Home Birth is a Royal Tradition
Duchess of Cambridge, open your eyes to the home birth revolution
A seldom written fact is that the Queen had all four of her children at home. Ahead of a new ITV documentary this evening, Home Delivery, Beverley Turner, a strong advocate of such births, hopes Kate Middleton is tuned in.
Daily Telegraph, London 21 Mar 2013
At 9pm tonight, I hope Katherine and William Wales will be tucked up in their crested onesies, dipping chocolate brownies in their Earl Grey and watching ITV, because in the documentary Home Delivery, they will see something so rarely glimpsed that it should have been narrated by David Attenborough: human birth as a perfectly normal, rather jolly occasion, overseen by a brassy midwife in the cosy surrounds of family homes. It is a timely antidote to Channel Four’s terrifying One Born Every Minute.
I defy any woman – including Kate – not to wonder, how we’ve managed to muck up maternity services so badly, that only two per cent of British women now have such a safe, cheap and empowering birth. The type that, as Davina McCall once said of her three home births, “knocked spots off any drug I’ve ever taken. When those babies popped out, I wanted to stand naked on the highest mountain and roar with pride. I could do it again and again and again”.
My home births + a spot of chicken tikka
She’s right. I’ve had two home births using a bit of self-hypnosis. I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but holding that baby girl in the warm birthing pool as the Spring sunshine streamed in the lounge and my husband got himself a chicken tikka wrap out of the fridge, was as close to God as I’m ever going to get. I was frankly The Queen-of-the-bloomin-world.
There can be no greater gift for the Duchess of Cambridge right now, than the sense that she has ownership of her forthcoming labour and it isn’t ‘kindly’ wrestled from her by well-meaning obstetricians currently lying awake in a cold sweat at the pressure to safely deliver the future monarch with as many manly interventions as they can muster.
The independent midwife featured in tonight’s programme, Virginia Howes, says: “I just love it when women look up at me and say, ‘thank you’ because I know I haven’t done anything. What she’s really saying is ‘thank you, you empowered me to do it myself.’”
Let’s face it, the Duchess has a funny relationship to ‘power’; holding an important, public role yet devoid of any actual political influence, but able to determine a season’s hem-length in a five-minute outing. Her schedule is not her own. Her image is ours. Each trip and stumble over-scrutinized. Her apparent ‘lack of opinion’ as lamented by Sandy Toksvig and Hilary Mantel is a deliberate choice by a sensible gal who takes her job extremely seriously and is still finding her feet. So far, there has been no greater milestone in the search for her true character than how and where she gives birth. In this, she has the power to influence generations.
A man is to blame for women giving birth on their backs
Royals have a history of doing that. If it wasn’t for kinky old King Louis XIV, fewer women would commonly be giving birth today in the most unnatural position: lay painfully on their backs with a birth canal constricted by up to 30 per cent more than if they were upright. For, it was Louis who demanded his wives get off their knees and lie down on a bed so that he could watch events from behind a pervy curtain. Whispers abounded that women in court gave birth flat-out and so the masses followed suit.
Mother of nine, Queen Victoria, introduced the use of chloroform during childbirth. Being whacked out on the potion that would become the Dickensian mugger’s drug-of-choice didn’t lend itself to anything other than a supine, immobile birth – which was helpful for physicians using their new forceps invention to yank those babies out.
The Queen leads by example in this area
Like the three couples in tonight’s programme, our own Queen Elizabeth had four homebirths. Admittedly, hers didn’t involve a gazebo with fairy lights erected in the sitting room, a seven year-old Prince Charles playing on an iPad nearby or a midwife who used to be a kissogram, but still…birth is a great leveller. What she did share with these women was the calmness of her own home/palace, continuity of care (midwife, Sister Helen Rowe attended all her births) and the belief that her body knew what to do if she let it. And for that, she thanked a little-known ante-natal teacher called Betty Parsons.
Discreet Betty, who died last year aged 96 ‘taught’ the Queen and Princess Diana how to give birth. In her book, Understanding Childbirth she never uses the word, ‘hypnosis,’ but her ideology is almost identical to today’s ‘natal hypnotherapy’ (a British evolution of the 24-year-old American practice, ‘hypnobirthing’). Parsons writes: “Every human being is made up of mind, emotion and body and these separate parts of us interact very closely.” She talks about the effect of the subconscious on fear and emphasizes the importance of relaxation, breathing, “dropping your shoulders,” visualisations and accepting pain as a “positive” step on the mountainous path to birth.
There’s no science to Betty’s language; no explicit talk of how adrenalin can stop labour in its tracks (the reason for so many ‘start-stop’ labours as women yo-yo between comfortable-home and unfamiliar-hospital during contractions) but her philosophy is the same: practice for labour and “If you are tense emotionally, your body will be tense.” One of Betty’s ‘girls’ told her after birthing, “It wasn’t easy and it certainly wasn’t painless, but it was something I was doing rather than something that was being done to me.”
Think of UK plc
The timing of ITV’s programme couldn’t be better. It was recently revealed that a planned homebirth costs the NHS £1,066 compared to £1,631 for an obstetric unit birth; £2,369 for a planned c-section and £3,042 for the emergency version. Back in 2003 a Commons Health Select Committee report called for homebirths to become more widely available on the NHS, stating that they are “a gateway to promoting normal birth and a spur towards midwife recruiting and retention.” But the rates have not improved. More than half of the 560,000 births a year in the UK involve a caesarean, induced labour or delivery by instruments. Most midwives didn’t get into the job for that.
Inevitably, tonight’s programme ends on the drama of a baby being transferred to hospital. Sadly, it skews perception. As Virginia says: “In 12 years, I have only transferred a baby once before.” In actuality, only 9.3 per 1,000 first-time mum homebirths result in an adverse outcome (infant injury or death) compared to 5.3 for hospital births. But there is no risk difference whatsoever for women who have previous births. Four in 10 home-birthing women transfer to hospital for a first baby (commonly for pain relief) and only one in 10 for subsequent births.
The choice is out there
Fifty years ago, 30 per cent of Brits were at home with established relationships between mother and midwife. Belinda Ackerman, of Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Trust in London says: “We are not trying to go back to the olden days. But healthy, normal pregnancies go into hospital; get muddled with more complicated ones; end up being treated as if they are high risk and end up with medical intervention or c-section. That costs the NHS money and is not necessarily the best thing for mother or baby.”
Prince William’s wife probably has as much chance of a home birth as she has of taking over from Frank Lampard at Chelsea next year. But I hope that whatever she decides, the choice is completely informed and entirely her own.
As with the Duchess, we know almost nothing of The Queen’s personal politics. But we do know how our monarch feels about birth: keep calm and carry on at home. I do hope she’s having a word with our Kate.
Home Delivery is on ITV this evening at 9pm