Book Review by Cathy Daub, BirthWorks Founder
Where would we be if our earth did not have an ocean on the surface? How connected are we to the ocean for our survival, and in fact birth?
Dr. Michel Odent is a living treasure, a visionary leader in the birth field, and a prolific author of almost 20 books. His books keep taking us deeper into understanding ourselves as human beings and the latest book Planet Ocean takes us to the depths of the ocean to understand our human connection to mammals of the sea. It is a fascinating read exploring the depths of both humanity and our planet’s ocean. He states, “Our planet is the only astronomical object known to have bodies of liquid water on its surface. The oceans may be presented as the givers and sustainers of life.” (p.89)
The beginning and the end
He asks many questions to stir our intrigue. In terms of birth, beyond concern about the impact of cesareans and obstetrical drugs, he believes we need to ask - “What is the future of humanity if nearly all members of our species are born without hormones of love?” He connects this to how we birth… asking - “Is the current widespread use of … water in childbirth the expression of a transitory fad, or on the contrary, are there reasons to think that it is the expression of a deep-rooted aspect of human nature?”
In other words, does water connect us more to love and our planet ocean for our survival than we realize?
Links between the health of human beings and the evolution of the oceans
Odent connects a decline in the ocean Gulf Stream with extreme weather patterns and Global Warming. He traces the dangers of ocean acidification threatening phytoplankton – the basis of the ocean food chain that goes up to fish then marine mammals – to plastics and heavy metals in the top predators. These metals such as mercury and lead bioaccumulate (become more toxic) higher up the food chain, and are part of human consumption. We must heed the warning that human consumption then impacts the development of the baby as it floats in the watery womb of its mother… mothers should avoid eating fish at the very least six months before conception. In other words, damaging our precious ocean threatens our own existence - our health and our babies' health in the most key part of development.
Looking at our connections to mammals of the sea, Odent says we are entering the age of metagenomics, meaning we have DNA sequencing technologies to see the “unseen majority” of marine, microbial ecosystems that can be compared to “Homo” (humans). He credits the development of Homo over thousands of years, to living close by the ocean where we had access to coastal areas with fish, giving the essential nutritional needs such as the fatty acid molecule DHA (that feeds the brain) which is pre-formed and abundant in the seafood chain only. In fact, he credits the domination of Homo to our supersized brains which gave us an advantage and is the defining feature over other species.
Other fascinating facts surface in his book as Odent shares traits around birth that sea mammals have similar to humans. Did you know that seal pups have vernix on their skin at birth too? Or that killer whales and short-finned pilot whales have prolonged life after reproduction and go through menopause? Some human infants have been born with a webbing between the second and third toe. Other traits include a long vagina protected by a hymen, and the human apolipoprotein E gene, a principal cholesterol carrier in the brain, and growth of bone in the ear canal.
Swimming and Smelling
Human infants up to three to four months can swim instinctively, but after that age, swimming becomes a learned behavior. When placed face down in the water up to three to four months of age, “the human newborn baby is perfectly adapted to immersion and automatically holds his/her breath when under water. The newborn baby looks happy, keeps its eyes open, and does not cough or show distress. But the same baby, when placed in water with his chin up, loses organized swimming movements”. (p.67) It is felt this happens when a certain degree of brain maturation occurs that obscures functions under the control of primitive mammalian brain structures. Similarly, newborns use smell to find their mother’s nipple to survive, however, it decreases in importance when a certain degree of neocortical development is reached. (p.74) In other words, the acute sense of smell gradually becomes weaker over time. As our brains mature, they are a “tool” that overpowers instinctive urges the baby is born with.
The larger brain used as a tool
In Chapter 10, Odent ties all of these considerations to human birth. Here, Odent raises still another question, “Why are some human births so easy and others so difficult?” Here, Odent describes Homo as having both excitatory and inhibitory neocortical neurons. This means that the activity of the powerful new brain, the neocortex, can have inhibitory effects. He sees reduced neocortical control as being nature’s solution in birth. This means a birthing mother who is able to minimize stimulation of her neocortex, may feel free to “behave in ways unbecoming to civilized women as in screaming and swearing through labor contractions. She may complain about odors nobody else perceives. She may find herself in unexpected and bizarre primitive postures – often in quadrupedal. She may forget the details of what happened in labor, as opposed to women interviewed with cesareans having good memories of what happened”. (p.76) Other ways to be in the “primal instinctive brain” are to refrain from asking rational questions and decreasing light stimulation. What our brain does impacts how our births are.
Giving birth in the night time
Odent describes Melatonin, known as the “darkness hormone,” as an essential birth hormone not often discussed. In fact, melatonin is an inhibitor of neocortical activity. No wonder birthing moms often find themselves giving birth when it is dark. A woman giving birth easily, is one who is able to go inside to her primal instinctive brain, minimizing influences of her neocortex or thinking brain.
Along with the domestication of farming, and animals, has been the domestication of humans! We’ve been conditioned culturally that we cannot give birth by ourselves and that we need some kind of cultural (and technical) interferences. This can be recognized by such disempowered words heard when discussing birth: helping, guiding, controlling, coaching, labor management, and even support (means woman needs energy brought by somebody else). Laboring women need to be protected from these and reminded of their natural ability to birth.
Highways to Transcendence
Odent says that both the terms “oceanic feeling” and “transcendent” are adjectives that suggest the absence of limits. These refer to episodes of human reproductive life such as th fetus ejection reflex, the milk ejection reflex, and the sperm ejection reflex – all being emotional states that are associated with a reduced neocortical control. In other words, being in ecstatic/orgasmic states are pathways to easier births.
I would like to end with a final challenging question to ponder in our work as childbirth educators, doulas, midwives, nurses, and doctors:
As BirthWorkers, how can we help birthing moms reach and stay in these transcendent states during their labors to have easier births and continue to experience these states well beyond the actual birth process? This is the greatest challenge - and opportunity - of all.