5-1-1, 4-1-1, 3-1-1....Could be a secret code, but most pregnant women towards the end of their pregnancies know exactly what those numbers mean. Contractions every 5 (4, 3) minutes, one minute long, for at least one hour.
TIME TO HEAD TO THE HOSPITAL. (Or, call the midwife, even drive to the birth center.)
Birth partners are prepared for the big day by downloading the best contraction timing app. As soon as the first contraction hits, they excitedly pull out the iPad, or smartphone, and......wait for the next one.
"TELL ME WHEN YOU FEEL ANOTHER ONE!"
"DID IT START YET?"
"Oh no, I forgot to hit the button..."
"How long are they SUPPOSED to be?"
..........and so on.
You might have an idea where I'm going with this. In, "Your Hormones Are Your Helpers", Sarah Buckley draws a comparison between the labor of a cat and that of her human companion. While the human mother packs a bag and anxiously waits for contractions, the cat searches for a comfortable, peaceful, often dark, place to have her babies. Usually she does not have her babies until she is undisturbed, sometimes frustrating the would-be "helpers". In fact, the cat knows how to give birth instinctively with the hormonal processes that she is designed with.
AND SO DO HUMAN MOTHERS. But first a little bit of background information...
Many women learn in childbirth education classes or from friends that oxytocin is the "love hormone", at least partially responsible for beginning the birth process and helping contractions to progressively dilate the cervix and help to move the baby down. They may also be told that Pitocin is exactly the same as oxytocin. It is chemically the same, however oxytocin is produced by the mother's body, along with other hormones in an amazing feedback system between the baby and the mother. In contrast, pitocin is pumped into the mother at a constant and steady pace, with no possible feedback based on how the baby is doing, or how the mother is feeling. This is a VERY IMPORTANT difference.
Especially in early labor, the body's production of oxytocin is a delicate operation that can easily be reduced or even halted by adrenaline. Known as the "fight-or-flight" hormone, adrenaline basically works in opposition to oxytocin, although levels DO increase during the second stage of labor, during pushing. This is why waiting until labor is very well-established can help to keep labor from stalling once you actually leave your home if you are planning on giving birth somewhere else.
SO.....Why ditch the contraction timer?
Because before transition and pushing, a mother desiring a birth with minimal interventions should focus on minimizing the feelings of being "watched", on a clock, meeting a deadline, or having to be on someone else's schedule, to optimize production of oxytocin.
Have you ever had a paper to turn in, or a work assignment due in just a few hours, and you KNOW that it will be completed, but you just don't know HOW by the deadline? Maybe you start sweating, feel shaky, nervous, your mouth feels dry, and you feel "flighty". Maybe if you could just forget about the whole thing it would just go away.
That's adrenaline. And labor doesn't work well under those circumstances. It's not designed to. Although the contraction timer might seem like a fun way to "track" labor progress, it might do more harm that good. Focusing on making sure the contraction timer is being stopped and started and tracked just perfectly....it brings the focus to the mechanical and not the physiological processes of labor. After all, the most "effective" labor contraction is ONE THAT IS WORKING to make the birth process progress.
It does not HAVE to be LONG.
It does not HAVE to be PAINFUL.
It does not HAVE to be VERY FREQUENT.
It might be all of those things, but then again, maybe not! There are NO RULES in labor, because we are all unique.
For instance, in my own first labor I was having contractions every 6 minutes, but with a very mild one in between. My books assured me that I was still in early labor, especially since I had only been having them for a few hours. A few minutes later my contractions were 2 minutes apart, and 1.5 hours later, after some pushing, a lot of belligerent refusals to get in the car, and barely making it to the hospital, my daughter was born!
However, it's also possible to be having strong, frequent contractions, and for labor to be progressing slowly. This is okay! Often in this circumstance women will have to focus quite a bit during contractions, but will not have on their "serious face". Once transition gets close, a woman's facial expression will usually change to one of intense concentration and focus. She also may become more opinionated and "bossy". This is a great sign!
LOOK FOR THE SERIOUS FACE, not the clock face.
Suggestions for laboring women:
Suggestions for birth partners:
As usual, I'm not a medical provider. If you really want to time contractions, go for it! But remember that timing is less important than how you feel! The mother is the only one who can express how she is feeling during labor. Mothers, listen to your intuition, and your baby. Partners, listen to the mother!
Did you have an "unusual" contraction pattern during your labor?
This one is kind of a quickie. I'm going to get back to the "pregnancy interventions" series later this week, but I thought that it might be helpful to give some tips on HOW to include some "sacred foods" from these traditional cultures into your preconception or pregnancy diet. Not all of us are ready to jump into liver and onions; I know that I wasn't!!
It's okay to go slow, but including at least some of these foods can only be helpful to your body and to your baby. And don't forget Dad! Cultures that prized these foods also included the father in the preconception period; he was also expected to eat liberally of whatever food was prized in fertility for his particular area. I'm going to start with homemade bone broth. Broth is incredibly nutritious and healing, and may even be palatable if you are coping with morning sickness in your pregnancy. Please keep in mind that the quality of bones is important; healthy animals will produce a more nutrient-rich, tasty broth. Buy local or pastured as much as possible, especially if you will be using the bones.
"Your baby is measuring much larger than normal."
"Your baby appears healthy but we are worried about his size; he may not be growing."
"Your amniotic fluid is low".
Generally all of these statements are probably followed by "We'd like to induce you". But you've had a perfectly healthy pregnancy! You've been planning to go into labor on your own. Your baby appears to be happy, how did you get to this point? Should you trust this commonly-used technology to guide decisions about your pregnancy and birth?
Many women find it amazing to see their baby on ultrasound. During my first pregnancy I had 3 ultrasounds, the first at 12 weeks to verify pregnancy, one at 17 weeks for gender, and another at 22 weeks to check anatomy. I was a low-risk, first-time mother. Women with any other risk factors such as gestational diabetes, hypertension, "advanced" maternal age (over 35), suspected genetic abnormalities, or clotting factors may find themselves with many more ultrasounds. As I continued in the pregnancy, however, I became more and more sure that I wanted to avoid an ultrasound late in my pregnancy. Why? Cue the music..
Late. Term. Ultrasounds. What are they good for? Absolutely. NOTHING. (almost)
It seemed to me that ultrasounds in late pregnancy are more often than not used to scare the caregiver and the mother into thinking that something is wrong. It's common knowledge that ultrasound measurements can be, and frequently are, inaccurate. But when it comes down to it...the doctor will usually want to "err on the side of caution".
There have been several studies on ultrasound after 24 weeks gestation in low-risk pregnancies, like this one, a Cochrane review of studies totalling over 25,000 mothers and babies: Read more here. The authors concluded that "routine late pregnancy ultrasound in low risk or unselected populations does not confer benefit on mother or baby. There is a lack of data about the potential psychological effects of routine ultrasound in late pregnancy, and the effects on both short and long term neonatal and childhood outcome."
This study finds that late-term ultrasound estimates of weight are not particularly reliable, and "must be applied with extreme care".
So there are no proven benefits to row-risk pregnant women and their babies, but what about risks?
A interesting study published in 1993 selected a group of women (sample size 2,834) to either receive "intensive" ultrasounds (5 from 18 weeks to 38 weeks), or "normal", which was only one scan at 18 weeks. There was a statistically significant increase in the intensive group of having a baby with a birthweight below the 10th and 3rd percentile. The irony here is that in my experience, late-term ultrasounds dramatically increase the chances of your baby being diagnosed with IUGR, whether or not the baby's birthweight is actually low at birth. Could the overuse of ultrasound be CAUSING the IUGR? The authors of the study found it "plausible". Perhaps because another study just a few years before had found a similar negative effect on growth and hypothesized that repeated ultrasound exposure most likely affects bone growth, not soft tissue growth. The good news is that a follow-up study found that this difference in growth seemed to disappear by age 8. But the authors of this study recommended that ultrasound use in late pregnancy be restricted to "those women to whom the information is likely to be of clinical benefit." Rather open-ended, but can we find more information on who these women might be?
GreenMedInfo published a blog post entitled "When Do the Benefits of Ultrasound Outweigh the Dangers?" I highly recommend reading the entire article! The author states that the evidence points to several instances where an ultrasound may have some benefit, among them locating the placenta to clear a women to attempt a TOL for a VBAC, when trying to turn a breech baby during an external version, and when utilizing reproductive technology such as IVF. Not included are:
Measuring large for dates
Maternal age greater than 35
Measuring small for dates
To measure the amniotic fluid
Diagnosed Gestational Diabetic
Factor Five Leiden or other clotting abnormalities
Measuring the "thickness" of a uterine scar internally before a woman attempts a VBAC
The author also points out that there are only a handful of issues that an ultrasound might help to diagnose and then treat before the birth of the baby, as well as a high false-positive rate with abnormal ultrasound diagnoses (I will be working on an article on fluid levels soon!), so the possible benefit to most mothers and babies is slim indeed. Even more concerning is that very few large, epidemiological studies have been performed since the allowable acoustic limits for ultrasound machines was increased in 1992. Part of the problem is that finding a control group of unexposed babies would be quite difficult because ultrasound use has become so common!
Although most other studies have been performed on mice, other possible adverse effects of late-term ultrasounds (based on evidence) include:
Damage to the neurological system
Thermally induced teratogenesis (the formation of congenital birth defects)
Left-handedness (in men)
For more studies on the possible adverse effects of routine ultrasound, please see GreenMedInfo's database here.
What is the Bottom Line?
Although ultrasound has been used in the care of pregnant women and babies for several decades now, there isn't much evidence to support it's routine use. There are many animal studies that suggest exposure to ultrasound increases the risk of abnormal neurological development in the brain and for growth restriction of the skeleton. A few women may benefit from ultrasound screening, but the possible risk of repeated exposure should certainly be discussed so that an informed decision can be made. Part 2 will discuss some of the emotional issues that women may face because of the use of ultrasound, and how it may affect them and their care providers throughout the mothers' pregnancies and births.
I look at birth from the perspective that our bodies are wonderfully made, and if we really believe that and work with the birth process and nourish our bodies properly, they will function optimally, most of the time!