Childbirth in the age of information bombardment

In 1953, when I started to be involved in childbirth in a Paris hospital, women were not reading books or other documents about childbirth. Today, in the age of information bombardment, most women cannot give birth without medical assistance: is knowing too much a handicap during an involuntary physiological process?

In order to protect pregnant women against a possible information overload, I find it useful to summarize the essential. Everybody, in our cultural milieu, should realize that the hormonal flow a woman needs to release to give birth includes "the shy hormone". This hormone, called "oxytocin", is special because its release is highly dependent on environmental factors: it does not appear easily among strangers and observers.

To reverse the current direction taken by the history of human birth, let us focus on the concept of "shy hormone" instead of reading too many books and spending hours exploring the internet.

It is precisely because we are submerged in a flow of detailed information provided by highly specialised experts that we are not ready to develop new ways of thinking inspired by interdisciplinary perspectives. In such a phase of transition, some concepts are becoming keys to understanding human nature in general and some physiological processes in particular. This is the case of the concept of neocortical inhibition.

Today we are in a position to classify birth physiology in the framework of brain physiology. It is essential to realize that the part of the brain that has reached an extreme development in our species - the "new brain" or neocortex - does not always play the role of a tool at the service of vital physiological functions. On the contrary, in some particular situations, it can inhibit and weaken such functions. It is as if the tool may become the master.

Among such particular situations, and before considering the case of parturition, we'll just mention the typical example of the sense of smell. All students in human nature have a special interest in olfaction, because it is mysteriously weak in our species. A significant study from Israel has convincingly demonstrated that the sense of smell is improved by drinking an alcoholic beverage, as a way to reduce neocortical control.

When the concept of neocortical inhibition is assimilated, there is no need for long developments to clarify the solution Nature found to make human birth possible and even occasionally easy. This solution is simply that the neocortex must reduce its activity. Even after thousands of years of socialization of childbirth, including decades of masculinization and medicalization of the event, there are still some mothers and health professionals who have realised what is essential.

They know that when a woman can give birth easily by herself, there is a time when she is cutting herself off from our world, forgetting what she had been taught, forgetting her plans, and behaving in a way that usually would be considered unacceptable regarding a civilised woman, for example screaming or swearing. Some women can find themselves in the most unexpected, often mammalian, primitive, quadrupedal postures. Some women in hard labour complain of odours nobody else can perceive: this is an eloquent symptom of reduced neocortical control.

When this solution Nature found is understood, it becomes easy to analyse and summarise the basic needs of a labouring woman: she needs to feel protected against all possible stimulations of her neocortex. The keyword is protection. Since language is a powerful neocortical stimulant, it is easy to reach the conclusion that silence is a basic need. The effects of light on the birth process have not been taken seriously until recently, when it appeared that melatonin, the "darkness hormone", is an essential birth hormone. From a practical perspective, we need to keep in mind that all attention-enhancing situations stimulate neocortical activity and therefore inhibit the birth process. Feeling observed or perceiving a possible danger are typical examples.

In practice, we must constantly keep in mind the need for "protection" against all possible interferences with the release of the "shy hormone".

An unprecedented situation »

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