Are there any terms or phrases used to describe your body, especially during pregnancy and birth, that don’t sit right with you? Do you ever wish there was a different way to talk about the unfolding of the birth process, with all of its sensations and phases? Here's a look at 5 commonly used terms in pregnancy and birth, and some alternatives that may bring a new perspective.
1. "Your Waters Broke"
Alternatives: "My membranes released, my waters opened".
There are too many terms in pregnancy/maternity care that include words that make us think that our bodies are broken or uncooperative. You may have been told that you have an “incompetent cervix”, or an “irritable uterus”. Umm. Excuse me?
The release of the membranes (the amnion and chorion) surrounding the fetus is normal and natural in late pregnancy. It can happen before the birth process begins, or anytime during the process, or they may even remain intact all the way through. There are so many variations of normal. However, when you tag a normal physiological event with a word like “broken”, it’s bound to worry the people whose bodies you are labelling. When something is broken, we may feel we have to fix it, that something is wrong.
So, how about we call it the release of the membranes? It feels more like teamwork, as if that member of the birth team is doing their part to bring on or forward the birth process. The amnion and chorion are opening, releasing. So much of pregnancy and the birth process is about surrender, letting go, releasing control. This can be just one more release: letting your amniotic fluid (waters) go.
Quick note: some studies have shown that getting lots of Vitamin C and pre and probiotics can strengthen the membranes so that they stay intact until it's time for birth.
2. "You're having Contractions"
Alternatives: "I'm feeling sensations, I open with each wave, powerful surges expand my body."
We’ve always heard the word ‘contractions’ used to describe the action of the uterus in the birth process. Just reflect on the word for a moment: contraction. What does it mean to you?
When it comes to birth, you likely think of contractions as being painful. The word may even bring with it fear or nervousness. Maybe you have the idea of contractions as something to endure.
But what about the word ‘contraction’ itself? What does it mean to 'contract'? You may think of tightening, squeezing, closing, compressing… but what our body needs to do in order to let our baby pass through is to open! What if we flip it and focus not on the squeezing action of the upper uterus, but the opening and expanding of the lower part of the uterus, where the baby will find their way out?
What if we went into the birth process seeing each minute-long(ish) sensation as an expansion of our cervix (the opening) instead of a contraction of our uterus? Would it make a difference in our mindset? Would our bodies react differently when our minds are telling us ‘opening, expansion’ instead of ‘tightening, squeezing’? What if we called these sensations 'waves' or 'surges', and visualized each one coming and going, ebbing and flowing, as natural and safe and normal as waves on the shore?
3. "Who will deliver your baby?"
Alternative: "I gave birth, my midwife received my baby."
Guess what?! Babies are not delivered. Babies are born. Yes, often there is someone there to “catch” the baby as they are born, and often this person is a medical professional. Sometimes they may even use instruments or surgery to help someone to give birth. But the focus of this transformational event is still the act of GIVING BIRTH. The people facilitating the birth are doing just that: facilitating. The birthing person and the baby themselves are the ones at the centre of everything, doing this incredible thing! They did a lot of work together up to this point, and together they finish this chapter of their lives, as they become two separate beings. In whatever manner birth happens, the baby is being born because someone carried them for months, and that person is doing everything it takes to help their baby move through this transition from womb to world.
What if we talk about who ‘receives’ the baby, instead of who ‘delivers’ them? Does it make you feel a little differently about it? Who is it that you would like to receive your baby when they are born? You have options! You could receive your baby yourself, depending on the position in which you give birth. Your partner or a loved one could receive your baby. A sibling of the baby could be the first one whose hands will touch that brand new being. Or, if you are most comfortable having a medical professional receive your baby, choose that option. Do your best to find one who will treat it as the honour that it is: to be receiving a new life into their hands. Be sure that they will be someone who will respect that YOU are giving birth to your baby, and that their focus is on facilitating the reception of your conception, with all of the humility and tenderness that they can bring to the birthing space.
4. "You had a Miscarriage/Missed Abortion"
Alternatives: Pregnancy Loss, Release of Pregnancy
A tender topic, please check in with yourself whether you’re ready to read this part today.
This one is personal for me. Why on Earth do we label an already difficult experience with words that make us feel like we failed? “You miscarried your baby”. Oh. I carried it wrong? I thought that I was doing everything right!
At an early ultrasound appointment in my first pregnancy, the technician couldn’t find a heartbeat. They tried to find it a couple of different ways (rather invasive, looking back), but there was nothing. The person assisting the tech told me, “You must have had a missed abortion”. I shook my head, trying to understand what was happening, thinking, “No, I wanted this baby. Abortion means I ended this on purpose. No.”
She explained that it meant that the pregnancy had ended without my knowing, that I ‘missed’ the ‘abortion’ of the tiny growing life inside of me, not knowing when it stopped growing. Okay. I guess that makes sense. But why?! Why not call it something that doesn’t include such a weighted word? Can’t we just call it an unexpected ending of pregnancy? A pregnancy loss? Or, for those people who might not feel it as a loss, a release of the pregnancy? I understand now that sometimes our bodies know when to let go of a pregnancy, for whatever reason. So let’s call it that: letting go, releasing.
And for people who choose to end their pregnancies, the words ‘abortion’ and ‘termination’ can come with a lot of heaviness. It can already be such a tender time for people, making these choices. “I am choosing to release this pregnancy,” may feel gentler.
5. “Failure to Progress”
Alternative: Each in their time.
“Attending births is like growing roses. You have to marvel at the ones that just open up and bloom at the first kiss of the sun, but you wouldn’t dream of pulling open the petals of the tightly closed buds and forcing them to open to your timeline.” -Gloria Lemay
It seems so obvious, right? We let nature do its thing when it comes to flowers, plants, trees, and even animals. Nobody is doing ultrasound scans on dogs, measuring each puppy’s growth, looking for possible risks. (“Looks like your puppies may be too big, ma’am. We suggest you have a cesarean birth.”) We simply trust that the puppies will grow, and one day the dog will begin the birth process, and the puppies will be born. We’re not marking a “due date” for them, and planning to induce the dog if we feel it’s been too long. Nobody is doing internal exams on the birthing dog, inserting their fingers to check if her cervix is opening to allow the puppies to pass through. WE JUST LET THE DOG GIVE BIRTH.
Maybe someone is there making sure she has blankets and water and feels warm and safe, keeping things quiet and undisturbed. But that’s it. She births her babies, they instinctively find her nipples, and they all curl up to sleep.
So, why do we manage every stage of the human birth process? Why is there so much fear around being “overdue”, or being in the birth process for “too long”? Why do we accept the made-up timeline that dictates that every cervix should dilate at a rate of about 1.5 cm every two hours (which varies depending on care provider)? Why are we expecting steady "progress" after a certain (again, varied) stage of cervical dilation, when there is nothing linear about birth?
And why, oh why, are we not understanding that birth works best when it’s undisturbed, when the people attending the birth are making sure the person giving birth is comfortable, hydrated, and feels safe and unobserved? Because THAT’S how the process will unfold, each in their own time.
Change begins with you. If any of these alternative terminologies feels right for you, please take them on, and insist that others use YOUR preferred language when talking about YOUR body.