What we can learn from animal births, and our responses to them.
The world is fixated on a supposedly labouring giraffe called April. Keepers at Animal Adventure Park in New York state placed a camera in the enclosure of April the giraffe ready to capture the birth of her baby. Millions tuned in to see her pacing and many women felt in sympathy with the giraffe, remembering the pacing and uncomfortable feelings of labour, along with the excitement. I have found myself doing the same, waiting and watching the lambs at our local open farm. Willing them on but not quite sure which ones are actually in labour, hoping all the same to witness the miracle of birth. As the hours, then days went past, with no baby giraffe, people started commenting, asking when the keepers were going to intervene, was it safe to let the labour continue, wouldn't it be better to to a caesarean already.
Looking at how animal births in captivity are managed shines a interesting light on how human births are managed, and how we reflect back, on to the animals, the human experience. The truth of the matter is that April is not in labour and the zoo keepers don't know exactly when she's due. This video from the Animal Park puts some myths to bed. They don't know how pregnant April is. They know she mated, but don't know if she conceived then; it might have been in the next menstrual cycle.
As with humans, the window of possibility for animal births spans several weeks and even months. Pandas can be pregnant for between 3 and 5.5 months, so a window of 10 weeks! The human 'due date' is merely an arbitrary pin in calendar; forty weeks only picked because it is a nice round number, with some connection to mystical numerology. If you have a dating scan it is only marginally more accurate than going by your LMP date, meaning you are slightly more likely to go into labour a week either side of the scan date compared to your date by LMP, or conception. There's still a chance you'll go into labour before or after that two week window. Vets don't even bother with an estimated due date. If they the conception date is not known, they look for physiological changes such as the swelling belly and changes in the mammary glands.
During birth they won't intervene unless really necessary, as there is a risk of disturbing the labour, and even of the mother rejecting her calf. The hormones of birth, oxytocin, and endorphins, only flow when the animal feels safe, and undisturbed. Anything that could trigger the fight/flight response will cause adrenaline to be released and labour to stop . You know, you've heard of friends who were labouring brilliantly at home and then when they got to hospital contractions stopped. Some comments on their page suggested, strangely, that the keepers should restrict her food as if that was stopping her labour. Here is a wonderful story, Better Birth in a Barn?, of an ex-midwife who happened to be at a stud farm when a foal was being born. She describes how she had to keep still and silent, and out of sight. How only the mare's trusted stable hand was allowed near; that they made sure she had plenty of food and water, and could move freely. She was in her familiar stable and the lights were kept low. There were no disruptions, no vaginal examinations. They had to sit back and let her get on with it. The woman couldn't help but reflect on how women are expected to give birth in the opposite of conditions. And they didn't intervene when the baby was born and was struggling to get up
Animal handlers know there is a real danger of the mother rejecting her young if they touch the baby. And the baby's chance of survival is much higher with the mother than being hand reared. This video shows the birth of tiger cubs and the first cub doesn't breathe for a full two minutes. The keepers discuss intervening but they wait. The mother is licking the cub and the cord is still connected, and eventually the cub breathes.
Research has also shown that interfering with the hormones in labour can cause a mother to reject her baby. The oxytocin/endorphin mix that is so high in unmedicated birth is strongly linked with bonding. Sheep reject their lambs if given epidural. Of course, we humans can rationalise and think it through so we don't reject our young, but it does explain why some of us don't experience that rush of love immediately. A couple of years back I was delivering some training to professionals about working with new parents and I talked about the effect of the low levels of natural oxytocin and endorphins on bonding, when there is induction, epidural, and/or planned caesarean. A fifty year old woman talked to me in the break. On learning this she was finally able to forgive herself for not bonding immediately with her daughter twenty odd years ago. She said her daughter was seven months before she fell in love with her.
Those who work with animals know more about birth than we would credit. Obstetrician Michel Odent, at a conference I was at, recalled talking to obstetricians and another group of vetenarians , the vetenarians had more knowledge of the placenta and its structure. The wonderful midwife and lecturer Ethel Burns (Oxford Brooke's University) describes how on the farm where she grew up, a cow in labour will pick another cow to accompany her to the barn to give birth. Here's a video of an elephant birth in the wild, with a midwife elephant paying the mother close attention. (You need to jump to 1'30'' .) The labouring elephant even backs into the herd next to the midwife elephant.
Even those of us whose cats have had kittens, or dogs, puppies, know the basic needs of a labouring mammal for privacy, darkness and security. Basic needs which are not met, or even considered with humans. One time with a doula client the obstetrician actually said, 'Why are the lights off in this room every time I come in?' In her wonderful play 'Birth', Karen Brody starts with one character describing her dog's labour and birth. "I want what my dog got."
At the end of the day we are mammals and giving birth is controlled by the most primitive part of our brain. We can rationalise about our environment and the conditions we find ourselves labouring in, but our amygdala responds with our fight or flight response irrationally. Supporting women to give birth undisturbed, able to follow her own rhythm, in a space she is comfortable and with those she chooses is the aim of every doula like me. Birth partners can make a massive difference to helping women feel safe and loved. Our response to our environment is one of the reasons home births have such low levels of interventions. Animals and women have been known to go into labour and then something happens to frighten them and labour stops, not to restart for several days.
Midwife, researcher, and lecturer, the late Trisha Anderson, asked us to imagine, knowing what we do about cats giving birth, if we took cats into laboratories to observe them giving birth, and then found that they were needing more help than we realised (probably caused by the conditions), we might find ourselves in a situation, as the years went by, that we would come to believe that cats couldn't give birth without intervention, and that the best place for them to give birth is the laboratory. Which is sort of where we are with human mammals. Is it time to go back to the darkened room?
So I will leave you, and April, in peace now to birth your babies in your own time, in privacy, darkness, security, and with lots of love. And lots and lots and lots of patience in those waiting for your news.
I am a doula and I cover a large area around Luton, Bedfordshire. You can find your nearest doula through Doula UK.