale! Don’t we want the human body to be able to function normally?? As for childbirth-where do you get the idea that privileged rich people are pushing a “cult” of “natural childbirth?
    Those of us who needed help to birth our children are very grateful, and yet most of the women I know who had caesarians still support the process of giving birth vaginally as a profound and primal and yes “natural” preferred alternative that they would have loved to undergo. I get the feeling you were just dabbling in an idea, and wanted to do a “smack down” of rich Hollywood stars for some reason. You sound prejudiced. I advise you to do better research on the developing world and childbirth/formula scandals, and also-take a step back and think more intelligently about the natural-versus-assisted birth process in our society. Remember, it is the woman herself who must be in charge of her own decisions. Sometimes they are urgent and medical/surgical help is needed, but she needs to always make herself well-informed in cases of choice. There is work to do in some areas here, and help with breast feeding is a wonderful thing when necessary! Your Laleche comments are simply rude and simplistic. I am so sorry for you that you even chose to undermine your own “Drink the Koolaid” natural” births. I can’t believe Doppler published such a lightweight and silly article.

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