A pregnant woman stands outside and holds her belly. She wears a white dress.
Natural childbirth is a rewarding experience, but it’s best to know early on what to expect. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Natural childbirth is on the rise.

This is according to three health care providers—a certified nurse midwife, a labor and delivery nurse and a nurse manager—who work at Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital, which welcomes 7,600 new babies a year.

“Interest in natural birth is trending up,” said Carolyn Leja, CNM. “There are a lot of women who are interested in exploring as low a level of intervention as possible for their birth.”

So, what makes a birth natural, and why are more women finding themselves drawn to this approach?

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Benefits of natural childbirth

• Faster recovery after birth, resulting in easier bonding with the baby

• Better mobility, stronger appetite and higher energy levels after birth

• Greater production of helpful hormones during labor and delivery

• Lower risk of vaginal tearing during birth

• Lower risk of slowed milk production

• No risk of infection from IV or catheter

• Strong sense of empowerment

Natural birthing means letting the woman labor while providing her support and coaching, said Annie Evans, BSN, RNC-OB, nurse manager for women and infant services at Butterworth Hospital’s labor and delivery department.

“That means active coaching through the labor, through the pain, helping her to breathe, rubbing her back, encouraging her to try different positions,” Evans said.

It means letting the body do what it’s naturally designed to do, she said.

In natural birth, there is no epidural or IV medication to blunt the pain, and doctors do not intervene medically to induce or stop labor. Also, providers don’t use continuous fetal monitoring when intermittent monitoring would be just as safe.

Why the trend?

There are several reasons for the rising interest in natural labor.

First, people are generally doing more research about their available health care options, including natural birth and its benefits.

Spectrum Health’s two Baby-Friendly Hospital designations may also be driving some of the interest, said Ashley Goodwin, RN, a labor and delivery nurse.

“It has opened doors for having moms to come in and say, ‘Oh, maybe I could do this—all natural and not have any pain meds,’” Goodwin said.

Cost may be a factor as well, according to Evans.

“Health care gets more expensive the more interventions that we do,” Evans said. “So I think that’s really driving some of this, too. How can we not have birth be so expensive?”

If the idea of natural birth resonates with you, there are ways to make the most of your experience.

Here are some expert tips on natural birthing:

1. Educate yourself and make a plan.

It’s important to know what you’re getting into, what the natural birthing process looks like and what goals you’d like to set. Take a prenatal class with your partner. Read books. Take an online class. Ask lots of questions at your prenatal visits with your nurse midwife or OB-GYN.

With all this information in mind, put together a loose plan outlining your delivery room preferences.

As a certified nurse midwife, Leja spends a lot of time talking with women during pregnancy about their plans and goals for birth.

Then, she said, “we partner with women to make that happen.”

2. Get your support team lined up.

Think about who you want to have with you when the big day arrives—spouse, partner, sister, mother, doula?

Doulas—professional labor coaches—are becoming more common in the delivery room these days, Leja said. Doulas talk with women ahead of time about what will help them through their labor pains.

“For some women, it will be walking,” Leja said. “For some women it will be, ‘Get me in the warm shower as soon as possible.’ Doulas bring a wealth of information regarding how to support women in labor.”

3. Learn what natural birth looks like in a hospital setting.

Though some people believe you can’t have a natural birth in a hospital, that’s simply not true.

“I’ve become passionate for these mothers who want a natural birth, but still want to be able to have it in the hospital,” Goodwin said, calling a natural birth in a hospital setting the “best of both worlds.”

Leja echoed this notion.

“The benefit to having a hospital birth is that you can have that homelike feel and experience,” she said—mentioning birth balls, heat pads, ice packs, showers and tubs, music, comfortable rooms and other resources available to help women through labor—“but we can also react rapidly if there’s any sort of urgent or emergent situation.”

While Spectrum Health supports natural labor in all labor and delivery rooms, Butterworth Hospital has just opened two natural birthing suites that offer an enhanced homelike atmosphere, including a queen-size bed, a recliner and a pullout couch.

Evans said Spectrum Health has adopted an approach in recent years that treats natural birthing as the default.

“We know that this is a natural process in women’s bodies,” she said, “so we’re providing more support and letting the body do what it’s naturally designed to do.”

Yet if a woman asks for pain medication, or if a higher level of intervention becomes necessary, the hospital is well equipped to provide it.

“No matter who walks through the door, we are experienced in any and all forms of labor and delivery,” Evans said.

For her part, Goodwin never mentions pain medication to laboring women if they’ve said at the outset that they’re not interested.

“They can ask for it. They know that we have it, but I don’t ever offer it to them,” she said. “I just help them cope through it.”

It’s worth it for the feeling of empowerment women get at the end, Goodwin said.

When it’s over, she hears a lot of women say the same thing: “It was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, but it was the most amazing thing.”

4. Know your preferences, but go with the flow.

While having a birth plan is important, over-planning can be counterproductive.

Your best bet is to let your nurse and provider know what you’re hoping for, and then go with the flow. That’s because labor is unpredictable, Evans said.

“Those who do well with it are those who are open to any and all scenarios that could happen,” Evans said.

If you end up needing an epidural or even a cesarean section, she said, “it doesn’t mean that supporting the natural process is out the window, or that you failed.”

Even in the case of a C-section, most babies can go skin-to-skin on their mother’s chest right after delivery. And Spectrum Health is one of the only health systems in the country to offer a special surgical drape with a baby-size doorway that lets the doctor pass the baby through at the time of birth for immediate skin-to-skin contact, mimicking a vaginal birth experience.

In the end, the goal is to create an experience that’s safe for a woman and her baby, and one where the woman has a voice in the process as it unfolds.

“I’ve seen women give birth in all kinds of different ways,” Leja said. “And every woman I see give birth has an inner strength and beauty in that process.”

5. Expect to bounce back quickly.

If you make it through your delivery unmedicated, you can look forward to an immediate payoff in how you feel and how quickly you recover.

“Although every delivery is different, most moms who don’t have any medicine, they can get up, they can shower, they feel better, they’re not as tired,” Goodwin said. “They don’t have to have their bladder emptied—they can get up and go to the bathroom themselves.”

Women who’ve had an epidural, on the other hand, have to wait for the feeling to return to their legs before they can get up and walk safely.

Goodwin’s advocacy for natural birth comes from the positive experiences she had when her two children were born. She’d like to help others achieve a similar feeling, and she’s there to support women no matter what.

The goal is to empower women, Evans said, by giving them options to choose “the birth experience that they want to have.”