Holistic Pregnancy Care

By Gayle Peterson, Ph.D.

The birth of a baby is the birth of a new family constellation. Women become mothers, men give birth to a new identity as fathers, daughters become sisters, and sons brothers. The family is the container, or the cradle, not just for the baby but also for the mother who will give and receive the one irreplaceable human need—loving nurturance. And a mother needs replenishment herself in order to give daily nourishment to her young.

Yet our cultural definition of family is undergoing a tremendous upheaval which impacts the biology of pregnancy and birth. Sociologists declare the family to be in a state of crisis, with about 50% of all families in the U.S. being blended or single-parent families. The definition of family is in transition and the family is no longer biologically intact in many cases. This transition is a period in which women struggle with their fulfillment in work and family life, and are more often than not carrying some responsibility for the economic resources of the family as well. Despite changes in women's roles and the positions women are taking on in the world, the wife/mother is still the coordinator if not the direct provider of most of the emotional caretaking—regardless of her other responsibilities.

There has been significant research in the past decade to support the fact that socio-emotional factors affect pregnancy and birthing outcome and that addressing social conditions such as isolation and resulting emotional stress decreases the potential for obstetrical complications. Emotional support in the form of hypnotic relaxation, for example, has proven effective in preventing premature births. In cases in which pregnancy has reached a state of risk, counseling and supportive relationship therapy are effective means of stabilizing and reversing physical distress such as high blood pressure, pre-term labor, and a variety of other presenting symptoms which signal risk for labor.

But why do we wait until physical risk develops in the body of the pregnant woman? And why do we not offer the emotional support within the context of standard prenatal care? The answer in part is that we live in a society that is high in technological strength and low in emotional sensitivity. Therefore as women's roles in the family become more complex, and the biology of pregnancy and birth reflects this stress in transitional times, the natural and organic form of support that our society offers is that of greater and more complicated technology—cesareans, pharmacology, and other surgical procedures. This technological support is what I call a "hard" technology in contrast to the use of the "soft" technology of hypnotic relaxation, family therapy, supportive counseling and body-work therapies, such as massage, acupressure and chiropractic.

Unfortunately, the increasing use of a "hard" technology in the natural process of birth leads to diminishing returns—not only physically, but emotionally as well. Emotional trauma resulting from high technology, particularly when emotional sensitivity is lacking, may leave the mother with a sense of loss and lack of confidence in herself to mother the new babe that finally arrives in her arms.

It is time we stop ignoring the research indicating that emotional factors are important in a healthy pregnancy and birth. Although the "hard" technology with which we are so enamored in our society can be used compassionately and respectfully when needed to support a woman across the bridge to motherhood, all too often it has been used abusively. This abuse comes about through fear and ignorance. We are no longer ignorant of the emotional needs of women who are bringing forth the life needed to sustain us as a human race. It is our job as childbirth professionals to incorporate that knowledge as a part of our practice in standard prenatal care.

As a psychotherapist and researcher, it is my experience that use of the "soft" technologies as part of the course of prenatal care serves to assist women in preparing realistically and emotionally for the rewarding work of motherhood. When women are given the tool of a supportive relationship with a professional, trained to help them explore their needs in the family as well as their fears of childbirth and parenting, more often than not a deep healing ensues. Past traumas and fears can become resources for traveling through labor and into the unknown land of motherhood. In our times women need and deserve their standard prenatal care to include an opportunity for processing the enormous changes that are going on in their bodies, minds, and hearts as they carry forth life.

Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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