Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth – book review

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin.

NY; Bantam, 2003.

The physiology of birth is complicated and still not well understood. Our subjective experiences of birth are richly textured. Personal accounts spill over with combinations of intense sensations, strong emotions, vague impressions and fine details. What is astonishing about Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth is how exquisitely she traffics in the language of an internal landscape to describe and explain this complex process. She truly captures the uniqueness and universality of birth. I am adding this book to the list of recommendations I give my clients, as well as suggesting it to other teachers.

Devoting nearly the first third of the book to positive first-hand birth stories provides a substantial grounding. Many times I found myself thinking: Yes! That woman is describing this or that essential bit of wisdom I want to impart to my clients. Let me point out one example.

On pages 24 and 25, one of narrators describes 3 slices of her experience. First, she got advice not to read or learn too much and not to make a plan because the more details she had in mind, the less likely she would get what she wanted. Too much reading would interfere with her ability to go with her body, she was told.

Second, she describes her experience of being in a tub and how she needed a lot of reassurance because she was both scared and aware of the great power in her body. The physiological phenomena occurring in her brain and motor systems indeed would be described as these subjective states of being. She definitely perceived what was happening.

Third, she describes turning from looking at things during a contraction to listening because looking made her think, while listening allowed her to feel and be instinctive, which felt better than thinking and was not so overwhelming. Thus, she was going with her body. We see her process in this narrative.

The stories all got me thinking about whether I am telling my clients too much or too little! One of my teaching goals is to insure that clients distinguish between strategy and tactics. Example:  In the case of the story above, the strategy was to go with her body. The tactics she used were to not get too much information so she did not have too many expectations and to use sound rather than vision as her way of connecting inner and outer reality.

As a teacher, I see my job as insuring that my clients who might hear this story do not think that they must use sound rather than vision in order to go with their bodies, but rather that this was a piece of the process for this woman to reach her objective. It might work, but it might not. To get this across to clients, I tell stories about births in which I have been present when opposite tactics accomplished the same strategy or where the same tactic led to different outcomes.

The multitude of stories she presents in part I allow part II – the textbook part – to come to life. Whether she is discussing stages of labor, pain or release, she calls up stories and because the reader is already receptive to the notion of examples, the illustrations help the reader grasp whatever point she is making about the process.

However, the complex physiologic sequence of birth, including its variation from woman to woman, is less well served – in part because there is still so much to be learned about how birth happens, and in part because the birth community in general (whether having had professional or academic training) is not as well versed in normal physiology as it could be.

Let me focus on two issues: One is pain/pleasure and the other is hormones/behavior. Regarding pain/pleasure, Ina May makes a lot of important points, among them that how we experience an intensely sensational experience depends to a great degree on our preparation and that different women have different pain/pleasure experiences during birth. What she doesn’t tell us, though (and I suspect because it’s not common knowledge), is that some of the factors that control how we experience sensations are beyond our control. We experience pain/pleasure through a series of sensations, mental foci and behaviors such as breathing and muscle release. These nerve impulses are forwarded throughout the brain, some sensations taking on emotional content – some terrifying and others ecstatic – depending on the neural pattern. This is the basis of both the fear/tension/pain syndrome and the orgasmic pattern. But the precise pattern is dependent on genetics, as well as environment and behavioral training.

Some individuals become aware of sensations at a very low neurological threshold; others do not. Some individuals quickly find sensation of which they are aware to be uncomfortable or emotionally intolerable; others do not. Some people need comfort measures for their discomfort soon; some later, or not at all. Tolerance of what finally becomes pain or pleasure (or just a sense of stretching or motion through space) is also variable from person to person. Thus, the point at which we start has both biological and psychosocial determinants within this already variable process. In describing the variation in how women experience pain and pleasure in labor, Ina May is great at giving us examples and identifying psychosocial or cultural variations identified in research, but not so enlightening on the biology of why and how. This may or may not matter to the reader.

The issue of hormones that govern the vicious cycle we call labor is much less well understood. We have a pretty good concept of how prostaglandins, oxytocin and endorphins are stimulated and affect the process, and Ina May describes these in accessible ways. But while adrenaline is thought to inhibit early release of oxytocin, there has been little discussion of its importance in the pushing or ejection phase (she does cite Michel Odent’s notion that adrenaline might play a part in the ejection reflex when a labor is slowing down). But, there is little recognition outside of the physiology field that what happens in transition is our energy system shifting to a sympathetic [adrenal] source to give us more power to push. That’s why contractions change, why some women have a rest period between, and why – back in the day – we used to say to a woman having difficulty culling up her resources to push that she could get mad! Going through the effort and discomfort is key to inducing the rush of beta-endorphins. We know this, in a scientific way, from research that tells us runners who listen to music (relaxing and dissociative) experience lower rates of beta-endorphins at the end of the run than runners who do not listen to music, but work through the effort and discomfort they experience (stress inducing).

One of the things that makes Ina May’s book so valuable, in my mind, is the discussion near the end about midwifery, statistical support for natural birth and enumeration of the risks associated with surgical birth that are often glossed over when a family experiences dystocia. There are many elements within the birthing community striving to create an accessible spectrum of choices for birth. Let’s face it, birthing at home for low risk women, seamless transport alternatives, birthing centers attached to medical facilities, and readily available medical options when emergencies arise, would be a wonderful future. Birth attendants with universal acceptance, variable but rigorous training, and delineated scopes of practice would be ideal. Whether we get there remains to be seen, but I am glad Ina May exists, has her track record and is being listened to in this effort.

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