The "Slow Birth" Movement

Somehow, we all got hooked into thinking that “quick was better” when it came to birth. When women tell their birth stories, it seems to be a point of pride to be able to say “I gave birth in 5 hours”, “I barely made it to the hospital”, “even with my first, it was so fast”. We hear these stories and may envy the women thinking that they performed in a fast, efficient manner and we view them as having a coveted talent.

I’ve been observing women giving birth for thirty years and I have given birth three times. From my experience, I don’t think that quick is necessarily a good thing when having a baby. Often fast births afford the woman no time to get her breath and regain her strength. Some women describe their fast births as feeling like they have been whipped around in a blender. In a rapid birth, the woman’s body sometimes displays the symptoms of transition after the birth of the baby (shaking, feeling hot/cold, vomiting). When a baby comes slower, there’s a building up of the intensity of the sensations so that the woman can adjust herself to the process that’s happening and, even though most women would like to shave a few hours off the whole thing, nevertheless, they know they can cope and that they will get to the finish line of birth. When the baby comes slower, the woman often dozes between her pushing sensations and seems to derive a great deal of energy from those short snatches of sleep even though they are interrupted often. The hormones of birth seem to allow the woman to operate in a different domain of sleep, energy and strength. I’m fond of telling women who are tired and discouraged at transition “You’re going to get a big burst of energy when you get the reflex to push” or “you’ll get an energy rush when you feel the baby’s head at your perineum”.

This trust in the process and knowledge that energy can ebb but then be regained in the birth process seems to be greatly lacking in today’s Western obstetrics. Slowing down or taking a long time to dilate is simply viewed as a problem and it’s a problem to be fixed by hurrying the woman’s body along. There’s no such thing as a resting phase, going in and out of the process, or simply a looooonnnnngggggg, slow birth process. This is not allowed and it’s viewed as pathological.
It hasn’t always been that way.

Waiting for the baby

Waiting for the baby

In his book “The Farmer and the Obstetrician”, Michel Odent does a comparison of big agri-business to modern hospital obstetrics. When we see the environmental disaster that large scale agri-corporations have produced and we know that the hospital obstetric system has produced a North America wide cesarean rate of 30% and rising, it’s clear there’s been a severe skewing of priorities and principles. We have to re-order our thinking about farming in order to survive: local organic farms, 100 mile diet, moratoriums on genetically modified crops, co-op gardens, raw diets—all these things have grown in the past few years as the few who knew they were important have held onto the knowledge (and the seeds) for the ones of us who were slow to catch on to the urgency.

Instead of talking about “fast food” that seemed so sensible a while back, we’re talking about slow food. Food that takes time, patience, work and integrity to grow, sow and cook. Some are even talking about “slow money” to fund “slow food”, the kind of financing that doesn’t look for a quick return and a scheme but rather looks to the quality of neighborhoods, children, the air we breathe and the long term future.

For those of us who know there’s something terribly wrong with the state of obstetrics in North America, we must call for a return to SLOW BIRTHING. Birth which understands that some women will wait for several days after releasing their membranes and have no pathology. Slow birth means returning to a time when induction of birth was reserved for very seriously ill women and undertaken with great trepidation. Midwifery would be patient beyond all known limits . . . practitioners only steering the birth process in the most rare cases. We would return to a time when practitioners used to say such expressions as:

“Every birth is different, every woman is different and every baby is different.”
“Don’t let the sun set twice on a woman who is in active labor (past 4 centimeters dilation).”
“Don’t practice “meddlesome midwifery”.”
“A good obstetrician does not pick unripe fruit.”
“A good practitioner has two good hands and knows how to sit on them.”

These are all things I heard when I first started attending births 30 years ago and, now, I never hear them. We must get back to those times when the cesarean rate was below 15% or we will perish. As a society, we cannot withstand the damage that is being done to large numbers of women, babies and their extended families. The idea that we can “turn hospital beds” in order to make maximum use of the dollar cost of that bed is insane when it comes to giving birth.
The notion that a woman can be induced with all the pursuant cascade of interventions simply for the convenience of scheduling staff or room availability is a crime. We must wake up and recognize that giving birth to a baby is one of the most powerful transformative events in a woman’s life. This process is so important to the family and the rest of society that all efforts must be made to have it flow normally. Our priority must be the well being of the newborn baby and the conditions that are favorable to a long, satisfying breastfeeding experience. What we are doing right now with inductions, surgeries and the mass use of narcotics in childbirth is as harmful to the planet as fish farms and DDT. The small band of people who have kept the notion of SLOW BIRTH alive so that society at large can get back to what we know is the holistic way to treat new mothers and babies must be listened to and appropriate action taken. Childbirth is not a frill, it’s not an expendable experience, it’s a fundamental lynch pin in forming the family and, without it, we are doomed to being a sick society.

55 thoughts on “The "Slow Birth" Movement

  1. My membranes released almost three days before my daughter was born, but I couldn’t find any info on how that was “okay” or “normal”…but I stuck took procautions (no hands in or near the vag) and the birth went very well, baby and I were very healthy. Also, the contractions weren’t “regular” or “closely spaced”. At most they were only ever 8-10 minutes apart, even during the pushing stage. I’d never heard of a labor pattern like mine before.

    It might be normal, but as long as more than 90% or labors are augmented, we’ll loose sight of what “normal” could/should be.

    • Absolutely true.Just as we have forgotten how to farm in a couple of generations we have forgotten how to let birth happen. We have a mythology in our country of birth as a disaster, and while I know women died in past generations in far too great numbers, this model of care cannot be good for our culture or our species.

      • through out history women have died in childbirth… Often poor women in poor health… In the 1800’s rich corseted women also died regularioy in childbirth due misshapen pelvises derived from corseting…

        The WHO says the C/S rate should only be about 10-15% or there are unnesicary c/s being preformed.

        The US has one of the highest intervention rates in the world and some of the lowest infant and mother survival rates in the developed world. Obviously we are going in the wrong direction???

  2. I’m always saying, “Every baby is different, every mother is different, and every birth is different.” Sometimes I even say, every pregnancy is different. It frustrates me when women tell the pregnant woman, this is what happened to me, and it’s perceived as the way it always is. I definitely would have liked my posterior baby to be faster, but I wanted my second labor to go slower and allowed to progress w/o the pit. since I was already having contrax 2-3 min. apart, but you know how it is in a hospital with PROM. Stupid 24hr. rule. Anyhow, my last 2 were very quick and I was able to fall asleep in between contrax. but I would have liked to get in the tub, have more massage, hang on husband, ect. Basically enjoy it more. For me, I didn’t tear at all with my 5 min. pushing for the last 2 kids and I loved how quick that part was, but every woman is different and every baby’s head is different so I completely agree with the slow labor concept. I wish I would have known back then what I know now and I would have absolutely had a homebirth with all my 3 kids, allowed to progress at my own pace.

  3. People are going to think I am crazy but the whole time I was pregnant with my 3rd son (he is 19months now) I was hoping to have a long labor. I wasn’t as much in the moment with my first labor (which technically was about 7-8hours) because I spent so much time second guessing whether or not I was really in labor. I got to the hospital at about 11pm and 8cm, and had my son at 2:14am. My second labor was augmented with pitocin, because of my water breaking, no labor starting and being GBS positive. Even still, my labor was rather short..water broke a 1pm, got pitocin at about 7pm had my baby at 11:14pm. With William, my 3rd. I longed for a longer natural labor, that I didn’t second guess. I know it’s sounds crazy, but I was grateful for all my contractions, even the pitocin-filled ones, with all my births because I never felt more alive, strong, and feminine. Unfortunately, my last labor was also rather short. I started having contractions at about 6:30pm and had him at 1:19am.

  4. I agree wholeheartedly. I had a whole 20 minutes of active labor with my son, and it was so difficult to adjust to the fact that I had just had a baby. I was lying on the bed feeling mild contractions, then my water broke and a couple minutes later he was born. No pain, no pushing, no waking the children to tell them “this is it,” no nothing. It was hard to grasp what had happened to me. He was over 10 pounds and pretty much just fell out. He was my last baby I so wish I had had a labor. I never got a chance to play any music I had prepared, to light any candles, to even go to the bathroom.

    It does make for an exciting birth story though. I think I will be telling that story for my entire life.

  5. Thank you for writing this. I think a large contributing factor in idealizing fast births is the popular idea that giving birth is the most agonizing pain a woman will ever undergo so of course a shorter period of agonizing pain is better, right? While those of us who choose natural childbirth speak out about the common misconception of agonizing pain, I think we still buy into shorter is better idea.

    I always feel awkward talking about my 23 hour labor regardless of whether I’m talking to a woman in the NCB community or not. Even by saying “23 hours” I exclude a lot of the early labor that I know other women include. Of course when people express their dismay, I only half-jokingly tell them I was the only person who actually slept during that whole time.

  6. “Every birth is different, every woman is different and every baby is different.”
    “Don’t let the sun set twice on a woman who is in active labor (past 4 centimeters dilation).”
    “Don’t practice “meddlesome midwifery”.”
    “A good obstetrician does not pick unripe fruit.”
    “A good practitioner has two good hands and knows how to sit on them.”

    These are all ace except #2. How did that sneak in there?

    1. Who’s “letting” anyone do anything? Women should make the decisions, not careproviders.
    2. Who gets to decide that “active labour” starts at a certain definable point?
    3. Who had their hand in that woman over and over in order to determine how long she was at the naughty dilation?

    Tsk tsk.

    As a woman who has had the sun set twice and still just birthed, tsk tsk.

    I’m prepared to sign off on the other points and yes, we should hear more of them along with “Just don’t interfere ffs.” which should be on billboards around hospitals and drummed into staff who should know to turn healthy women away from their doors with the phone numbers of the local homebirth midwives. Ahhh how much better would birthing be?!

    Love you, Gloria. *mwah*

    Janet xx

    • Have to admit, I got caught up on that one as well… What? “2 sunsets”? Perhaps slipped in to see if we were paying attention? However, the rest – especially, “A good practitioner has two good hands and knows how to sit on them.” are spot on!

      • Remember that we’re talking true labour. . . after the woman has reached 4 cms. Many women have days of slow, prodromal labour but once 4 (some say 6cms) has been reached, you probably have a malpresentation if the sun is setting twice on the woman. It’s rare but you can have pathology with long births.

  7. I definitely wish I’d had a longer labor with #3 (37 minutes from first contraction to birth). I even remember realizing when I hit transition and thinking, “Wait a minute. Pushing is next. I’m *so* not ready for this.” I had been looking forward to labor, and I was a little disappointed that there wasn’t much to it. My husband didn’t even have time to get in the water with me.

    Next time around my midwife and I have a list of things we’d like to do to try to slow things down a bit. I’m ok with it. We’ve always done natural birth and have had only two interventions (one necessary and one not) among the three births, and everything we’ve got on the list is natural (i.e. no drugs, etc.), but I still wonder sometimes if that makes it ok, or if we shouldn’t just let nature take its course, at whatever speed it chooses.

    But then I also think about the fact that God must have put a wonderful, loving, caring, trained, experienced midwife in my life for a reason. Shouldn’t I listen to her advice? Does refusing every intervention, simply because it’s an intervention, make me any different from the mainstream mothers who do whatever the doctor says, simply because the doctor said it?

  8. This was really nice and reassuring to read. Thank you.

    I have one child (now 20 months old) and my labor was about 27 hours. I was 39 years old and gave birth in a hospital, but with a midwife.

    The more I learned about labor, the more I was afraid of a quick one. But I definitely feel in the minority. Well-meaning people are always wishing pregnant women a quick delivery (I don’t like that word, either). Another pet peeve is those who act like everyone should “take advantage” of the modern drugs available to “assist” in childbirth.

    I was afraid that I wouldn’t be able to stay in sync with the process of labor, that the contractions would get ahead of me and I wouldn’t be able to focus on and work with what my body needed to do. Fortunately, I labored at a slow and steady pace. I remember my husband asking our midwife just prior to me being ready to push how I was going to be able to push. I seemed so out of it to him (but I was eager to hear her response, too). She assured him that I would get a second-wind, a burst of energy. I remember thinking, “I have to believe her.” And I did! Four pushes/18 minutes later, our son was born. And then I got a third wind that lasted for hours–what a natural high!

    Regarding the element of pain, I was afraid of the unknown, and of loss of control, but felt as prepared as possible to handle it (thanks to prenatal yoga, childbirth prep classes, great support from friends and midwives). Now that I’m on the other side of the experience, I wouldn’t classify my experience as pain like we think of regular, everyday pain. Mine was manageable, if you will, particularly because I was able to think through nearly every contraction as a mark of progress. Regular, everyday pain usually has no positive result. It’s often senseless, accidental, surprising. My labor was the opposite. So it seems like the word “pain” doesn’t convey the right meaning.

    I feel lucky to have been able to labor the way I did.

    I am seriously considering a homebirth for our second.

    • First of all, can I say how refreshing it is to read comments about birth that aren’t a “mine was worse than yours” competition? It feels like whenever I told anyone about our plans to have a home water birth, the disaster stories came in abundance.
      That is a very good way to differentiate between everyday pain and labor. My mother in law once told me that labor pain is different in that it is “pain with a purpose”, and I’ve never forgotten that. I had a midwife-assisted home water birth with both my babies (now 2 years, and 3 weeks old respectively…the three week old birth is still fresh in my mind!) and even though the latter took only 8 hours of active labor, I practiced hypnobirthing and felt very present and aware during each contraction. During my first birth I fell asleep and snored in between contractions!
      There are instances in which birth can get complicated and thank God for interventions and hospitals, but unfortunately that has become the norm and not the exception. We NEED to normalize birth as the life changing, empowering event that it is, or else all we’ll have are the catastrophic disaster stories.

  9. I know this post was ages ago, but I am just getting into blog-reading, and am enjoying it immensely. I’m a midwife, and 4 of my last 5 births were primips who had long labors; I was present for about 24 hours with each of them. In each labor, I am certain that the long, slow labors were chosen by their very wise babies. One had a TIGHT nuchal cord and a true knot (somersaulted through on the toilet!), one had a double nuchal cord (another somersault), and one was a 9 lb 8 oz baby from a slender-built 5 ft 2 in mama. Slow crowning, where baby beautifully wriggled her head to line those shoulders up so smoothly for a lovely birth. If they’d been hurring by standard obstetrical care, am quite certain each of their outcomes would have been VERY different. Our work is hard, but so very rewarding 🙂

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  12. I wish we also would help women anticipate labor as a wonderful experience that is unlike any other experience. Even from baby to baby each experience is different.
    I describe it as the last dance….maybe mom has more to say in that secret language, maybe baby does. We have forgotten that moms and babies communicate during pregnancy AND labor AND birth. We need to shut up and stop intruding on their conversation or trying to shorten it. This is yet another part of the chemical, hormonal process that we screw up by trying to initiate or abbreviate… you, Glo.

    • I have given birth 7 times, each was an amazing experience. However, this last one was THE most amazing experience of my life on a very personal level. I am actually looking forward to doing it again … maybe it can be repeated ? 🙂

    • 15% is the highest that WHO says c-section rate should be. Above 15% there is no theraputic benefit and has higher mortality and morbidities for both moms and babies. It actually recomends the rate fall between 5-10%. 15% is the cut off line where these surgeries start doing more harm than good.

  13. i understand and agree with the whole concept of what you are saying and women definitely need to take back the birthing process, however there are some women (myself included) who have naturally quick births and you mustn’t suggest to them that there is anything wrong with this. i have had four quick(2 hour) natural births with no complications and no stitches and although extremely intense there was absolutely no chance of me slowing anything down. my third was a home birth without any intervention no doctor, midwife, doula just me and my baby and it was an amazing (short)experience that i will cherish forever.

  14. I had a 39 hour labor…it was very slow. I wanted to do things naturally and my doctor agreed. My husband and doula were awesome. I found labor to be fascinating and exciting. Sadly though after 5 and a half hours of pushing my son’s vitals started going down and I could not push him out. I ended up going in for an emergency cesarean section and have always felt like a failure. I guess he has an extremely large head compared to other babies…and he was a big boy. (I’m a very tiny person. They say this does not matter but I think in my case it did). Anyway, I enjoyed your article. I think 39 hours was a bit too long personally – I was completely wiped out afterwards. So moderation in all things….not too short and not too long would be the perfect labor!

    • you did what was best for your situation, which for me is the key.I think that some csections are necessary, just not the soaring rate we are seeing. Your doctor and you communicated and came up with a plan that you were comfortable with. Way to go mama! 39 hours!!!!

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  16. I am a birth doula and have my babies at home with a midwife. One of the things I’ve noticed in my experience is to put any kind of expectation on a mother, especially a first time momma, is a defeating experience for her. No one knows what “normal” is. There is no such thing. To tell a mom, “your not dilating fast enough” is cruelty. She can not control this and should not be made to feel inadequate.
    My own birth experiences were empowering and certainly not …. “normal” my contractions varied widely in intensity and time right on through the pushing. Fifteen minutes between some pushing contractions. I remember this clearly because my midwife was bent over the side of my birthing pool with her hand inside me holding back a cervical lip, waiting patiently for the next contraction. I felt sorry for her! Her poor back had to be killing her!
    Every birth IS different! And every woman remembers every detail of each birth, its our job to help them have a good experience! Tell a different story then hollywood and the medical community.

  17. I am proud to say it was not up to anyone to “allow” me to take my sweet time. No body was allowed near me that would push any pressure on me and therefor my baby either. The support team that I carefully chose to be with me through childbirth. Walked with me, sat with me, massaged me, sang with me, became sleep deprived with me, then assisted me in and out of the birthing pool and finally celebrated we me. All of which took 53.5 hours, and I would change a moment of it. Labour started Friday evening and I was just 4-5cm my son was born Sunday afternoon.

  18. Carla–thanks for the thought that there is a conversation between baby and mama–I love that. I’m about to have my 3rd baby and for some reason am having more anxiety about this birth than I did about the others. I know I’m going to think about your comment when I’m birthing, and talk to my baby girl as we go through this together.

    • I, too, am having much more anxiety about this birth than I did about my other two. I had my first in the hospital with a m(e)dwife and my second unassisted. I hope we can both find peace through acknowledging the fear but not succumbing, communicating with our babies in the process, making sure that the choices we are making are right for them… not based on preconceived notions. I will be thinking of you!

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  21. My experience with a VBAC in hospital is that even if you are Dialating within they arbitray limits or faster it is still no guarantee that you will dialate fast enough for the provider… If they are keen on sectioning you it will most likely happen no matter how your labour progresses.

    after two C/S I am ready to have my third baby in a month or so… I am afraid to go anywhere near the hospital in this labour… With a C/S rate ove over 40%(yeah it is the only hospotal around too – and I have been unable to get a midwife) I think the chances are pretty low even if I go in late…

    So what do I do, stay home, take my chances with the OB on duty or consent to the repeat C/S they are pushing which seems more for OB schedualing convinience than anything???

    • If you are considering UC, there may be doulas in the area who would be willing to support you through your birth. I hope you find peace with whatever decision you make. (((hugs))))

  22. Of interest, both my births were “quick”. The first one was 12 hours total, five hours of active and ecstatic. I was high for days on that birth. The second one was 5.5 hours total, 2.25 hours active, and yes, I was shaky afterwards and spent two days in bed (both homebirths).

  23. my birth was 1 hour and 36 minutes from first contraction to time of birth and it was brutal – way too fast! i would have loved a slower build, a calmer climb to my 10 cm, but this is the way my baby chose to come out – really really quickly – because he was being induced at 37 weeks due to my preeclampsia, and i had no control over any of it. i am grateful to him that he took the lead and moved things along so quickly, because that meant we managed to avoid the need for pitocin (only a servadil ribbon was used to induce) and there was no moment where anyone tried to drug me because before anyone knew it i had given birth to him without them even realising he was crowning! (my o.b. was asleep in the hospital somewhere, and slightly peeved about being woken up to tend to ‘all the noise’ i was making, and was in total shock when she ‘took a look up there’ as my husband put it, and announced that his “head was out” – yeah, it felt like it, but those nurses kept saying “oh you have hours of this, i don’t know why you’re making so much noise”, so what did i know?!).
    HOWEVER, i would never brag about the brevity of his birth. if i had a do-over i would not have been sick, he would not have been induced, and we would have a nice, slow, calm build to his birth – not been strapped to a bed with a catheter inside me, 3 weeks earlier than ‘normal’, swollen to the size of the michelin man with preeclampsia – but that’s not how it happened for us.
    a fast birth is NOT a better, or more efficient birth. it’s just fast. that’s all.

  24. I had a strange feeling that my labour with my fourth baby would be quick and it was, at about an hour for the whole process. It was incredibly intense, but nothing I could not handle, especially with the perfect, low key support I had from my husband. Midwife arrived just in time to catch the babe and pass him to me. I felt like this baby just knew what to do, and along with my body and my supporters, we just got on with it and it was perfecto! Anyway, I agree with your point though Gloria, we don’t need to encourage ourselves or others to rush such a perfect, wonderous process. In the right environment, with appropriate and loving support, most women and babies know what to do and how long to take, I’m sure.

  25. I often think, too, that it is so unnatural to have young mothers being the doulas. . . it’s so hard to be away from your own family for long births and still be patient. In other times, it was the grandmothers who became the birth watchers, women who had grown families and had given birth to babies themselves. Nowadays, many of the grandmothers are so traumatized by the way they birthed that they aren’t much use to the younger women. I give full credit to the young women who are stepping into the void but I wish they didn’t have that load to carry.

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  28. I have had two bradley method births. My labor with my son was 12 hours and my daughter was 3 1/2 hours. After having a “text book” labor and a “fast” labor I can say that I would have a fast labor anyday over a longer one. I had more energy during and after my daughter’s birth. Although I agree with the rest of the article that women should be left alone to labor and that babies come out when they are ready.

  29. I have 3 boys, the first came early and I was given medications to slow down my birth so I could make it to a city with a nicu. It was still only about 8 hours long from start to finish and it was nice and fairly easy.
    My second was 1 hour start to finish and my third was 1.5 hours start to finish. They were so fast and intense, all of a sudden my contractions were on top of each other with no room to breath. I found with my first I was able to prepare for the active stage, where as with my second and third there was no time, I was just in active labor.

  30. I gave birth three times. All were fast labors, less than six hours. No one was hurrying me, I had no idea that fast labors were an ideal. It’s just the way it was, all natural, no intervention. I always felt a little shy to share that my labors were short and therefore “easy”. Should we “speed” up slow labors, or “slow” down fast labors? How about we get our preconceived (heh, perhaps there’s a pun there) ideas about labor out of the way and let what will be, just be?

  31. I think some labors are so fast due to magnesium deficiency (due to soil depletion, poor food quality). Truly.

  32. I definitely would have preferred a shorter labour. I was labouring for a bit over 50 hours and it was so exhausting. When it came to the active stage I could barely stand, and was severely dehydrated and vomiting if I had any food or water, which I know is a normal reaction to labour but it didn’t help with the exhaustion! It meant I rushed myself when I was pushing and needed stitches in 5 different places because of it, and also needed half my labia sewing back on because his shoulder somehow caught it and ripped it off. Not a nice experience. I’m convinced if it had been quicker and I’d had a bit more sleep I would have taken my time a bit more.

  33. My first (and only) child was born at home and was an 8 hour delivery. It was shockingly fast for me. For the first several hours I was in denial of it being real labor because I was anticipating a slower, gradual pace so I assumed they were Braxton Hicks, which made me nervous that the “real” contractions were going to be too much. Once I accepted that this was real labor, I was still surprised, but progressed naturally through the birth. Though he was a fast birth, especially as a first child, I’m glad that I was able to have my birthing experience unfold naturally. Everyone should be afforded that opportunity, whether it takes 8 or 38 hours! [As long as everyone is safe and healthy of course!]

  34. Wow. I had never thought of the idea of a slow birth before and that this was perfectly okay. With my second child I was in labour for 48 hours and I did have a natural birth with the support of midwives but I felt stressed during the labour because I thought it was taking too long and something could go wrong. I felt a sense of burden that I was causing on my midwifes and family members who were waiting for me to give birth. I knew that I didn’t want medical intervention to hurry the birth along and so I waited until the time came naturally but I stressed and left wondering if I should take medication to move things along. I wish I had taken the attitude that it was perfectly okay to take time and that I wasn’t burdening the midwives.

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