Sheila Kitzinger revolutionized childbirth by teaching women to trust their bodies

Sheila Kitzinger
© Uwe Kitzinger

The famous British birth campaigner, writer, and inventor of the 'birth plan' passed away this week.

Sheila Kitzinger died this week at 86 years of age. The British anthropologist, writer, and educator spent decades working to improve the experience of birth for countless women around the world. Her work began in the middle of the 20th century, at a time when the maternity system increasingly “turned childbirth into something that was done to women with sterile barbarity” (The Independent).

For decades women had little choice about what was done to their bodies from the moment they entered the hospital, and clinicians’ opinions of how a healthy woman’s labour should go mattered far more than what the woman wanted for herself. Procedures such as shaving, giving enemas, performing routine episiotomies, administering drugs, and birthing with forceps were accepted as common practice.

Kitzinger disagreed with these interventions in the majority of normal, healthy deliveries, and felt that they negatively impacted a woman’s experience of birth, with potential for lasting trauma. She is hailed as the creator of the “’birth plan,” an actual detailed plan written out by the expectant mother detailing what her wishes are for the delivery. Birth plans are now common practice where I live here in Ontario, Canada, and are discussed ahead of time with midwives or posted in hospital delivery rooms for clinicians to reference.

“I was fed up with women being blamed for everything that happened to them.” - Kitzinger

A loud social campaigner, Kitzinger spoke out against episiotomies, the act of cutting a labouring woman’s perineum preemptively in order to avoid severe tearing; she considered it a form of genital mutilation, and many clinicians today say that naturally-occurring tears heal better than incisions and can largely be avoided by careful management. Her work went a long way toward reducing the episiotomy rate in the U.K. from 50 percent in 1980 to the current 20 percent. (It remains high in other countries such as Argentina, where the rate is 80 percent.)

Kitzinger even started a Birth Crisis Helpline, which offered over-the-phone counseling and reflective listening to women who had experienced traumatic births.

“The feelings a woman has in labour cannot really be considered in isolation from other psychosexual aspects of her life,” she wrote in her 1981 book "Episiotomy."

Although she never was a midwife, Kitzinger wrote 30 books on birth-related topics as varied as “Becoming a Grandmother,” “Breastfeeding Your Baby,” “Woman’s Experience of Sex,” “Birth over Thirty,” “Birth Crisis,” and “The Politics of Birth.” The book that most influenced me was “Homebirth,” which inspired me to deliver my children at home after an unpleasant prenatal tour of a maternity ward in a Toronto hospital. Her empowering descriptions were exactly what I needed to hear after the disillusionment of that visit; I’ve since had two wonderful home births and am awaiting my third any day now.

You can’t help but admire a woman who believes that the final stages of childbirth – usually the most excruciatingly painful part – can be orgasmic. She wrote about the deliveries of her own five daughters as being exhilarating and sexually arousing – not surprising, she said, when you consider that the hormones in childbirth and lactation are the same as those in sexual arousal.

The world will miss Kitzinger’s strong and powerful voice. She gave women the confidence to trust their bodies and to deliver in the ways that feel best for them, and for that we will always remember her.

Tags: Babies | Health

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