Online Archive  
Issue 14 - July 1973
Experiencing Childbirth

Considering Nature's role for women is primarily one of motherhood, it is amazing how unprepared most women are for the physical and emotional experience of giving birth. This is probably yet another characteristic of the male-dominated world we have lived in for so long - the traditional view that birth is something traumatic and rather obscene which goes on behind closed doors whilst the husband treads nervously outside waiting for the screaming to subside and give way to the cries of the newborn child.

Times are changing, however, and all women in this country now have the opportunity to attend antenatal classes run by the State to prepare them for giving birth. But these are still early days - the future mother is taught just one level of breathing to help her throughout labour, put through various exercises and sometimes shown a film of birth itself to give her some idea of what she's in for. Very little is done, in most cases, to encourage the father to participate in the event or to help the couple adjust to the concept of a new, or larger, family.


Courses for natural (prepared) childbirth are run in Britain by the National Childbirth Trust and involve the instruction of 'psychoprophylaxis' - various breathing rhythms by means of which the woman can retain a degree of control throughout labour.

The father-to-be is encouraged to share in the birth experience by helping his wife with preparatory exercises and by being present and helping throughout labour itself. Great emphasis is placed on telling the couple exactly what happens - biologically and emotionally - during labour so that they can cope with the realities as they occur and can assist the hospital staff as much as possible.

Although the preparation is aimed at an ideal, drugs-free birth, information is given regarding hospital procedure and terminology and the likely effects of any drugs which may be offered. The woman is encouraged to accept, and even welcome, the sensations of childbirth, which can be made bearable by concentrating on the breathing rhythms taught.


Glen's waters broke soon after she woke up on Boxing Day morning. I telephoned for an ambulance and we arrived at the hospital at about 11am. Glen had only felt a kind of strong period cramp at first, but soon she could make out distinct contractions and, halfway to the hospital, she began breathing over them as she had been instructed.

By the time Glen was settled in the labour ward her contractions were coming at three or four minute intervals and she was already employing all three basic breathing rhythms taught. This came as some surprise as, with a lot of women, the contractions come at long intervals to start with, gradually building up in frequency and intensity. This gives the mother an opportunity to adapt to the rhythm of the contractions, but here was Glen - just arrived at the hospital - and already right in it!

For the first couple of hours I could talk with Glen in between contractions, but as she grew more tired I confined myself to urging her to concentrate on her breathing, mopping her forehead occasionally, rubbing her back, arranging pillows and holding her hand. Another woman came into the ward but was soon wheeled away for a caesarean.

As time went on, Glen grew more and more exhausted and found it difficult to keep to the breathing. The pain from the contractions was stronger than anticipated. She threw up. I was asked to leave the room while Glen was inspected by the midwife, and, whilst I was outside, Glen accepted a pethidine injection. Shortly after I returned, Glen also began using gas and air. In fact, the pethidine was administered too late to help, while the gas and air only served to confuse Glen, making it harder to keep to the breathing control rhythms. (Glen's 'pethidine' injection turned out to be a mixture of pethidine and valium. I don't know whether or not this is common practice nowadays, but it's worth finding out exactly what you're being given as valium not only dopes up the emerging baby but can also mess up breastfeeding plans.)

At about 5.30pm Glen was fully dilated and I helped push her bed into the delivery room. Here I continued to encourage Glen in her efforts, holding one of her legs as she pushed, and mopping her forehead. Glen recovered somewhat from the gas and air and became a magnificent pusher(!) and soon I could see the top of the baby's head coming closer and closer to the outside world. Suddenly, at 6.07pm, the head was through and I propped Glen up so she could see the rest of the little blue body slither out into the hands of the midwife. A boy!

While the baby was cleaned up, Glen and I relaxed with cups of tea, and then Joby Zipp was brought over, eyes blinking slowly in the harsh light of the room, and Glen and I looked at each other and cried ...


So things weren't as good as they could have been. We knew that labour was going to be hard work (as the name implies), but the strength of the contractions took us by surprise and the gas and air was a complete waste of time. Next time we'll know better. The important thing was that the breathing did help and that we more or less knew what was going on all the way through - in fact, some of the hospital staff thought perhaps we had once been in nursing ourselves. Giving birth had not been something mysterious, to be feared and whispered about, but rather something we had both known intimately and looked forward to enjoying and experiencing again.

NCT courses (which aren't at all as formal as they sound!) are run throughout the country by voluntary teachers. Fees are only a few pounds, but sometimes free tuition is given, depending on your financial circumstances, as the NCT realise that the most important thing is to prepare as many people as possible for childbirth. To find out who and where your nearest teacher is, or for further details of psychoprophylaxis, write to the National Childbirth Trust, 9 Queensborough Terrace, London W2 3TB. Anyone living in Co Durham and wishing to do the course should write to Mrs Carole Sweet, 12 Brierville, Durham City or to Mrs Elaine MacGregor, Cruachan, 9 The Paddock, Lanchester.

Some useful paperback books - The Experience of Childbirth (Sheila Kitzinger / Pelican), At Your Best for Birth and Later (Eileen Montgomery / Wright, Bristol), The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (Tandem) and, of course, Baby and Child Care (Dr Benjamin Spock / New English Library).