Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering; a book review
Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering: A Doctor’s Guide to Natural Childbirth and Gentle Early Parenting Choices By Sarah J Buckley, MD
What if someone told you that birth was not inherently dangerous, and that your body and instincts know exactly how to give birth safely and with ease? Would that statement challenge everything you know or have experienced surrounding childbirth? In Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, Dr. Sarah J. Buckley will explain how that is the natural design of labor and birth. The first edition was published by Celestial Arts of Crown Publishing in 2009, and is compiled of essays that have previously been published in a variety of magazines and other publications. Dr. Buckley’s own experience of birthing her four children naturally and at home have greatly contributed to her perspective of the natural process, however her professional training in the medical field and scientific approach to analyzing information add definitive authority to each topic she explores throughout her book.
Dr. Buckley describes birth as being multifaceted, and I think her book is also multifaceted. Some chapters emphasize the spiritual, emotional and instinctual aspects of the journey to motherhood and are written from her holistic perspective of the process. She also includes her own birth stories, which show us how her experiences have flavored her perspectives. Then there are the chapters that are very science-based and include research data, studies and evidence which is all meticulously cited, showing that this is not just a book of opinion but also of facts that can be proven. Part I: Gentle Birth contains information regarding the current state of maternity care in the Western countries, suggestions and advice in preparing for what she calls “instinctual birth”, information about common practices, and all about the physiological and hormonal processes of birth. Part II: Gently Mothering addresses issues regarding parenting options like breastfeeding and co-sleeping, and scientific information about newborn development and attachment.
The book begins by describing the current state of maternity care in the U.S. and other westernized countries (which today, eight years later, is still largely accurate). Dr. Buckley identifies numerous factors that contribute to lack of improvements in the field including: the (false) public perception of improvements in care, fear from the prevalence of stories about hurtful, disappointing and traumatic experiences surrounding birth, and care providers’ fear of litigation. True informed consent and refusal is also lacking in maternity care, and she surmises achieving that is what will finally bring lasting change. Public access to research and current statistical data is an important element in informed consent. Exploring and better understanding one’s beliefs and desires is another important factor that she heavily emphasizes, and leads to what she calls “instinctive birth”.
To encourage readers to explore their instincts regarding birth, Dr. Buckley gives many holistic suggestions such as reconnecting (or connecting for the first time!) to one’s own body, working through barriers on emotional, physical and spiritual levels, getting in touch with nature, physically preparing one’s body, journaling and/or artwork related to labor and birth, and learning more about instinctual birth. These practices and pieces of information can lead a woman to making the decisions that are best for her unique body, baby, family, and situation. In an effort to further describe her perspective on birth she describes the attributes she’s sees as integral to experiencing instinctive birth: passion, love, surrender, and power. She will go on to give scientific evidence to support the importance of these emotional aspects in birth and in mothering.
In our culture, another barrier to instinctive birthing is the emotional and mental effects of many routine prenatal screens and tests, and in the prevalence of interventions and interferences during labor and birth. Dr. Buckley prefaces this section with a disclaimer about her own personal biases favoring an undisturbed birth, but she goes on to show proof of unintended, negative effects of some of these common interventions and management techniques. The chapter “Undisturbed Birth” is the real gem of this book in my opinion. She describes in detail the main groups of hormones that make birth, not only possible, but exquisitely designed to be safe, even pleasurable, and optimally designed for success. Then it really starts to make sense how disrupting the process can unbalance this delicate interplay of hormones. The most common elective intervention, epidural anesthesia is thoroughly examined in regards to how it affects labor and the newborn, which is an aspect that is sorely overlooked in mainstream information. I think it’s incredibly important for women to understand not only how drugs can affect the baby physically, but how they affect the hormones that optimize safety and so increase risks in that respect, and possible long term effects on breastfeeding and bonding. The same aspects are addressed in relation to the third stage of labor and cesarean sections.
Part II: Gentle Mothering applies the same foundational understanding of these very important hormones to how they affect breastfeeding and bonding which, historically, were absolutely imperative to survival. When the cascade of hormones remains undisturbed from birth, then transition into breastfeeding and parenting is optimized. She details stages of brain development and how important early experiences are in long term emotional health, and the physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and baby. She concludes by tackling the controversial issue (in our culture) of bed sharing and co-sleeping. She presents some of the research and statistical data that was current at that time, basic guidelines for bed sharing safely, and resources for more information.
I absolutely love Sarah Buckley’s work, and I was happy to have the excuse to re-read this wonderful book. I use a lot of her materials in the birth classes I teach and always recommend this book to expectant parents. I think that the extensive research she does into how we are regularly interfering with this beautifully designed process will help us to change the momentum in maternity care to using interventions less often and more judiciously.