By Sharon Muza, BS, CD(DONA), BDT(DONA), LCCE, FACCE, CLE
I know that contemporary phrases and popular terms change over time. My teen children and their interesting vocabulary are a constant reminder of that for me. Frequently, I seem to hear words and phrases that have morphed to take on new meanings different from the way they were originally used. I am keenly aware that sometimes I may even be a step (or two) behind the times. I do think it is important to know and use the same terminology that my clients use; it provides us with a common baseline for discussions and it makes my clients feel more comfortable.
So You Want a Natural Childbirth?
One such birth term that has caused me some confusion in recent years is the phrase “natural childbirth.” When I first started doula work fourteen plus years ago, natural childbirth (or natural birth) meant laboring and giving birth without the use of pain medications. It implied that the birthing person labored and birthed without nitrous oxide, narcotics, epidurals or any other pharmacological pain relief. A synonym for natural childbirth was an “unmedicated” birth. Clients would tell me they wanted a “natural birth” and I knew exactly what they meant.
The phrase “natural childbirth” was coined by British obstetrician Grantley Dick-Read in 1933 when he published his first book “Natural Childbirth.”
In the past few years, as I have been conducting my doula “meet & greets” with potential clients and holding my prenatal meetings with those who have hired me as their birth doula, I am hearing the phrase “natural birth” used over and over in our conversations. I am now perfectly clear that “natural birth” means something different to today’s parents than it did when I first started as a doula. My clients will share that they are “planning a natural birth.” During an interview, they may tell me that they want a doula to help them achieve their goal of a “natural birth.”
Further conversation reveals that their intention is to have a vaginal birth. For today’s client, “natural birth” is now synonymous with “vaginal birth.” This vaginal birth may include pain medications like an epidural. It may start with an induction and utilize pitocin to make the contractions stronger during the labor. A vacuum or forceps may even be utilized to help deliver the baby. The bottom line is that they intend to birth their baby vaginally. That is what natural birth means to them.
I hear many birth stories from new families and this term is used over and over. It always means that they gave birth vaginally, regardless of other events that occurred during the labor and birth. Now that I know that “natural childbirth” means vaginal birth for the families I work with, I am better able to follow and understand what they are describing.
Understanding Client Intentions
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what phrase my clients choose to use. What is important is that I take the time to clarify and understand what their intentions and wishes are. After that, we can move forward with confidence as we all work together to achieve their goal. Of course, regardless of what type of birth they want, they receive the non-judgemental support of their doula. That is always a given.
As we know, birth sometimes has a way of throwing a powerful curve ball, and helping families to adapt as circumstances change is one of the most powerful gifts that a birth doula can provide. But, when I know exactly what they want and I understand the terms they use, I can work to help them achieve it.
What Do You Think Natural Childbirth Means?
What does the term “natural birth” mean to you? Do you think that the meaning of this phrase has changed over the years? Is the meaning of this phrase tied to geographic location? How do you know what type of birth your clients are referring to when they tell you that they want a “natural birth?” What steps, if any, do you take to clarify this?Please let us know in the comments section what this phrase “natural birth” means to you and your clients and how you handle discussions around this.
Photo credit: Doula Jen Miriam Altman supports mom in labor flickr photo by greendoula shared under a Creative Commons (BY-ND) license
I think Generally speaking, a natural birth means a vaginal birth now days. But it depends on who you’re speaking with…because it can also mean unmedicated also.
Thanks for your thoughts, Jenny. I completely agree with you. It is so critical to check in with clients about this so we are on the same page.
Yes! Natural birth means different things to different people. I find Penny Simkin’s “Pain Medication Preference Scale” is a really great tool for digging deeper into what meaning it holds for the individual client.
I think that natural childbirth means without any interventions. Unfortunently, since hospitals do not give women infomred consent and force interventions on them I can see how it has come to mean vaginal.
I used the term natural birth with my doula. I always understood that to mean no pain medications or interventions. However I can see where the term is starting to change after reading stories and talking with other mothers about their birth. I’ve started to describe my birth as a natural unmedicated birth to clarify. I am just starting my doula education so thanks for the insight on this.
I think the change to the meaning of “natural birth” was started by OB’s not pregnant folks . In the past few years I routinely hear Postpartum clients describe they had a “natural birth” when they had OB interventions such as an induction, and epidural.
It was the way their OB understood and made reference to “natural birth”.
Probably has more to do the generation of OB’s that have no training in unmedicated birth!
It has reached the tipping point and became the new meaning of “natural birth” for any birth not a cesarean (surgical) birth.
We were just discussing this on my local doula circle FB group, and one doula said she has even heard “natural” used to describe a surgical birth! But, for the most part, we are hearing it more and more used in reference to any vaginal birth, medicated or unmedicated.