Baby talk

I’ll be having my second baby in a couple of months so, in preparation, I’ve been reading the classic Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, by the revered American midwife and natural birth guru Ina May Gaskin. This little passage leaped out at me:

‘In my early days as a midwife, I felt free to change some of the language surrounding birth as a way to help women cope with labour pain… I began to use the word rush instead of contraction. Why use a word that suggests tightness and hard muscles when successful labour will require expansion of the cervix?’

You might be tempted to dismiss this as hippy-dippy nonsense. How about some hard stats, then? The caesarean rate at Ina May’s birth centre in Tennessee is 1.4%, compared to a US national average of 31.1%. And her instrumental delivery rate (forceps or ventouse) is 0.05%, compared to 10% nationally.

Of course this isn’t entirely down to the language she and her colleagues use. But it’s scientifically proven that the environment in which women give birth can have a huge impact on how painful or tricky it all turns out to be. Subtle things like lighting, sound and surroundings can all encourage or inhibit the production of oxytocin, the hormone that speeds up birth and bonds mums to their babies. Words are a small but potentially powerful part of that mix.

The thing is, ‘contractions’ is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to unhelpful reproductive terminology. If your labour doesn’t go as quickly as it should, for example, you’ll see ‘failure to progress’ on your medical records. (Which, in your hormonal, sleep-deprived postpartum state, can make you feel – well, like a bit of a failure.) 

Or if you have the opposite problem – the neck of your womb isn’t strong enough to hold the baby in until it’s due – you get told you have an ‘incompetent cervix’. Charming.

A couple of years ago, Mumsnet, the Association of Early Pregnancy Units and the Miscarriage Association campaigned to change a particularly awful bit of terminology. The medical procedure women have to go through after they miscarry was called ‘evacuation of retained products of conception (ERPC)’. A lot of families understandably found this term upsetting (I doubt many people think of their lost child as a ‘product of conception’) and the campaign settled for the clearer and more respectful ‘surgical management of miscarriage’.

It all just serves as another reminder – as if we needed one – of how crucial words are. How they shape our perceptions and responses to our surroundings, major life events, and even our own bodies.

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