You are what you think

April 23, 2011 at 5:15 am

Another one from the archive, an August 2009 post:

I was sitting at the table eating dinner the other day, and my baby boy started acting like he was ready to nurse. I started thinking about taking him over to the couch to meet his request, and BOOM my milk let-down. I’d wager most nursing moms have experienced this chain of events hundreds of times.

That experience got me thinking. All I have to do is think about nursing my baby and my body responds within seconds. The salivation reflex is similar. You start thinking about something delicious and BAM… your mouth is ready for it with a gush of saliva.

And that got me thinking about how interconnected our thoughts and our biological processes are. Our thoughts can create almost instantaneous physical reactions! How amazing is that?! And how frightening too. It all depends on what you are thinking about.

So let’s take this concept into the realm of birth. How can our thoughts affect the birth process? Michel Odent was the first to apply the phrase “fetal ejection reflex” to human birth. Odent has observed that when childbirth is undisturbed, delivery is an involuntary, reflexive process occurring extremely quickly and effortlessly. In order for this reflexive process to occur, a woman must be in a certain type of environment. A California College of Midwives bulletin explains:

For many mothers her need to be undisturbed is balanced by an equally powerful need to be in the “right” place and have family members of great psychological importance, as well as the doctor or midwife present, before she can “permit”, at least at a subconscious level, that dynamic labor process to unfold. For those who prefer hospital care, these mothers must have arrived at the hospital before the Maternal-FER [Maternal-fetal ejection reflex] can complete itself (source).

Being at a hospital (or an interventive home birth) can also produce the opposite effect–essentially shutting-down this reflexive process:

One theory explaining M-FER is the role of primitive brain in facilitating the spontaneous processes of labor and birth. This theory also identifies as negative the influence of the neo-cortex . . . and a host of institutionally-originating disruptions such as bright lights, loud noises, coming and going or milling about of unfamiliar people, unnatural, anti-gravitational positions and frequent disruptions provided by invasive procedures such as vaginal exams, catherizations, fussing with EFM belts, etc. The “intensive care” nature of intrapartum nursing in hospitals means most women experiencing the exact opposite of “secure and unobserved” – all these nursing and medical ministrations and application of technology signal the potential for problems. They worry about themselves and their baby and feel very much like a bug under a microscope (source).

Where we are, who is with us, what they are doing, what we are thinking (or not thinking) about… all of these things have an impact on the birth process.

I saw this truth first-hand with my 2nd and 3rd births. My second daughter’s posterior on-again-off-again labor didn’t kick into gear until I finally said, “This has to be the real thing. We’re going to the hospital!” And she was born (still posterior) within 3 hours of that thought. As I labored with my son, I am certain that my thoughts and psychological state slowed the process until my midwives had arrived and my husband was finished putting my daughters to bed. Once all the essential players were present, I surrendered to my body. My son was born less than 2 hours later. Though I wouldn’t describe either of these births as fetal-ejection-reflex experiences, they did demonstrate the profound power of our thoughts and emotions as we give birth. (I hope to experience the true fetal-ejection reflex someday!)

It makes me all the more wishful that we could guard all women from negative influences or comments in their labors. A friend told me this week that she had planned and hoped for a drug-free birth with her first daughter, but her nurse told her, “Honey, you can’t do it.” Imagine what kind of thoughts that negative statement produced in her! Of course she got an epidural. (And chronic back pain at the epidural site to go with it… still bothering her over two years later. Fortunately she was able to have her son without drugs and had a vastly better experience.) Women in labor internalize what they hear. What might be a simple statement can have a huge impact on her thoughts and thus her body.

I’m looking forward to exploring this topic further. What do you think about when you’re in labor and giving birth? Do you think it affects the process? I’d love to hear your experiences.