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How Modern “Medicine” Hijacked Pregnancy & Birth (And How We Can Take It Back!)

Ever since I saw this hilarious video of Genevieve Howland, aka Mama Natural, “hulk out” on a processed foods scientist, I knew she and I were sisters on similar missions.

So when I became pregnant last year, one of my first steps was to sign up for Genevieve’s free pregnancy week-by-week series from a natural perspective. I loved the series so much I signed up for her awesome online birth classes.

With humor and grace, evidence and affirmation, Genevieve is helping change the culture of childbirth in our country.

Now Genevieve is taking her mission to the next level with a beautiful new book that is out this week, The Mama Natural Week-By-Week Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth. She was kind enough to share an excerpt from the book below. ❤️❤️❤️

First off, I’d like to thank Vani for the opportunity to share an excerpt from my book with you! I’ve been a part of the Food Babe Army since the very beginning, and I’m so grateful for all of your world-changing work!

Just as the food industry went off the rails a few generations ago, I believe the birth industry has as well.

Making babies is still pretty standard stuff. Sperm meets egg. Sperm fertilizes egg. Mama uses a due date calculator. Mama feels nauseated, exhausted, and increasingly huge for nine long months.
The question of how best to nurture the developing child in the womb, though, and—especially—how best to bring that baby into the world, is where the debate rages. There are a lot of competing voices out there. There’s a lot of righteousness and finger pointing.

So, what’s everybody yelling about?

Birth used to be an ordinary, natural process.

Until the advent of modern medicine, babies were typically born at home, and mamas-to-be were attended to almost exclusively by women—either female relatives or, in most cases (even as far back as antiquity), hired midwives.

By the mid- to late 1800s, however, a kind of turf war broke out.

Midwifery became associated with old-world folk medicine, whereas newly licensed physicians—exclusively men, many of whom had never even seen a live birth—began to advertise their more “modern” and “sophisticated” techniques.

A few decades later, an American obstetrician by the name of Joseph DeLee called for a ban on the use of midwives altogether—he referred to them as “evil” and “barbaric.”

DeLee also put forth a bold new notion: that pregnancy, rather than a natural process, was “pathogenic” in nature. In other words, pregnancy was like a sickness or a disease, and he thought it was best treated as such.

By the 1930s, hospital birth had replaced home birth as the norm. And things continued that way, with midwife-attended birth declining year after year after year.

From 1930 on, birth became increasingly medicalized.

Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to point something out: in the old days, the practice of medicine—in all fields, not just obstetrics—was pretty brutal.

There is plenty of evidence, for example, that the earliest doctor-attended births did not exactly go well. Back in the day, giving birth in a hospital was far more dangerous than giving birth at home, and the maternal death rate actually increased at the beginning of the twentieth century. (Infection rates in hospitals were sky-high, for one thing, in part because doctors didn’t know to wash their hands between patients.)

Those early, hard-won discoveries, however, paved the way for astonishing medical breakthroughs.

Doctors learned about the transmission of infection and disease via bacteria. They developed smarter and safer surgical techniques. They helped make pregnancy and childbirth—once a pretty serious health risk—exceedingly safe for most women and babies.

But with all those life-saving breakthroughs has come a steady rise in some other not-so-great trends

Case in point: the ideal Cesarean rate is between 10 percent and 15 percent, according to the World Health Organization. Yet 33 percent of American women—more than double the recommended rate—are currently giving birth via C-section.

Why? There are plenty of theories, including the idea that some women are just “too posh to push.” (Total myth, by the way. Only 1 percent to 2 percent of women just “decide” to have a completely elective, medically unnecessary C-section.)

The most likely culprit is the modern, medicalized approach to labor and delivery.

These days, a standard hospital birth may go a little something like this:

  • Mama is induced on her due date.
  • She spends the majority of labor flat on her back.
  • She’s likely strapped to a machine for continuous electronic fetal monitoring.
  • If she doesn’t progress rapidly enough, she may have her water broken or be put on a Pitocin drip.
  • And rather than being guided through natural pain-relief techniques, she’s encouraged to just go ahead and get that epidural.

Guess what? Every single one of those totally standard, commonplace procedures is associated with a higher likelihood of eventual C-section.

So what’s the big deal?

Well, first, let me make it very clear: C-sections save lives and thank God we have them. Epidurals, when used judiciously, can actually prevent some moms from ending up in the operating room.

However, with a 33% c-section rate and over 60% epidural rate, we have gone off course for the original intent of interventions. While I do support an informed mama’s desire for an epidural to help her during labor, not all moms are told about the side effects and risks of getting said interventions.

If you’re wondering why that matters—who cares if the C-section rate is kinda high?—well, there are a whole host of reasons.

For one thing, it’s easy to forget that a Cesarean is serious, invasive abdominal surgery; the associated risks and side effects are considerably higher than in uncomplicated vaginal births. Babies born via C-section, meanwhile, have a higher chance of developing asthma, allergies, obesity, and diabetes later in life; they’re also less likely to successfully breastfeed.

While it’s certainly true that not every woman can or should deliver vaginally (C-sections can be life-saving for mamas and babies who need them! I was a c-section baby myself.), it seems to me that we should be doing what we can to lower the rates.

Unfortunately, other forms of medical intervention are on the rise, too.

The use of Pitocin, for example, has doubled since 1990, even though it may be less safe than we previously thought: a 2013 study at Beth Israel Medical Center in New York found that Pitocin was associated with lower APGAR scores (a test to evaluate a newborn’s health), as well as unexpected admission to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Epidurals—administered to roughly 60 percent of laboring women—can mess with mama’s natural production of oxytocin, thereby extending labor and increasing the risk of perineal tear. (Ouch!)

There are emotional side effects to the medical approach to birth.

The further we get from the idea that women were designed to give birth—the more we treat mamas-to-be like sick people—the more likely they are to accept interventions they neither want nor actually need.

We have so sanitized and anesthetized the birth experience that many women have no idea what their bodies are actually capable of doing. And no awareness of the potential side effects of all those “modern” medical services.

  • Perhaps, for example, you figured getting an epidural was just standard care, but no one told you that it would lower your body’s natural production of oxytocin, nature’s pain relieving hormone that also stimulates contractions.
  • Without the urge to push, you may find that you need more drugs (Pitocin this time) to kick-start your labor.
  • When the Pitocin-induced contractions become too intense, you may need more pain meds.
  • The pain meds dull the urge to push again, so you need more Pitocin.

You can see how quickly this becomes a vicious cycle.

In fact, it’s called the “Cascade of Intervention.” And once it starts, the birth experience you may have planned for can begin to slip through your fingers.

Before you know it, the baby is in distress and you’re being prepped for an emergency C-section.

Rather than something you did, it can feel as though childbirth was something that was done to you. When that happens, mamas might feel anything from overwhelmed and scared to violated and depressed.

It’s no wonder the pendulum is swinging away from the medical management view and toward a more natural approach.

In 1989, midwives were the lead care providers at just 3 percent of American births. These days, the number is closer to 9 percent, and it’s been rising steadily for the last twenty-five years.

Consistent midwife care throughout pregnancy is associated with better birth outcomes for both baby and mama.

While you can reap plenty of rewards by sticking with a natural-minded obstetrician in a hospital setting—women who give birth naturally recover faster and go home sooner—there are benefits to getting out of the hospital, too: among women who choose to deliver at birth centers, only 6 percent do so by C-section.

The most compelling reason to go natural, however, might be the simplest to understand, as well as the easiest to overlook: women were designed to give birth.

  • The hips that some of us loathe can turn out to be our very best friends during labor.
  • The hormones that make us weep during those touching TV commercials work in a finely calibrated balance during birth. Interfere with that balance, and you risk stalling labor, stressing the baby, increasing mama’s anxiety, and complicating breastfeeding.
  • Even the pain associated with childbirth is part of the grand plan: it signals mama to change positions so that baby can move toward the birth canal; it tells her when it’s time to push (and when not to).

Childbirth is primal and instinctual—it’s wild and unpredictable. But in most cases, it is not something that needs to be medically managed, treated, or tamed.

When mamas are encouraged to trust the ancient wisdom of their bodies, when they’re allowed to focus on the process without distraction, they don’t just have shorter labors and deliver healthier babies—they feel empowered regardless of how their birth unfolds. And that’s the whole point. That women can make the right choices for their bodies, their births and their babies.

Want to help change the birth culture in our country?

It starts by getting informed. I’ve just published the first week-by-week pregnancy guide from a natural perspective. Featuring insights from a certified nurse midwife (who happened to deliver both of my children), as well as a registered nurse and doula, the book is packed with helpful info on:

  • Natural remedies for common pregnancy symptoms
  • When to get an ultrasound (and when not to)
  • Sex during pregnancy
  • The truth about epidurals
  • How to naturalize a surgical birth
  • Natural pain relief during labor
  • What to do during every stage of labor
  • How to recover naturally
  • And so much more

This book is evidence-based, empowering and entertaining. ? (No boring text books over here!)  If pregnancy is in your future, or if you know anyone who’s pregnant, please consider picking up a copy.

Even if you aren’t pregnant…

My goal is to get the book into Babies R Us and Walmart, where we can reach moms who may have never heard about skin-to-skin contact, delayed cord clamping, or gentle cesarean. But in order to get into mainstream retailers, we need to show those stores that there is a groundswell of interest in natural childbirth – and a demand for this natural guide. Would you consider ordering a copy and….

  • Donating to your local library
  • Giving to your ob-gyn at your next wellness visit
  • Passing along at a La Leche meeting or baby carrying group
  • Sharing with a pre-med student
  • Keeping in your home library to loan out as needed

Thank you so much for your support, Food Babe Army!

Best wishes to all the future mamas out there!

While some mamas do get the birth of their dreams, I know firsthand that it doesn’t always work out that way. But if we come from an informed place, we can feel good about the experience no matter what.

I hope every mama out there gets the support and resources she needs to have an empowered and grace-filled birth. ❤️


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7 responses to “How Modern “Medicine” Hijacked Pregnancy & Birth (And How We Can Take It Back!)

  1. I am due any day with baby #3. and I am shocked my team of Doctors is so set against trying for a C-Section. They handed me a “warning sheet’ that suggests that if I attempt a VBAC, my baby has a 1 in a hundred chance coming out brain dead. They also fell on the floor when they said I wanted a vaginal delivery with zero drugs like my first. But I think…..why shouldn’t I at least try for a VBAC, better for me and my miracle baby.

    Of course, it anything goes wrong and a C-Section is necessary, I’ll do it! All I said is that I’d like to try for a VBAC for a speedier recovery and a baby more likely to breast feed. Thanks for getting the word out!

  2. thanks so much for your story, mine was exactly what you said above (copied below) + after 20 hour of labour I was told the only was C-section, which i I had to do so after giving birth I was soo dissapointed and felt so useless that I didnt even joy the birth of my first son….

    Mama is induced on her due date.
    She spends the majority of labor flat on her back.
    She’s likely strapped to a machine for continuous electronic fetal monitoring.
    If she doesn’t progress rapidly enough, she may have her water broken or be put on a Pitocin drip.
    And rather than being guided through natural pain-relief techniques, she’s encouraged to just go ahead and get that epidural.

  3. Sorry to hear Zarina. My first birth didn’t go the way I wanted it to either and it took some time to heal.

    My second birth = redemption. If you end up having more children, I hope you get a chance to have a very different birth!

  4. I had my son at home and it was a wonderful experience. I received prenatal care from an amazing midwife team; however, I also went to a clinic and received traditional medical prenatal care. We even registered at the local hospital in case we needed to transfer during the home birth so we’d have a doctor ready to receive us without fear of retribution.

  5. I have had three kids all with epidurals and wonderful doctors. One not induced, one with pitocin and one with them breaking my water. My experiences were wonderful. I hope you site the other side of the experience as well and mark those statistics of how many are successful deliveries with epidurals and induction too. medicine has come such a long way. There is a real danger your putting mother’s in by scaring them away from the doctor or hospital. They should be able to work together midwives and doctors at the hospital where they can get proper care and surgical options if necessary.

  6. Chiropractic is very much necessary during the pregnancy it really helps to reduce the labour time which is very much helpful for the women thanks for the informational blog

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