Friday, October 22, 2010

New Mothers Grow Bigger Brains Within Months of Giving Birth

A new study once again shows the benefits of motherhood for the mother. Although you may feel like your brain is slower because of lack of sleep, the stress of transforming your life, and learning a new set of skills all at the same time. You actually have revved your brain up in a number of critical areas which promote better bonding and mothering. This study was done on breastfeeding moms with no signs of postpartum depression. They will do further study on groups of women with postpartum depression and non-breastfeeders to help them understand if or how these issues play a role.

ScienceDaily (Oct. 20, 2010)

Warmer Feelings Toward Babies Linked to Bigger Mid-Brains

Motherhood may actually cause the brain to grow, not turn it into mush, as some have claimed. Exploratory research published by the American Psychological Association found that the brains of new mothers bulked up in areas linked to motivation and behavior, and that mothers who gushed the most about their babies showed the greatest growth in key parts of the mid-brain.

Led by neuroscientist Pilyoung Kim, PhD, now with the National Institute of Mental Health, the authors speculated that hormonal changes right after birth, including increases in estrogen, oxytocin and prolactin, may help make mothers' brains susceptible to reshaping in response to the baby. Their findings were published in the October issue of Behavioral Neuroscience.
The motivation to take care of a baby, and the hallmark traits of motherhood, might be less of an instinctive response and more of a result of active brain building, neuroscientists Craig Kinsley, PhD, and Elizabeth Meyer, PhD, wrote in a special commentary in the same journal issue.

The researchers performed baseline and follow-up high-resolution magnetic-resonance imaging on the brains of 19 women who gave birth at Yale-New Haven Hospital, 10 to boys and nine to girls. A comparison of images taken two to four weeks and three to four months after the women gave birth showed that gray matter volume increased by a small but significant amount in various parts of the brain. In adults, gray matter volume doesn't ordinarily change over a few months without significant learning, brain injury or illness, or major environmental change.
The areas affected support maternal motivation (hypothalamus), reward and emotion processing (substantia nigra and amygdala), sensory integration (parietal lobe), and reasoning and judgment (prefrontal cortex).

In particular, the mothers who most enthusiastically rated their babies as special, beautiful, ideal, perfect and so on were significantly more likely to develop bigger mid-brains than the less awestruck mothers in key areas linked to maternal motivation, rewards and the regulation of emotions.

The mothers averaged just over 33 years in age and 18 years of school. All were breastfeeding, nearly half had other children and none had serious postpartum depression.

Although these early findings require replication with a larger and more representative sample, they raise intriguing questions about the interaction between mother and child (or parent and child, since fathers are also the focus of study). The intense sensory-tactile stimulation of a baby may trigger the adult brain to grow in key areas, allowing mothers, in this case, to "orchestrate a new and increased repertoire of complex interactive behaviors with infants," the authors wrote. Expansion in the brain's "motivation" area in particular could lead to more nurturing, which would help babies survive and thrive physically, emotionally and cognitively.

Further study using adoptive mothers could help "tease out effects of postpartum hormones versus mother-infant interactions," said Kim, and help resolve the question of whether the brain changes behavior or behavior changes the brain -- or both.

The authors said that postpartum depression may involve reductions in the same brain areas that grew in mothers who were not depressed. "The abnormal changes may be associated with difficulties in learning the rewarding value of infant stimuli and in regulating emotions during the postpartum period," they said. Further study is expected to clarify what happens in the brains of mothers at risk, which may lead to improved interventions.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The Seamstress

My doula journey takes me into people's homes and hearts. I am sometimes a receptacle for their smoldering anger or deep despair. I am always honored to help a woman along her path to peace and understanding. Birth trauma occurs when our hopes and dreams go awry. The wounds are deep if we felt unsupported at the moment our plans splintered into a million pieces of sharp glass raining down on us, and the grief process long. This poem is for all the seamstresses out there. The cesarean epidemic has infected our hospitals like a disease causing a disproportionate number of our mothers to begin motherhood disheartened, disillusioned and disattached from their selves. They are all seamstresses.

The Seamstress

We sat amongst her disillusionment and despair
piecing together the scattered remnants of her destroyed dreams.
The disarray of her disappointment spread around us
disconnecting her from the fabric of her life.

We sat disentangling the threads of her distrust and disbelief
from the dishonesty of those she thought had cared;
vainly trying to dispel her disenchantment.

The disjointed story spilled from her wounded heart
discouraged tears distorting the lines of her face.
The silver needle plunging in and out
as she desperately tried to repair the damage.

Together we examined the jagged edges of their handiwork
searching for patterns and matching the pieces.
How had this disaster happened;
this horrendous disruption to her plans?
Had she lost all of her abilities of discernment?

__ __ __ __ __ __

Carefully they stitched the edges of her womb together.
Her birth desires disintegrating around her
she lay in disembodied disgrace upon the cold metal of the steel table
discarded, dismissed and dispossessed.

Disheveled and disoriented she lay upon the gurney.
Could they not see the gaping wound they left upon her heart
her life blood disgorging onto the sterile white sheets?

Gathering together the fraying edges of her heart
she pressed discomfort, anger and disloyalty to her breast
bravely trying to staunch the unending flow.

__ __ __ __ __ __

Dislodged from all her instincts
her disordered mind distorting her visions for those first precious days of life.
Distraught she began incessantly working
the needle flashing in and out
feverishly sewing together the crazy quilt of her life.

Would she forever be at a disadvantage
disqualified for motherhood by her disfigurement?
Was there no way to close this wound that would not stop leaking
to rid herself of this terrible disease?

__ __ __ __ __ __

We sat discussing, sharing and disclosing
patching over the disharmony of her soul.
Disengaging from blame or guilt
we discovered a mother willing to sacrifice her body and her dreams.

# # # # # # # # # #

I became fascinated with the word and syllable 'dis' as I thought about this piece. First because of the dis-ease women feel with their bodies and their mothering abilities after a traumatic birth. Secondly because feeling they were dissed during the process is a large component of their grief. Third the syllable 'dis' turns a positive into a negative which is what they feel happened to their birth experience.

When I researched the meaning of dis this is what I discovered:

The Many Meanings of Dis

Pronunciation: dēs,
1. lady; woman.
2. Female deity; especially one promoting fertility.

Pronunciation: dis, Slang
1. To show disrespect for; affront.
2. To disparage; belittle.

Pronunciation: dis, Classic Myth
1. A god of the underworld.

As a Latin prefix
1. meaning “apart,” “asunder,” “away,” “utterly,”
2. having a negative, or reversing force when used as an English formative
Example: to change ability to disability; or affirming to disaffirming

I was stunned to learn Dis was both a female fertility deity and a god of the underworld. Now I see my seamstress as wrestling with these opposing gods; trapped in the depths of the underworld; struggling to sew her way back up to the light.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

An Out-of-hospital Birth Center Birth from a Father’s Perspective

I am including this birth although it is not local but it does have a local connection. I met Jessica and Clayton when they participated in one of my childbirth class series. Jessica gave birth to their first daughter at French Hospital. Everything went very smoothly and they felt very good about their experience and their care by their midwives and the nursing staff. Then they moved away.

On Monday, September 20, 2010 Jessica gave birth to their second daughter. Feeling empowered by their first experience they chose an out-of-hospital birth center for this birth and planned a water birth. I was excited to hear about their story and wanted to share it because our community is about to have our own out-of-hospital birth center complete with birth tubs. Besides Clayton was always such a sweet, enthusiastic, supportive dad during classes and Jessica was such a great birther I couldn't resist including them in my birth story project.

The birth of Shiloh Rose...

It was Saturday, September 11th and I was excited for a number of reasons. One reason was that the Ocean Beach Jazz fest was happening all day just a couple miles from my home. The other reason was that I had a sneaking suspicion that my 2nd daughter would be born that day. That morning as I was eating breakfast with my buddy Danny, I noticed that Jessica was running around in a flurry cleaning everything. Now Jessica keeps a tidy home but her efforts that morning were extreme. I looked at Danny and said “I think Jessica is going to have our baby today... she seems to instinctively be preparing for it.” At that time there were no major contractions to speak of so I went down the street to catch some first rate live Jazz.

The music was great, over 8 stages of sounds to choose from! At about 2:30, half way through Charlie Hunter, I received a text from Jessica that said “My Water Broke!” I immediately returned home to my dear wife who was excited to finally be in labor 9 days after our "due date". I asked Jessica if she had called the midwife, but she was waiting until she knew for sure she was in labor. After some convincing on my part she eventually made the call. Our midwife Brooke agreed to meet us at the birth center whenever we felt ready.

Now Jessica wanted to labor in the comfort of her own home as long as possible before heading to the birth center. I was in support of that, however about a week prior, in my prayer time I felt the spirit speak to me that when labor began, the baby would come quickly. I spent the next couple of hours preparing our things and loading them in the car. We had packed pajamas, swim trunks for the water birth we had planned, music, video camera, all sorts of clothes for mama and baby. The additional car seat was installed and family members were contacted.

During those couple hours, I could see the contractions becoming stronger. She began getting very quiet and still when they would hit. At this point I suggested that it was time to go. She said that she wanted to eat a quesadilla first... I did too. Following our pre-game meal we left Kairah with Aunt Robin and hopped in the car to meet Brooke at the birth center. We arrived at 5:15 pm. The birth center was so peaceful at that time of day. It was Saturday evening and there were no people in the waiting room and no one else there giving birth. We talked a bit with Brooke and had a look around to select which room Jessica wanted. By now it was about 5:30. Jessica had been having contractions throughout our conversation but was still very much engaged with us. Then Brooke asked to check Jessica’s progress. To all of our surprise she said that Jessica was dilated to 10cm which meant she was ready to push the baby out!

It was Jessica’s desire to have a water birth so Brooke turned on the faucet to fill the tub. I began setting up the video camera as well as preparing some music. During that time I watched Jessica have an intense contraction while laying on her side in bed. It was then that she said “I’m ready to hop in the tub now”. After a couple minutes I went in to check on Jessica who was kneeling ninja style in the tub. The water was about up to her hips in this position. I took a minute to put my hand on her shoulder to comfort her. When I looked down I was shocked to see that the head of our baby was crowning! I asked Jessica if that was the baby’s head and she said yes! Brooke responded in astonishment, "The Baby is coming out?" Jessica nodded yes. The next thirty seconds was a whirlwind. Brooke turned off the water, I moved the video camera, and Jessica pushed one more time. I adjusted the camera just in time to capture Jessica reaching down into the water to deliver her own baby. It all happened so fast! Jessica reclined into the tub without even breaking a sweat saying “Hi little one, That was fast!” Shiloh Rose Connolly was Born at 5:42 pm. I couldn’t stop laughing in amazement. There was no build up, no drama, no “you can do it Jessica”. We were literally there less than a half hour and Jessica delivered so fast no one but her and the baby were ready! I then got to climb in the tub and meet my new daughter. She was so beautiful. She was so captivating. We hung out in the tub for about 15 minutes and then decided it would be a good time to cut the cord. I had the honor of that task. After I cut the cord, Shiloh nursed for the first time... effortlessly. After getting out of the tub, Jessica, Shiloh and I were left alone to spend time together. It was all so amazing! I was so proud of my girls. We couldn’t have asked for a better situation. We were laying together in a queen size bed in the comforts of a room that could have easily qualified for a bed and breakfast suite under different circumstances. There was no commotion, no interruption, no sick people across the hall. It was only us, with Brooke and her assistant in the other room if we needed them.

A couple hours later, we let the word out to all our friends and family. This was the first time we formally announced her name! The first to arrive were Robin and Kairah! It was so awesome to introduce Kairah to Shiloh. Kai had been preparing for months anticipating her new role as a big sister and finally got to hold Shiloh for the first time. Soon after, the Pearsons arrived bearing gifts of birthday cake, champagne and best of all... Sushi! My family also began to file in from all corners of the state. My mom traveled from the Central Coast, Heather came from LA and my Dad and his family drove from Lake Arrowhead to be there. It was such a glorious time of celebration. We all took turns for a personal photo shoot with Shiloh as well as taking turns watching the ever so short birth video. The day ended at about 10:30pm with us loading Shiloh into the car and bringing her home for the first time to begin her new life as a Connolly. The Good Lord was so faithful in answering our prayers! All of our expectations were exceeded, and most importantly we have a new member of the family that we are so excited to do life with!

Welcome Shiloh Rose Connolly! I promise to be a good Daddy!

Friday, October 8, 2010

Mares Don't Like to be Watched

This is the first installment in a series I have been thinking about writing for some time. Over the years I have learned so much from so many about how to be a good doula. Every time I support a woman I either learn something new, renew my understanding of something ,or see an old truth from a fresh perspective. But I see clearly now that my beliefs and understanding about how best to help laboring women wasn't learned at my doula training. It wasn't learned through all the birth books I have read. It wasn't even learned through the birth of my son. My real doula training and my core beliefs about birth predate all of that. As crazy as it sounds I have come to realize that I learned how to be a good doula through my work with horses. The skills I needed for guiding women through the intensity of natural birth I honed in grass pastures, show arenas and barns. Some of my most amazing teachers were the brood mares I met along the way. Their ability to listen to their bodies and do exactly what needed to be done blew me away. Horses are fascinating and fabulous creatures. This set of stories is dedicated to the wisdom of the mares.


I lay still in my sleeping bag trying not to make the rusty springs of the old metal cot squeak, listening in the cold dark. I could hear Lunette on the other side of the wall rustling the straw as she moved about the deeply bedded foaling stall. The quiet was so complete in the dark of the old barn I could hear the mare's teeth grinding as she peacefully chewed her alfalfa. The stillness was broken by the screech of a far off owl calling to his mate. Lunette stopped in mid chew to listen but there was no answering call to hear and the intense quiet slowly settled back over us like a blanket; even deeper than before because of the sharp interruption. I tried to quiet even my breathing so as not to disturb the heavily pregnant mare. Finally Lunette relaxed, blew a big warm horsey sigh, lowered her head and went back to contentedly eating.

I lay in the dark trying not to doze off as the hours passed. Carefully I moved my arm out of the warmth of the sleeping bag and raised my wrist to my face. Peering down I could see the dial of my watch glowing in the dark; almost one o'clock. As quietly as I could I unzipped the sleeping bag and wriggled out. The cot gave a rusty groan as I stood up. Looking over the half wall into the dimly lit stall I could see the brood mare standing, neck straining, head up, eyes wide, on high alert from my noisy progress. I talked to her calmly then walked to the other side of the barn. Picking up the phone in the tack room I dialed Betty's number and woke her up.

"Hi Betty. Its time for the second shift."
"How is she doing?" inquired the owner of Belvidere Welsh Pony Farm.
"She is fine; not as restless as last night" I informed her.
"Okay. I'll be down in a minute. Just let me make a cup of coffee."
"Do you want me to stay until you get here?" I asked.
"No; no need for that. I'll be there in five minutes. You go on to bed and get some sleep. It sounds like we might be doing this for a few more nights."

I hung up the phone, walked wearily out to my beat up Chevy pick up, climbed in and started the reluctant motor. I longed for my cozy bed warmed by Mike's body. It was just a quick two minute drive from the barn but it felt like miles. Steering down the dark sandy farm road next to the soy bean field I wondered when Lunette would decide the time was right and have her foal.

I climbed the steep stairs to our little farm house and quietly opened the porch screen door. Spot jumped down from the shabby upholstered chair where he slept on the screened porch during good weather. He met me with a shaggy wag of his plumed tail. Too tired to stop and pet him I eased out of my old leather boots and went inside. Pausing only long enough to peal off my clothes, I carefully slid under the cold covers on my side of the bed trying not to wake Mike. Before I could close my tired eyes the phone rang.

"Come back. The foal is here!" Betty excitedly gasped in my ear.
"What?" I answered in disbelief.
"She foaled. Hurry!" and the phone went dead. I scrambled into my clothes, pulled on my boots and ran.

When I entered the old converted dairy barn I could see the dim glow of the lights coming from the foaling stall and heard Lunette nickering to her new baby; a low, deep rumbly sound with the hint of a whisper in it; a special whinny only share between mother and foal. She proudly stood on guard over a wet bay bundle of colt half buried in the deep yellow straw. As soon as she recognized me she dropped her head and went back to the important business of being a new mom; alternately licking the colt's haunches dry with broad strokes of her pink tongue and drinking in it's odor with deep wuffling draughts of her nostrils. Betty knelt in the straw with an old cotton terry towel in her hands vigorously rubbing dry hair of the foal's shoulders slicked down by amniotic fluid. I grabbed another towel from the birth kit sitting ready by the open door of the stall and went in to help.

"I can't believe it" I said amazed. "She wasn't showing any signs; no sweating, no nervousness, no looking at her sides, nothing."
Betty just chuckled and explained, "Mares don't like to be watched."


This story was a glimpse into something called foal watching that is a part of the cycle of the seasons on a breeding farm. Every breeder wants to be there when foals arrive. But mares, as prey animals, are genetically coded not to foal when anyone or anything is around because this might put their foal in danger during those first couple of critical hours when the foal is most vulnerable to attack. In order to survive in the wild a mare needs to be able to run away. She instinctively knows that once her water breaks and the birth process has begun she will be incapable of running away, therefore she is easy prey. Once the birth process begins it is very rapid and the foal is on its' feet within the first hour and can keep up with the herd within a couple of hours. So when a mare is watched it triggers her adrenaline and other stress hormones. As long as these hormones are flowing through her veins her labor will be suppressed. This is why brood mares like to leave the herd and search out a well known secluded spot to birth.

So what is a breeder to do? Lots of money has been made creating high tech devices that alert the owner who is in an apartment or room on another part of the property when the mare has begun giving birth. Even more money has been spent on outfitting stalls with remote controlled video cameras so foal watchers can observe from a room far enough away to not disturb the mares. Horse breeders have long understood what our scientific medical community still doesn't get, that intervention in any form, even just watching, should be done in such a way as to disturb the natural physiologic process of birth as little as possible; to only step in and make your presence known when absolutely necessary. To be a good doula you need to learn the art of being present without intruding on the process until you are needed.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Why You Need to Create a Balanced Healthy Harmonious Pregnancy

Two new books delve into an issue I have been educating women about for almost 20 years: “Origins: How the Nine Months Before Birth Shape the Rest of Our Lives” by Annie Murphy Paul and “More than Genes,” by Dan Agin, a neuroscientist at the University of Chicago. They explain what current science and studies tell us about the effect creating a balanced healthy pregnancy has on your baby later in life. Actually they are looking into the connection between an unbalanced, unhealthy life style during pregnancy and the outcome for your baby later in life. Several studies have shown how your baby's weight at birth can have health effects for him or her in midlife. Now their is evidence that suggests pregnant women exposed to stress, pesticides, junk food, poor nutrition, illness and other factors may have a life long impact on their children's health and mental abilities. Childbirth educators, doulas and midwives have been telling expectant moms this for years.

Long before we had scientific studies to prove this it just made sense to me. Why? Because of what we know once your baby is outside your uterus about the long term health benefits of giving your baby the ideal nutrition it needs through breastfeeding. Your breastfed baby has less chance of ending up with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis or asthma. As an adult he or she has a reduced risk of getting diabetes, Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis, as well as, having a healthier cholesterol level the rest of their life. To top it all off breastfed babies have higher IQs. So if feeding your baby exactly right after they are born has all this impact it only makes sense to me that feeding your baby well when they are inside you must also have an impact. Actually I believe it may have an even greater impact because of the magnitude of the creation process going on in utero. You are building your baby one teeny component at a time and the complexity of the finished project is miraculous. You are setting up their nervous system, their hormonal system, their brain and the chemical balance within it, as well as digestion, respiratory, circulatory and eveything else. We know that as an adult a healthy lifestyle through diet, exercise and low stress impacts all of the interconnected body systems I just mentioned and greatly improves our chances of living a long productive life. How can it not have a profound impact on your baby in utero.

Part of me hesitated to post about this because I hate laying guilt on mothers. But another part of me said if this information could encourage just one pregnant woman to make some life changes that would impact her baby for life it was worth more maternal angst. Get healthy before you conceive. Or the minute you know you are pregnant start making choices that will benefit you both. If you need information or support in your quest for a healthy pregnancy contact me about joining my Healthy Beginnings class series.

To learn more about this issue: Nicholas Kristof's op ed piece in the New York Times.