Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 61, Summer 2002.
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There are many ways to learn. We learn by interpreting the thousands of signals that come our way each day via sight, smell, taste, hearing and experiencing. It is experience that seems to help most in understanding an idea. Experience is the best teacher, but it often needs to be backed up by other knowledge. I feel experiences around childbirth are the strongest we have.
Klaus and Kennell’s pioneering work Maternal-Infant Bonding came out just as I was called to midwifery. I have been privy to this knowledge since I first began practicing. In our practice we always tried to promote maternal-infant bonding to the best of our ability. We put off clean up, baby check and various tasks until the second hour after birth. We attended to necessities of placenta as quietly and respectfully as possible. I had been to nearly 100 births as a midwife when I had my third child. It was my second homebirth, my first son: Loren. My two partners, also best friends, were my midwives. I know I had the best midwives.
Loren’s birth taught me more about bonding than all my books or idea exchanges. It was two days after Christmas and though his due date was January 10, I knew he was ready. I had been having these imminent signs for a week. On December 27 I woke up and told my husband not to go to work because, “I’m going to have the baby today.” Though I wasn’t dilated or having regular contractions, my husband, Al, insisted I call the midwives. As soon as I called them, labor hit me so hard I had to sit in my recliner rocker under the Christmas tree lights. I couldn’t even move to the floor where we had set up the mattress I was going to birth on.
“This is weird,” I thought. “I can’t even get a breathing pattern that works.” This volcanic power just overcame me. I struggled for a couple of contractions when I felt my baby’s head suddenly plunging down 3 inches deeper into my pelvis. “Oh, that’s it,” I thought. “I’m already in second stage. These are pushing contractions not breathing ones. Now I know what to do. Push.”
I proceeded to push while instructing my husband on what to do. He had turned white and was looking out the window for the midwives. I said, “Pay attention. They aren’t going to make it. Your baby is coming now.”
Heavy into this labor and now pushing I was actually totally in midwife mode, not in birthing mother mode. That is, I was thinking midwife thoughts and speaking midwife words. “OK, Al, put your hand on my perineum.” I thought to myself, “I don’t want to tear. OK, slow the push the head is coming. Do it slow. Don’t let the head pop out. OK, breathe. Breathe. Head’s almost out. Don’t want stuck shoulders, now push hard.” As soon as Loren was out my midwife brain turned off. I nearly choked him as the cord wrapped around him when I tried to bring him up into my arms. My mothering heart took over, and I didn’t remember midwife thoughts at all. In my previous birth I thought second stage was the most intense and painful few minutes I had ever had. I was so busy being a midwife this time I didn’t even feel it.
Having turned from being midwife and birth attendant back to being mom and dad, Al and I began cooing over our baby, looking at him, greeting him, expanding our love to fit all the spots of this amazing human. “Look, Al, you got your boy,” I said. No ultrasound here but I always knew he was a boy. After two beautiful girls he just acted different inside of me. This few minutes was one of the most glorious high points of my life. The only moments that compared were at my last birth where those bonding moments carried over for two decades. I felt them constantly as my daughter grew up.
About 10 minutes later my dear partners arrived. The problem was that because they had missed the birth they came in chatting and excited. The energy and commotion pierced and stole my bonding time. I felt guilty for wanting them, my best friends, to go home. I could feel this critical time, our first hour of falling in love, slipping out of my yearning grip.
I never recovered that first hour. It taught me on a cellular level how to behave when a new baby graces the planet. The birthing room is sacred ground. The first hour is a most holy time and space.
Though I never told my partners this story we worked out how we would behave at a birth, always trying to improve. We would put bonding first for parents while slowly and respectfully taking care of the needs of the birth, placenta and all. As soon as the placenta was born we would retreat to the kitchen with any other children and give baby, mom and dad some space. We made every effort to keep any turmoil around the mom and baby at a minimum. We made an effort to keep the baby in the mother’s arms, skin to skin. We didn’t dictate what they could or couldn’t do, but I know one midwife who forbade any phone calls for the first few hours. It is the family’s birth and we must respect that. Educating parents on ideas for first hour before the birth helps them make the best choices. The prenatal period is of utmost importance in establishing one’s physical, emotional and spiritual foundations.
I believe there is a huge tendency today, due to gross childbirth practices, to rationalize the bonding time. Practitioners just seem to figure mother and baby can bond whenever they finally get together, be it many hours or even a day or so later. This just is not true. Think of Klaus and Kennell’s work. Think of what Michel Odent has taught us about physiology and the first hour. Then think of how we handle cesarean babies at almost a 25 percent rate of births. Think of the other created complications—most forceps and vacuum extractions, epidurals, inductions. Think of what these do to bonding, breastfeeding and attachment: They rob mothers of the best moments of their lives. I know this not only from books, but also from experience. My hope is in the midwives and doulas. My hope is in you because you know the truth and you care enough to use it to make your practice the best it can be.
Toward Better Bonding.