We hear all the time, “a healthy baby is all that matters.” That’s simply not true—especially when, all too often, “healthy” means merely “surviving birth," for both moms and babies. That’s not nearly good enough.
The truth is that in this day and age and place, a higher standard can and should exist: a healthy baby, a healthy mom, and a positive, respectful, family-centered birth experience for everyone.
Why is that so important? Because what we forget sometimes in merely “surviving” birth is that, for moms, giving birth isn’t just a day out of your life. For most of us, birth is not just about having a fetus extracted from our uteruses in the most efficient way possible.
Birth is a life-defining experience that sticks with you. Ask most moms about their birth stories, and you can see and hear the emotions rush back as they share. These are stories—good or bad—that we vividly relive over and over, whether we want to or not. And let’s not forget that our experiences can have major, lasting, and permanent health consequences.Our birth stories affect the postpartum period (baby blues, anyone?), our relationships with our babies and families, and our attitudes about ourselves and future births.
For babies, it’s their first introduction to the world and to their primary caregivers. We’re communicating to our babies from Day One what the world is, how threatening or safe it is, and how we relate to it. How much better can that care be when we are launched into parenthood strengthened in birth, confident, and supported?
In the real world, of course, birth doesn’t follow a textbook pattern; there are complications and changes of plans and undesirable outcomes. But even when these things happen, a woman can still be respected and supported. We may not be able to control nature, but we can control how we treat women in labor and birth. Even in the worst-case scenario (especially in the worst-case scenario!), there’s no excuse for anything less than the utmost respect for, deference to, and compassion towards the birthing woman as she is making her choices.
Because what’s really telling about the “healthy baby” phrase is that, so often, it’s used to justify a disappointing, difficult, or traumatic birth experience. It’s said to us by our providers, our friends, and our families as we’re reeling from the shock of what just happened: trying to wrap our heads around something that seemed to go unexpectedly out of control. And, yes, we tell it to ourselves.
So what’s the key to a new standard? It’s us! It’s the moms whose business drives the industry that gives us that care. Many of us don’t realize it yet, but we are in the catbird seat. Imagine what could happen if we, millions of moms and dads and our friends, really took hold of that power and wielded it.
We can start by educating ourselves to know what great care looks like— respectful, evidence-based care—and actively seek it out by shopping providers. We can tune in to the red flags—things like hearing “You aren’t allowed to” from your provider—and stop ignoring our gut instincts! In my opinion, hearing something like "A healthy baby is all that matters" during prenatal care falls into that category. It says to me, "Whatever happens in Labor & Delivery, you have no room to complain. If we present you with a live baby, we've done our job."
Finally, and probably most important: we can exercise our power by walking away from providers who don’t offer us healthy babies, healthy moms, and a positive, respectful, family-centered birth experience.
For moms and babies, surviving birth isn’t enough. It’s only the beginning.
Author Cristen Pascucci, a political and communications specialist, recently joined Improving Birth’s executive board.
* Also see the followup to this article, my response to an OB's comment below: "Respect in Birth: 'Get Over Yourselves'" *