The Lion Effect™ During Childbirth

By Samantha Thurlby-Brooks
Humans, like any other animal who is preyed on, are sensitive to certain stimuli getting their adrenalin levels rising ready to fight or run and sometimes to freeze. I call this The Lion Effect™; when in times of stress or perceived stress a person will get themselves ready for danger to protect themselves or their young for survival.Not that long ago, in terms of natural history, us westerners were living in caves as tribes. There are many human populations who still live this way where medical care is scarce and the danger of being killed by wild animals or people from other tribes is a reality. The ability to respond to perceived danger is vital and we have, along with other animals, developed a way to respond that means we don’t have to think too much about it; it’s automatic.Our modern day, western society hasn’t actually changed this danger response but we have renamed it; ‘stress’. Because we aren’t being chased by Lions or Tigers or Bears we don’t necessarily see ourselves as living in a dangerous society but our body’s and primitive, automatic brain’s don’t know the difference between wild animals and modern society. We can make our cars with airbags but our body still feels the potential for danger… we can lock our doors at night but that strange noise outside will get our adrenaline pumping.

We can birth our babies in hospitals where society says it’s safe. But our body doesn’t recognise the difference between a lion prowling and waiting expectantly for a new born dinner than with an obstetrician telling you to birth your baby within two hours or they will cut your baby out on an operating table or pull them out with forceps. This ‘Lion Effect’ makes your body do exactly what any mother will do; stop birthing to keep your baby in your belly where it’s safe so that you can either run, hide or fight the Lion and then resume birth later on when you’re safe.

It’s amazing how your body works… Oxytocin is the hormone that produces contractions also makes you calm and relaxed and helps you to bond with your baby. Adrenaline gets your heart pumping harder taking blood and oxygen to your vital organs and muscles allowing you to run or fight, keeping you super alert and focused. These two hormones are the opposite of each other. Your body will stop producing the relaxation and birthing hormone, oxytocin, when you need to run and fight. It makes sense.

Unfortunately the uterus is not considered a vital organ (probably because the woman isn’t always pregnant) so blood and oxygen are directed elsewhere and can cause the baby distress (if this happens too much or for too long). If in the birthing room your adrenaline levels go up, your birth will slow down or even stop. (Except just before your baby makes their way into the world you’ll get a quick boost of adrenaline to make you awake, upright and ready to look after your new baby and to grab your baby and run if need be).

When we consistently have high levels of adrenaline we suffer from stress because we feel there’s nothing we can do. During pregnancy, birth and mothering (including breastfeeding) this stressed state means that we constantly perceive Lions in the general area and our body must be super alert and be prepared to fight. Our baby’s interpretation is that this world isn’t safe. The mother’s body is in a dilemma; trying to choose whether to keep them safe and run or whether to stay still, calm and relaxed so she can feed and nurture her baby. Her hormones will not allow her to do both at the same time and will always choose survival.

Things that stimulate adrenaline and other stress hormones are;

  • Hunger (if you’re hungry you need the energy to find food and eat it)
  • Feeling Cold (if you’re cold you need to find firewood or shiver to keep warm)
  • Being watched or feeling observed (we sense when someone behind us is watching us and it makes us uncomfortable/ feel threatened which then makes us change our behaviour)
  • Fear (real danger or even imaginary; the mind doesn’t know the difference)
  • Excitement (I know you’re baby’s coming but staying relaxed rather than excited will help you more)
  • Other people’s adrenaline (we’re herd animals, if one person perceives danger we all need to respond… so everyone in the birthing room or when visiting a new mother must be positive, calm and relaxed)
  • Bright lights (hence why we turn the lights off when we want to relax and go to sleep)
  • Feeling too hot (ever tried to get to sleep when you’re just too hot?)
  • Needing the toilet (ever tried to get to sleep or have sex when you need the toilet?!.. oxytocin is the same hormone that produces an orgasm)

Keeping oxytocin as high as possible by staying calm, confident, supported and relaxed is vital to birthing your baby in an empowered and positive way. Mothers will respond better and nurture their baby’s more confidently when they are relaxed and supported. It’s just what happens naturally.

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