What’s in a word? Words fill our lives; from the written word in books, newspapers, lists we make and emails we send; to the words we speak when we seek to communicate with our families, friends, work colleagues and sometimes strangers in a shop. It is the nature of humans to want to communicate and build relationships. The words we use have the potential to do this, but also have the potential to do the reverse. Around birth the words we use have a heightened meaning; birth is a life changing event and so the words used become emotionally charged with feelings and expectations. How birth is spoken about will shape the belief systems for women and their families, as well as those who care for them.
A few months ago I read two social media posts from two different women planning hypnobirths. They had been to see their midwives for an antenatal check and both midwives had used different words, related to labour and birth, than the women had been using in preparation for their hypnobirths. The first post relayed that the woman felt frustrated and unsupported because the midwife had not use the appropriate language to support her birth choice. The second woman was quite relaxed in relaying what had happened and how the words weren’t really important to her. How can two similar exchanges create such different responses?
The language used in hypnobirthing centres around positive affirmations and guided visualisations which promote positive and low risk birth. Hypnobirthing promotes belief changes and release of fear based on the fact that nature has designed the body to birth using physical relaxation and focus of the mind (Hill, 2009). A research study has shown that hypnobirthing mothers have less medical induction of labour, intravenous fluids, continuous fetal heart monitoring, artificial rupture of membranes, epidurals, episiotomies and caesarean sections (Swencionis, 2013). The research demonstrates how powerful positive language and relaxation techniques can be.
By understanding the positive outcomes of hypnobirthing we can start to appreciate why the woman in the first scenario became upset, it is possible that she felt her choices around birth weren’t being respected. A social media post doesn’t give a history or a back story, she may have had an experience which prompted this perception. The differing reactions demonstrates the nuances of language, communication and the feelings we attach to the words we speak and hear. The first woman had attached stronger feelings to the language used, whilst the second woman had a more relaxed attitude and the exchange between midwife and woman was not perceived in the same way. At times the language used by women and midwives do not align and that is where communication difficulties arise. The Midwife may use certain words, often those she has used to discuss birth for many years, to her there is no emotional attachment. However, the woman has a great deal of emotional attachment because the words apply to a life changing event that happens to her.
Often Midwives will discuss labour and delivery, rather than labour and birth. Hospital wards often have ‘delivery’ in the title of the high risk wards. Yet a Midwife-led unit is often referred to as the ‘birth centre’. What message does that send out? That low risk women are active participants in giving birth and high risk women passively have their babies ‘delivered’? That low risk women have choices and positive language surrounding their births, yet high risk women have their choices limited and their birth becomes clouded about what they are ‘allowed’ to do? These are assumptions, not truths. They are what the words used around birth may mean and represent. By thinking a little more about the language we use positive relationships can flourish.
Words have meanings and when those meanings are attached to emotions, they have power. When a baby is born a mother is too, when birth is discussed we need to be mindful that the words we speak and their meanings they invoke will shape a major life changing event for women and their families. As a midwife and a mother I have a responsibility in ensuring positive language surrounds birth. This extends to a collective responsibility society holds; by using positive language we promote positive birth; by promoting positive birth we promote positive motherhood; by building positive, strong mothers we better society as a whole.
Hill, C. (2009) Hypnobirthing – preparing the mind-body for birth. http://www.positivehealth.com/article/women-s-health/hypnobirthing-r-preparing-the-mind-body-for-birth (accessed 25/01/17)
Swencionis, C. (2013) Outcomes of hypnobirthing. Journal of prenatal and perinatal psychology and health. 27 (2). https://birthpsychology.com/journals/outcomes-hypnobirthing (accessed 25/01/17)