The Myths of Natural Childbirth

The campaign against medical intervention during delivery endangers mothers and children

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Pregnant women worry. They worry whether the baby is healthy; they worry if they’re eating right and avoiding everything that could possibly be harmful to the new life growing within. They also worry about the right way to give birth.

They shouldn’t, because there is no right way. Surprisingly, despite its nearly total cultural embrace, the claim that “natural” childbirth, meaning without any medical intervention, is best is ill-founded. The movement started with Grantly Dick-Read, a British doctor who practiced from the 1930s to the 1950s and wrote the books Natural Childbirth and Childbirth Without Fear. Dick-Read was a eugenicist concerned that white women were committing “race suicide” by limiting the size of families. He thought fear of childbirth pain was the problem and insisted that it was fear of the pain that was causing the pain. In other words, it was all in women’s heads.

Thankfully, we’ve moved beyond the fabrications of Dick-Read, but the assumed superiority of “natural” childbirth is still based on some powerful myths, such as:

Myth #1: Childbirth is inherently safe.
Childbirth is and has always been—in every time, place and culture—a leading cause of death of young women. For babies, the day of birth is the single most dangerous day of their entire 18 years of childhood.

(PHOTOS: The Perils of Childbirth in Afghanistan)

Myth #2: Labor is not inherently painful.
Natural childbirth advocates insist that labor pain (“good pain”) is different than other forms of pain. Not true. It is received by the same neurons, passed up the spinal cord, and perceived by the brain in exactly the same way as any other form of pain.

Myth #3: Epidurals are unnecessary and dangerous.
Advocates of “natural” childbirth insist the pain of labor can be managed naturally, or if not, should just be endured. That’s the naturalistic fallacy—the claim that because something is a certain way in nature, it ought to be that way all the time. But in nature, people endure all sorts of pain that we wouldn’t hesitate to treat; there’s no reason to make an exception for labor pain, which is arguably worse. Advocates also insist that epidurals are “dangerous” to both baby and mother. Not true. The risk of death from a labor epidural is less than the risk of death from a lightning strike.

Myth #4: Interventions are “bad.”
Since childbirth is inherently dangerous (see Myth #1,) interventions are simply preventive medicine. Complications are common and often preventable, so it is only logical to monitor pregnant women to prevent those complications, or treat them early rather than late.

Myth #5: Cesareans are almost always unnecessary.
On the contrary, C-sections are usually a necessary choice that prevents fatalities. In countries where the C-section rate is less than 10%, mortality rates are extraordinarily high. For example, according to a 2007 paper on international C-section rates published the journal Paediatric and Perinatal Epidemiology, Egypt with a C-section rate of 11.4% had an early neonatal mortality rate of 16/10,000 and the maternal mortality rate was 84/10,000. Conversely, the United States had a relatively high C-Section rate at 24 percent at the time, but an early neonatal mortality rate of 4/10,000, and a maternal mortality rate of 17/10,000. In 2009, the World Health Organization withdrew its recommendation of an ideal C-section rate of 10-15%, acknowledging that there was never any scientific evidence to support the claim that a rate under 15% is optimal.

The “natural” childbirth movement would have us believe that vaginal birth is inherently superior. It’s not. A birth that results in a live, healthy baby and live, healthy mother is inherently superior, and for a significant proportion of women, that birth is a cesarean section.