Special Delivery: Natural Approaches To Ease Childbirth
By Linda Knittel
Photos by Gus Butera

Finding herself pregnant again after suffering several miscarriages, Leslie Woodward turned to her allopathic physicians for practical ways to ensure her pregnancy would go to term. When they offered her none, she sought the advice of Nora Tallman, ND, a naturopathic doctor at the Natural Childbirth and Family Clinic (NCFC) in Portland, Ore. Beginning with the very first clinic visit, Woodward says Tallman's goal was to nurture her and calm her fears, something she had not experienced with her Western practitioners. "She said, 'Let's not wait to do an ultrasound, let's go ahead and see what is happening in there,'" says Woodward. "And after hearing the heartbeat and receiving total support and encouragement, I moved out of fear and into total acceptance of the situation. That is what natural childbirth is all about."

Throughout her pregnancy, Woodward was given acupuncture, herbal tinctures and creams such as wild yam to give her strength and help her hold on to the baby. This approach worked so well in fact, that in the end, Woodward's labor was actually overdue. "I was late, so the doctor decided that I should have my water broken," Woodward says. "She had something going on at home that evening, so I said, 'I can just come over to your house.' That is how comfortable the relationship was."

Twelve hours later, in the comfort of her own home and with the support of her husband, her birth team, and several students from the National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Portland, Woodward delivered a healthy baby girl. "At first my husband was really opposed to going the alternative route," admits Woodward. "He is a paramedic and is really faithful to Western medicine. But after coming to appointments with me and witnessing the amazing results acupuncture and Chinese Medicine brought about, he became a complete convert."

The Rebirth Of Natural Methods
Once pushed to the fringes by the more modern, antiseptic techniques of hospital births, natural childbirth methods are again making their way back into the mainstream. Part of this revival is due to the fact that hard scientific research has now substantiated the efficacy of these disciplines. For example, studies have shown that by replacing drugs with acupuncture and herbs, practitioners can reduce anxiety and pain while naturally speeding up labor. But more than just proving that they work, these holistic methods of childbirth have proven to work with the body's natural processes, not in opposition to them, a fact that sets them apart from more clinical procedures.

In spite of the fact that natural childbirth is currently making a comeback, more than 95 percent of American babies today are born in hospitals, where there is an orientation toward medical technology and pharmacological methods of pain relief. And, more than 80 percent of these hospital births are augmented through the use of inducing drugs such as oxytocin or pitocin. While some medications have certainly made childbirth more endurable or convenient, they have also made it more complicated, oftentimes at the expense of the physical and emotional well-being of mother and child.

The problem is, like most medications, the effects of labor-enhancing drugs like pitocin are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous. In fact, as midwife Brigitte Jordan points out in her book Birth in Four Cultures (Waveland Press, 1992), they can also cause "fetal distress due to anoxia, intracranial hemorrhage, uterine spasms with possible premature separation of placenta, lacerations of the birth canal, and possible uterine rupture." But perhaps even more significant are the facts that all medications reach the baby via the placenta and that the abrupt onset of contractions brought on by standard drugs does not allow a woman to gradually adjust to the pain and the psychological dynamics of the situation. In contrast, the effects of acupuncture have been shown to effectively stimulate contractions while at the same time boosting the mother's energy and granting her a feeling of control.

In her pioneering research conducted in the 1980s at The Queen Mother's Hospital in Glasgow, Scotland, senior midwife Irene Skelton demonstrated these physical and mental benefits of acupuncture during labor. Skelton found that women who received acupuncture during childbirth "felt more in control of their labor and delivery, and were generally more in control of their labor and delivery."

Similarly, in 1986 and 1987, Pamela Boxx, a researcher and Chinese medicine practitioner, conducted an experiment to determine if in fact acupuncture relieves the pain of labor in the majority of women. In her study, 43 pregnant patients received acupuncture treatments as their only pain relief during childbirth. Of these 43, two-thirds reported deriving some, if not considerable, benefit from the needles. Moreover, Boxx and other attending midwives observed that "babies born to mothers whose intrapartum analgesia was acupuncture alone mostly emerged howling lustily and in the pink," a condition not always seen in babies whose mothers are given pain-killing drugs.

At the very core of acupuncture, and TCM in general, is the concept of qi (pronounced chee), which is the name for the vital force or energy that exists in everything. According to TCM teachings, we inherit prenatal qi from our parents at conception, and then throughout our lives we derive additional qi from the air we breathe and the food we eat.

Like all activities in life, childbirth brings about a shift in the directionality of qi. All during pregnancy, a fetus is held up and in by its mother's spleen qi. Then during labor, the imperative is for the qi to go down. However, numerous psychological and physical factors can slow or block this process, requiring a manipulation of qi using herbs and acupuncture.

In one study of the effects of acupuncture on qi and labor, researchers in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Vienna compared a group of 57 women who received acupuncture during labor to 63 women who did not (Gynecologic and Obstetric Investigation, 1998, vol. 46, no. 1).

In addition to concluding that the women who received acupuncture required far less oxytocin than those who did not (15 percent and 85 percent, respectively), acupuncture recipients moved through the first stage of labor in almost half the time. For these women, the first stage of labor lasted an average of 196 minutes, whereas those who received no acupuncture remained in this first stage for an average of 321 minutes.

With concrete scientific data such as this proving the efficacy of acupuncture in the acceleration of labor, it is no wonder that this age-old practice is beginning to surface in the medical mainstream. Moreover, the use of complementary therapies is growing faster than ever in childbirth and pregnancy. This is due in part to the fact that women are becoming more educated about childbirth, and are therefore less willing to jeopardize their baby's health by taking drugs during pregnancy or delivery. In addition, the approach of alternative childbirth centers has proven to be much easier on mother and child.

In the case of Leslie Woodward, the ease of the natural childbirth experience left her with more than just a beautiful daughter; it also provided her with a meaningful new career as the birthing center's office manager. "I decided that I want to share what I have learned, and help other women realize that birth can be a completely comfortable and magical experience."

Linda Knittel is a senior editor at Delicious Living.