Take Back Your Birth

This is the first article by Cristen Pascucci, who recently joined Improving Birth’s executive board.

I went into pregnancy and preparation for birth “willfully ignorant.”  I’d never wanted to experience either, so my perspective on the whole thing was that of an outsider’s.  As I started poking around about giving birth for the first time, I had some vague ideas about lowering the lighting in the room; maybe I’d wear one of my own gowns that I felt comfortable in.  I didn’t want gawking strangers there while I delivered (I mean, how awkward is that?) and I thought it would be very cool if I could cut the baby’s cord, if it wasn’t too gross.

This was when I began hearing a phrase that absolutely astonished me: “They might let you…” or “Sometimes you’re allowed to” – referring to what the medical staff may or may not allow in the labor and delivery room.

I wasn’t talking about life-or-death decisions here.  I was simply trying to find ways to make this terrifying, traumatic, first-time experience more pleasant or more “mine.”  I was amazed to find that the prevailing attitude was that, in every little thing, I needed the permission of my health provider and hospital staff, and that they varied so widely in what they would or would not “allow.”

That factor alone – the variation in the policies among different providers and facilities– told me that health and safety weren’t the issues.  After all, if that were the case, these policies would be standardized to protect moms and babies.  There are laws, regulations, and scientific research on these things.  Right?

No, this was simply a matter of preference – and not my preference, either.

What an odd concept, I thought.  I’m an educated adult, and it is my body, my baby, and my birth.  And, frankly, I’m a paying customer.  If safety is not an issue, why don’t my preferences count in this very important life event?  Why on earth wouldn’t I get to make these decisions?

The limit for me was finding out that “they might or might not” let me hold my own baby immediately after he was born, even if there was no medical reason, because some nurses preferred to get stats like length and weight right away. (As if those things would change if they were measured after I’d had a chance to meet my baby.)  And if the medical staff was of the mind to isolate the baby after birth for any kind of monitoring–non-emergency included–I was told there was nothing I could do.  I might see him minutes or hours later, even the next day; it was all up to the hospital.  My best bet, I was advised, would be to drag myself out of bed to follow him to the nursery and keep asking for him until someone sympathized.

Mind-boggling.  I could not imagine going through the process of giving birth, lying there exhausted and helpless, and watching my own baby be whisked away before I could hold him–because of someone else’s preference.

Finally, I asked the nurse who taught my childbirth class, “Can’t I say ‘no’?  What is the law on this?”  Was I somehow giving up my legal rights to my body and as a parent simply by going into Labor & Delivery?  What were they going to do, arrest me for demanding to hold my own baby?

The answer to my first question, of course, is YES, you can say “no.”  In fact, that’s one of your most fundamental rights as a patient and a human being.   Your body is your own, and you decide what is done or is not done to it, and, as a parent, you have the right to make decisions about your baby.  There are many options for birth, the majority of which are as safe as or even safer than standard practice.

In the end, I did get exactly the safe, uncomplicated birth I wanted for my baby, but it truly was a battle, and one I came close to losing.  (More on that later.)  I had to fight hard and, even then, luck came into play.  So take it from someone who’s been there: educate yourself about your options and pick a team who will completely respect and enforce your wishes.  Having to fight for yourself in birth is something no one should have to go through.

And taking back your birth may be as simple as changing your language.  You don’t really need to ask permission, as if others have the ultimate authority over you or your baby.  When you’re handed the thin, ugly hospital gown, you don’t have to ask, “Is it okay if I don’t wear that?”  You can say, “No, thank you, I would rather wear my own clothes.”  You can be assertive without being confrontational with the people who are there to help you.  This principle applies to anything during your labor, delivery, and postpartum period.

Take back your birth.  It truly is yours, and you don’t need anyone’s permission.

What has your experience been giving birth – good, bad, or indifferent?  Did it matter, and, if so, how did it impact you and your baby?



  1. Thank you for posting this article. ALL pregnant women and their partners should read this, take it to heart and enforce their own decisions.I have placed a link to this article on our Hypnobabies website so that our own students can have reinforecement of what we teach: Your birth is *your* birth.

  2. I had the opposite experience at my hospital, I made the decisions, they didn’t “let” me do anything. In every aspect they deferred to my wishes and asked me what I wanted THEM to do. I couldn’t have been happier with their service. Not every hospital is the seventh layer of hell.

    • So, so glad to hear that Tara :) It’s good to hear about the amazing hospitals too, the ones who practice evidence-based childbirth and work as a team to make sure mothers and families are in control.I absolutely love hearing about those amazing doctors and nurses.

  3. Kerry, thank you! Feel free to pass along!

    Tara, that’s awesome! It’s so refreshing to hear that. I’m curious about where you’re located and how/whether you prepared for the hospital experience–or did you just get lucky? (If you don’t mind sharing.) I had a great experience with my hospital, too. They respected my wishes and worked wonderfully with my support team (even “allowing” an IV to be run to the tub, so I could labor there instead of the bed while receiving fluids). No, we certainly don’t think “every hospital is the seventh layer of hell.” Many, however, need to review their policies and practices because so many of them “do things the way they have always been done”–which means they aren’t updating their care to be current with the latest evidence. So, unfortunately, for the average American woman, it’s a gamble. Research points over and over to the fact that the vast majority of our women do not receive evidence-based care, nor do they have access to or awareness of all of their options. It’s incredibly important that a woman is aware of that very real possibility and is proactive about mitigating it. It’s too important to “gamble.”

  4. Cady Reimann

    Our Birth Story
    My daughter was born on a Thursday evening. 5:53 pm to be exact. And the first thought I had, as she was placed in my arms was: “I will do ANYTHING to protect you”. From that moment she was the most important person in my life. I have loved her from that moment, more than I ever thought I could love anyone. And this story is hers, and for her.
    I woke up Wednesday the 22nd around 6:00am, and couldn’t seem to get back to sleep, so I went into Lily’s room to watch the sun rise. As I stood by the window I talked to her and pictured what my life would soon be like. I told her I thought the 22nd would be a good birthday, and asked if she agreed. Apparently she thought I was just a little off. ;)
    I had my very first contraction at 3:46pm, on our way home from lunch with a friend and her sweet children. I thought, honestly, that it coulda been just some serious gas pain, so I ignored it. When we got home, we layed down to take a nap. (We hadn’t gone to bed until close to 1:30, and Chris got up for work at he’d had a long day, and I was EXTREMELY pregnant, so I was always tired.)
    I woke up to more “gas pain” around 6:43 pm, but of course, being 8 days overdue I got all excited thinking maybe these were contractions! The doctor had sent us into the hospital for an ultrasound on Monday, just to make sure everything was okay. And we got to see our beautiful baby, who was at that point deemed “Peanut”. He/She (She) was beautiful, perfect and healthy. I was MORE than ready to have this beautiful little person in my arms!
    Around 8:45 the contractions started to become more frequent, about every 40 minutes or so. So I decided to do a facial, paint my nails and take a hot shower. As they continued, like clock-work, every 40 minutes I decided to tell Chris that this might be the real deal. Around 10:30 I told him and we decided to go to bed, knowing that it might be a LONG night! Right as we laid down, the contractions started to get stronger and more intense. We laid in bed until about 2:00, riding the waves of contractions together. We called the hospital when the contractions were about 10 minutes apart. They said to wait: Take some tylenol, lay on my left side and just breathe and relax through the pain. Just to make sure it was true labor.
    Chris called again two hours later, when the contractions were all of the sudden 3 minutes apart and lasted about 1-2 minutes each. I was getting through them just fine with the awesome help of my hubby. He was a champ and helped remind me to relax and breathe.
    They told us to go ahead and come in to get checked. We got there around 4:30 and they escorted us to an exam room where we waited….and waited…and waited. Finally a nurse came in and hooked me up to the monitor and told me to lie on the gurney and she left the room. I laid there, flat on my back, in excruciating pain for almost an hour before she came back. She then told us that the monitor hadn’t been working, so she adjusted it and left again, to call the doctor. She came back half an hour later to check me and said I was dilated to a 5 and 70% effaced. Chris told her how much pain I was in and asked if I could get up and move around, or even just go to the bathroom. She seemed embarrassed that she had left us for so long, and was then very nice. She called the doctor, and at 6:30 we were admitted to the hospital. She showed us to our room and we were settled in by 7 am.
    That’s when our room was flooded with people and paperwork! We filled out papers, signed on the dotted lines and answered questions in between contractions. Our nurses name was Deena. And she asked to see our birth plan so she could know how to help us. She was an angel! She never once offered me pain medication, stood up for me when the doctor wanted to start pitocin, waited to ask questions until after a contraction was done, and informed everyone else in the room when to be quiet so I could concentrate.
    The doctor came in around 7:45 to see how I was doing, and informed us that she had a flight to catch that afternoon for a job interview in California (Can you imagine how upset I was? Yeah, not a very happy girl.). So she told me another one of her colleagues would be there for the delivery if I didn’t deliver before 4 O’clock. Needless to say, we don’t follow her anymore (More on this later).
    Our family’s came around 11:00 and stayed all day, visiting and encouraging.
    Doctor Okcay broke my water at 8:20 am, and told me that my contractions would get much worse and I should progress much faster. (This is one thing that I’ll refuse next time.) They didn’t inform me until afterwards that I could no longer use the bathtub, because of the risk of infection. Which was particularly disappointing, since I had wanted to try to have a water birth. =/
    Dr. Okcay came back in around 10:00 am and told me they were going to start pitocin (I was dilated to a 7 at that point), I told her no. She tried to talk me into it, but I knew what I wanted and what was best for me and the baby, so I refused. Deena told me after the doctor left that I’d done the right thing. There was no reason for pitocin, I was progressing well and the baby wasn’t distressed at all.
    Through all of this they checked my cervix every 45-60 minutes and I had, what seemed like, near constant fetal heart rate monitoring, which was frustrating, because it wasn’t working very well…They couldn’t seem to pick up the baby’s heart rate OR my contractions for more than a few minutes at a time, but left me hooked up for an hour or more at a time.
    By noon I was dilated to an 8…and I was getting VERY excited! The pain was not nearly as bad as I thought it would be. It was definitely tolerable. And I never once thought I might need pain medicine.
    The doctor came in around 1:00 and told me I needed to be up walking, for reasons I already knew, so I could progress faster. It was 2:00 and I had just made it out to the hallway, when the doctor came back and said it was time to check me again…So I went back in and she checked me and said I was at a 10 and it was time to push!!
    I kissed Chris, so excited that it was finally time, even though I didn’t feel like it could possibly be that easy!
    I pushed a couple times, and after extreme pain, and no progression, Deena checked me and told me to stop. She said I was only at an 8, and that pushing any more could cause damage. I later came to find out that I had been at a very stretchy 9, and that pushing prematurely had cause swelling of the cervix, which put me back down to an 8. After that the contractions were worse, and they said I wasn’t progressing anymore, and that I needed to sit up and rock or move to help the baby’s head move down. As I rocked on the birthing ball, Chris and the new nurses held me up when I fell asleep between contractions. For a while I sat and rocked on the bed during contractions, which was terribly painful. I remember crying because I was so discouraged by the lack of progress after I had done so good. I was so tired.
    By 4:00 the nurses brought in and hooked me up to the pitocin and an IV. And I was too tired and discouraged to care, I just cried while I felt my contractions get slightly stronger. After an hour, the head doctor checked me and said I wasn’t quite dilated all the way, but that it wasn’t going to get any better, and if I kept laboring I was just going to be too tired to push. So they readied the room for me to push, they brought in a cart of instruments for after the birth and told me to push with the contractions, even if I didn’t have the “urge” (Which I never did).
    I started pushing at 5:00 pm. They told me to tell them when I was going to push, so they could pull my cervix out of the way manually, so it didn’t tear. Then I pushed, and pushed and pushed. I didn’t know if it was making a difference, but I did my best. After a while I started blacking out at the tail end of my third push, and I was scared, because I didn’t know what was happening. Then, they told me they could see my sweet little ones head, and they had a lot of hair. So they told me to keep going, just like I had been, so I pushed, and pushed and pushed some more.
    After a little while longer they told me the head was right there! It got really loud as everyone was telling me to push, while Chris was next to me, wiping my forehead, giving me water, and crying while I pushed.
    As she crowned, they told Chris to look down and see the baby. Then they said her head was out, and I looked over and saw my mom crying, and I asked her to get the cameras. With one more push, her body went flying out, the doctor had to catch her! She was so quiet, but her eyes were wide open, like she was taking it all in. The doctors sucked the liquid out of her nose and mouth and she started crying.
    They told me she was a girl, I said “welcome to the world, Lilian Marie Reimann”, and they laid her on my chest. She was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. She had the biggest dark eyes, and a full head of dark hair. She looked just like her daddy. 10 fingers and 10 toes. All pink and wrinkly and perfect. I forgot ALL about the pain, the frustration, all that mattered was that she was here and she was mine.
    This is my birth story, and there are things I would change, things I would do different, but all I care about is the end result. And the end result of this story is my beautiful baby girl, healthy, sweet and wonderful.

  5. Amanda B.

    My birth experience was FANTASTIC! When I first got pregnant I was like the majority of women thinking that a typical hospital birth with an epidural, possible forceps and laying on my back was how it was going to be. Then a lady at my church who was pregnant with her second told me about a free standing birth center in our area that she had gone to with her first and was now seeing the midwives there for her second pregnancy and that I should look into natural birth. Many times she would stop me a tell me about the problems with much of our country’s standard practices for prenatal care, labour and delivery. I was convinced the woman was crazy. However my spirit was uneasy, I had been feeling like I was cattle at my ob/gyn run in, run out and be a bother for asking questions as a first time Mum so I finally took her up on her offer to come along on her visit to one of her appointments. The moment I walked in I knew the Midwifery was where I had to be…we switched. The Midwifery requires a few classes before giving birth. Though many of my friends rolled they’re eyes I felt empowered and was amazed how uneducated I had been and how uneducated women in general are. Anyway, my labour started at 2:30am by 6:00am my contractions were 6min apart, by 7:00am my husband and I were on the road to the Midwifery across town during rush hour (I had back labour…the faces I made out the window may have scared some people). Once we arrived I was 3min apart and truly not enjoying myself and questioned myself on why I had decided to go all natural (I have ALWAYS been uneasy about epidurals and deathly afraid of a c-section). 20min later I finally allowed them to check me to see how far along I was…6cm 80% effaced. I thought to myself 3pm will most likely be my son’s birth time (no idea where that came from but alas that is what I thought). They asked if I wanted to labour in the birthing tub- in one step I was in. I felt so much better. 8:50am my midwife checked me (back up…at some point I felt my transition though it was horrible for that moment as soon as he dropped I felt SO much better!) I was fully dialated and he was halfway down!!! However his heart rate (they did periodic monitoring) was being weird and they asked me to get out of the tub so I could get into a better position. I was a little sad as I had hoped for a water birth but I trusted my midwife. They sat me on a birthing stool. I tried pushing, couldn’t get enough umph so out came a shorter stool. My son would have come more quickly but every time I saw his head I sucked him back in!! Well he came out at 9:09am. I held him the moment he came out and let him wriggle himself up to eat. We delayed cord cutting. A couple hours later I got to soak in an herbal bath and an hour or so after that my husband, myself and our son headed home, no overnight stay! I am so happy with my experience and wish more woman could have a good experience. I wish more women were better educated. Thank you for your article!!

  6. Thanks for these birth stories! They are examples of how being educated about birth can be so important to having the safest and most positive experience.

  7. Thank you for posting your story, as honest and straight-forward as it is. ALL moms & dads-to-be should read it. ALL maternity staff should read this and take it to heart. I sometimes wonder where their hearts go,once going into their field. Do they forget what it is to love a baby you brought into the world? Do they not care that they are snatching those moments away from women, needlessly, and can never get them back? It’s sad. :(

  8. Kim, it’s just something we lose sight of, I think. It’s not something that you can blame on any one thing. Women need to recognize how important those moments are, and demand that they are respected, and the people around them need to remember how special and critical that time is–and respect it. It is sad. I literally had dreams about it before giving birth, after hearing stories from my own friends about begging to see their babies after birth or not even knowing that they could ask to see their babies, or having to kiss up to someone in order to have permission for it. It’s not right.

  9. Hi!

    It’s wonderful to hear that there are mamas out there having good experiences with their care providers. As a doula, I understand that this post is for the women who are struggling with the hospital policies and the way it’s staff treat patients.

    I understand that often women’s voices are not being heard, and I’m part of the movement to have voices be heard.

    At the last hospital birth I was at with a mama I witness something that made me angry. When we arrived at the hospital this mama was given a gown and asked to change into it. When I told her that if she preferred to stay in her own clothes, that was totally fine, and she decided to do that. When the nurse came back into the assessment room, she told the mother “The doctor’s will just end up cutting it off of you, if you end up in the OR”. I find this language to be fear inducing. Mothers who go into the hospital are already in a foreign environment, taking a lot in, and experiencing intense contractions (or pressure waves). It is completely unnecessary to say something that will discourage them.

    My personal opinion is that changing your language and knowing your rights is very important step towards having the birth you want. Even better is choosing a care provider who you don’t feel like you have to protect yourself from.

    Thanks for writing this post.

  10. Jackie, thank you for commenting! You are so right about “choosing a care provider who you don’t feel like you have to protect yourself from.” Like I said, no one should have to fight for herself/her baby during birth–but women do it all the time. Having supportive, respectful care from your care provider is an absolute must. – Cristen

  11. Oh, how I wish women would come in educated about their birth. You would not believe how many women I ask “Did you take a class? Read a book? Watch a video? Do you know anything about the labor process at all?” and they say “No.” It’s disheartening, because even if I start at the beginning of my shift, it’s unlikely I’ll be there for the whole of their labor unless it happens under 12 hours. And then I don’t trust the nurse after me to take care of them as I would, even if I tell them what I would expect of them. So I call the next night to find out how it went and the charge nurse says, “Oh, yeah, well she didn’t ever change and now she’s having a C-section.” Or I walk into a train wreck of a situation because the nurse before me didn’t stand up for the patient and so now she has Pit, epidural, catheter, oxygen, bloated from IV’s, water broke, and is lying flat on her back and hasn’t made change in 2 hours. And somehow I have to smile, say, “Well, I will do the best I can,” and wait for the inevitable call from the doc to prep her for surgery because the fetal heart rate looks like s***. I consider the ones with fast labors lucky. They don’t have time for the physician/hospital to mess them up. And yeah, I could become a midwife, but then who would be standing up for the patients who cluelessly go to the hospital thinking that we’re going to take really good care of them. I like to think that somehow, in the tiniest possible way, I’m making a difference. Even if I get in trouble for telling a patient, “You know, you do have the right to say ‘no’ any time you want….”

    • Gill, Doula

      L, if I could I would give you a giant hug right now. You are absolutely the kind of nurse that makes a difference for women. I’m a new doula, and I’m realizing the frustration of trying to educate women and health care providers who just don’t think there’s anything to be educated about when it comes to labour and delivery. It makes me happy to think that you’re working in hospitals, helping women achieve happy, healthy, empowering birth experiences. Keep doing what you’re doing! Have you ever thought about becoming a childbirth educator?

  12. Gracious

    Am so excited reading all these posts from women who have actually had the experience life.I pray that I be blessed sto have a blissful experience of child birth.

  13. Words that describe my birth experience in a hospital: degrading, humiliating, scary, vulnerable, powerless, emotionally scarring, life altering. I *thought* I had researched my options. I went to classes; I read books, but obviously I wasn’t assertive in my rights. My support team was overwhelmed by the power of the hospital staff and couldn’t help me either. My next birth will be completely different. I’m supporting this movement because no woman should have to go through what I did.


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