What Does the Sphincter Have to do with Childbirth?

Health & Wellness on 05.18.11
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To the faint of heart, I encourage you to stop reading now and return to your kitten farts-and-rainbows existence (which has its considerable merits). To those with stout, scatological hearts, we're about to get knee deep in the poop-la and all that it has to do with childbirth. I wrote about orgasmic birth here, which led me to research a related topic called the Sphincter Law.

But let's back up for a moment and have a quick recap of orgasmic birth for a wider context. The main idea isn't actually achieving an orgasm but rejecting the fear/pain/anxiety loop that surrounds the moment when your little one emerges. This may allow you turn your experience into a loving, supportive one where the natural rhythms of your body carry you in the ebb and flow of the hormonal cocktail of birthing. It's really just an acceptance that this pain is normal and can help you to have a more productive birth.

For those of you with keen (scat) spidey senses, you're probably already putting together "fear and anxiety" and "natural rhythms" right about now. Celebrated midwife Ina May Gaskin draws a parallel between the cervix and the sphincter when it comes to hitting the ejection button: They're both involuntary muscles that don't get tired; they don't work on-demand; they're a bit shy; and fear and anxiety are their worst enemies. According to Gaskin, "Basically, if you can't poop and have a whole group of people watching, it might be a little difficult to have a baby in that same kind of atmosphere."

Creating a Sense of Security
Gah! Your sphincter is not the kind of thing you want to think of when mentally preparing to have your kid, but it's a hugely helpful thing to consider, especially if you have the ability to influence where and how you give birth. So, using the bathroom analogy, you'd want to create a mental lock on the door when you deliver. Whom do you want with you? Do you want the lights dimmed and music playing if you're delivering in a hospital? Which brings up the question about whether you can or want to deliver at home -- the point is to create a sense of familiarity and security.

To further clarify how things are working down yonder, psychologically, here's more specific information on the Sphincter Law from this article in The Journal of Perinatal Education:

  • Excretory, cervical and vaginal sphincters function best in an atmosphere of intimacy and privacy -- for example, a bathroom with a locking door or a bedroom, where interruption is unlikely or impossible.
  • These sphincters cannot be opened at will and do not respond well to commands (such as "Push" or "Relax!").
  • When a person's sphincter is in the process of opening, it may suddenly close down if that person becomes upset, frightened, humiliated or self-conscious. Why? High levels of adrenaline in the bloodstream do not favor (sometimes, they actually prevent) the opening of the sphincters. This inhibition factor is one important reason why women in traditional societies have mostly chosen other women -- except in extraordinary circumstances -- to attend them in labor and birth.

Our Animal Selves
The article also tells us that the cervix and sphincter aren't the only body parts that have a special relationship:

"The state of relaxation of the mouth and jaw is directly correlated to the ability of the cervix, the vagina, and the anus to open to full capacity. (I recommend that you remember this if you ever suffer from hemorrhoids and are afraid to poop, as this aspect of Sphincter Law is helpful in this situation as well.) (Gaskin, 2003, p. 170)"

That last part is a bonus, really. Who knew that relaxing your mouth and jaw could help with not only childbirth, but also doing the doo? To an extent this is all common-sense stuff, but we don't give birth all the time, so how would we know if the information wasn't called out to us? I recall the childbirth class my husband and I attended. There was a reference to pushing like you had to have a bowel movement, with a quick explanation that many of the same muscles are involved. But that's where the information ended. (Insert your own pun here.)

Such is the veil of secrecy that continues to hang over childbirth, though it's getting better with the help of people like Gaskin. In many ways she's liberated us from a sterile and rigid clinical process -- looking at you, 1950s -- and empowered women with the idea that they could and should engage in decisions concerning their pregnancy and delivery. That, and she gave us the Sphincter Law analogy to help us better understand that our animal self -- the one who's on high alert for danger -- isn't going to be relaxed in an unfamiliar setting with unfamiliar people attending one of the most vulnerable moments a person could ever experience. As my friend Roxanne points out, it makes total sense from an evolutionary perspective.

To those of you who stuck with this when you wanted to vomit, I apologize for any nausea-inducing descriptions, and I hope I've not dashed any ideals of what really is an incredibly beautiful moment (read: childbirth, not using the bathroom).

(Photo credit Getty Images)

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