Have you heard of a "natural birth"?
The term is being explored in an Instagram video by LOOM, a sexual and reproductive health educational platform co-founded by retired doula Erica Chidi. She says the “natural birth” wording can put shame and stress on women by making them feel that an unmedicated vaginal birth is the only legitimate way to have a baby.
“I personally don’t believe in the term ‘natural birth,’” Chidi, the author of "Nurture: A Modern Guide to Pregnancy, Birth, Early Motherhood ― and Trusting Yourself and Your Body" says in the video. “I think that it’s more important for us to use the actual language to describe the contents of our experience.”
“If you are having a birth that is not using any medications or interventions, then your birth is un-medicated,” explains Chidi, the co-founder and CEO of LOOM. “And ‘unmedicated’ is a term that describes what actually is happening. The term ‘natural birth’ doesn’t really give us a lot of details. It’s 'natural' for you to be pregnant. It’s 'natural' for you to birth a baby. It’s not unnatural for you to use support — whether that’s pain medication or otherwise to manage the discomfort of your labor.”
Chidi captioned the video, which has more than 5,000 likes, with these words: “Specific, fact-based language protects against shame. It’s also more accurate.”
The term “natural birth” surfaced in 1993 when British obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read wrote a book by the same name suggesting that childbirth wasn’t inherently painful and that medication should be avoided. In modern medicine, though, the phrase doesn’t mean much to doctors and nurses.
“There isn’t a formal medical definition for ‘natural birth,’ as most medical providers perceive the process of labor and delivery as a natural process,” Dr. Yvonne Butler Tobah, an OB-GYN at the Mayo Clinic, told TODAY Parents. She added that, generally speaking, when people use the term “natural birth,” they're referring to a full-term patient (37 to 42 weeks) spontaneously laboring and using relaxation and breathing techniques to manage pain.
However, intervention can be the smartest decision for some patients, Tobah said.
“The gold standard for delivery of a birthing person with placenta previa (when the placenta partially or totally covers the cervix) is a cesarean delivery,” Tobah pointed out. “If a vaginal delivery is attempted in a patient with placenta previa, she and the baby will have life-threatening hemorrhaging and other severe complications.”
Pairing the word “natural” with vaginal births can also gaslight people and deprive them of language to own their birthing experiences, Chidi told TODAY Parents, adding, “Today, we’re still in a system where women feel like they have to have an unmedicated vaginal birth to have a good experience.”
For example, a 2018 study published in the journal Birth reported more than 15% of women who had an unplanned C-section “felt like a failure” and 24% felt “sad” about it. Those emotions came through in a 2019 Instagram post by former Olympian Shawn Johnson East, who said she felt “guilty” about her epidural and C-section. In 2017, Kate Hudson took heat for calling her elective C-section a “lazy” decision.
Chidi described such self-scrutiny as groundless. She noted that it is hyper-focused on a sliver of parenthood and it strips the birthing environment of informed consent and mental health considerations.
“Pregnancy is intense — why do we trivialize and tokenize how birth happens?” she said. "Why do we create frameworks of achievements and excellence inside such a unique experience?”