Milli Hill, a British mother and writer, invited a few women to her house for tea and cake to talk about giving birth.
A “positive birth” can leave you with your child feeling “on top of the world, satisfied, and strong,” Hill told Healthline.
But at that first gathering and elsewhere, she heard stories that too often included comments like, “They did not let me,” or “I was not allowed.”
Why weren’t mothers having the labors and deliveries they wanted?
Maybe support groups for pregnant women that focused on empowering them would make a difference, she thought.
Hill posted her ideas online in 2012 and the idea of “positive birth” hit a nerve.
In a few weeks, she received more than 100 emails from women who wanted to start groups of their own.
In less than five years, 250 “Positive Birth” groups sprang up in the United Kingdom and another 200 located around the world.
There are groups in about 30 U.S. states. These chapters usually meet monthly to discuss a theme. The meetings are often led by professionals — from doulas to obstetricians — and may include two to 20 people.
What is a positive birth?
Hill unveiled “The Positive Birth Book: A new approach to pregnancy, birth and the early weeks” in March.
She begins by discussing fears, and takes readers through a labor, step by step.
Along the way, she answers questions about blood, bathroom functions, and other delicate topics.
The message: You can do it and you can love it. Take charge, seek out the labor and birth you want and refuse conditions that aren’t medically necessary and make you unhappy.
Hill believes that a “climate of fear” has affected not just women, but also midwives and doctors. Her goal isn’t to push women toward “natural” rather than “medical” births, but to encourage them to let go of the fear and learn about their options.
One woman found her surgeon through the Positive Birth Facebook page and traveled to another area to have a “gentle C-section,” in which she could see the birth through a mirror. She posted a video online, which appeared on the website of the local newspaper and attracted a flood of viewers.
“The positive birth movement offers the chance to listen to and learn from each other,” Hill told Healthline.
Caroline Handschuh, a New York-based midwife, agrees that pregnant women need more support from other women.
Handschuh spent part of her training at a hospital in Tuba City, Ariz., run by the Navajo Nation.
She saw that women there benefited from a strong community, even in the birthing room, where many family members might gather. Those gatherings helped other women as well.
“You might see your sister and your aunt give birth, which can make your own labor less frightening” she told Healthline.
Hill, a mother of three, recalls each labor and birth vividly.
“Small details will be remembered and make a huge difference — forever,” she said.
What people say sinks in. After a difficult birth, for example, mothers too often hear that they are lucky to have a healthy baby.
The implication is that “you are selfish to care about how the birth was for you,” Hill said.
Samantha Drury was inspired to take charge by an unhappy first birth. To bear her eldest, she had to stay in bed for 12 hours, hooked up to fluids, using a bed pan and going without solid food.
Restrictions are common when women have preeclampsia or diabetes. Drury had no complications. Still, she didn’t protest.
“I thought you do what the doctor said and my being happy with the birth wasn’t even an option,” she told Healthline.
In fact, she had a right to ask if there was a medical reason for her confinement and, if not, to move.
Three years later, for her next birth, she hired a doula and chose a different hospital. The difference was dramatic.
“I was able to get up and walk around and take a shower, sit in the bathtub when I had contractions, eat and drink, walk the halls, and listen to music. There were CD players and radios in the room,” she said. “The doula was absolutely wonderful.”
Drury began studying online to become a doula a month later.
“I wanted other women to feel as I felt, to be happy and satisfied with how they gave birth,” said Drury.
She founded Welcome Baby in Grinnell, Iowa, where she runs a monthly Positive Birth group. She has now been present for 30 births.
In about a third of those births, women were confined to their beds as she had been, despite no complications.
“I remind the mother that you can say that you want to get up,” she said.
Getting up will ease the labor, Giuditta Tornetta, another doula, told Healthline, as long as the woman is healthy, and her blood pressure and the baby’s heart beat are normal.
“It’s much less painful while you’re walking or standing up or squatting,” she said.
But that freedom poses a practical problem for overstretched nurses, Tornetta explained.
“It’s 3:00 in the morning, I have three other patients, I hook her up to the monitor so I can leave the room,” she said.
The concern is you might fall, if you’re not in bed, and shouldn’t be alone.
Finding joy in giving birth
Tornetta founded the Joy in Birthing Foundation, which matches volunteer doulas with about 200 low-income women a year in and around Los Angeles.
Most of the women come from public shelters or foster care and don’t bring partners or family. Volunteer doulas watch them, so a nurse in charge can leave them free to move.
Women helping each other — that’s the message of the fast-growing positive birth movement. Women are advised to look for a doctor and hospital who will work with you.
“Of course obstetricians and other obstetric care providers want women to have positive experiences,” Dr. Jeffrey L. Ecker, chief of the Obstetrics & Gynecology Department at Massachusetts General Hospital, told Healthline in an email.
“We support providers listening to patients and their preferences,” Ecker said.
So make your preferences known.