Let's be honest. Hospitals aren't really the optimal environment for many women to give birth. This is not me attacking hospitals or anyone who works there, it's just being aware of basic biology. But, the majority of my clients and the vast majority of birthing women ARE giving birth in hospitals, so it's important to know what their limitations are, and how to work around them to optimize the environment for your birth. So, in this post, I'm going to list a few characteristics of hospitals and how to minimize their effect on the birthing mother and baby.
Before we begin, I think the fundamental point to remember is that YOU ARE THE CONSUMER. Ask questions before agreeing to any interventions. Use your B.R.A.I.N (it's an acronym). You, or your insurance company, are paying more for this stay than you would for a 5-star resort! All hospitals have "policies", but some of these are not based on evidence, but fear of lawsuits, or even just routine. Some things (bright lights, certain birthing positions, for example), are just easier for the staff. Don't be afraid to insist on what you know to be best for YOU. This is the birth of YOUR baby, not the hospital's baby. They are there to assist you, and most will be happy to help out as long as you make it very clear what your wishes are, within reason.
Many of these solutions will take planning and effort, but it's worth it!
Problem: Hospitals are Bright
Birth is a dance of hormones within the body. Many individuals who have grown up with any kind of pets or other animals who have given birth know that they prefer dark, private places. Women in labor are no different. Even if a birthing mother believes that she will feel safer in the hospital, sometimes the environment subtly works against her, because although her mindset is important, biology is also powerful Bright lights are too stimulating, and work against the body's production and sensitivity to oxytocin.
Solution: Turn the lights down as low as possible. Even when it's daylight out, pull the shades down over the windows. Bring flameless candles instead. Allow the light to be turned up when necessary, and then back down as soon as possible. If the room doesn't get very dark, but there is a bathroom in the room that does, consider laboring in there for a while.
During pushing the lights often suddenly come on. It's okay to ask for them to be turned down even then. At a recent birth my client was visibly bothered by the bright light pointing straight at her during pushing. She asked that it be turned off and very shortly afterwards her baby was born, since she became much less self-conscious with the light off.
Problem: Hospitals Smell Funny
There's no getting past this one. Unless you grew up around a hospital, chances are good that the associated smells of disinfecting wash, plastics, and other necessary chemicals are not...calming or reassuring. This video on Discovery.com explains why smell may be the most powerful sense, able to almost instantaneously generate specific memories. Researchers estimate that our sense of smell may be able to recognize over 1 TRILLION different smells. Incredible! But most of us don't have happy memories associated with the smells of a hospital, so how can we work around this?
Solution: Wear your own clothes and ditch the hospital gown. Bring your own smells, and keep them close. These might include favorite pillows, sheets, essential oils, lotions, candles (no flames though). Lavender and Vanilla seem to be favorites of laboring women that I have worked with, but you might have your own preference. If you start to feel stressed, have your birth partner bring those smells close to you. Resist the urge to assume that they won't work. It doesn't hurt to try!
Problem: Hospitals Feature Mechanical, Distracting Sounds
It's important, especially as labor progresses, to minimize distracting sounds and noises during labor. Laboring women often find that they want to find their own rhythm to cope with contractions, and this is more difficult when there are other sounds interfering. Annoying noises bring the mother out of her own head and may distract her from listening to her body and baby.
Solution: Bring a birth partner who can run interference and help keep the room quiet. Make it clear to this person that his or her job is to make YOU as comfortable as possible. Consider bringing your own music, and don't be afraid to sing along or even dance! If you must be on a continuous monitor due to an epidural or other risk factor, consider asking that the sound be turned down so that it doesn't take over everyone's attention, including the mother's. Keep the door closed to the hospital room, and always ask the mother before turning on the TV, music, or talking on the phone.
Problem: Hospitals Have Their Own Schedule
During your labor it may feel as if time has stopped. Nothing else matters. Of course that's perfectly fine, but unfortunately the rest of the world is not revolving around your birth! The nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists...all have their own schedule. At a recent birth we were assigned 6 different nurses in just over 18 hours! It can be frustrating to meet a nurse who you have a good feeling and rapport with, only to be assigned another new nurse a few hours later, especially if the new nurse doesn't seem to mesh as well with your personality or wishes.
The majority of women in our area see a large group practice of OBs, so they may end up with two or even more different managing doctors depending on the circumstances of the labor and the other births going in in the hospital. Again, personalities might all work well together, or they might not. There's always a degree of uncertainty, which may equate to a feeling of stress or danger in the mind of the laboring mother. All of this works against the normal labor process.
Solution: I may be a bit biased here, but a doula (or knowledgeable, calm, friend or family member) is the best way to make sure that you have constant, familiar support throughout your labor. Your doula makes sure that you never feel as if you are left without an ally or familiar face. This kind of support is invaluable. Make sure that, when you interview doulas, you ask what their backup policy is. Labor can sometimes be a long process, and a professional doula will always have a plan for making sure that you have someone with you the ENTIRE time that you desire labor support.
The Bottom Line You CAN have a great hospital birth if you plan for the best, bring your own consistent support, and avoid some of the pesky smells and sounds associated with hospitals as much as possible. Remember that you have the right to ask for an environment that is not only safe, but also comfortable and facilitates the normal birthing process.
I hope this has given you some tools for your planned (or unplanned) hospital birth! Have you used any of these strategies yourself or with clients?
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!