My Favourite Birth Books

The third trimester is for birth prep and for a nerd like me that means studying! I’m re-familiarizing myself with a few favourites that I haven’t read since I was a first time prego four years ago (I did zero birth prep for my second labour two years ago, felt like wingin’ it!).

This third time will be the farthest I’ve lived from a hospital, the only birth I’ve been able to consider a homebirth for, and of course my first birth during a global pandemic. So many (weird) milestones but I’m so ready for the challenge and as a third timer I feel knowledgeable enough about birth that I’m excited rather than fearful.

During my first pregnancy I found the “What to Expect” book series pretty fear-mongering and very much not-my-style. The two books I swear by now are The Birth Partner by Penny Simkin and Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth.

The Birth Partner presents a clinical account of birth and is written for (you guessed it) whoever is going to be acting as the mother’s birth partner during labour. I like to read it as well because knowing what’s happening in my body makes it easier for me to understand what is needed of me mentally. Emotional accounts of birth are easy to find because it is inherently a deeply emotional and transformative act, but the Birth Partner reads more like a well-informed textbook, clearly explaining the physiology of labour and offering tactics for each different stage (ie. helpful positions to try, where a birth partner should apply pressure to relieve lower back pain, and what the mother might be feeling or thinking during the different stages). I like to put tabs on the pages I want Tom to read and highlight the things I think will be helpful for me.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, on the other hand, is very obviously written for the birthing mother and for a specific purpose; that purpose is to challenge some common myths and misconceptions we’ve grown to accept as normal in our modern day birth culture. The first half of the book is full of positive birth stories that are sorely missing from birth discourse today, where we’ve learned to deeply fear the birthing process and readily share our horror stories with others. These birth stories portray birth as a natural, intense, ecstatic experience that can be positive, feminist, and community-driven, with women cheering each other on and offering comfort and support to each other. Most importantly, the birthing woman and her needs and wishes are always placed at the center of the labour experience with minimal intervention from modern medicine. At the time Ina May was practicing this was a radical difference from the norm, which saw birthing mothers heavily medicated, often strapped on their backs on a sterile table.

The second half of the book explains how Ina May achieved such drastically different birth outcomes than the rest of the US over the decades that she and her team delivered babies at The Farm Midwifery Center, in Tennessee (stats like a 1.4% c-section rate compared to 24.4% in hospitals at the time, and a 0.05% vacuum- and forceps-extraction rate compared to 10% in hospitals at the time, and don’t get her started on the episiotomy rates!). Ina May’s Farm was one of the first out-of-hospital birthing centers in the US. She talks about lots of physiological stuff like Sphincter Law (issa thing!) but a lot of the mental stuff as well, highlighting how the mind-body connection works during birth, how fears and anxieties can stall labour, visualization techniques and mantras for opening the body, and so much other good stuff. It has truly given me peace to read this book in the third trimester as we approach out third and last Labour Day (and hopefully first homebirth!).

*disclaimer: because Ina May did much of her work in the 70s and we’re in the middle of a racial reckoning I was struck by some problematic issues with the book, most notably a natural birth tactic to combat shoulder dysplasia being named The Gaskin Manoeuvre even though Ina May learned it in rural Guatemala from indigenous midwives. All of Ina May’s research and experiences are still deeply valuable, it’s just something to be aware of when reading.

Anyway, I highly recommend both of these books for any pregnant person and their partner! A few other titles I’ve read and would recommend include Like A Mother: A Feminist Journey through the Science and Culture of Pregnancy by Angela Garbes, Childbirth Without Fear by Grantly Dick-Read and Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin.

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