By Susan Woodhouse
Joyful birth, ecstatic birth, and erotic, orgasmic birth… these are some terms which you may come across as you prepare for the arrival of your baby. But orgasmic birth? What? When I mentioned to a couple of my friends that I was writing this piece, they responded with curiosity and disbelief. Birth is painful not pleasurable, they said. Isn’t it? Most of us have been imprinted with images of birth as a medical emergency, and with notions that birth can only be a painful, exhausting, dreadful ordeal. So the idea that a woman may find labour pleasurable, and that she may even find it so sexually powerful as to experience an orgasm, is….well, almost unbelievable! It turns out, though, that this may be what some are calling one of the best kept secrets of womanhood.
Truth is we are, each and every one of us birthing women, flooded with hormones that are the body’s natural birthing enhancers. Hormones are the movers and shakers of all human development, in fact, and during sex, during pregnancy, during labour and birth, during breastfeeding, we get extra shares to help us accomplish the jobs we need to do. We’ve become accustomed, through images from the media, to thinking of birth as an impending disaster. But those fictionalized versions, where labour goes from zero to sixty in just one mighty contraction, are just that – fiction! The effects of cultural views of birth and of media imprinting with over-dramatized birth depictions are profound, and have led to a cultural inferiority complex and widespread disbelief in and detachment from the innate abilities of our bodies to create, sustain and birth a new life. Think about it. If we were not meant to be reproducing creatures, we would not have the ability to conceive in the first place and we certainly couldn’t grow a baby, a complex organism, if our bodies didn’t already know how to do so. Imagine if you had to be conscious of the progress of fetal development. What would happen if you were responsible for designing your baby’s digestive or nervous system? What if you were really busy at work on the day you were supposed to grow hair, or develop fingers and toes? Luckily, we don’t need to think about managing all the complexities of human development. And thanks to the era we live in, we have lots of information available to us about how to support our bodies in this process, for example through good nutrition, exercise.
We’re lucky indeed that we don’t have to direct labour and birth either. Labour (most of the time) starts when it’s supposed to, when your body and your baby are ready, and the intricate dance of birth is choreographed for you. All you need to do to figure out the steps is let the music overtake you. Just as we know how to support a baby’s development through good prenatal care, we know lots about how to enhance the circumstances for your body to birth that baby. Sheila Kitzinger, childbirth educator, talks of making conditions in which a woman gives birth as close to possible to the ideal conditions for lovemaking – how the baby got in is how the baby will get out! So, in other words, a safe and secure environment where a woman feels no tension or fear, a private setting where intimacy allows for freedom of expression and movement – the freedom to follow her instincts – where the birthing mother can, as much as is possible, labour unobserved and undisturbed. This is the environment which allows full use of the natural resources mother nature has given us, our hormones. Dr. Sarah J. Buckley, a family physician, mother of 4 and birth activist, refers to these hormones as the “blueprint of life”. In an internet article titled “Ecstatic birth-nature’s hormonal blueprint for labour” she clearly and simply outlines the effects of hormones on a woman’s body during pregnancy and birth. [www.sarahjbuckley.com/articles/ecstatic-birth.htm] She also describes how disruptions and interferences have the effect of disturbing the birth process and reducing the body’s ability to utilize the blueprint. Here’s a brief description of the hormones you’ve got working for you during labour:
The “fight-or-flight” hormones: during the first stage of labour, if a woman is feeling anxious or afraid, these hormones can slow labour. They are nature’s mechanism for preventing birth from occurring if danger is present. At the end of undisturbed labour, however, they provide the labouring mother with a burst of energy and alertness, and cause several very powerful contractions to birth the baby.
Nature’s opiate, which contributes to a feeling of pleasure and euphoria. Another stress hormone, it appears in higher quantities in our body when we encounter situations of physical duress and pain, and it acts as a natural pain killer. During undisturbed labour, beta-endorphin contributes to a shift in consciousness similar to the “runner’s high” we know about. Beta endorphin also helps the production of prolactin.
Also called the “mothering hormone”, is the main hormone of breastmilk production. It helps us feel nurturing toward our baby.
Last on this list but by no means least, this stuff is the true “Big O”, the hormone of love. Oxytocin is present during lovemaking, orgasm, during labour, and breastfeeding – it’s even appears in higher quantities in our bodies when we share a meal with good company. It contributes to mood elevation and alleviates depression. During the final stages of labour, as the baby’s head puts pressure on stretch receptors in the vagina, oxytocin levels peak. It helps the uterus contract to push the baby out, and then to separate and birth the placenta. Both mother and baby have higher levels of oxytocin in the period immediately following birth, helping them bond.
Nature has provided us with this impressive arsenal of substances to assist us in the birth of our babies, without us even having to think about it. What if you augmented them with some lovemaking, too? Ina May Gaskin, a midwife with over 40 years and 1,000 births in her experience, talks about how the vagina is enlarged during sexual activity and foreplay, and also during birth. She says lovemaking activities during labour can enhance a woman’s feelings of pleasure, enhance her body’s natural hormone production, and facilitate her entering a state of primal awareness. These are the same hormones swirling around during sex, remember, so you can imagine how they would be enhanced during labour with some kissing, cuddling, stroking, making love (semen is high in prostaglandins, a substance which helps soften the cervix), nipple and/or clitoral stimulation.
There’s no recipe for the ideal labour, however, nor is there a fool-proof plan for achieving an orgasm during labour! The idea of joyful gestational diabetes. birth, or ecstatic, erotic, orgasmic birth as some will call it, is that we are graced with the natural means of accomplishing the task of birth, and we can complement our bodies’ natural abilities by allowing ourselves to consider a shift in our perspective and attitude toward birth; not necessarily pain free – but the perception of pain is shifted. Women will talk about the power they feel, of the pleasure they feel through and in spite of the pain, and there are some women who don’t describe their contractions as painful at all. They are experiencing an altered state, brought on by the bath of nature’s helpful hormones, in which their bodies are alive to the power of birth. Words of wisdom from Dr. Buckley: “Perhaps the best we can do is trust our instincts and vote with our birthing bodies, choosing models of care that increase our chances of undisturbed – and ecstatic – birthing.”
Susan Woodhouse, mother of two and former Childbearing instructor, lives on Vancouver Island where she now earns a living driving a taxi. She hopes one day to add “caught baby in backseat of cab” to her repertoire of interesting tales.