I am always talking about how the mind and body work in sync when it comes to having a baby. If you are feeling anxious or fearful it can actually inhibit the process which then makes you even more anxious! This can manifest itself by causing a longer labour or one that stops and starts for some time.
I use a birth story as a perfect example of this. What I witnessed was something quite remarkable that I had never witnessed before and it strengthened the theory of mind over matter.
It was the summer of 2011 and I was working on the delivery suite. Working a long day usually started at 7am and finished at 8pm so I was in for a long ride! I didn’t mind doing long days on the delivery suite though as it usually meant that I spent some time with the woman I was looking after and hopefully helped her with having her baby before my shift ended.
On this particular shift, I greeted a lady (we shall call her Kelly) who had arrived to the triage assessment unit with her sister at about 11am. She informed me that she had been having irregular contractions throughout the night but they had been so sporadic and bearable that she hadn’t thought anything of it. She had been having on and off contractions for the past couple of weeks so just assumed it was repeating itself.
After spending much of the night tossing, turning and pacing up and down the hall of her home, Kelly told her husband he should go into work at 7am as things were seemingly dying down. Unbeknown to her this was just the start of things! By the time her husband had arrived at work around 9 am, her labour had kicked back in again full throttle. All of a sudden her contractions were coming every 4 minutes and after an hour and a half, she decided to call in to the hospital.
When she arrived, she was leaning on her sister trying to breathe through the contractions and was doing great. A vaginal examination was offered and she accepted as she wanted to know how she was progressing – this is something that we offered to all women who appeared to be in active labour as part of the guidelines at the hospital I worked at.
“You’re 5cm dilated, almost fully effaced and the head is pretty low, you’re doing great!”
I explained my findings to her and that’s when she started to panic.
“My husband wont make it, he has to commute from London Oh my goodness!”
By this time, her husband had already been called and he was on his way but said it would take him at least another hour to get back. Kelly was beside herself at this point and myself and a colleague tried to reassure her that we were sure he would make it for the birth. It was highly likely that it would take more than one hour for the baby to be born anyway. Throughout all the commotion, Kelly crying , me and my colleague trying to comfort her and her sister not knowing what to do, I noticed something odd.
Kelly hadn’t had a contraction in over 10 minutes.
By this point it was around 12pm. I was a little alarmed as the thought of uterine rupture entered my head. One of the symptoms is slowing or cessation of contractions but it would usually be accompanied with abdominal pain which she was not experiencing. Nevertheless, we put Kelly on a continuous fetal monitor to get an idea of how baby was and carried out some routine observations on her.
Everything was fine so we removed the continuous fetal monitor.
So this is where the story gets even more interesting. Kelly’s husband arrived at 1pm and you could see the relief wash over her almost instantly. I glanced over at my colleague as if to say “thank goodness he made it!” and she glanced back in agreement. Kelly and her husband embraced whilst gave her lots of praise and reassurance. She became calm, focused and almost sleepy.
Within 15 minutes of him arriving, Kelly started contracting again and went on to have a waterbirth that afternoon at 4.45pm
I truly believe that this was a classic example of the autonomous nervous system affecting the course of labour. When a mother approaches labour with unresolved fear and stress, her body is already on the defensive and the stress hormone catecholamines (adrenalin) is secreted. In labour, the body does not choose fight or flight but freeze. Since the uterus is not designed as a part of the defence mechanism, blood is directed away from it to parts of the body involved in defence. This causes arteries going to the uterus to tense and constrict, restricting the flow of blood and oxygen. If the uterus does not have a sufficient amount of blood and oxygen then it cannot function properly. This is why it is so important to aim for a relaxed calm state during childbirth.