Influential French Obstetrician Puts Babies First, But What About Mothers?

Frederick Leboyer puts babies first.

“Birth is all about the child. Although everywhere you look, it seems to be about procedures and doctors and women.”

I was with you until, “and women.”

The above is a quote from the influential French obstetrician Frederick Leboyer who is profiled this week in The Guardian. Leboyer’s revolutionary book, Birth Without Violence is being re-issued, 37 years after it’s initial, and somewhat scandalous, publication. Leboyer has been a huge proponent of a kinder birth, especially for the babies. He advocated for more peaceful delivery rooms and came up with what’s known as the Leboyer bath– the father bathes the baby after birth to help reconnect the infant with the familiar feeling of being surrounded by water. There’s lots we have to thank him for. People call his book kind and loving and credit him with helping us connect back with the baby in our often abrasive high-tech, birth-is-an-emergency-waiting-to-happen culture.

I like some of what Leboyer has to say and after watching a peaceful birth it’s very painful to see a baby being unnecessarily suctioned and manhandled (as it were), but I always get tense when the conversation puts mother’s needs and baby’s needs in two separate columns.

Moms are told they are putting their own needs before the baby’s for getting an epidural. For birthing at home. For nursing too long. For not nursing enough. She is too often made to feel guilty for thinking about her own needs, let alone her own pleasure. Gasp. No pleasure! “What you have to understand is that birth is a challenge for a woman,” Leboyer tells The Guardian, “to do her best for her baby, she has to face up to that challenge and not chicken out and have a cesarean instead.” This is particularly distressing because the high c-section rate in the US has nothing to do with “chicken” mothers, but rather is the result of complex legal-medical circumstances under which we give birth. Yes, birth is a huge challenge and our culture does an appalling job at making us feel strong and up for the job. But to be told to make the sacrifice “for the baby” feels undermining to me. It casts mom’s motivations under a suspicious light and pits her against her (unborn) baby.

We do better to think about this as a process involving one/two bodies that are deeply (and for most of it, literally) connected. I’d be more curious to read the re-issue of Birth Without Violence— I just ordered it– if I had the sense that both baby and mother were put at the center of birth.