Knitting Midwives for Drugless Childbirth
I cannot forget the time when a woman could give birth in a small, dimly lit room with nobody around but an experienced and silent midwife, sitting in a corner and knitting. The situation was obviously conducive to easy births (Odent 1996).
It is fruitful to reinterpret such a scene in the scientific context of the twenty-first century. At the April 2004 British Psychological Society conference, Dr. Emily Holmes from Cambridge University presented her studies on the effects of repetitive tasks, such as knitting, in stressful situations. In one study, volunteers were recruited to watch video footage of real car crashes showing dead bodies and a lot of blood. Some participants were given a repetitive task, such as tapping out a complex five-key sequence of numbers on a keypad, to do while they watched. Those who were given such a task experienced fewer flashbacks during the following days than the others. The author concludes from Dr. Holmes’ studies that repetitive tasks are an extremely effective means of reducing tension. Dr. Holmes emphasized that her research was consistent with the actions of notorious French tricoteuses of the French Revolution, such as Madame Defarges, who knitted while watching people being guillotined, apparently never experiencing posttraumatic stress disorder. She also referred to the use of worry beads in many cultures, such as Greece, as a way to cope with stressful situations.
We might translate such findings into physiological language and conclude that when midwives spend hours and hours knitting, their own levels of adrenaline are kept as low as possible. Since high levels of adrenaline are extremely contagious, the progress of labor is to a great extent dependent on the adrenaline levels of those around the laboring woman.
Such considerations are of paramount importance at a time when we must learn to think long-term and to think in terms of civilization. The aim of any futuristic birth strategy should be that as many women as possible give birth vaginally, thanks to an undisturbed flow of love hormones. The future of our civilizations is at stake.
The essential first step is to improve our understanding of birth physiology and to rediscover the basic needs of women in labor. These basic needs are shared by all mammals. All mammals need to feel secure when giving birth: They postpone the delivery if there is a predator around. All mammals need privacy: They have strategies for avoiding observation during the period surrounding birth. After thousands of years of culturally controlled childbirth, decades of industrialized childbirth and a proliferation of methods of natural childbirth (as if the words method and natural were compatible), these basic needs have been forgotten.
- Odent, M. 1996. “Knitting Needles, Cameras and Electronic Fetal Monitors.” Midwifery Today 37:14–15.
— Michel Odent