Having had experience in both birth trauma and babywearing, I’m keen to share with you how babywearing can support the healing of parents and babies after an experience of birth trauma.
Our first child was born at home. Six hours of active labour, continuous progress and no sign of heart rate abnormalities. I was in the pool when I felt the first pushing contraction. My midwife asked me to feel for the baby’s head at which point I felt a loop of the umbilical cord hanging out of me. Knowing this was life threatening to our baby my partner called an ambulance. Being fully dilated it didn’t take long to realise that the quickest way to provide air for my baby was to push him out. This took 12 mins of pushing regardless of contractions, a lot of yelling and an episiotomy without anaesthetic at my demand! We know this because it was all caught on camera. Our baby was blue and limp and attempting to breathe. We transferred to hospital where he wasn’t allowed to even attempt to breathe unassisted for another 10 hours. I wasn’t allowed to breastfeed him during this time either.
For parents who experience traumatic birth some go on to experience Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Between my partner and I we had nightmares, panic attacks, flash backs, difficulty sleeping (though don’t all new parents!), angry outbursts and a disconnected feeling. For us it wasn’t all the time and it wasn’t prolonged, but it can be and PTSD can contribute to Post Natal Depression. Birth trauma can also come from a mother’s psychological experience of birth as disempowering. A forceps delivery, caesarean or even a hospital birth when hearts were set on a homebirth can cause psychological trauma.
A baby can also experience birth trauma. This is often talked about as a physical thing – damage to the head, spinal cord, nervous system, lungs through aspiration of meconium etc. I’m sure my son struggled psychologically from over 30 mins of struggling to breathe and being in an incubator before being transferred onto his dad’s chest. Babies who experience birth trauma may have few symptoms. There are many ways to support your baby post birth trauma. One simple way is to hold them close.
Skin-to-skin contact or Kangaroo Care (KC) has many benefits for both parents and baby. Kangaroo Care was developed in Colombia in the 70’s to combat the high infant mortality rate in low birth weight babies, particularly premature babies. It also helped decrease the rates of abandonment. Some (often extremely poor) mothers felt so disconnected from their babies after having them removed from them for specialist care, they simply left the hospital without returning for their baby. KC involves constant skin-to-skin contact with the baby wearing only a nappy, lying in the froggy position, full front torso against their mothers bare upper chest and neck. The baby is secured firmly in this position with a blanket or ideally a stretchy wrap that spreads around the parent’s bare torso and is wrapped and tied to hold the baby securely so there is no risk of baby falling. IV lines can be fed around the wrap. Stronger babies may be draped in a blanket and supported to find the breast when they wish. Initially mum is the best person to practice KC as the physical connection between mother and baby is important in establishing the breastfeeding relationship. KC can happen intermittently or constantly. Research shows Kangaroo Care models that support more continuous and prolonged skin-to-skin contact provide better outcomes for families regardless of the availability of high tech equipment. (Hedberg Nyqvist, K. et al. 2010).
Benefits of skin-to-skin contact for the baby are huge. When we feel unsafe our ‘flight/fight’ sympathetic nervous system kicks in, creating stress and putting all unnecessary energy outputs on hold until we feel safe again. For a baby their innate safe place is their mother. She provides a familiar voice, smell and food needed for survival. When in skin-to-skin contact with a parent (not necessarily the mother when food is not needed) a baby regulates their temperature, breathing, and heart rate to their parent. Their cortisol (stress hormone) levels drop. The parent’s salivary cortisol levels also decrease. Babies held in skin-to-skin contact during painful procedures were found to have a decreased pain response. There have also been observations of improved sleep patterns, improved brain maturation and benefits for brain development.
A healthy, full term infant’s brain is still only 25% of the adult size it will become. All babies benefit from being “In the safe and ideal environment of the mother, the “physiological set points” are efficient and economical, and allow maximum use of energy to be directed towards growth.” Providing skin-to-skin contact for babies who have experienced damage through birth trauma, offers the conditions necessary for the parasympathetic nervous system to provide rest, and growth through feeding and digestion. Put another way, instead of burning calories to keep them warm a baby held skin-to-skin can use these calories for growth.
“When a baby is touched with warmth and care, the brain is flooded with hormones. These enable the child to form the brain connections he or she will need to develop feelings of warmth, love and empathy towards others.” (Brainwave Trust Aotearoa).
Of these hormones oxytocin or the ‘love hormone’ is beneficial for both baby and parents. Skin-to-skin contact through babywearing provides oxytocin to parent and baby, closeness for eye contact providing more oxytocin, and confidence for parents in providing the “…intimate care that can improve baby’s health and wellbeing.” (March of Dimes). Mothers who practice skin-to-skin experience greater breastfeeding success as their babies have easier access to the breast, their cues are picked up on quicker, and the oxytocin itself stimulates milk production. Breastfeeding success builds the confidence of a new mother.
Fathers experience closer and quicker bonding through skin-to-skin contact and ongoing babywearing. Babywearing provides fathers with a tool to easily get their baby to sleep. In my experience it allowed me to have a break. I could easily relax knowing that my baby was content and secure, firmly strapped to my partner. Many fathers have found babywearing empowering, fulfilling an innate need for their baby when only mum can provide the essential need for food.
Babywearing allowed me to exercise in environments that I love – off road, often in the bush, places where pushing a pram would not have been practical. Exercise releases chemicals that positively affect mental health, “…exercise, particularly mind-body and low-intensity aerobic exercise, has been shown to have a positive impact on the symptoms of depression and PTSD [Post traumatic stress disorder].” Of course parents can exercise while pushing a pram, too. Wearing your baby can provide the double dose of oxytocin release from close contact (ideally some skin-to-skin) and endorphins released during exercise.
Kangaroo Care, skin-to-skin and ongoing babywearing are beneficial to the whole family. Feldman and Weller, et al (2003) found that “Following KC, mothers and fathers were more sensitive and less intrusive, infants showed less negative affect, and family style was more cohesive.”
For the birth trauma my family experienced and the subsequent level of post-traumatic stress, skin-to-skin and continued babywearing was incredibly positive and helpful.
NB: The physical and psychological trauma that families may experience during and after the birth of their baby is very individual. Skin-to-skin, KC and continued babywearing are not a complete treatment for birth trauma. Professional help should be sought for cases of post traumatic stress and postnatal depression.
Anna Hughes is an energetic contributor and luminary in the babywearing and natural parenting world. Her approach of being an advocate for conscious parenting, and providing a community to support other parents in their journey has been invaluable. Anna has written about and presented on babywearing for many years and is a key contributor to the babywearing community in Aotearoa. Her knowledge and wisdom has shaped our approach to healthy and acheivable babywearing. Anna Hughes is also a huge supporter of Home Birth and birthed both boys at home with hypnobirthing. Anna and her husband Wayne of Pizzini Productions have created this video to bring babywearing to the wider community. This is a huge body of work which represents hours of mahi and research.
We’re giving away a copy of Anna Hughes DVD ‘Wearing Your Baby’ to readers of this magazine. Write a letter to the editor with your thoughts and you could win a copy of your very own. Letters to firstname.lastname@example.org.