Childbirth is a uniquely life-changing and painful experience for mothers. Whether they give birth vaginally or surgically, with the help of an epidural or not, in a hospital or at home, the moment mothers deliver their babies into the world is a deeply personal moment that they will remember for the rest of their lives. The months leading up to that first time you hold your baby in your arms are fraught with check-ups, new revelations, and a lot of complex decisions between you, your partner, and your doctor. The choices you make about how you want to give birth and what’s medically best for you and your child are yours and yours alone to make. However, in recent times, there has been a growing movement from “natural” birth advocates favoring vaginal births over surgical ones and advocating for unmedicated labor. Proponents of this ideology are not only giving weight to harmful, unfounded beliefs about childbirth, but they are also putting an enormous pressure on expectant mothers to force a vaginal birth, potentially putting them at risk during delivery. The decisions a mother and her doctor make in the delivery room should instead be free from any societal pressures or dangerous expectations, only prioritizing the health and wellbeing of the baby and the mother.
When it comes to childbirth today, the main priority is to get the baby out in a safe way for both the mother and the child and how women accomplish that can either be a personal choice or a medical necessity. Women are generally faced with two choices: a natural birth or a cesarean delivery. A “natural birth” is considered a vaginal delivery which can be accompanied (or not) by pain medication and medical interventions such as labor inducements, an episiotomy to allow for safe passage of the baby’s head through the vaginal opening, or a forceps delivery. During a vaginal delivery, women can expect to move through three phases of labor: early, active, and transitional. At many points during these stages, if you’re giving birth in a hospital, doctors and nurses will monitor your condition and check the dilation of your cervix. When a woman becomes 10 cm dilated, she pushes until the baby crowns and is delivered. The birth is then followed by minor contractions as the placenta is delivered. According to the Cleveland Clinic, vaginal births typically result in shorter hospital stays, lower injection rates, and quicker recovery times. Recovery after a vaginal delivery depends on what procedures were performed; for example, if you had an episiotomy, you would need the full 6 weeks to recover, and it may be more painful. Even if no additional medical intervention was required, most women experience soreness and bleeding for at least 1-2 weeks.
The other delivery option is a C-section, a surgical procedure used to remove a baby when a vaginal delivery is not possible or not preferred by the mother. There are certain situations that can make a caesarean delivery necessary, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, such as medical concern for the baby, multiplet births, placental issues, an excessively long labor, the size of the baby, breech presentation, or maternal conditions such as diabetes. A C-section typically takes around 45 minutes and during this type of birth, a doctor makes an incision in the mother’s abdomen and uterus to remove the baby and the placenta. Mothers will typically be placed under general anesthesia or an epidural block for the procedure and depending on which, they might not get to meet their baby immediately after its birth. Recovery from a C-section is similar to any surgery, requiring a two to four day hospital stay and usually involving some pain when moving, mild cramping, bleeding, and discharge for up to 6 weeks.
Though healing and recovery time for a vaginal birth is generally faster and easier than that of C-section, that isn’t always true. Melinda Ashley, a parenting expert and founder of the blog Unfrazzled Mama, claims that her recovery from her vaginal birth was actually more difficult than her C-section because of her episiotomy which made movement painful. There isn’t a clear consensus on whether a C-section or vaginal birth is truly optimal, and childbirth is far from a perfect art – and yet, in the early 1970s, the natural birth movement emerged to champion unmedicated vaginal births and diminish C-sections as “fake” births.
The ideas of the natural birth movement are still extremely prevalent in society today with many moms feeling shamed around pregnancy and birth, especially if they give birth surgically. There are many Pinterest-esque graphics floating around the internet, sporting messages like “Our bodies were made for this!” and encouraging natural births to the point where moms who have C-sections feel like they have failed. Even Kate Winslet, an Academy-award winning actress, felt so ashamed about her caesarean delivery that she lied about it for years, admitting, “I was so completely traumatized by the fact that I hadn’t given birth. I felt like a complete failure.”
The glorification of a “natural” birth dates back to historical times and is deeply rooted in patriarchal beliefs about motherhood and what women can endure. Even as doctors began utilizing anesthesia in the 1900s, they frowned on it as an option for pain relief during childbirth because many Christian cultures believed it was a woman’s duty to God to experience pain during birth. Anna Smajdor, a professor of practical philosophy at the University of Oslo wrote, “Our societies have a high degree of importance that we place on maternal sacrifice, and a kind of martyrdom that goes with being a mother.” This is not only a belief rooted in harmful stereotypes – it’s also one that places unnecessary pressure on mothers, excludes marginalized communities, and puts people’s health at risk.
Though C-sections are often a medical necessity, many medical professionals can agree that their rate in the U.S is higher than it needs to be. Medical advancements like electronic fetal monitoring and testing for gestational diabetes can often yield false-positives, resulting in C-sections when one wasn’t really necessary. However, the statistic touted by members of the natural birth movement, that the optimal C-section rate of a country is 15%, is simply not true. This claim comes from an old WHO guideline which has since been revoked due to little supporting evidence. C-section rates that low can only lead to very high maternal and neonatal mortality rates. Instead, for best outcomes, a C-section rate between 22% and 36% is recommended – and the U.S. falls neatly between those benchmarks at 32%.
Simply put, there is nothing wrong with having a C-section, even in a country that has a rate exceeding 30%. In the high-stakes and dramatic moments of childbirth, all that matters is you and your baby’s safety. When a fetus is in distress, having a vaginal delivery can pose a serious risk (sometimes 100x greater) to a baby while a C-section can dramatically reduce that danger at the expense of putting the mother slightly more at risk. As put by obstetrician and mother, Dr. Amy Tuteur, a C-section isn’t a sign of failure, it’s a sign of devotion. In that moment, you are putting your child’s well being over your own, the sincerest definition of motherhood. So, let’s ditch the word “natural” when it comes to childbirth and instead honor all moms, regardless of how they brought their child into the world, for the decisions and sacrifices they made in the delivery room. Every mom is glorious and courageous, whether they gave birth surgically or vaginally.