Labor has been exhausting but with your birth team you're almost through the hardest part. The lights have been low, you brought your favorite essential oils, you've used the tub, birth ball, and shower for pain relief, and NOW THE TIME HAS COME. You start feeling "pushy". Finally you know what that means. The sharp pull at the peak of contractions begins to be replaced by a totally different, nearly unexplainable feeling. You have to get that baby OUT.
The nurse rushes in, pages the doctor, the lights come on (ESPECIALLY the big one pointed at your vagina), the bed is broken down, and you are instructed to 'HOLD YOUR BREATH AND PUUUUUUSH. COUNT TO 10 WITH US!' And now you start to understand why they call it "purple pushing". It isn't pretty or fun. The whole energy of the room has changed, and you're not sure that you like it. (DISCLAIMER- this doesn't happen at ALL hospital births. But it is VERY COMMON due to how most doctors and hospital staff have learned to manage the pushing stage. Listen to women tell their birth stories...you'll see the trend).
I love to discuss the benefits of physiological pushing. What does that mean exactly? It's letting the birthing mother decide when and how to push her baby out. It doesn't mean:
I always bring a copy of this lovely blog post by Rachel Reed of MidwifeThinking with me to prenatal visits with families that I'm working with, because it really emphasizes how the mother is the expert in pushing out her baby. Risks of "purple pushing" or directed pushing include:
Even though study after study has documented the risks of directed or purple pushing, the physiological pushing has been slow to take hold in most hospitals. This survey from 2005 documented that only 21% of women pushed when they felt like pushing. Over 90% gave birth on their back or semi-reclining. Some reasons for this likely include the fact that upwards of 60% of women in most areas choose an epidural, which leads to more management of pushing, but also it's just a fact that most birth professionals are taught directed pushing in their trainings, and they rarely see or experience anything else. Humans are creatures of habit, and we tend to fall back on what we know.
This study review has a great overview of the differences between physiological and directed pushing. Women who are pushing instinctively often push only for 3-5 seconds and then take a short breath, before pushing again. They tend not to close their mouths or clench their jaws. The mother often will chose a position such as kneeling or hands and knees. She might not put her chin to her chest and push "down" to the baby. I very often see women wanting to arch back and do just the opposite! There really are no "rules", and a position that works for all women. Remember: a woman's body knows how to give birth! Listen to it.
Now that you know that it's evidence-based and healthy for a mother to push when she feels like it, and in positions of her choosing, what can you do to maintain your physiological birth even if you are being encouraged to do something different? I love this article about saying "no" to purple pushing, but I've found that it's really not that simple when that moment comes. So here are my tips for saying 'no' and being successful at mother-directed pushing no matter where you are.
Strategies for Physiological (Mother-Directed) Pushing in the Hospital
The bottom line is that mother-directed pushing is safe for the mother and her baby. If you discuss this with your care provider and they are unwilling to consider this option, you might want to think about finding a care provider who will work with you, and the birth that you would most like to have. Or, you can share some of the linked studies with him or her and ask them to reconsider.
I've said it before, and I'll say it again. You can have a great birth no matter where you choose to be! Hospital, home, birth center...but it never hurts to know what you want, to communicate those wishes clearly, and to bring a supportive team who knows you well to help you achieve that goal.
A supportive birth partner, and a doula, can help to remind you of the plans that you made before you reached a point in labor where it's easy to think that 'those details weren't important, so let's just get this over with.' But you might feel differently once the hormones wear off. (I speak from personal experience when I say this, can you tell?) It's normal to feel like you need reassurance and guidance during this phase of labor, but remember that YOU are the only one giving birth to your baby, and your body knows what to do! Have your birth partner remind you of that! It's not the last time that you'll need to lean on your instincts as a mother to do what's best for your child.
What was your experience with pushing your baby (or babies!) out? Do you have any other suggestions for supporting mother-directed pushing? And thanks to the mothers who shared their beautiful birth pictures to show the various positions that women can choose for pushing!
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!