Childbirth: Did our generation have it the toughest?

A leading international obstetrician claims women risk being unable to give birth naturally or to breastfeed their babies in the future because there are too many medical interventions available.

In his book ‘Do We Need Midwives?’, the French doctor Michel Odent, who pioneered the use of birthing pools in hospitals, argues that childbirth has become so medicalised, with huge numbers of pregnant women given drugs and surgery in labour, that women are ultimately at risk of losing their ability to give birth unaided.

He argues there is already evidence that women are taking longer in labour than half a century ago, citing research which shows that women giving birth between 2002 and 2008 took 2½ hours longer in the first stage of labour than those who gave birth between 1959 and 1966.

“Women are losing the capacity to give birth and they are losing the capacity to breastfeed,” he says. “That is the primary phenomenon … the number of women who give birth to babies naturally is becoming insignificant”.

85 year-old Odent is critical of the rise in caesarean sections and the growing use of synthetic oxytocin.

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More than one in four of all births in England in 2013-14 were by caesarean section, an increase of 0.7 points on the previous year. The rate of births induced using chemicals such as synthetic oxytocin rose 1.7 points to 25 per cent.

As a result of this trend, Odent believes women’s natural ability to produce oxytocin, which initiates labour and plays a crucial role in breastfeeding, is declining. “Evolution will eventually erase physiological functions that are underused,” he says.

“I believe that the human oxytocin system — oxytocin being the hormone of love, fundamental to birth and bonding, even in adulthood — is growing weaker. The future of the human capacity to give birth is at risk”.

Cast your memory back to when you gave birth to your children. Was there a bevvy of pain-relieving drugs on standby, synthetic oxytocin to get your labour started and the choice of a caesarean delivery pre-planned in the obstetrician’s office well before you even reached the hospital door?

A friend who gave birth to her baby in the late 1970s recalls the experience was bereft of comforts and niceties. “Put your feet up in the stirrups and don’t make a fuss,” she was told by the medical staff.

And that’s just the way it was. Childbirth was a natural thing which simply had to take its course. Only when there were serious complications which threatened both baby and mother did the option of a caesarean delivery come into play.

What do you think about the French obstetrician’s comments? Is childbirth getting harder? Or have women of childbearing age today forgotten that giving birth is not meant to be easy – it’s all about the triumph of the human body?