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Dr. Bradley Lied: Why Natural Childbirth Isn’t Worth It

Photograph by Getty Images

Six couples sat in a circle, staring at a large, brightly colored diagram of a developing fetus. The women all had the cute, round, easy-to-carry bellies of the second trimester of pregnancy. The men all had a slightly amused/worried expression that said it was just sinking in that they were going to be doing this every Saturday for the next twelve weeks.

"Welcome to The Bradley Method!" The teacher smiled warmly at us. "Over the next twelve classes, you will be preparing physically, mentally and emotionally to have the healthiest and safest birth experience. The type of birth your baby has can affect her health and well being for her entire life. Having a natural birth without medication or interventions can give your baby the best start possible."

We all nodded at this. Who doesn't want their baby to have the best start possible?

"Why don't we begin by talking about any fears or concerns you might have about childbirth," the teacher continued. "What's the thing you're most afraid of?"

The women giggled nervously as we moved around the circle:

"Pain. I'm really scared of the pain."

"Pain. It's so terrifying."

"Yeah, the pain. Oh, and pooping on the table."

I went down my very long mental list of fears and decided pain didn't get the number one spot.

"I think I'm more afraid of having a C-section," I said. "I mean, it's surgery. That's scary."

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The teacher's smile grew even warmer. "Almost all of the couples I work with are able to have a natural birth," she said. "Of course, there are circumstances where C-sections need to happen, but in many hospitals, doctors and nurses will try to pressure you to have one. Or, they will pressure you to take pain medication or to have interventions, which can make a C-section more likely. We'll talk more about how to manage that and ensure you can have the birth you want."

I clutched the friendly, purple Bradley Method handbook and sighed with relief. Thank God, I thought. Somebody knows how to do this. There's a system here. So I'll just follow the system, and everything will totally be okay.

Of course, this is the moment when God (wherever God is, if you believe in one) starts to laugh hysterically.

Over the next twelve weeks, my husband and I, along with the other five couples in the class did exactly that. We followed the system. We studied the stages of childbirth. We practiced labor positions and wrote detailed birth plans. We learned breathing and meditation techniques, and held ice cubes in our hands to simulate discomfort. We watched videos of childbirth where newborns miraculously crawled up their mothers' bodies, latched on, and began nursing unassisted. (For real!) We visualized our babies and sent them loving vibes. We followed an extremely healthy diet and exercise plan that included consuming one hundred grams of protein per day. (Not kidding. One hundred grams.) We rehearsed how to fend off predatory doctors and nurses wielding epidural needles and pitocin. We hired doulas. We did thousands of Kegels. So. Many. Kegels. We inhaled "love" and exhaled "fear". We felt prepared.

Don't laugh.

And then—labor. The reality. My water breaking in a gush on the living room floor just like a romantic comedy. 18 hours of rapid-fire contractions. The pain (that I wasn't too afraid of) was like nothing I had ever imagined. It was like a dark, airless tunnel that seemed to go on forever without a light in sight. It shattered me. At some point, a hazy image formed in my utterly atheist mind that God was holding me in an enormous hand and crushing my fragile body in a gigantic fist.

I was completely, relentlessly, absurdly determined to have the natural birth that I had planned. I was still following the system.

Yes, there were doctors and nurses at the hospital—despite all the Bradley hints, I was not on board with a birth center—who offered me pain medication. I don't blame them, since I was clearly miserable. But I refused. I was completely, relentlessly, absurdly determined to have the natural birth that I had planned. I was still following the system.

Except the system wasn't working for me. The labor positions were virtually useless with my baby's twisted location, pressing up against my spine. My contractions came one or two minutes apart almost immediately and never slowed down, giving me no time to meditate or even breathe.

The whole concept of the Bradley Method, as I understood it, was to be aware—aware of your body, aware of your choices, aware of the incredible process of birth that your body was supposedly built to perform. I was aware of nothing. Not the room that I was in. Not how many hours had passed. Not whether my husband or our doula was beside me. Not whether I was hungry or thirsty or had to pee. I was certainly not aware of my baby. In fact, my only clear thought up until the moment when I pushed our beautiful daughter into the world was, "I'm not going to survive this. I'm going to die."

Yeah, so I didn't die. So that was good. And our daughter was healthy—thank every god in the universe—although she certainly didn't crawl up to my breast or even latch on properly until she was six weeks old. And yet for months after the birth, I was filled with raw, overwhelming emotions. Terror. Anger. Guilt.

Where was the rush of euphoria, the sense of empowerment The Bradley Method had promised? Why couldn't I feel proud of my achievement, as my hugely supportive husband kept urging me to do?

Was it really possible to feel that much pain and still be alive? I wondered. Was I a masochist? Why had I chosen to put myself through such a traumatic experience? Was I selfish? Why hadn't I been able to focus on my baby or even think of her? I felt vaguely lied to and cheated. Where was the rush of euphoria, the sense of empowerment The Bradley Method had promised? Why couldn't I feel proud of my achievement, as my hugely supportive husband kept urging me to do?

Three months later, the six couples from our Bradley Method class met for a reunion. We cooed over our six adorable infants. We sat in a circle one last time and described our birth experiences. As I listened to each story, I began to go cold with shock. I was one of only two women in the class who had actually had a natural birth. Three of the other moms had chosen to have epidurals, and one had undergone a necessary C-section. I was stunned. Had I been the only one actually drinking the Bradley Method Kool-Aid? Did the system actually work at all?

I reread The Bradley Method handbook with bitterness and confusion. It states: "While nearly 90% of vaginal births from The Bradley Method are drug-free, most other-method or non-method births are not births at all, but drugged deliveries. The rate of drugged babies at birth in the U.S. today is about 90%."

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Setting aside the insulting term "drugged deliveries" and the offensive suggestion that these are not "births," the unattributed and possibly outdated statistics throughout The Bradley Method literature should certainly be questioned. Perhaps our small class was unusual in its low percentage of natural births. It's certainly possible. But several large medical studies over the past 20 years have contradicted the claims by natural birth organizations that epidurals are harmful to mother and baby, make C-sections more likely, impede a woman's ability to push, and impair breastfeeding and bonding. While the evidence is in no way conclusive, the Bradley Method mantra of "awareness" and "informed choices" is clearly leaving out a few facts.

As the postpartum months went on, my own traumatic memories of the birth began to fade. Just as everyone says they will. I gradually let go of my terror and guilt, as I plunged into being a mom to my incredible daughter. Now, when I listen to other women talk about their birth experiences, I am filled each time with complete awe and respect for any type of birth, for any method by which our babies enter the world and change our lives forever. Because I know now that there is no system. There is only you and the child that has grown inside you, figuring out a way to finally meet face to face. And every woman, every baby, every birth is absolutely different.

I hope that if I ever give birth again (and that's a big if!), I will be truly aware of all the options open to my family, and that we will make the right choice together.

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