Guest post by Donna Walls, RN, BSN, CLC, ANLC with intro by jess fedenia, clc
Donna Walls’s, RN, BSN, ICCE, IBCLC, ANLC unmedicated births were sort of a fluke.
“I remember being horribly afraid of someone sticking a needle in my back,” she recalls.
The “glorious” feelings of confidence and joy were unexpected consequences, but thinking back, Donna says, “Boy, I am sure glad I [gave birth that way.]”
In all other aspects of parenting, Walls credits growing up in the 1960s for becoming a self-described Granola Mom.
“When everything went ‘back to nature’, that was a big influencer for me,” she says.
As a nurse, Walls was always drawn to maternity care and supporting breastfeeding as the natural progression after giving birth.
It felt thorny to her when babies were taken to the transition nursery immediately after birth and later given back to their mothers.
This ritual sent the message that “We (as in the staff) can take better care of your baby than you (as in the mother) can.” That never sat right with Walls.
Then, one pivotal moment in particular, Walls on duty in the transition nursery, walked by a baby only a couple of hours old.
“He was frightened,” Walls begins. “His lip was quivering and he was splayed out underneath the warmer. He was so frightened. It just affected me.”
After that, Walls galvanized to change the culture in this hospital. She worked very hard alongside a physician colleague to open a birth center within the hospital. In 1995, Family Beginnings at Miami Valley Hospital in Dayton, Ohio was unveiled, offering families an option where birth wasn’t pathologized and where mothers and babies were honored as dyads. (Birthing at Family Beginnings remains an option for those in the Dayton area today.)
The center was designed to look like a home. There was no nursery for babies to be separated from their parents. When mothers came in to labor, the staff would pop in bread to bake, a special touch of aromatherapy.
Freshly baked bread, though enticing, wasn’t the number one reason families signed up to birth here. Instead, they chose Family Beginnings because they didn’t want their babies taken away from them, Walls reports.
Walls has since retired from her work in the hospital, but respectful maternity care remains forward in her mind and in her advocacy.
She graces us with reflections on respectful maternity care in her guest post this week on Our Milky Way. Read on!
As a nurse in maternity for over 40 years, I have too often witnessed what I refer to as the “empty vessel theory”. Women are regarded as merely a container for the fetus and care providers merely the technician to remove it, usually as quickly as possible. I have often been saddened when the emotions and spirituality of birthing are disregarded or even mocked. This miraculous process is a rite of passage with all the inherent pain, joy, lessons and connections needed to begin the journey into parenting. My hope is that through discussions and activism, we can reach a point where the birthing family is honored and all newborns are brought into the world with love and respect.
Respect is “showing regard for the feelings, wishes, rights or traditions of others”. Concerningly, there is an abundance of anecdotes from patients and caregivers that demonstrate how maternity care practices are often disrespectful, sometimes even abusive.
Disrespectful care encompasses racial inequity, lack of confidentiality, physical and/or emotional abuse, denial of care or provision of substandard care, lack of informed consent or coercion or condescending communications. This type of care occurs in all countries around the world, to all demographics of women and their families. Fortunately, disrespectful care has drawn the attention of many health organizations, including the World Health Organization, and steps are being taken to stop disrespectful, abusive care practices.
Examining the intersection of maternity care and human rights has been a recent topic in many maternal and infant care advocacy groups as well. We cannot assume that hospital admission for an appendectomy is equal to admission for the birth of a baby. This is because the scope of the process of birthing impacts a person, a family, a community and a nation which is not so of a surgical procedure.
Most women and families expect they will receive safe, inclusive, compassionate care and trust their caregivers to provide prenatal, intrapartum and postnatal care with honest communication and respect for their needs and choices. Provision of safe care should look beyond the basics of preventing maternal, fetal or neonatal morbidity or mortality and consider how to support the family’s human rights– rights inherent to all people, without discrimination, regardless of age, nationality, place of residence, sex, national or ethnic origin, color, religion, language or any other status. (White Ribbon Alliance, 2020)
The first stated right is to be free from harm and mistreatment, yet we find continuing cases of physically and emotionally abusive treatment of pregnant and birthing women. Secondly is the right to competent, culturally sensitive care for both mother and newborn. Next is the right to companionship and support, and lastly the right to meet the basic life-sustaining needs of the dyad, including breastfeeding support for the newborn.
The first step toward respectful care is choosing healthcare providers who value open, honest communication and who will discuss options and listen to the family’s needs and concerns. WHO defines respectful communication as communication which “aims to put women at the centre of care, enhancing their experience of pregnancy and ensuring that babies have the best possible start in life.” (WHO, 2018)
Other components of respectful communication include the use of positive body language, active listening, the use of non-judgmental language, assuring patient privacy and honoring physical and emotional needs. Respectful communication can begin with simply referring to the person by the name they prefer. If it is not documented, ask.
Another important step is selecting the birthing place. (Niles, 2023) Most care providers practice at one to two hospitals or birth centers. Choosing the birthing environment is an important decision in creating a birth experience which is in line with the family’s expectations and goals. Research and discussions with childbirth educators, lactation care providers and other families can give insights into common or routine practices at that institution. Will the family’s requests be honored? Will questions be answered with open and honest informed consent? Will the birthing and breastfeeding practices support their goals? These are all questions that need to be answered before a birthing place decision is made.
Creating an environment of respectful care in the birthing place is foundational. It is care that assures women and their families will be regarded as capable of making decisions. Making decisions which respect the values and unique needs of the birthing woman can only be made when patient autonomy– the right of patients to make decisions about their medical care without their health care provider trying to influence the decision– is recognized.
Individuals often comment on birthing in the hospital as a time when you lose all modesty; however, it is possible to follow protocols that set a standard for assuring privacy and modesty which can positively impact the birth experience. Simple steps like not discussing patient history or current conditions in front of others (without the patient’s permission), being mindful of covering intimate body parts (or culturally sensitive covering) whenever possible, asking permission before touching or knocking (and waiting for a response) before entering the room are a huge part of maintaining patient dignity. It cannot be overstated that any cultural requirements for modesty must be respected at all times.
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