The running joke in my family is that I asked for an epidural before I was even inside the hospital to give birth to my first child. I may have requested it a little early, but I’d never considered the idea that I wouldn’t have one: All my close friends and family delivered their babies in hospitals, with medication—usually surrounded by doctors, nurses, and beeping machines—so I never questioned it.
For other moms, it’s a different story. Many parents are refusing to accept the hospital-birth-with-drugs option as their only choice, instead forging their own paths. Although most babies are born in hospitals (the most recent statistic puts the number at 99 percent) and the majority of these births involve medical interventions, including labor-inducing drugs, epidurals, and C-sections, statistics show there’s a rising interest in alternative birth methods.
Why go your own route? The decision is different for every mom: Some women see their bodies as perfectly equipped to deliver a baby unassisted, and others believe hospitals are too quick to intervene medically. So they start researching other options, often finding a whole new world of possibilities. Every birth story is as individual as the baby who arrives. But the moms who shared these stories chose to buck convention—and give birth their way.
For Corey Colwell-Lipson, a Seattle mother of two, giving birth at home was such a natural decision that she made it twice: for her first child, Zoe, 8, and her second, Finely, 5. “Home was where I felt safest and most empowered,” Colwell-Lipson says. “And I knew my body could give birth without medical interference.”
Colwell-Lipson hired midwives to coach her through her births and handle any emergencies (and just in case, the hospital was 15 minutes away). On a Friday morning in mid-January 2001, she went into labor with Zoe, but that evening, everything—the contractions, the dilating—just stopped. They started again the next morning, and Zoe was born at 4 p.m. that afternoon. The same thing happened four years later during Finely’s birth: Labor started around 1 a.m. on a Friday in August, but soon stalled for about eight hours. Finally, after 16 hours of labor, she gave birth to her baby boy.
Had she been in a hospital, Colwell-Lipson believes doctors would have intervened during these stalled periods. “I would’ve been given Pitocin,” she says. “But the problem with Pitocin is that it’s an unnatural way to speed up labor, so your contractions hurt even more. So next what do women want? An epidural. Then sometimes with the epidural you can’t push as effectively, which may lead to a C-section. It’s a cascading effect.”
In lieu of medication, Colwell-Lipson found other ways to manage the pain. “I focused on my baby and what she was going through,” she says. And even though it hurt, she says she’d do it all again. “To start off motherhood thinking, ‘Look what I can do and how much I can take!’, it’s a gift. There are times down the road when you feel like you’ve had more than you can take, but you remember your birth and you think, ‘Oh, I am strong. I can do this.’ ”
Home birth: The basics
Although the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and the American Medical Association both oppose home births, studies have shown that for women with low-risk pregnancies, home births with registered midwives are as safe as hospital births. Certified Nurse Midwives (CNMs) are trained medical professionals who often have hospital privileges, so if the birth has to be transferred to a hospital (which happens about 12 percent of the time), they can provide care there. Before giving birth at home, women should preregister at the nearest hospital and rehearse the fastest route in case of an emergency.
Laura Berg, a mother of two from Toronto, Canada, gave birth to her first child in a hospital surrounded by a web of tubes and monitors. “I had an epidural, a urinary catheter, IVs, constant blood pressure monitoring, fetal monitoring, and who knows what else,” Berg says. The birth went smoothly, but all the medical interventions left her feeling confined and uncomfortable—both physically and emotionally.
For her second child, Berg went a different route. She surrounded herself with water—a birth pool—instead of tubes and wires. And to create the experience she wanted, she chose to give birth at home. “Birth is a natural thing, it’s not a medical thing, and I knew I’d be less stressed in the comfort of my own home,” she says. It was around 3:30 p.m. on August 3, 2009, that Berg went into labor. Her husband set up the birth pool (they had rented one locally) in the living room, filling it with warm water from a hose attached to the kitchen tap. Her midwife arrived, and after seven hours of contractions, suggested Berg get in the pool. “It was heaven,” Berg says. “I was having really bad contractions, but once I got in, it was all manageable.”
She’d planned to get out of the pool before delivering (it didn’t feel natural to her to give birth in water), but her contractions were so close together and she was so comfortable in the pool that she ended up delivering baby Hartford there. “The midwife delivered the head and shoulders, then my husband was able to bring my son out into the world. My husband was kneeling beside the pool, holding our son in the water, with this look of ‘I can’t believe I just did that’ on his face.” After having her first child in the hospital and her second at home in a birthing pool, Berg says there’s no comparison. “It really was the romantic version of what birth should be.”
Water birth: The basics
Water births are reported to ease labor pain, provide greater mobility for the mother (since they’re able to float in the water), and reduce anxiety by alleviating stress hormones. What’s more, because babies spend nine months in fluid, some people believe the warm water makes a less traumatic transition into the world. Water births, which are an option at some hospitals, can be especially helpful for women with lower back pain. Some risks include the possibility of breathing in water for both the mom and baby, infections, and difficulty controlling the mother’s blood loss.
Robin Magrisi, now a mother of three in Norfolk, Virginia, didn’t go into her first pregnancy looking for alternatives to a medicated hospital birth. But in her first trimester, she read an article about hypnobirth and how it could help manage labor pains naturally. Magrisi was intrigued—could she control the pain? She decided to find out.
She started hypnosis training about halfway through her pregnancy, attending class for about six weeks. During class, she practiced silently coaching herself to a variety of “scripts,” processes used to achieve a trancelike state. Different scripts work for different people: Some think of colorful clouds, imagining the colors of their auras; others do head-to-toe relaxation, in which they relax their forehead, temples, cheekbones, and so on. Magrisi tried both of those, as well as others, but in the end what worked was imagining herself on a beach and thinking of the “surges” (what her classes taught her to call contractions) as waves that would wash over her, then subside.
“Of course, I didn’t really know if it was going to work until the labor actually began,” Magrisi says. At 1 a.m. on a Thursday in December 2001, she put her work to the test. Once she was at the hospital, in bed, with her husband, mother, best friend, and obstetrician by her side, she recited the script in her head and fell into her hypnosis zone. “It feels like slow motion, very quiet, but you’re still awake and present. Everything in the background was just blurred,” she says.
So—did it hurt? “It wasn’t pain-free, but that isn’t the goal,” Magrisi says. “Hypnosis enables you to turn all of that negative fear into positive energy, letting your whole body focus on birthing your baby.” She was so able to relax, she actually dozed off between some of her contractions.
Her first labor lasted a total of 16 hours, and it went so well she gave birth to her second child using hypnosis again (her third baby was breech and had to be delivered via Cesarean section). She was the first patient of her obstetrician’s who used hypnosis, and the doctor now recommends the practice to other patients. “It was amazing to see my kids for the first time,” Magrisi says. “To think that I made this baby, and I carried him around, and I pushed him and, and here he is and he’s purple and pink and perfect.”
Hypnobirthing: The basics
Hypnobirthing is based on the theory that during labor, many women reflexively fight the contractions. But by relaxing and focusing the body’s energy, blood flows to the uterus, which helps prevent cramping and pain. Studies show that hypnosis training alone, even without employing hypnosis during the birth, can empower mothers and help them relax, reducing their need for medication. Keep in mind, though, that hypnosis may not work for every mother and that the method doesn’t claim to prevent pain, just manage it.
Betty Shuford of Spartanburg, South Carolina, was already a firm believer in acupuncture before she got pregnant. An acupunturist herself, she’d been practicing the ancient art for three years and had seen how well it helped her patients cope with everything from anxiety to arthritis. So when it came time to create her birth plan, she knew acupuncture would be a key element. She was still worried about the pain, but she hoped that acupuncture would help.
Shuford and her husband decided to have their first baby at home, surrounded by a support system: two midwives, an acupuncturist, and Shuford’s mother-in-law (a former midwife herself). It was an early morning in late June 2002 that the mom-to-be started to go into labor. When Shuford’s acupuncturist arrived, she administered needles—10 of them—at five meridian points associated with stimulating labor. “The idea is that they help make the contractions more effective,” Shuford explains. Plus, they “mellowed out” the pain. “The contractions were regular, but they weren’t sharp or irritating,” she says.
Meanwhile, a birthing tub had been set up in the living room. Soon Shuford wanted to move around, so the acupuncturist removed the needles. “As soon as they came out, the contractions were much more painful,” she says. The birth was hard, to put it mildly. “They don’t call it labor for nothing,” Shuford says. However, her four-and-a-half hours of active labor was relatively short, which she credits to the acupuncture she’d had earlier. In the late afternoon, after laboring in the tub, with her husband behind her and the midwives ready to catch the baby, Shuford gave birth to baby Aliah. “I was so happy and relieved because she was healthy and perfect,” says Shuford. “We looked into each others eyes and we floated in the water as I held her close on my chest. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Acupuncture: The basics
Acupuncture helps optimize health before, during, and after birth, says Charlotte Sobeck, a licensed acupuncturist in Austin, Texas. For pregnant women, acupuncture can help with everything from morning sickness to lower back pain, and recent studies have shown that it can also reduce the need for pain medication, it can induce labor, and can decrease the length of labor. Possible risks include infection, discomfort, and preterm labor. Look for an acupuncturist who is licensed in your state. As an alternative to acupuncture, some women use acupressure, says Shawn Tassone, M.D., co-author (with his wife) of Hands Off My Belly: The Pregnant Woman’s Survival Guide to Myths, Mothers, and Moods, and father of four. This technique involves using the hands to apply gentle but firm pressure to parts of the body. It can relieve tension, increase blood flow, and focus energy.
Drug-free hospital birth
Christine Escobar, now a mother of two (Ezra, 10, and Lucie, 5) in Evanston, Illinois, gave birth to her first child in a hospital with a host of medical interventions (epidural, Pitocin, episiotomy)—and an audience of more than eight (including med students she’d never met). “I didn’t really feel like I was part of the birth,” she says. “Something was being done to me.”
Like many women, Escobar didn’t exactly make this choice: She just never realized she had other options. But by the time she was pregnant with her second child, Escobar had met moms who’d given birth in a hospital without the drugs and the revolving door of observers. She reasoned that if these moms could do it, she could, too. “I just set my mind to it and armed myself with lots of information,” she says. “I can be pretty stubborn when I want to accomplish something.” Hiring a doula was appealing but expensive, so Escobar’s husband, Rey, became the birth partner she needed.
When the time came for Lucie to be born, the couple headed to the hospital just as before—but had an entirely different experience. Instead of laboring in a bright, busy room, Escobar had the lights lowered as Rey put on music. And there were no extraneous people wandering in and out, just a nurse and midwife helping when necessary. “I could focus on what I needed to do, and just do my own thing,” Escobar says. Sometimes, she rocked back and forth on her feet; other times, she managed the contractions while on all fours on the bed. She had taped a drawing her son had given her to the headboard, and focused on that to get her through.
Six hours after the Escobars arrived at the hospital, Lucie was born. Once baby and mom were cleaned up and checked, the nurse and midwife let the family be alone again. “It was morning, and I got to keep her with me. It was a quiet, private time for us. I felt great.”
Drug-free hospital birth: The basics
For many moms, a drug-free hospital birth is the best of both worlds. Delivering without drugs feels more natural and safer, but the idea of being at a hospital in case of complications can still be comforting. Reportedly, drug-free births speed the mom’s recovery time. They’re also more likely to be covered by insurance, along with support services (like midwives and doulas) in the hospital.