Editor's note: This story contains real photos of a vaginal breech birth in process.
Do birth plans ever go exactly according to plan? Maybe, but as birth photographer Kate Kennedy can attest, things don't always go according to plan.
Kennedy was set to photograph the birth of Mel's first child. Mel was healthy, fit and enjoying an uneventful pregnancy. All was well, but in the final weeks of her pregnancy, Mel found out that the baby wasn't head-down, ready to be born. Instead, the baby was in a sitting breech position.
Mel had planned for a natural birth and, although a breech birth wasn't anticipated, she knew from being a midwife that it might still be possible for her to have the baby without a C-section. She sought the counsel of experts from the Breech Clinic at John Hunter Hospital and was told that she fit the criteria to attempt a natural breech birth.
So many things could have gotten in the way of Mel delivering naturally but with the support of her husband Ben and her second support person Denise, who is also a midwife, Mel did it! She birthed her daughter Zoe by gently breathing her out as she knelt on a bed. The kneeling on the bed was necessary for the baby's safety because it is recommended that no one touch the baby during a vaginal breech birth.
Kennedy was there to capture jaw-dropping images of this incredible birth story. Thanks to Mel and Ben generously allowing their photos to be shared, more parents can be made aware that vaginal breech births can actually happen.
Mom.me caught up with Kennedy to talk about her extraordinary photographs.
How do you prepare and plan for your birth photography sessions?
I'm officially on call for clients from 38 weeks until the baby's born. Babies sometimes come before this time frame and that's never been a problem to date, as I've always been available. However, from the 38-week mark, I don't travel far from home, even for a day. During my on-call time, I have my camera gear ready to go with fresh batteries and SD cards.
There have been times when I've suddenly been called to a birth that's moving along quickly, and I have my camera in my hands shooting 15 mins later, so it's vitally important to always be prepared. This also means having childcare for my kids at a moment's notice, which generally requires my partner to walk out of work and come straight home, or for him to call in extra staff in the early hours of the morning, if I've been called out during the night. If the birth is planned to take place at home, I always make sure I meet the family at their home during the pregnancy, so I can find the house easily (often in the middle of the night) and because I usually need to quietly let myself in when I arrive for the birth, as everyone is busy with the laboring mother.
How do you get to know the women you are going to photograph in order to make them comfortable?
I always schedule two meetings with the mothers during their pregnancy—one early on, when they first book it (I also usually meet the husband/partner at this meeting), and then a second meeting at around 35 weeks. It's often at this second meeting that the mother and I have a chance to chat candidly about her upcoming birth and how she's feeling about it all.
I have birthed five children of my own, so I have a clear understanding of the excitement, impatience and anxiety that swims around in a mother's mind during this time. We go over her birth plan and discuss how she envisions her birth to ideally unfold. I find it impossible to detach myself entirely from the birth itself and just take the photographs, as the mothers often turn to me during their labor for support, and I do find myself putting the camera aside momentarily to support the mother or partner.
Are there any times you have refused a potential client, and if so, why?
The only occasions when I need to refuse potential clients is when I already have women due around the same time. My worst nightmare is that I will have two women birthing at the same time and potentially miss a birth, so I avoid that by heavily limiting my bookings.
How do you document the experience without being intrusive or getting in the way?
The thing I'm most conscious of when I'm at a birth is respecting the couple's birth space. This means being very quiet and only speaking when it's appropriate. I make sure all my movements around the room are slow and carefully timed. I also need to be acutely aware of the medical professionals and not hindering their work through my presence. After having photographed so many births now, I have a fairly keen sense of how they move around and what equipment they might be reaching for at any given moment, so I try to make sure their work space is clear.
Do you set up lighting, or use whatever lighting is available?
The topic of flash photography is often debated in birth photography circles. A rising number of photographers across the world are using flash, usually bounced off the ceiling or walls. There's no denying that women often choose to birth in dimly lit spaces and this makes for a highly challenging job for the photographer. It's also obvious that the use of flash produces bright, sharp images in situations where it would otherwise be unachievable; however, I only use the natural light available to me.
Research shows that for a woman to labor effectively, she needs the frontal cortex of her brain to be somewhat deactivated so that she can move into an altered state of consciousness. This protective state helps her to be less aware of the intensity of her labor and therefore relax enough for her cervix to dilate. Her frontal cortex can be reactivated by light, in the same way as it is by language or a perception of danger. This could, in turn, be disturbance enough for the labor to be hindered and lengthened. As much as I admire the beautiful birth images that are shot using flash, the high respect I have for the natural birthing process restricts me from ever going down that path.
How do the women you photograph feel about sharing their photos online? Do you only ask some to share or do you ask all of them?
The women need to give clear and definite consent for any of their images to be shown online, and I treat this matter carefully. I don't ask all the women to share their images because I get a sense with some women that they might not be comfortable sharing and I don't want them to have the pressure of needing to make that decision. Many of the women I've photographed are midwives themselves and are very comfortable with the birthing process. These women are often really excited about their images being shared in the hope that they inspire a healthier attitude towards natural birth, and also an understanding of the options available for intervention births, like C-sections, too. Most of the mothers who chose to share their images do so because they feel proud of how they birthed their babies, and rightfully so!
For the natural breech birth of Zoe, was there a contingency plan if things did not go as smoothly as planned? If so, were you made aware of the plan and were you included in terms of being present to continue to photograph, come what may?
Zoe's birth needed to be somewhat medicalized due to her breech position, and Zoe's mum Mel was made aware of what needed to happen for Zoe to be born without intervention. There was a protocol in place, which meant that if Zoe was showing any signs of distress or the second stage of labor was taking too long, then Mel would be transferred to [the operating room] for a Cesarean. We all understood the perceived risks and were prepared for an alternative outcome to the natural birth she envisioned. I'm usually able to follow the parents into [the operating room], if it does come to that but it's a decision that needs to be made at the time, dependent on the circumstances.
What were Mel and Ben’s thoughts in regards to sharing the photos of their natural breech birth?
Mel is a midwife and she knows how rare images like hers are. She sent me a message when Zoe was only a couple of weeks old, saying that she would love her photos to be shared far and wide, to help educate other women about the potential for breech babies to be born naturally. I was struck by her generosity and also her courage, but needed to be certain that she wasn't in the "honeymoon phase" immediately following the incredible birth of her baby, and potentially making a decision she might later regret. So, I left it another six weeks before I checked with her again, to see how she felt about the images being shared. She was just as happy and excited about the idea, so we went ahead with it at that time. Ben felt fiercely proud of his wife and happy to share their beautiful birth with the world also.
Was this the first natural breech birth you have photographed?
Yes, Zoe's birth was the first natural breech that I had photographed. Then, just a week later, I was at a home birth where the baby was in an undiagnosed footling breech position, so we all got a big surprise when two little feet popped out as the mum began pushing! Thankfully, there were excellent midwives present, who were well trained in natural breech birth. That baby was also born safe and well!
What do you hope other mothers take away from seeing these photos?
It is Mel and Ben's hope, and also my own, that these images bring enlightenment not only to other couples faced with the birth of a breech baby, but also to medical professionals across the world, to see that a vaginal breech birth is possible for a first-time mother.