The top two books on my natural childbirth reading list are Ina May’s Guild to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin and The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Better Birth by Henci Goer. These two books provide a tremendous amount of information about the “medical model” of childbirth versus the natural childbirth model. The Guide to Better Birth explains in detail the pros and cons of the medical model of childbirth, delves into which routine medical interventions are dangerous and why, why interventions can cause harm to a normal healthy labor, and why natural birth and even home birth can be the safest option for a healthy woman.
The book also provides easy-to-understand appendices and charts in the back so that you can get a good picture of the differences between childbirth models and the risks and benefits of each. The Guide to Better Birth was the first “real” natural birth book I read, and it gave me a great jumpstart into the world of natural childbirth.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth is a similar book, although the focus is more on the benefit of natural birth and how to achieve it. Ina May Gaskin and her midwifery center in Tennessee have handled thousands of births and have an incredibly low intervention rate (a Cesarean section rate of about 2%). Ina May even has a maneuver named after her: The Gaskin Maneuver is now being taught and used to help “unstick” a baby who’s become wedged in the birth canal, sans forceps or vacuum. The midwifery center at the Farm assists women to have natural births even with risks that many hospitals won’t consider for anything but c-section; previous Cesarean, twins, and breeches of several types, to name a few.
The first part of the book is taken up with birth stories and lovely mother-and-baby photographs, all of which are heart-warming and encouraging. One birth story in particular is interesting because the couple involved were both trained obstetricians at the time of their child’s birth. The mother (who wrote the birth story) explained how her training had taught her to fear birth and how much she appreciated the opportunity to experience a normal, natural, good experience with birthing at the beginning of her career. She says that the “M.D.” at the end of her name now stands for “Midwife in Disguise”.
The second half of the book is all information about childbirth. The guide explains how the Farm birthing center managed to achieve such a wonderfully low intervention and c-section rate (and why hospitals have such dreadfully high intervention rates), what’s normal for birth, what your body is doing during labor and birth, how your attitudes and fears affect birth and how the attitudes of those around you affect your labor, common reasons for stalled labors, what birth pain means and why masking it isn’t necessarily good for moms or babies, what naturally relieves birth pain, and how even “high risk” presentations (like breech or brow presentation) can be delivered naturally with the right techniques and the right attitudes. There are quite a few nude and graphic birth pictures, so be forewarned, but in the context of the book and it’s intent, I found nothing offensive about them (and I tend to be viewed as “puritanical” when it comes to modesty).
Birth (The Surprising History of How we are Born) by Tina Cassidy is simply a wonderful analysis of childbirth practices and problems through the ages, beginning with birth in the natural world (other primates, for instance) and ending with the modern tension between medical and natural childbirth. Organized according to topic first, and then history, Birth gives a great overview of the whole subject. Although Ms. Cassidy does a great job of maintaining objectivity, she does explore very honestly the historical misuse of medical interventions in birth and the problems attendant with such misuse as well as modern over-management of normal births.
Birth discusses the importance of pelvic size and shape being in harmony with the baby’s size and presentation, which is a chapter I found very interesting. A mismatch of pelvic size and fetal size is an increasingly common reason given for modern-day Cesarean sections, although I’m not inclined to believe that it’s a valid reason most of the time (see the two Guide‘s discussed above for why). However, at certain periods in history, either fashion or malnutrition, or both, did cause genuine mismatches and contribute to many maternal problems and infant deaths. Corsets and the disease called rickets were the two major culprits in more recent history, and probably played a big part in the cultural idea of birth being a matter of terror and death, rather than a normal, healthy event in a woman’s life.
The rest of the book is similarly in-depth and interesting. Birth delves into the two professions of midwifery and obstetrics and their long-time and sometimes vicious battles for clientele (most of the viciousness coming unfortunately from the medical side of things). Also discussed are places of birth, from home to hospital, and tools of the trade. It is quite intriguing to read about the invention and early use of forceps and other tools and methods of birth intervention. Many of the earliest of these were rather gruesome in nature, however. Early maternity hospitals were also less than wonderful, being hothouses of iatrogenic (doctor-caused) disease due to lack of hygiene. Modern medicine has at least cleaned up and sterilized birth intervention, including Cesarean section.
The first Western recorded c-section was performed by a European pig gelder on his wife, after many days and 13 midwives failed to produce the child. Interestingly, the pig gelders wife went on to naturally birth several more healthy children in the years after-the first Cesarean and the first VBAC, all in one woman. Reading that story, one must wonder, if a woman cut and sewn up by a husband with no medical training could successfully birth children vaginally afterwards, what exactly is the reason that many modern hospitals refuse to allow women to attempt VBAC given that we are so much more advanced, have better medical technology and a supposedly better understanding of birth? Towards the end, Birth discusses modern birth practices, the debate about natural birthing versus medically managed birth, the “natural birth movement”, the trend of using birth coaches and doulas, the place of fathers at birth in different cultures and eras of time. Birth is simply a great, unbiased overview of the subject.
Finally, for those who fear birth or have suffered a traumatic birth in the past, I highly recommend the book Birthing From Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz. Birthing From Within, written by a midwife and a psychologist, focuses on ways to help women use their built in mental and physical resources in order to achieve healthy, empowering birth experiences. Full of beautiful birth art, photographs, and many women’s own pictorial depictions of their birth experiences, this book helps the reader to make the connection between mind and body in birth, as well as to explain in depth the physiology of birth, the potential problems with birth, why many women suffer during birth, and finally how to integrate parenthood into the rest of life.
The book is divided into seven sections: Beginning Your Journey (mental preparation for birth), The Art of Birthing (birth art), Preparing Your Birth Place, Being Powerful in Birth, Fathers and Birth Companions, Birthing Through Pain, and Gestating Parenthood. Each section is then divided into further chapters with more specific subjects. Although it is full of psychology-talk, which may not be to the taste of some, Birthing From Within is still a very worthwhile read, especially in preparation for birth, or for healing from past birthing trauma.
I consider all four of these books to be essential preparation for natural chilbirth and recommend them to every expecting mother I know. The education I recieved from these books helped me to prepare for and have an empowering birth experience with my last child, and have renewed my fervor for natural birth as I prepare for the arrival of my third child in a few months.