Getting out of the bathtub at Spectrum Health Butterworth, after laboring under the light of LED flameless candles.
— By Beth Singleton, Birth Quest birth doula and photographer
I still remember my last labor like it was yesterday. Waking in the wee hours to discover I was in labor, only to have it stall during the daylight hours and then ramp back up after the sun set. When pushing, the room was dimly lit and to make things even darker, I had my face buried into the couch.
What is it about darkness that seems to ease and promote the progress of labor? A very common desire among laboring women, I thought it’d be a great idea to look into this.
The need for darkness is observed in nature.
If you’ve ever had the experience of witnessing a cat during labor, you probably noticed her need for a safe, dark place. When my cat had her kittens a few years back, that’s exactly what she did. In a box under my bed, our proud momma cat gave birth to her babies. This need stems from the mammalian brain, a commonality that affects cats, dogs, mice…and humans! I mean, we’re mammals, too, so regardless of the countless ways in which we’re nothing like our pets, the biological event of birth reaches deep to reveal that our needs are ultimately very similar.
Bright lights can make a laboring woman feel exposed.
Birth is a very private event for a woman. During such an intimate moment in her life, bright lights shining down can cause her to feel like she’s being observed or like she has no privacy. In nature, laboring animal mother’s will stop mid-labor if they think they are being watched in order to find safety. In a hospital setting, though, a woman can’t follow in the footsteps of her fellow mammal mothers and relocate if she feels like she isn’t safe.
This increases brain activity during a time when labor progress relies on a woman’s primitive brain instincts. This stimulation can interfere with a woman’s ability to produce the hormones necessary for labor to progress and to help with pain. Some sources of bright light include:
• overhead lighting
• cell phones
In particular, electronic devices affect the body’s ability to rest. Blue light, the light produced from items like cell phones and tablets, interferes with the production of sleep-promoting hormones. So even in a room where the lights are off, it’s important to consider the effect of having the television on or staring at a phone if relaxation is the goal.
How does darkness aid in relaxation?
When the lights go down and the room darkens, this signals to the brain that it’s time for rest. One of the hormones produced is melatonin. Also known as the “hormone of darkness”, melatonin promotes relaxation and sleep. When a laboring woman is better able to relax, she will probably rest better and more deeply between contractions. Her contractions might also be less painful if she isn’t holding so much tension in her body.
There are numerous ways to labor with the lights down low.
Whether laboring at home or in a hospital, there are several ways to create a dimly lit setting.
For a home birth, consider some of these ideas:
• night lights
• LED candles
• string lights
• votive and/or pillar candles
• dimmable lamp
• blackout curtains
• indoor light projector
For a hospital birth, most of the above options aren’t as feasible. For example, a hospital probably isn’t going to permit burning candles; they will, however, allow LED candles. And items like string lights or lamps are bulky and may not be allowed, either. Night lights and indoor light projectors, on the other hand, are small and the room will likely have at least one outlet you can use to plug them in.
Sometimes, though, darkness isn’t the best option.
While it makes sense that many women desire to labor in darkness or a space that is dimly lit, there are
circumstances when the issue shouldn’t be pressed. Examples include:
• women who are afraid of the dark
• women who might become anxious if they feel the darkness would interfere with their care
• women with a history of trauma who feel safer with the lights on
• women who simply object to having the lights off
In the end, it all comes down to a woman’s preference.
Whether she chooses to labor with the lights on or off, the point is that she gets what helps her the
most. Ultimately, it’s the support she receives from those around her that will have the biggest impact
on her birth experience.
If you’ve already given birth, did you dim the lights? Why or why not?
We’d love to hear your feedback on this!
“Although this moment is bittersweet, it’s one of my favorite photos and I’m glad it was captured. Just before I was taken into surgery, after 24 hours of hard labor at home. My #doula, Faith, never left my side.”
— Ottawa County client, after a homebirth transfer to hospital
“[Faith] provided me with many resources, and I also really appreciated the teas she made me. Her evidence based approach was very unbiased and nonjudgmental. I felt like I could be honest about my needs with her… She really proved herself when the birthday came. She was my knight in shining armor! She made me feel so confident and comforted through my labor. Her knowledge of a birthing woman’s body and need for support was obvious. I credit my smooth labor and delivery to her…”
— Norton Shores mom, of her homebirth with Birth Quest
When I tell people that I’m a birth doula, the most common response I get is, “Oh, so you help women having their babies at home?”. To which I reply, “Yes, doulas support women at homebirths, but all of the women I’ve supported have given birth in hospitals”.
Because the word doula is not a part of everyday vocabulary for most people, I think many confuse a doula with a midwife. This is usually the second thing I have to explain to people about my job. I don’t catch the babies; I hold space for mom and support her through the process.
The next question usually revolves around why doulas attend more hospital births than homebirths. Several factors impact a woman’s decision on whether or not to hire a doula. For the woman choosing to give birth at home, the biggest factor is likely financial. Homebirths are generally paid for out-of-pocket, as are doulas. Since doulas don’t provide the clinical support a pregnant woman needs and they don’t catch babies, women who desire a homebirth are often faced with the decision to choose between hiring a midwife or a doula. In this scenario, the midwife is usually chosen because of the necessity of her services.
But what if having a doula AND a midwife were an option?
It’s true that your midwife will spend more time with you while you labor and provide a different model of care during pregnancy and delivery. It’s also true that she will likely have assistants who can attend to some of your needs. However, with their focus primarily on the clinical aspects of care, there are other elements left unaccounted for.
Generally, a doula will meet with you in your home at least a couple of times before you have your baby. She’ll be familiar with you and your surroundings. It’s during these meetings that doula and mom become acquainted and comfortable with one another. If there are pets, the doula will get to know them. If there are other children or family members, the doula will get to know them, too. This process is vital in developing a safe relationship as the mother will depend on the doula to cover the non-clinical elements that are a part of the birth process. It’s during these visits that mom can share her hopes and her fears. While she’s probably also done this with her midwife, the doula provides more time for mom to process and plan. The more informational and emotional support a woman receives during her pregnancy, the better.
And in the event of a hospital transfer?
Your doula will be with you. Your midwife probably will be, too, but if your doula is the one you’ve been leaning on emotionally during your pregnancy and labor, her presence is vital. Odds are, she was with you earlier in your labor than your midwife was, as well. That’s the beauty of a doula: no shift changes and present with you from the beginning to the end. Another benefit is that a doula is likely to be very familiar with the hospital environment and maybe even some of the staff, so she can help to explain what is going on and bridge the gaps between a homebirth and a hospital birth.
Regardless of the outcome, whether you had your baby at home or had to transfer to the hospital, your doula will be there postpartum for you to process the experience. Your midwife will, too, but depending on how the birth went compared to how you had envisioned it, your doula provides added space and opportunity to share things that you might not wish to share with your midwife. I know for me, I’m no good at confrontation and had I been upset with my midwife or disappointed, there’s no way I could have told her that (fortunately, that wasn’t the case for me!). A doula is trained to listen to your grievances and your joys. Validating your feelings and helping you to pick through the pieces and put them together, a doula can offer perspective, encouragement, and reassurance.
Birth is one of the most unpredictable events in nature. No matter how much you know about it, curveballs often appear in the form of all the little things that surface in the midst of the limbo of labor that no one had planned on.
I think back to my last pregnancy, when I had finally planned the homebirth I’d always wanted. It honestly was an amazing experience to labor at home and push my baby out the way I wanted with a supportive group of women (midwives, assistants, my mom and mother-in-law) and my husband. All of it was golden. I was even doing “doula talk” in my head, like focusing on the words soft and open. You see, I’d had my birth doula training through DONA only a few short months before the birth. So at the very least, I was able to focus and feel pretty in control during the more intense moments of labor. Super proud of myself for that!
However, the entire day leading up to my precious little one’s arrival, my anxiety and the negative self-talk going on in my head was relentless. Fourth baby, longest labor. Why? Was I not moving around enough? How long was it going to take? Why were the contractions that woke me in the wee hours of the morning that were 4 minutes apart and very uncomfortable spacing out to 15 minutes and not as painful? And there went my thoughts for the better part of an entire day. It’s the one part of my labor I look back on and wish I’d had a better attitude about. As helpful and supportive as my husband was physically for me that last time around (so grateful for the counter pressure and back rubs!), I needed someone to help ease my mind. I needed someone to remind me that every labor is different and that what I was experiencing was normal. I’d fed my fear of waking in labor and things moving quickly, as they had in the past (with my third baby, I went from 5cm to holding my baby in under a couple of hours after painfully relentless contractions). Instead, I spent the better part of the 24 hours that I was in labor anxious, discouraged, and feeling guilty for having sent my kids away first thing in the morning because I was sure “this is it!”. I wasn’t mentally prepared for a long labor. I’d never had one.
Don’t get me wrong; my birth team was incredible! I’d depend on them again in a heartbeat for their care and support during pregnancy and birth. Looking back, though, I know I needed more in those long hours before my little guy finally made his arrival.
Doulas meet so many needs that are maybe overlooked or not considered.
I know when my son was born, my house was a mess. Pretty sure there were dishes and laundry that needed to be done. I didn’t feel like cooking and no one brought food while I was in labor. It was a long, lonely day. I struggled to find distractions. There were so many things during that entire day of early labor that a doula could have helped me and my husband with. We were both so tired.
When I was in active labor and pushing, I soaked up every encouraging word and touch my birth team provided me. They were tender, attentive, and confident. In hindsight, I realize I had needed that all day to better cope with my apprehension about the imminent arrival of my baby. I needed someone to hold that space for me and remind me that everything would be okay. I needed someone to tend to the things my husband and I couldn’t get to while I tried to rest.
My other children were born in the hospital, where food and laundry weren’t an issue. While the hospital environment is not my personal favorite for giving birth, those two things ended up being huge oversights for me with my homebirth. I don’t have sisters or super close girlfriends that I would have felt comfortable having with me while I labored; and I wanted my mom and mother-in-law present for the birth, not running around my house cleaning and cooking. While having my son at home was truly a dream, waking up the next day to the reality of…well, real life, wasn’t. Looking back, I hadn’t planned for how to handle those seemingly tiny details. Who knew that while I did the hard work of bringing life into the world that my house wouldn’t clean itself or cook a meal for me! Or take care of my other children when they returned home the very next day (totally needed a postpartum doula, too).
My business partner and Birth Quest founder, Faith, also had her last baby at home. Her labor, which was the complete opposite of mine, was quick and intense. Despite her doula training, she found herself in need of one and speaking the words women the world over often say when it’s become too much…“I can’t do this! Make it stop!”
I needed a doula; but even if I’d wanted one, I couldn’t have afforded one anyway.
At least, that’s what I thought. I know better now. I could have asked family to help with the expense or sought a doula out that would take my finances into consideration and work with me to make it affordable. Our vision is to increase access to doulas for every person who wants one, so please contact us if you have a financial hardship, especially if that is due to the unreimbursed expense of an out-of-hospital birth. Everyone deserves a doula!
As one Birth Quest client of her having a doula for her homebirth said, “My parents paid for my doula as a gift for our Homebirth. If they hadn’t, cost might had been an issue but I definitely would choose to hire a doula again. Their knowledge and support are so priceless if you can find one you love!”
My story and Faith’s are just two of many stories. Doulas do so many things. If any one part of your labor and birth could be considered customizable, it’s who you choose as your doula. With you from the moment you feel like you need her, she’s the one you’ll have expressed your desires to about labor and birth. Whether you need someone behind the scenes – doing your dishes, folding laundry, or getting a meal ready – or someone to be a part of the action – holding your hand, taking pictures, or showing your partner where to apply counterpressure – your doula is the one person attuned to your wants and needs. And if at any time you want what your doulas doing to change, just say the words…that’s what she’s there for.
What does a doula do at a homebirth anyway?
At a homebirth, a doula is going to do everything she’d do for you in a hospital, except that she is in your space where there are more personal elements that might need tending to. Because the list could go on and on, here are a few examples:
- Ideally, she arrives earlier in your labor to provide support (informational, emotional, physical, etc.)
- Support for your partner (in the form of breaks, encouragement, direction on how to apply pain management techniques, etc.)
- Support for others present during your labor and birth (friends, relatives, children, etc.)
- Light household chores (dishes, laundry, etc.)
- Meal preparation
- Tending to the needs of pets
- Taking pictures
- Crowd control (making sure mom has the space and privacy she desires)
- Immediate postpartum support
- Assistance with breastfeeding
- Preparing a place to rest postpartum
- Meeting needs specific to the individual
- Hold space for the woman in labor
- Create/maintain a peaceful and calm environment
Who could use a doula at a homebirth?
There’s no denying that as a doula, I feel the benefits are universal and for all women. With that being said, specific reasons a doula is perfect for a homebirth include:
- Women whose family/friends are not near enough to provide support
- Women without a partner or whose partner might not be available for support
- Women with anxiety or other health issues that might impact their confidence in their ability to give birth
- Women who want to be prepared in the event of a hospital transfer
- Women who know they need a lot of support
- Women who don’t want to worry about meals or cleaning during labor and after birth
- Women who know their partners will need additional support
- Women who want support but aren’t comfortable with family/friends present
- Women who have specific wants and needs
- Women who have other children that will be present that need support
- Women who want someone to promote and maintain a calm, peaceful environment
- Women who want a safe person to hold space for them
Since doulas aren’t as commonly present at homebirths as they are for hospital births, we did a little investigating into why.
Thanks to the women who took part in our Facebook poll (@birthquestservices) to find out why they, women who’d had homebirths, didn’t have a doula. Not surprisingly, the leading reason was cost. A close second were women who felt they already had enough support while the third reason was a desire for privacy.
However, because women were allowed to choose more than one option, some chose both cost and sufficient support as their primary reasons for not hiring a doula. This leaves us to wonder…which was the biggest factor?
Answers to a 2017 Muskegon-area Facebook post asking, “If you had a homebirth and didn’t hire a doula, why not?”
— Blog written by Beth Singleton, DONA-trained Birth Quest birth doula and photographer,
who had her fourth child at home in Muskegon
From: My Philosophy on Birth, revised
Birth is amazing.
Birth is beautiful.
Birth is a journey.
Birth is unpredictable.
Birth is challenging.
Birth is unfair.
Birth is a miracle.
Birth is magical.
Birth is spiritual.
Birth is a rite of passage.
Birth is the only way.
Birth is inevitable.
— From a brainstorming exercise for my Birth Arts International (BAI) certification, “What is Birth?”
A couple of years back, I wrote a blog based on a question that often comes up in interviews, probably because some doula organizations include it in their list of questions to ask potential doulas: what is your philosophy on pregnancy and birth? What I wrote instead was my approach to my profession: evidence-based, trauma-informed and prevention focused. While I still hold to these practices, I think holistic, individualized care best defines my current practice.
When I was first asked this question, I felt like I knew the correct answer, which would be something like, “Pregnancy and childbirth are normal, healthy processes that are best left untampered with so nature can do its job.” The problem is, that’s not necessarily what I believe. In another blog, I addressed how the concept of “natural childbirth” isn’t inclusive enough to take into account couples for whom childbirth is a very technological process. Birth and pregnancy are only natural processes when circumstances and preferences allow.
After having supported a couple dozen families through birth, I feel like I have more of a grasp on what my philosophy actually is. Like my partner, Beth Singleton, who shares her approach to childbirth in another blog, I think the needs of the birthing person are paramount! I also think that my role is finding ways to balance their needs with the sometimes opposing needs of their support team, healthcare providers, partner and family.
As an advocate for reproductive justice, I identify as a full-spectrum doula, meaning I am here to support the pregnant person or parent as they make their choices, within the context of their sometimes complicated lives, regardless of the outcome. As I’ve written before, one’s reproductive decisions are impacted by many factors. There is no one right answer, but the best answer for that individual, at that time, in that situation.
There is a myth that doulas take the place of or override the needs of partners. Oftentimes, it is the partner or a family member who pays my fee. Regardless, the primary client is the pregnant person. When there is conflict, such as with the choice of a birthplace, it is still important to listen to all sides. Opinions that are in opposition to the desires of the birthing person are still valid and must be met with compassion and understanding. The process by which families overcome conflict around birth ideally strengthens them for the challenges of childrearing that lie ahead.
Which brings me to the choice of “Birth Quest” as my business name. Pregnancy, birth and parenting are unpredictable events. They force us to challenge our deeply held beliefs, our concepts of who we are and our purpose in life. Good support helps us to emerge stronger, more convicted and well-prepared for the lifelong journey of parenting and beyond. We are the heroes and heroines of our own stories that become woven into the foundations of the families we are creating.
I came into birth work with a good deal of dogma. Growing as a doula has been the process of shedding that in exchange for an openness and sense of wonder. Yes, doulas impact outcomes. This is a fact supported by research. I try to keep good track of the outcomes in my practice to see where I can improve my services to better support the needs of clients. My role is not to control variables, though, but to provide information and support along the journey.
Healthy People 2020 (HP2020) is a national initiative through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) to improve the health of all Americans by creating targets for improving leading health indicators in a specified time frame. Increasing vaginal births after cesarean (VBAC) for low-risk women is one of those indicators.
There is no way to measure progress on these outcomes without data. Data is essential to any process to improve health. If we don’t know where we’re starting, we have no idea if our interventions are having the intended impact. For this reason, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) started collecting and sharing information by county on the percentage of women with a prior cesarean who have a repeat cesarean (to calculate the opposite, or percentage of women with a prior cesarean who did not have a repeat cesarean, subtract the percentage given from 100).
Not surprisingly, when compared to surrounding counties, Muskegon ranks last. In fact, in 2014, the most recent year for which data is available, only 16 women in Muskegon had a VBAC! This was not always the case. When women were encouraged to plan VBACs and deliver at local hospitals in 1999, this number was 83! VBAC bans make a difference.
Kent County leads West Michigan in the percentage of women having VBACS. When it comes to options, Kent County women can choose from three hospitals, Metro, Spectrum Health Butterworth and Mercy Health St. Mary’s. All of these hospitals allow VBACs.
Why does this matter? Why should women be concerned about their access to options for giving birth after a cesarean? The truth is that laboring and attempting a VBAC is less risky for most women than having major surgery. Family size also matters. The risks decrease with each successful VBAC and increase with each subsequent cesarean.
While many providers inform women of the risk of uterine rupture when attempting a VBAC, women are almost never informed of the risks of repeated cesarean surgeries. Every year in the month of October, the International Cesarean Awareness Network (ICAN) works to educate women about one of those risks: accreta. Accreta is a condition in which the placenta attaches too deeply into the uterine wall. According to their website, in the presence of placenta previa, the risk of accreta is 3% with the first repeat cesarean and increases to 67% for fifth or higher. Seven percent of women with placenta accreta will die from excess blood loss. Many women are encouraged to have a repeat cesarean without ever being informed of the risk of accreta. In fact, many women first learn about what accreta is when they are diagnosed with it!
When I speak with women in Muskegon about what influences their decision on how to birth after a cesarean, most tell me that the distance to travel to a hospital without a VBAC ban is just too far. They don’t want to travel for care or risk having a baby in their car. Some don’t have reliable transportation or gas money to make it to a hospital that allows VBAC. Most women want to give birth in their own community with the providers they know and trust. This is where their support system is and they don’t want to accept additional challenges by having a baby far from home.
One of the roles of doulas is educating the public on their options. If you are pregnant or planning a pregnancy after a prior cesarean, hiring a doula may be a first step in learning about your available options.
At Birth Quest, we’d like to hear from you! Are you a Muskegon woman who planned a VBAC? If you chose a repeat cesarean, what were the factors that influenced your decision? Your experiences may help another woman in a similar situation. Thanks for sharing!
Having a midwife attend your labor and birth increases the chance of having your baby naturally and without drugs!
In a prior blog, I wrote about how North Ottawa Community Hospital (NOCH) closed their midwifery practice in 2014. At that time, I contacted both federally qualified health centers (FQHCs) in Muskegon to ask them if they would be willing to have me interview them to help spread the word to expectant women in the area about their remaining options. Hackley Community Care (HCC) got back with me and we were able to videotape an interview with their collaborating physician, Dr. Danielle Koestner.
I have been at several births with the HCC midwives and have always been impressed by the way they respected and supported the wishes of my clients. The good relationship we had benefited our mutual clients because we were able to communicate concerns to better coordinate care.
When I learned that the HCC midwives were going to stop catching babies, my initial response was, “Not again!” Like others, I am still upset about losing the option of midwife-attended deliveries at NOCH. Still, I wanted to wait and find out more information. Earlier this week, I received the official letter from HCC, stating that the midwives were going to continue to provide pre- and post-natal care and that they were officially certified as a Centering Pregnancy site. Now, however, the obstetric laborist and residents at Mercy Health Hackley would be in charge of their pregnant patients’ labor and deliveries.
The laborist comes with a wealth of knowledge and experience. While many women include avoiding residents in their birth plans, I have found them to be on top of the latest research, open to patient preferences and supportive of evidence-based care. For some women, this will be an acceptable option. During their prenatal care, they will benefit from an evidence-based group prenatal care model, the individualized care characteristic of midwives and access to a host of other services offered on-site. However, for women specifically looking to benefit from the better outcomes research shows continuous care from a midwife during labor and delivery offers, this change will be unacceptable. The research shows that interventions are lower and outcomes improve when midwives provide care throughout the pregnancy, labor and delivery.
For women who seek a midwife to provide their prenatal care and attend their birth, Muskegon Family Care (MFC), Muskegon’s other FQHC with a midwifery program, recently hired new midwives and are now fully staffed. In July, I had the pleasure of meeting with one of them, Katie Van Heck, CNM, to discuss how to improve their services by increasing their patients’ access to doulas. I now have a couple of clients who are seeing the midwives there for care and I am excited to work more with this practice in the future!
If you live along the West Michigan lakeshore and you wish to deliver in a hospital, with a Certified Nurse Midwife (CNM), the only midwives who can practice in Michigan hospitals at this time, these are some of your remaining options:
- Muskegon Family Care – With three midwives on staff, this practice is located in a federally qualified health center in Muskegon Heights. This means they primarily serve low-income people, but they can serve anyone.
- Midwifery Services at Advanced Women’s Ob/Gyn – If Muskegon-area women are willing to travel to Spectrum Health Butterworth in Grand Rapids to deliver, this private midwifery practice has an 6% c-section rate, which speaks for itself.
What will be the next news for midwifery options along the lakeshore? Hopefully, something positive, like a new private practice or free-standing birth center opening up!
Did you have your baby with a midwife in a hospital? Please share your experiences in the comments!
Sandall, Jane, et al. “Midwife‐led continuity models versus other models of care for childbearing women.” The Cochrane Library (2016).