Swallowing the natural childbirth nonsense damaged me for life, Rebecca Wilcox writes

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I watched, apprehensive, as the ice-cold water I’d just thrown dripped down my mother’s immaculate make-up. 

I knew it was ice-cold, because moments earlier I’d taken a sip from the plastic cup my midwife handed me. 

Now, it was splashed all over Mum’s lovely silk dress and she was looking at me – appalled – while gracefully dabbing herself with a paper towel.

My mother, who had been so desecrated, is none other than Dame Esther Rantzen – a national treasure and founder of Childline and The Silver Line. 

But she had said a word that pushed my every button.

I was moments into labour, hours away from giving birth to my first child, and I was delirious. Bathed in sweat, I was dishevelled and gripped by spasms of pain.

‘EPIDURAL!’ Mum had bellowed. A perfectly reasonable suggestion, you might think.

But that was the one word I didn’t want to hear and she knew that. She knew, too, that I wanted to ‘breathe through the pain’ , have a water birth, and listen to some gentle music by candlelight.

So how dare she suggest an epidural – an anaesthetic that numbs the body from the waist down. 

‘Listen, Mother,’ I’d told her a few weeks earlier, ‘if you’re going to be my birth partner, I need you to know that I plan to open like a lotus flower and not take any drugs. My baby and I will travel this journey together. So, you need to support my decisions or go home.’

She thought I was mad not to want pain relief, while I scoffed at her old-fashioned attitudes to birth. I believed all medicalised pain relief during labour was bad – gas and air if necessary, but that was it. 

Only interfering doctors thought women needed assistance. Why did I believe all this? The answer was simple – my National Childbirth Trust antenatal class.

  

In most parts of the UK, the NHS runs antenatal classes for expectant parents, covering pregnancy, birth, practical baby-care, baby-feeding, physical and mental health. 

These can be anything from a single session of a couple of hours, to a number of classes over a series of weeks.

They are free, but said to be quite basic. 

Every pregnant couple I knew had instead booked a private course run by the UK’s biggest parenting charity, the National Childbirth Trust, or NCT. So that’s what I did, too.

There are two options: the ‘Signature’ package, which is 18 hours, running over several weeks – costing £159 for a couple, or an ‘Essentials’ option, which is 12 hours over six weeks, costing £136.

I jumped at the chance to gain access to what had been described as ‘Britain’s best middle-class dating agency for mummy friends’.

Fellow NCT course-mates become your closest allies. Your children grow up together.

What I didn’t know was that the NCT might have its own agenda. And that it might be one that didn’t have my best interests at heart.

 

Before the course all I wanted from my birth was a healthy baby and a happy me. 

I had no notion that the NCT, founded by natural childbirth activist Sheila Kitzinger, might have strong views on how my birth should progress.

Our classes were held in a slightly grubby room at the local Royal British Legion close to where I live in North London. 

And the way our teacher, Clare, described labour coloured my view of the whole process for years to come. 

Birth, she told us, was a natural process. And, so, we should all be able to do it naturally. She said natural a lot.

Doctors, according to Clare, want to take over your birth and ‘overly medicalise’ it.

There was no mention of the fact that in the 1930s, when it was uncommon to give birth in hospital or with a doctor involved, about four per cent of women died during or shortly after giving birth. Babies died, too.

Today, maternal mortality is around 0.01 per cent. But Clare warned us to question every doctor who suggested something ‘unnatural’ like an induction. Or forceps. Or worse, a caesarean section.

She said all these could be avoided by practising our breathing, studying hypnobirthing – a kind of meditation – and massaging our perineum so that my bits would be so elastic I would easily open (like a lotus flower).

Drugs, Clare said, were ‘unnatural’ for pain relief, as they crossed the placenta and entered baby’s bloodstream.

And what of my mother’s favourite, the epidural, which she had with all three of her births? Possibly the worst kind of pain relief, said Clare, as it could make it harder to deliver.

What a coward my mother was, I thought, to not experience her body’s ‘natural way to flow with the waves of labour’.

As it happened, I had to have epidurals both times I gave birth. 

And I bless the anaesthetists and all the doctors who saved my two boys, who were huge; Benjamin, now seven, was 9 lb 8oz and Alexander, now four, a whopping 10 lb 8oz.

I have narrow hips so a natural birth was, with hindsight, almost impossible. But, oh did I try.

Both my boys got ‘stuck’ on the way out and I tore terribly. 

With Benji, labour lasted 38 hours. I pushed for nearly five hours, which is dangerous because of the risk of infection to the baby.

No matter how hard I tried to imagine my body softening and opening like a flower, the pain was not manageable. I was put on the dreaded induction drip – something else Clare from the NCT warned against as it causes stronger contractions.

The midwife suggested I only go on the drip if I had an epidural, as the contractions would be too intense otherwise.

After 24 hours, I couldn’t take any more pain and asked for an epidural in a quiet and guilty voice. My mother cheered.

Ironically, admitting she had been right all along was the most painful part of my labour.

As it turned out, I needed quite a lot of medical intervention.

First, the doctor tried ventouse – a suction device that helps pull the baby out – and then forceps.

An emergency caesarean was mentioned. But after one last go with the forceps my brilliant consultant pulled Benji out.

I was so badly injured that I still suffer complications. Running downhill, coughing and sneezing are all fraught with ‘Will I, won’t I, pee my pants’ moments. 

Incontinence, at the age of 34, is no joke.

I may have had these problems without having delayed pain relief but delaying asking for medical help put my baby, and me, in danger. All because, I believe, of the NCT’s advice.

After the birth, I thought I had failed and was a terrible mother. I was embarrassed to tell fellow mums I’d had an epidural and the few I spoke to seemed so proud to have made it through on positive thoughts.

For my second labour, you’d think I would have learned my lesson but I was still under the influence of the NCT. I even made it into the much-praised birthing pool. 

But it didn’t help. My second enormous baby boy also got stuck as his body was facing the wrong way – his back towards my back.

Fortunately, I was whizzed to the labour ward, and given another epidural before a genius consultant resorted to forceps and yanked out my huge baby.

Alexander was born healthy and I hardly felt a thing. A miracle. Except, it’s not a miracle, it’s medical science. And mothers shouldn’t feel guilty – as I did – for benefiting from it. 

You wouldn’t have an operation, or even a tooth out, without pain relief. So why are some people reluctant to give it to mothers giving birth?

 

My NCT coach’s partisan views didn’t stop at childbirth. She also had strong opinions about the ‘natural’ feeding of your baby.

‘Breast is best’ is central to NCT teaching and I came away convinced breast milk was the only choice for a caring mother.

The pain would diminish once my nipples toughened up, they said. What they didn’t say was that my boobs would go black and bleed from all the bruising.

They passed over problems like mastitis, infections of the breast which make them feel as if they’re on fire – which I suffered seven times. 

But the memory of the NCT classes made me feel like a failure, so I persisted for two years with each child.

Breast milk is the best for your child but formula is a perfectly good choice too. And just as some women cannot give birth naturally, others cannot naturally breastfeed, no matter how hard they try. 

A friend of mine said one NCT teacher’s throwaway comment destroyed her confidence. 

She said: ‘One mum in our group asked about possible pain during breast feeding. Our teacher told her, “If you’re doing it right, it won’t hurt.” This meant that for six weeks I struggled with guilt as I failed to breastfeed.’

One quick search on Mumsnet proves we’re not the only parents unhappy with NCT’s partisan teachings. There are threads devoted to shock over the NCT bias and dictatorial nature.

A charity supporting parents should do just that, support us, not make us feel like failures.

 

Talking to other mums who’d had similar horrible experiences made me realise we’d been sold propaganda. One friend said her teacher told her ‘no epidurals, no inductions and no bottle feeding’.

Others said instructors were much better and spoke openly about medical interventions. It is clear the teachers vary hugely.

When it started in the 1950s, the NCT’s aim was to empower mothers when doctors perhaps were not listening to what they wanted. 

But it’s gone too far. The NCT now almost fetishises intervention-free births. 

The charity’s former president, Seana Talbot, resigned earlier this year, saying she was concerned the organisation was being ‘taken away from our core mission of birth and breastfeeding, and towards more generic parent support with an emphasis on mental health’.

An NCT spokesman said: ‘We’re very sorry that Rebecca had this experience. We aim to ensure parents feel fully informed and supported whatever their decisions or circumstances. Our highly trained antenatal teachers discuss caesareans, vaginal births, assisted delivery and all types of pain relief. We support parents however they feed their babies.’

One positive came from my NCT course – I met some of my most trusted friends. If you do decide to go, just remember to insert ear plugs when they start to pass off opinion as fact.

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