When it comes to the embracing a home birth, it often comes from an emotional standpoint. After all, many women have an “emotional” brain and would connect with emotional reasons for the joys birthing at home. The reasons often mentioned in terms of the benefits of a home birth include: comfort, familiarity with environment, no moving restrictions, the desire of no intervention or “medical” environment, wearing your own clothes, eating the food of your choice, bonding with your baby, the extraordinary care provided by your midwife, easy postpartum recovery, being the boss of your birth, birthing your way, the trust you gain in your body, the trust and relationship with your midwife, the overall empowerment from the experience. This list can go on and on. Documentaries and articles on birthing may examine statistics (percentage of C-sections, number of episiotomies, percentages of unnecessary intervention… this list can go on and on, as well).
Lets examine the cortisol level of mom and baby, during and after labor. It’s one of (the many) topics that lack attention. What does this mean and why is it important? Cortisol is an important hormone in the body, secreted by the adrenal glands, and involved in many functions. It helps keep proper glucose metabolism, regulation of blood pressure, insulin release, immune function, and inflammatory response, to name a few. Cortisol levels are raised by stress, and high levels are secreted during the body’s flight or fight response to stress. Raised levels can cause suppressed thyroid function, blood sugar imbalances, decreased bone density, decrease in muscle tissue, high blood pressure, low immunity, inflammatory response, lack of ability to heal, and other problems that can contribute to health complications, short term, or possibly long term. Due to these reasons, a high cortisol level is one of the things that should be avoided during labor.
The comparison of the two cortisol levels, at home and in the hospital, should be tested, recorded and compared. If you know about cortisol levels, you can compare the two environments (home birth and hospital birth) and figure out in which place the cortisol level would be lower, for obvious reasons. A normal home birth may provide lower cortisol levels for mom and baby. This common knowledge amongst midwives, which is why removing situations that cause stress, is a main priority in the birth plan. Let’s take a look at the moment-to-moment truth and the experiences mom and baby will go through in a hospital setting vs. a home birth setting. This will explain the reasons why cortisol may change depending on these two settings. Labor and delivery is considered a high-stress situation, but home birth may make it a low-stress situation.
The hospital environment starts with florescent lights, beeping machines, and unfamiliar faces and places, to name a few of the immediate stressful experiences. This environment might provoke anxiety. Next, you may experience some form of intervention, an IV, followed by (pitocin, epidural, episiotomy). Shots and cuts are scary and may raise cortisol levels. This is especially so when you’re on your back, in an unfamiliar bed, unable to drink or eat, getting tired, having contractions, and during ALL of that, there is a feeling of urgency constantly surrounding you. Since a lot is going on, including fear, and stress, cortisol levels are undoubtedly up.
You will not have your baby in your arms just yet. Baby has just left the most euphoric, and perfect environment, made specifically for its own formation and growth. Imagine the womb. That baby feels warmth, hears mom’s heartbeat, and is surrounded by this comforting feeling. When baby enters the world in the hospital, the next step is the cold and hard plastic bin. The plastic bin that baby goes into right after its first breath. Baby is quickly transferred to a tray surrounded by lights, rubbed down, cleaned, pricked and poked, antibiotic ointment on its eyes. This rapid change of environment may cause your baby stress, fear, and flight or fight response to kick in, and now cortisol is high. Then, your baby is wrapped up, and finally transferred back to you, where, unfortunately, some extremely important skin-on-skin bonding time has been ignored and forgotten among the bustle of the hospital. How can anyone slow down when another birthing mom down the hall is crowning, and staff is short by 3 nurses? It happens. Not every time, but it happens.
Let’s go back in time. When you have the option to never leave your home. You are home, and you’re laboring. Your body opens. You envision this opening, just like you have been guided to do by your midwife. All of the preparations, and positive affirmations were worth it because the day has finally arrived and you will do it fearlessly. You have the option to get in the tub, and now you’re in the same environment as baby. Water birth may relax mom, and therefore, lower her cortisol level. You’re floating around, breathing, and in your zone. No one is telling you how to birth, or what to do. You’re drinking tea, going to the bathroom, changing positions, squatting, moving, kissing and cuddling your partner, and helping your baby move down and out, into this world, and right onto your chest. Once baby is on your chest, your baby will hear the same sound they have heard, your heart beat. He or she feels your skin and becomes warm from the touch. Both of you have low cortisol levels, and both of you are in a state of euphoria, with coritsol down, and oxytocin way up. That night, you sleep in your bed. You eat your own food. In most cases, you never left your bedroom. You trust this environment; you are assured and at ease, your cortisol levels are down.
It is important to go above and beyond in the preparations for a stress-free labor (if available). Keeping cortisol levels at bay is an extremely important part of “safe birthing” babies. The goal of this is to create better birth. It may build a better relationship between children and their parents later on. It may create people who live a more peaceful life completely based upon the way they entered the world. Did they leave the comfort womb and enter to a chaotic place, or did that perfect place and that peaceful feeling remain unchanged between the womb and the world? Creating a calm environment for this time is your baby’s life could be crucial, after all, they only enter the world once.