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How our birth culture undermines your birthing potential

Bridget Wood


By Rhea Dempsey

So you’re a healthy pregnant woman. You want a normal birth.

You want to listen to your sweet baby’s promptings; you want to work with your birthing instincts—opening, breathing, releasing, stamping, rocking, singing out the ‘song of the cervix’ and passionately releasing the ‘birth yell’ as your baby emerges into your arms.

Brilliant—you are what I call a ‘willing woman’.

If this is your intention then you need to be incredibly savvy about your birth choices because, based on present birth stats[i] this is not what the system has on offer for you.

Birth statistics
The category closest to an approximation of normal birth is documented under ‘non-instrumental vaginal birth’ (mmm … not particularly inspiring).

Just to unpack that...the vaginal birth rate is only 67%, with 82% of that 67% making up the non-instrumental vaginal birth rate. Don’t get your hopes up though cause the births documented as non-instrumental vaginal births can include all manner of synthetic hormone disruptions (induction 28%, augmentation 19%, managed third stage 95-99%); episiotomy, routine antibiotics, artificial rupture of membranes, continuous monitoring and other restrictions to free movement and all manner of medical pain relief (77% all labours, 87% first births).

In the stats, normal physiological birth doesn’t get a look in, so I try to tease it out by adding together birth centre births (2%), home births (0.3%) and (BBA) born before arrival babies (babies planned to be birthed in hospital but born on the nature strip or back seat of the car) (0.3%).

So about 3%, that’s your target. Whatever the birth culture is offering it’s not working very well for normal birth. 

We actually know a lot about what does encourage normal physiological birth and there are some small pockets in the system that do offer best practice in this regard – but you need to be very savvy in your choices to access them (my book maps this more extensively)  

Research suggests that for normal physiological birth, you will best be supported by ‘known’ midwives in continuity of care programs; you will be encouraged to ‘work with pain’ and you will birth in a birth space that facilitates the hormonal surges necessary for normal birth.

Birth Territory
‘Birth territory’[ii] encompasses the actual birth space but also the people and issues of power and control within the space, all of which affect how birthing women feel and respond. They either feel safe and loved or fearful and self-protective. When it comes to the hormones it all boils down to Love or Fear.

Is the place where you are considering birthing either a ‘sanctum’ or a ‘surveillance room’? A sanctum birth space is a homely environment designed to optimize the privacy, ease and comfort of the birthing woman, whilst a surveillance birth space is a clinical environment designed to facilitate surveillance of the woman and to optimize the ease and comfort of the staff.

Will your birth space be a woman-centered space where you hold the power and autonomy to follow your birthing instincts, where no one disturbs your flow, or seeks to have you comply with routines based on worst case scenarios or in order to assist administrative convenience?

Will your birth space be warm, familiar, undisturbed, with low lighting and access to water; will it offer space for an active birth circuit and freedom of movement; will you be surrounded by caregivers and loved ones who can encourage you on into your strength, and when you come up against a pain panic or ‘crisis of confidence’[iii], not get caught in a ‘sympathy loop’ and want to save you from the intensity?

I know a sanctum birth space sounds a lot like your home doesn’t it? A place familiar, warm, safe, with people you’ve invited, all there to honour your power and your delicious bond with your sweet babe.

Is that what you’re getting in the place where you’re planning to give birth?

If not, then this will impact your birthing potential. So maybe like Anna[iv] you might need to make some changes.

 Hi Rhea,

I wanted to personally thank you for converting my husband. We attended one of your workshops. I was strongly pro-homebirth but my husband was not so sure about it, he stated that I had ‘hospital paranoia’ and that I needed to get over it. Right!

After your class, my husband had an “ahaaaaa” moment and stated that the hospital system in Australia was, quoting, “bullshit” and that I should birth at home.

Why didn’t he listen to ME in the first place, ey?
Anyway, I applied for the publicly funded homebirth program.
And we did it

Our son was born safely and peacefully at home. 

Plus, I totally rocked that birth!  It was soooooo worth it. And all that baby smell yum yum.

So when it comes to birth ‘Home Sweet Home’ is more than a sweet embroidery homily, it’s a precious love-bomb gift for you and your baby.


i.               Australia’s Mothers and Babies 2013

ii.             ‘Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship’ – Fahy et al 2007

iii.            ‘Birth with Confidence’ – Dempsey, R. 2013

iv.            Private correspondence to Rhea Dempsey

Rhea Dempsey is a mother of three adult daughters and now three delightful grandchildren. She is a counsellor, independent childbirth educator, trainer and author, with 39 years experience working with women and families before, during and after birth. 

Rhea is a highly respected and sought after presenter at conferences, seminars and workshops on birth and counselling issues, with a special interest is in exploring the psychosocial factors that affect birth experiences. Rhea has a private practice—Birthing Wisdom—running an extensive schedule of classes for couples and groups as well as training and development for midwives and birth attendants.

Rhea’s book Birth with Confidence: savvy choices for normal birth is available online

BE PART OF THE CONVERSATION and join us in Melbourne on Wednesday 7 December for 'Why Not Home?