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The Importance of Rest and Darkness in Early Labor

The Importance of Sensory Quiet
by Gloria Lemay

From The Birthkit, Number 41, Autumn 2004

Many births begin in the night. A woman will get up to pee, feel her membranes release and an hour later begin having sensations 15 minutes apart. Because we think of birth as a family/couple experience, most women will wake their husbands to tell them something’s starting. Then, probably because women all hope to be the 1 in 10,000 who don’t experience any pain, they start organizing the birth supplies, filling up the water tub, etc. I have seen so many births that take days of prodromal (under 3 cm. dilation) sensations and they usually begin this way. The couple distracts themselves in the early critical time when the pituitary gland is beginning to put out oxytocin to dilate the cervix. Turning on the light causes inhibition of the oxytocin release.

A lot is written these days about the importance of melatonin in the brain and how darkening the bedroom can help with many health problems. We don’t hear much in childbirth circles about melatonin, but there are still so many things we don’t know about how the brain affects the progress of birth.

Many couples don’t call their midwife until the sensations are coming five minutes apart (30 seconds long), but they’ve been up since midnight timing every one of the early sensations. If the woman had called the midwife at midnight, she would have said, “Turn off the light and let your husband sleep as much as possible through the night. Stay dark and quiet. It’s still very early. Take a bath with a candle if it helps, but the most important thing is to get some rest. Call me back when you think I should come over.”

That first night can make all the difference and yet so many couples act like it’s a party and don’t realize they are sabotaging their births right at the beginning. Staying up all night in the early part does two things: 1) it throws off the body clock, which controls sleep and waking, confusing the brain and 2) it inhibits the release of the very hormone women need to dilate effectively, oxytocin.

When women begin to have sensations, I urge them to ignore it for as long as possible and not tell anyone. I tell them to have a “secret sensation time” with their unborn baby and get in as dark a place as they can. Minimize what is happening with husband, family and birth attendants. I explain that they do have a say over their hormone activity and can help the pituitary gland secrete oxytocin to open the cervix by being in a dark, quiet room with eyes closed.

Gloria Lemay is a private birth attendant in Vancouver, BC. She is renowned as a birth practitioner and is a strong proponent of a woman’s right to homebirth.

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