The birth junkies: Why women can become addicted to giving birth

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The offer of a Caesarean section might seem heaven sent to any pregnant woman approaching delivery day with rising anxiety.

When I discovered I was expecting my first baby, I’d have paid good money for a general anaesthetic to spare me the agony of childbirth with which I was all-too-familiar, thanks to soap operas and the horror stories other mothers are strangely desperate to share.

I thought, as many women do, that the act of giving birth was a nightmare from which I needed saving — with drugs, surgery, medical intervention and, frankly, anything that might numb me to what was certain to be the most terrifying experience of my life.

But by the time I was expecting my third (and final) baby, I had discovered a secret that the majority of women giving birth in the UK today never have the chance to discover for themselves: I had found out that childbirth could be the ultimate natural high, an experience so powerful and yet fulfilling that it can be nothing short of addictive.

... ‘It was the most amazing experience of my life and I was high on it for months. That’s the part I want to do again and again,’ says one. Another says she loved giving birth so much, she’s considering a career in surrogacy. ‘It just felt so good (OK, it did hurt a little) but it’s hard to explain. I would definitely be a surrogate.’

So when my obstetrician broke the news that baby number three would have to be delivered by C‑section, because the placenta was blocking the way for a natural birth, I burst into tears of utter disappointment.

... I believe women who have had a positive birth experience and enjoyed an unadulterated dose of Mother Nature’s magic recipe should be shouting it from the rooftops. For in the majority of cases there is no need for birth to be the trauma we believe it to be — and that it therefore becomes.

Of course, women who need medical intervention should have the best that can be provided; intervention saves lives. But some 75-80 per cent of births should go as smoothly as nature intended.

The problem is that just a fraction of the number of women who don’t have a medical requirement for intervention are getting to the finish line without being subjected to meddling from midwives and doctors. Meddling that supersedes a woman’s own desires and instincts, and impairs her body’s ability to cope as it is designed to do.

Under normal conditions, a woman is best left to be her own director, behaving in an instinctive and uninhibited way. Only when that is allowed to happen will she get the rush of Mother Nature’s feel-good cocktail: a hormone boost designed specifically to flood her body with exactly what it needs — not just to get her through every stage of labour, but to ensure that she won’t find the process so physically and mentally difficult that she never does it again.

... If you mention oxytocin to most women who have given birth in a UK hospital, they will think of it as a drug, administered by drip, to speed along her contractions.

In fact, in its natural form, it is the ‘love hormone’ — the same one that floods our brains during orgasm, and is also boosted by cuddling, breastfeeding and other positive, loving experiences.

We produce it naturally in massive quantities during labour and birth, and its effects cannot be artificially replicated.

This wonderful stuff reduces fear, increases trust and promotes a sense of connectedness with those around you. There is nothing like it for making a woman feel that everything is in her control and that everyone is on her side.

It is also what gives a new mother that ‘loved-up’ feeling after the birth, helping any memories of pain or anxiety to fade almost immediately.

It is a primal reaction that when our adrenaline levels rise, labour halts, because our brain is telling our body that it’s not safe to proceed. By counteracting fear, oxytocin keeps adrenaline levels in check, which ensures that labour progresses steadily.

What’s more, as a pheromone, oxytocin is contagious, transmitted through the air and picked up by the nose. Studies have shown that when a father attends the birth of his child, his oxytocin levels rise as well, making him part of the love-in and — importantly — more ready to connect with his child.

... After a totally natural birth, it is often very difficult to remember the specifics of it, and that’s the way it should be.

It’s also why a lot of women will often say that ... the earlier part of their labour was more difficult than the later parts, when they were much more ‘out of it’ and more flooded with endorphins.

And it’s the reason why inductions are generally harder to cope with, because they artificially accelerate the labour process, hitting the mother with back-to-back contractions, before the body has had time to produce sufficient quantities of hormones and natural pain relief.

I can’t help but think that the shrieking and wailing that make TV programmes like One Born Every Minute such compulsive viewing are merely an indication that something — be it fear or unnecessary intervention — has prevented the woman’s instinct from taking over and allowing the release of the endorphins she needs ...