Birthing women need to feel safe and supported

Birthing women need to feel safe and supported

Recent research has drawn attention once again to the contentious issue of how Australian women give birth, and the trauma that an increasing number experience.

Given that more than 95 per cent of Australian women will give birth in their lifetime, the issue deserves more attention.

As part of a recent study, I listened to the birth stories of many women.

Their experiences differ greatly, but for all the emotional impacts of childbirth run deep.

Even decades later women will weep recalling the conditions under which they birthed their children. This is one of the reasons why reports of the rising rate of birth trauma are very concerning.

Trauma in childbirth is associated with mothers' low self-esteem, disrupted family relationships, and difficulties with mother-child bonding that can impact a child's social, emotional and mental development.

Despite the best efforts of many wonderful midwives and doctors, care systems suffer from a culture of bullying, and an unacceptable use of force (both physical and through lack of respect) against women - something termed "obstetric violence".

For increasing numbers of Australian women, a logical response to traumatising experiences is to seek a gentler environment, choosing homebirth with (and sometimes without), medical support.

Giving birth is very hard work, physically and mentally. And it is very important that women are well supported. Access to quality medical facilities is just part of the picture. Women need a team of carers around them who work well together, and who they trust. They need to feel that they are being treated with respect, and to feel safe.

In other words, they need a birthing environment that helps them feel loved and supported.

It is not popular to talk about loving care, but I believe it's crucial to find a way to place women's experiences at the centre of maternity care. Love is not always the dominant emotion in the birth space, but it could be and should be.

After all, the hormone of love, oxytocin, is not only a crucial ingredient in the natural process of childbirth and labour - it is also the chemical imprint of feelings of safety, trust, empathy and connection.

If life begins in birth, so too do our human relationships. Seeking to begin these in love ought to be simple common sense.

Dr Katharine McKinnon is researcher at La Trobe University, and author of Birthing Work: The Collective Labour of Childbirth, which will be published this month.