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Category: Myth, Folklore & Ritual

What in the world is a Lotus Birth?

What in the world is a Lotus Birth?

A Lotus Birth is the practice of keeping the placenta intact and attached to the baby for the first few days of the baby’s life, until the cord dries out and naturally falls off on its own, just like a cut umbilical cord would, usually within 3-10 days of the birth.  When I first heard of this practice, back in 2002 as a nursing student, I was completely aghast. Why in the world would anyone want to do something like that?? What do you do with the rotting and mouldering placenta that’s still attached to the baby? How do you dress the baby and care for the baby with the cord still attached?? I had a million questions, and the entire concept seemed completely alien.

(Photo courtesy of Danella Jade, 2018)

Further research into the subject, though, has changed my mind. It turns out many indigenous and aboriginal cultures honour the placenta, which makes a lot of sense when you think of the placenta as a guardian that has nourished and supported the baby in utero. Moari tradition buries the placenta on tribal land to help foster a connection in the child to that land. In the Hmong tribe in South East Asia, it’s believed that the placenta must be retrieved by the spirit after death, in order to ensure physical integrity in the next life, and therefore the placenta is always buried under the house where the baby was born so that the spirit will know where to find it (Buckley, 2003). In Zimbabwe, the placenta is buried by the family home to ensure that the child will always want to return home, and in Cambodia people believe that the child will stay safe so long as they are always near to their placenta (Buckley, 2010).  In Bali, the placenta (as well as the cord, amniotic fluid and blood) are called ‘Ari-Ari’, which means “younger siblings”, and these tissues–and in particular the placenta–are treated with the utmost respect, often bound in a coconut shell or placenta bag with herbs and flowers and buried outside the home (where it’s marked with a stone and then later a prickly bush is planted on top to help protect it).  A Balinese child will greet their placenta in the morning, and pray to it for protection at night, and the spirit of the placenta is thought to live on as the child’s guardian throughout their lifetime (Buckley, 2010).

(Photo credit: Nick and Vanessa Fisher)

In Western culture, the placenta is mostly seen as medical waste, and is often collected into biohazard bags and disposed of or incinerated by the hospital. The newer trend of placenta encapsulation, as well as some couples wishing to follow more traditional practices such as burying their child’s placenta under a tree in their garden, has led to more placentas being requested and brought home from the hospital than ever before.  Lotus Birth was first documented among chimpanzees, but was never practiced by humans until Claire Lotus Day (inspired by some of Jane Goodall’s research) sought an alternative to the routine cutting and clamping of the cord in 1974 and found an obstetrician who was willing to honour her wishes and leave the cord and placenta intact until they fell off naturally (Buckley, 2003; Lim, 2001). Since that time, Jeannine Pavarti Baker, Shivam Rachana and Dr. Sarah Buckley have all been proponents of Lotus Birth, and more recently Michel Odent has also spoken about the advantages of it.  While I can completely understand that this practice might not be for everyone, there are many good reasons to at least consider it.

First and foremost, a Lotus Birth would ensure that optimal placental transfusion occurred. At birth, one third of the baby’s blood supply is located in the placenta, and this vital supply of blood, oxygen, nutrients and stem cells rightly belongs to the baby (and is not waste!).  Left undisturbed, Mother Nature will gradually perfuse the baby with the remaining blood over the next several minutes while the placenta is still attached to the uterine wall; eventually, the cord will stop pulsing and the perfusion will end, often heralding signs of placental separation, followed by the delivery of the placenta. (I’ve written a lot more on physiological management of the third stage of labour in a different post). In hospitals right now, there is a big push to better support optimal cord clamping as we learn more about exactly how important this blood is to the baby. Recently, both NICE and WHO changed their guidelines to reflect the new research on this topic, urging practitioners to wait at least a minute before cutting the cord to allow placental transfusion to occur (a practice known as ‘delayed cord clamping’). However, other clinicians like Amanda Burleigh, founder of the “Wait for White” campaign, argue that a 1 minute delay isn’t nearly long enough to allow full placental transfusion, and believe that we need ‘optimal cord clamping’, which involves waiting until the cord has turned white before cutting it (more information on this can be found at Blood to Baby and in this fabulous podcast with Amanda). Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of room for improvement in this area, and lots of cords are STILL getting cut way too soon. But opting for a Lotus Birth would ensure that this would never even be a question, as the baby would receive their full portion of blood and the cord would never be cut (too soon, or otherwise).

Additionally, a Lotus Birth helps preserve the mother-infant bond, and helps enforce a “lying-in” period, or a “breaking-forth”, as Dr. Sarah Buckley calls the time between when the baby is born and when the cord naturally falls off (Buckley, 2010).  It’s hard to get out and about with a baby who’s still attached to a cord (although not impossible, as placenta bags are portable and easy to use), and the practice ensures that the first few days unfurl at a slower, more gentle pace, with the mother taking it easy and spending the majority of her time resting and bonding with the baby. A baby who’s still attached to the cord is a visual reminder to visitors that the baby is still new and needs to be protected, and also helps prevent the baby being passed from one excited relative to the next (potentially to the mum and baby’s detriment). It’s also a bit harder to fully dress a baby who’s cord is still attached, which gently encourages skin-to-skin bonding to keep the baby warm, rather than dressing, and we know how important uninterrupted skin-to-skin is when it comes to establishing breastfeeding.  Anecdotal reports have emphasised the calm and peaceful transition Lotus Birth allows for, as well as the calmer and more relaxed temperaments of babies who are still attached to their cords (although this might be influenced more by the uninterrupted bonding and attachment fostered by a Lotus Birth, rather than the actual physical presence of an intact placenta). Author Shivam Rachana has written about how babies seem to automatically flinch or cry out or grab their cord as it’s being cut, and Robin Lim, international midwife and founder of the Bumi Sehat birthing center in Bali, reports on a Lotus Birth where the placenta was seen to pulse at the same time that the baby was breastfeeding (Lim, 2001). The father of that baby, himself a PhD biochemist, was amazed by this discovery, stating: “I am certain that something here is being communicated. I am not fooled by the dry appearance of the cord, deep in the center there is life. Something essential is being provided to my baby by his placenta,” (Lim, 2001). In the same article, Robin Lim beautifully sums it up:

Midwives are the guardians of normal birth. Yet in these times we may have forgotten what normal is. We are certain that a close bond between mother and child is normal. My experience is that Lotus birth facilitates that bond. Yes, it is inconvenient to move around with the baby attached to her placenta. So mother lies in, close to the baby and placenta; breastfeeding is established in this sacred circle of quiet, restful seclusion. Yes, few visitors feel welcome while the placenta is still attached. It is during this space out-of-time that family may be invented, and that the new mother reinvents herself.

 

(Photo credit: Veronika Richardson, Fox Valley Birth & Baby, “Tranquility”, 2018)

So what about the practicalities? How does one actually have a Lotus Birth?  This article is great for answering many frequently asked questions (with lovely images of Lotus Birth to boot).  According to Lotusbirth.net,  first you wash the placenta in warm water after it’s been delivered (and after it’s finished pulsing/ transfusing all its blood to the baby) and then pat it dry. Then place the placenta in a sieve over a bowl for about 24 hours to allow it to drain. After this, the placenta can be placed in a nappy or cloth and covered with salt and herbs like dried goldenseal, lavender, turmeric or sage, with more salt and herbs added daily and the nappy changed daily (if you have a placenta bag, the nappy can be placed inside the bag). There are no reported cases of infections being transferred from a degenerating placenta to a baby, although RCOG states that there is the potential for infection and advises that practitioners should act quickly if any signs of infection in the baby are noted. Many anecdotal reports state that the placentas dried out and remained surprisingly odourless for days when salt was used to preserve them.

Naturally, Lotus Birth won’t feel right to many women, but if this appeals to you, don’t hesitate to ask for it. As midwives, we need to be able to support all women’s birth choices, including Lotus Birth.  As quoted from a Guardian article on Lotus Birth: “Unsurprisingly, lotus birth is a minority home birth activity, says Mervi Jokinen of the Royal College of Midwives, although there is no reason you couldn’t ask for it at a hospital birth. “The people who do this are happy to see the experience as a life event and a natural thing. It’s difficult to make a clinical comment on this because there are no studies.” Which is all just to say that even if it’s an unusual practice, it’s absolutely something that midwives can (and should) support. We didn’t have a Lotus Birth with either of our home births, but looking at all of this information now, part of me wishes that we had!

 

Buckley, S. (2003) ‘Lotus Birth: A Ritual for Our Times’, Midwifery Today, 68 (Autumn 2003), pp. 36-38.

Buckley, S. (2010) The Amazing Placenta. Available at: http://www.mothering.com/articles/the-amazing-placenta/. (Accessed 8 March 2018)

Lim, R. (2001) ‘Lotus Birth–Asking the Next Question’, Midwifery Today, 58 (Summer, 2001), pp. 14-16.

The Nautilus Shell

The Nautilus Shell

I wrote this yesterday, for a dear friend’s Mother Blessing, and I thought I would share it here as well (with her permission):

I give you two beads, shaped like a nautilus shell. The nautilus is very special—it’s one of the oldest known fossils on our planet, but it also tells the story of growth and maturation. It starts as a very small shell to protect the animal inside. Then, as the sea creature outgrows the first small chamber, it has to create a new, slightly larger shell to accommodate its slightly larger body, which it adds to the front of its old shell like an extension on a house. This is how the Nautilus grows, spiraling around and around with each new addition. The Nautilus is all about growth and evolution, and to my mind, the perfect metaphor for becoming a mother.

Your entire world is about to change. Very soon you’re going to find that you’re too big for your old self, and you’ll have to grow and change to accommodate this new person you’re about to become. Growth is inevitable. But every time you spiral around your center, the newer parts of you will strengthen the older parts of you. You will feel lost for awhile—awkward and clumsy, uncomfortable in your new role. You will mourn who you used to be, before you were a mother—we all do, now and then. But gradually you will get used to your new self and how much bigger you’ve become—and how much stronger you’ve become—and how much more beautiful you’ve become. And to your baby, you will be his entire world. His ENTIRE world. And you will grow as big as you need to be, to be the mother that he needs. But at the very center of your larger shell, the person you’ve always been will still be there, too. And at some point, you’ll realize she hasn’t gone anywhere. She will wait for you to find her again, and you will. You will be both—your new, larger self, and your older, smaller self. And you will love him so much. And he will love you like you are his entire world. Because you will be.

I wish you every blessing as you start out on this new adventure. I wish you health, and happiness, but more than anything else, I wish you time. The time goes too quickly—everyone will tell you this. So many people will tell you this that it will actually become annoying. Of course, of course, it goes too quickly, cherish every moment! They will say things like that—old ladies on the bus and aunts and grandparents and random strangers in waiting rooms—and you will think to yourself that there are moments you don’t want to cherish. It’s hard, to be a mother. It’s so unbelievably hard. The old ladies forget this part of it, I think. The work is invisible, and often unappreciated, and not valued by our society, and the worry will etch lines into your face and make your heart feel like a stone, sometimes. There is always so much to get done, and never enough time to do it in. And the days can feel like months, and the months can feel like years. You will wish for the time to go faster—we all do, sometimes.

But at some point you will look back and realize it did pass in the blink of an eye (because it does that, as well; it’s both interminable and lightning quick at the same time). So my wish for you is that every now and then, not always and not constantly, but moments here and there, you can catch the time and hold it with both hands, for just a second. I wish that for you there will be time to do nothing for an entire afternoon except hold him. There will be time to let him fall asleep on your chest. There will be laundry to do, and meals to prepare, and groceries to buy…but there will be time to ignore all of that, and curl up on the bed with him and take a nap together, just the two of you. There will be time to sniff his warm little head, and kiss his nose, and stroke his feet. There will be time to make him laugh. To tickle him and play peek-a-boo. Time to go on walks together, just the two of you, to push a buggy down the street on cold, blustery days, and balmy summer days. Time to look at the leaves in the trees, to watch the way the sunlight catches them or the wind shakes them—he will be fascinated by things like this—and time to do nothing but watch him watching the leaves.

This is what I wish for you. There will be so much to get done, and so many new concerns. But I wish you pockets of time. Little moments, caught here and there.

I wish you lots and lots of time.

Sealing Birth

Sealing Birth

I’ve been finishing up the requirements for a Sacred Pregnancy Belly Bind and Sealing course which I started years ago, but was never able to complete thanks to the birth of my second son, which threw me for a bit of a loop. Two years later I’m finally coming back to it again, and have been enjoying it very much. At the heart of the course are the skills needed to do a bengkung belly bind (pictured below), but the course is about more than just the physical binding itself. It’s also about learning how to create a sealing ritual to honour the birth and provide closure for the woman, as well as supporting her through her postnatal journey–both of which are sorely lacking in our modern world!

Pregnancy and birth is all about opening, on so many levels: opening yourself physically, opening yourself spiritually and emotionally, opening yourself up to the vulnerability of a new and powerful love, and opening yourself mentally and psychologically to the needs of another human being (and being willing to put those needs first). Our western culture is fairly good at discussing the physical opening that takes place (just go to any childbirth class or antenatal prep class and it will be all about the stages of labour and dilation and what happens to your body), somewhat good at acknowledging the mental and psychological opening that takes place (but better at focusing on the baby’s needs than on the mother’s needs), and generally not so good at the emotional or spiritual opening that’s going on. Antenatally, there is the tradition of the Baby Shower (very popular in the US, much less so in the UK), which revolves around gift-giving and providing for the material needs of the baby but tends to gloss over the emotional or spiritual needs of the mom and the transition she’s undergoing. A Mother Blessing, based loosely on a Navajo tradition known as a Blessingway, is a newer tradition that’s been growing in popularity and does a better job of filling the emotional and spiritual void by honouring the mother and her journey and showering her with love and blessings from her community. However, this still pertains mostly to the antenatal time period, and is focused on the birth itself. Overall, in our modern society, very little attention is given to providing closure for women, helping them to ground and center themselves again after such a transformative experience, and acknowledging their new role as a mother. That’s where a sealing ceremony comes in.

After an opening, it makes sense that there should be a closing. A woman needs to be sealed, on so many levels. Physically, her womb and pelvis and pelvic floor need to contract again, after softening and expanding and dilating. Her abdomen has to knit together once more after the diastasis recti muscles have literally come unzipped.  Her blood volume shrinks and her blood pressure may rise again (slightly–this is normal, and has nothing to do with the stress of having a newborn!).  On a chi/ energy/ prana level, she has to re-balance herself and find her own, singular energy rhythms again, after having adjusted to holding her own chi as well as that of her growing baby.  Emotionally, she has to adjust to the sudden emptiness inside of her, after having grown used to sharing her body and feeling the baby’s movements inside her for months and months.  And even more importantly, she has to adjust to being the only occupant of her body again, reclaiming herself as a single entity, and feeling the wholeness of herself once more. Spiritually, she is going through perhaps one of the biggest transitions of her life, from maiden to mother, with all of the new uncertainties, vulnerabilities and identity upheaval that contains. It’s a very big deal–SO much is happening on so many levels, but in our western culture there is no formal way to acknowledge or honour this process.

Many traditional cultures around the world have sealing ceremonies and traditions which are an important part of the postnatal process. In China, new mums are encouraged to stay in bed for the first 30 days and are fed “warming” foods, often with lots of ginger and bone marrow in them to help . In India and traditional Hindu cultures, women remain home with their new baby for the first 40 days to help promote breastfeeding and avoid infection (interestingly enough, it takes about 6 weeks for a woman to fully establish her milk supply, which may be the underlying reason for this), allowing family and friends to care for her while she learns to care for her baby.  Bengkung binding traces its roots to Malaysia, where it’s part of the traditional postnatal care offered to women. But of course, in modern America and the UK, there’s often very little room made for the woman’s transition during the postnatal phase. The focus is very much on the baby. The early weeks of the postnatal period involve trips to the paediatrician (in the US) or home visits by midwives and health visitors in the UK, checking the baby’s weight gain before finally discharging the mother/baby dyad from care around Day 10. Well-intentioned family members and friends encourage the mom to “get her life back” or “get her body back”, set up feeding schedules and routines for the baby and attend baby classes and postnatal groups as a way of socialising, all of which require the mum to leave the house with her newborn at a time when she’s not fully confident in her new identity yet, and often still overwhelmed by the transition and the round-the-clock needs of her baby.

And of course, we’re getting it wrong again and again. For one thing, very few women are recovering from a peaceful or empowering birth in the first few weeks.  Most are having to process and contain experiences that ranged from disappointing to outright traumatic.  As a midwife and lactation consultant, part of my job is to listen to women’s birth stories. Often I’m visiting with women in the first few days or weeks after the birth, when the experience is still very raw and they’re still processing it. Asking them to share their story can sometimes open floodgates of emotion for them, particularly if the birth was traumatic to them. A big piece of my job is to give the woman time to tell her story, in her own words and at her own pace–not just to share the details of it for the purposes of collecting her medical history, but to give her a chance to debrief. Even if she’s already told all of her friends and family about her experience, there’s something different about the listening you do in the role of a birth worker. It’s important to give her space, without judgement, and to acknowledge her experience. Sometimes sharing her story will bring up questions about it that she didn’t even know she had, which I’m sometimes able to help answer (particularly if the question is about something technical), and sometimes not (but sometimes just being able to formulate a question for the first time is helpful). Other times she doesn’t have any questions, but will simply repeat something over and over again, usually until it’s acknowledged (and here, echoing the woman’s words back to her helps tremendously; she might say at 6 different points in the story that she hadn’t really wanted to be induced, and saying a statement like: “You really didn’t want to be induced” allows her to feel like she was heard). There are many counseling tips and tricks that you pick up along the way, such as active listening, asking open-ended questions, reflection, paraphrasing, summarising and clarifying etc. But the root of it, of course, is listening without judgement, and holding space for her to be or feel whatever is coming up for her. This is an important part of sealing a birth, and can be very healing for a woman.

Mothering is incredibly invisible and unappreciated in our society. In other cultures, mothers are respected and honoured on a fundamental level which we seem to be missing. So much of our identity comes from what we do professionally. Just think of a dinner party with new acquaintances where everyone is going around asking you about “what you do”. When I was not working professionally but rather staying home with my children, I would often respond to these types of questions with something like: “Oh, I’m just a mother right now” (JUST a mother…), or “Not much”.  Not much! As if the enormity of my daily work–caring for my children, nourishing them with my body when I was breastfeeding, preparing and cooking meals for them, running the household, doing laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping and a gazillion other domestic chores, but more than anything else teaching them *constantly* by my words and actions and attitudes–amounts to nothing much at all because at the end of the day I had very rarely achieved anything, at least anything that could be crossed off of a to-do list or recognized by the wider culture as important.  The work is repetitive, monotonous, lonely and under-valued, and in our culture it’s very low-status work. One has only to read a book like What Mothers Do by Naomi Stadlen to see the damage this lack of status inflicts on women on a daily basis. Here we are working our guts out, but the idea of a stay-at-home mother in our culture connotes the idea of not doing much of anything (but actually, this applies to any mother, because even working mums still have to come home from their paid job to begin their unpaid job of mothering, and are most likely only recognised for the work they do as part of paid employment). And we wonder why women are suffering from postnatal depression and anxiety in higher and higher numbers, or why modern women today are struggling as much as they are find their way.  The author of this article eloquently points out that perhaps feminism has let women down on this front. I agree with that, but I also think it’s part of a wider malaise in our society: raising children and parenting the future generation is not seen as important, meaningful work, and this is a problem.

Which brings us back to sealing birth…rather circuitously.  We need to get better and sealing birth for women. We can do this formally, through a ritual like the one Sacred Pregnancy has created (or something that we create on our own), or informally through birth debriefing, but at it’s very heart sealing a birth involves acknowledging the transition she’s been through, recognising the incredible work she has done and is currently doing–the work of giving birth, which is in itself a monumental achievement, but also the ongoing work of mothering–and honouring her for this. Sealing birth won’t elevate the status of motherhood overnight, or fix the many deficiencies in our culture, but it can definitely help to make a difference on an individual level to the woman herself. And every woman who feels supported, recognised and honoured as a mother will bring that confidence to her vital and incredibly important job of raising the next generation, and shaping our society in the process.

Looking back, I think that I was very lucky in that I was able to seal my first birth pretty well. While I never had a formal ceremony done, I was lucky to have had a very empowering birth experience (I’ll get my two birth stories posted soon) and I happily recounted my birth story over and over and over to whoever would listen. I felt like superwoman–I felt like I could do anything, after having given birth! There was something about repeating it again and again, something in the telling of the story, that helped make it real for me, and helped me gain closure on it. The telling of it and the closer helped to translate the confidence I felt about my birth into a growing confidence I felt about my new role of as a mother (Breastfeeding? Pshaw! OF COURSE I can breastfeed. I just gave birth after all–I can do anything!) I also had loads of support and help from friends and family in the first few weeks after my first birth, which made it a relatively smooth transition. With my second birth, this wasn’t the case. Even though the birth itself was wonderful, joyous and empowering, the postnatal period became incredibly stressful due to a medical emergency with my 5 day old son, which threw everything off kilter. Also, since it was the second time around, my expectation was that of course I would be able to manage it, just like I had with my first…but in reality, I found the transition from one child to two children incredibly difficult!  And perhaps not surprisingly, I suffered from postnatal depression with my second son (again, I’ll share the story on here sometime soon). I think sealing is crucially important part of the birth experience. Was your own birth sealed? And if so, how was this accomplished?

 

Bengkung belly binding