Saturday, May 28, 2011

Book Review: Ina May's Guide to Childbirth


If you want a book that is at the same time informative, empowering, and inspiring- you can’t get any better than Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth. You won't get lists of information, breathing techniques or relaxation methods. That's not Ina May's style. Instead, you'll feel like you are sitting around a kitchen table, drinking tea, sharing and listening to your closest friends, mother and sisters. Ina May is a wonderful storyteller, weaving her experiences as a midwife on The Farm (Tennessee) together with practical information and other women's stories to help give readers a vision of a more primal, natural and ultimately empowering birth culture.

      As a Lamaze Childbirth Educator, I was pleased to see that Ina May essentially reiterated Lamaze’s Six Healthy Birth Practices (although, she doesn’t call them that), recommending that mothers wait for labor to begin on its own, move around during labor, avoid routine or unnecessary interventions, have someone with them (husband, mother, doula etc.) for emotional and physical support, birth in an upright position, and keep their baby's with them after birth.

But, what I particularly love about Ina May’s book, what makes it stand out from other typical birth books, is the way she uses Birth Stories and Midwifery Stories to pass on wisdom (think Kitchen Table Wisdom).


Storytelling is an ancient and powerful method of teaching. All the great teachers in the past have used stories to teach because different hearers can relate to different parts of the story on different levels, depending on their own past experiences and current circumstances. In particular, stories can be very powerful during pregnancy and birth. Women in labor move to the non-rational part of their mind, the same part of the mind used for making love. Reading about the signs of labor, the physiological process of birth, or the hormones involved in birth are reassuring and informative. But that uses the rational thinking parts of our brains. Hearing stories allows us to feel and experience, which is a much more effective state of mind for birth. I love the way one mother describes how she experienced birth differently when she allowed herself to abandon her rational mind :

“I noticed that when I tried to look at things, it put me more in a thinking mode, but when I was listening, I was more in a feeling/instinctive mode. For instance, hearing that I was all right really made me feel better. If it had been written down and I was reading it, it would not have made me feel as good. Thinking was scary. Feeling wasn’t. When I was in feeling mode, things didn’t seem so overwhelming.” (pg 25)

I find that these kinds of stories create images that can help new mothers experience something that is difficult to describe with words, in a way that is positive and empowering.  One mother in Ina May's book shared the following imagery with another mother in her village who was struggling with a long, slow labor, helping her to progress smoothly and swiftly to birth a healthy baby boy:


“I began having contractions and feeling big waves of energy moving. I visualized my yoni as a big, open cave beneath the surface of the ocean, with huge, surging currents sweeping in and out. As the wave of water rushed into the cave, my contraction would grow and swell and fill, reach a full peak, then ebb smoothly back out. I surrendered over and over to the great oceanic, engulfing waves.” (pg 10)





Insightful, and a bit snarky, Ina May's storytelling extends to her insights and wisdom gleaned through years of practicing midwifery. One of my favorite case studies demonstrates her unfailing faith in women's bodies and their ability to adapt and birth their babies. 

“Sometimes pushing efforts begin, and the baby’s head moves down, well—to a point—and then descends no farther. Within the medical model, the usual treatment of this situation is a forceps or vacuum extractor delivery. We midwives have a quite different technique that works effectively in most cases like these. Instead of affixing an instrument to the baby’s head, we take advantage of the flexibility and range of movement of the woman’s pelvic bones. The technique, called the “pelvic press,” involves putting pressure on the upper part of the woman’s hips (the upper iliac crest) while she pushes. This pressure pinches her hipbones closer together at the top while opening them a corresponding amount at the bottom, thus freeing the stuck head…The first time I ever used this technique…it worked well enough to make possible the birth of one of the most difficult presentations—forehead-first . Brow presentations, as these are called, almost always require cesarean section if the pelvic press is not used. Our brow baby was born without instruments, episiotomy or injury to his mother’s perineum.” (pg 246)
 Ina May's Guide to Childbirth is a great read for any one who enjoys sharing in the universal experience of childbirth and wants to create a better birth culture for future generations. Although the first time I read it was at least 6 years ago, I refer to it often.  I would love to have a collection of positive birth stories from Kuwait to share with mothers that I teach...it is empowering to share those kinds of experiences with the women around you...but until then, I will continue to use these wonderful stories from The Farm. Thank you, Ina May, for gathering this valuable collection and sharing your wisdom with the world!

1 comment:

  1. I remember reading this for the first time when I was very newly pregnant with my first daughter and crying as I read the powerful stories at the beginning. I love this book. Thanks for the great review

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