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Primal Birthing

When I was pregnant with my first, at a baby shower, a woman told me her best advice was to “push as hard as you possibly can.” I was annoyed but couldn’t say why. Over the past few years and births, I’ve learned why. Michel Odent pointed the way.

Dr Odent is a French Obstetrician well known for his research about how we are born and the period of time just before and after—referred to as “the primal period.” Scientists like Odent are suggesting that what happens in utero, at birth, and in the first months of life matters more than we ever knew in determining what a person will be like.

Let’s look at birth. The way our babies are born and the way they and we experience birth should be as close to as nature intended as possible. It should be primal. Primal birth means letting your body birth simply, physiologically. It means, as Ina May says, “letting your monkey do it.”

Your own mind gets in the way.

To birth easily and quickly, like a monkey, you have to turn off the human, thinking part of your brain–the neo-cortex. We are the only animal with such huge neo-cortexes. We’re pretty smart.

The problem is the neo-cortex inhibits physiological actions. It’s great for building, solving, creating, and communicating. But when you are thinking–when your neo-cortex is in control–you don’t release the right hormones for sex, birth, and breastfeeding. Your body can’t relax. Birth is harder and longer and, arguably, more dangerous.

When you give up neo-cortical control and let your hormones birth your baby, your body feels better. Your baby comes faster, easier, safer, and very often, without pushing.

You don’t have to push.

Pushing, you add about sixty times the force of your uterus. Since we know that women in comas have given birth, we know voluntary pushing isn’t always necessary. The fetus ejection reflex, which is a lot sexier than it sounds, happens when everything has fallen into place. Birthing privately, oxytocin flowing freely, with a baby in the right position, many women won’t need to push at all.

This means safer births. With a breech baby, for example, the vast majority of the risk of vaginal birth is in the pushing. If you let your body do it, Dr Odent argues, you remove that risk. There is no forced pushing of the baby; there is only fetus ejection reflex.

Fetus ejection reflex is rare in all modern human cultures. What keeps us from getting there? Our neo-cortex.

If you want a delicious vegan feast, you don’t go to a steakhouse. It’s not fair. That’s not what they do there. Could they possibly whip you up something? It’s certainly possible, but it’s expecting a lot. And it’s not going to be the best food you’ve had.

You need privacy and safety.

It’s like sex. You have to turn off your brain first in order to enjoy it. You have to be making the right hormones and the right brain waves to get into it. You can’t orgasm if you’re full of adrenaline and cortisol, producing lightning fast beta waves. You can’t birth, either.

It’s like how some people don’t poop on vacation. Sphincters don’t open in the presence of adrenaline. You have to feel relaxed and totally safe.

Who feels totally safe and relaxed giving birth these days? Almost no one. We’ve socialized and medicalized birth too much. Birth is not inner work anymore. It hasn’t been for a very long time. Instead of softening into the birth process, like a cat, we spend most of our energy avoiding risk, fearing pain. Birth is a reason to be on high alert!

Michel Odent says that is to our detriment. “To give birth to her baby,” he says, “the mother needs privacy. She needs to feel unobserved.” She needs to turn off neo-cortical control.

Having read his writings and listened to him speak on the topic, I’ve developed The Four Ls for neo-cortical “on” switches. These are the things that increase activity in the neo-cortex, decreasing oxytocin production and making birth hard.

Neo-Cortical “On” Switches: The Four Ls


All words require a woman to enter her neo-cortex, to bring her brain wave activity up a notch or two. This is one reason a lot of women in advanced labor, when asked questions, will just repeat, “I don’t know” or not answer at all. This is a good sign! It’s too much work to process a question and certainly to come up with the words to answer it. A woman with good oxytocin production, in progressing labor, is in her own world. She doesn’t care about any of the things in our perceived reality. Few things need words–a woman’s experience of birth is all about feeling and being.


All light, but especially bright and fake light, turns on the neo-cortex. It wakes us up. Birth requires us to be in a dream-like state. Our brain waves need to slow down; our primitive brains need to take over. Light makes us cast our eyes about. Then our neo-cortex wants to get in on whatever is going on…maybe analyze a few things, processes some possible threats, try to recall what it is we’re ‘supposed’ to do if we have back labor, and compile a list of reasons why that nurse might have given us the side-eye. All this is just a big ‘ol wet blanket to a mammalian body trying to birth a baby.


If it requires your attention it is distracting to your labor. Things should be as familiar and predictable as possible. This means the look, sound, smell, and feel should be as close to home as you can approximate. (Home is good, too!) If you have to say, “What’s that beeping?” or your olfactory nerve detects a new smell, or there are people with unfamiliar energy, your brain wakes up. Hospital equipment in full view means danger. Attention-requiring things are especially inhibiting when they signify danger, possible danger, threat of danger, or appearance of danger. Home-like birthing rooms are not a luxury, they are a physiological necessity.


Anyone or anything that is observing you give birth—listening in on your progress or bodily functions–is going to inhibit your birth by stimulating your neo-cortex. When we are observed, we observe ourselves. People or machine, in the room or without, it doesn’t matter. All the waiting and watching makes birth hard.

Perhaps someday we can get back to the point where laboring women are trusted and left alone to birth primally, full of oxytocin, power and creative energy.

Modern Birth & The Vegan Feast

With these things in mind, consider the way that the majority of modern women birth. Most women birth in hospitals, surrounded by an ever-expanding parade of strangers, machinery for emergencies, and multiple interruptions. It’s a wonder that anyone can have a baby without technological or pharmacological assistance. How amazing our bodies are that they sometimes still do, even in these circumstances!

The number of women birthing in hospital who give birth without medical assistance is very, very low. It’s a hospital, where sick and hurt people go. No wonder women feel and are treated like they are sick and hurt.

If you want a delicious vegan feast, you don’t go to a steakhouse. It’s not fair. That’s not what they do there. Could they possibly whip you up something? It’s certainly possible, but it’s expecting a lot. And it’s not going to be the best food you’ve had.

I’m ‘preaching to the choir,’ of course, and there’s really no need for us to affirm our beliefs ad nauseum and congratulate each other on our progressive and scientifically sound ideas and ideals. We just want to birth where we feel most safe and comfortable, where we don’t feel observed, and where we can dim the lights and limit the talking.

But we have to remember that, though home seems like the easiest answer here, not everyone feels safe at home. A woman may have intuition about a birth and ‘know’ she needs to be near help, and many modern women birth better in hospital because they would be more terrified outside it.

My goal as a birth educator is to help women and their partners feel more confident in their bodies and babies so that they can make the best decisions for themselves and their babies. We need more birth education that instills confidence and calm. Only then can women begin to birth primally.

Best case scenario: You aren’t afraid, have good gut feelings about it, and sneak off to your birth cave. You will turn off your human mind and think very, very carefully–beforehand–about whom you invite into this space.

Who should be there?

Since we can assume that mammals birth primarily in the wild, they are a good example to us as we plan our births. Humans tend to look for other humans when they are in labor. Some argue this is because we have socialized birth, but we are not the only mammals to seek help for birth.

Elephants need another female elephant around, dolphins assist each other in birth, and a Rodrigues bat was observed showing a first time mama bat the right position for birth and licking and grooming her during labor.

Michel Odent says for the safest birth you need “one experienced and silent midwife sitting in a corner.” Sometimes, he adds that the midwife should be knitting and smiling. She doesn’t need to do or say much of anything. “The true role of the midwife is to protect an environment that makes the ejection reflex possible.”

Our human minds are too powerful for our own good; see if you can use your primal, mammalian mind to decide who should be there.

It’s like sex. You have to turn off your brain first in order to enjoy it. You have to be making the right hormones and the right brain waves to get into it. You can’t orgasm if you’re full of adrenaline and cortisol, producing lightning fast beta waves. You can’t birth, either.

The father?

Pregnant with my first child, I didn’t really want my husband there but felt pressured by the culture to invite him. I wanted one knitting midwife and a familiar-to-me, experienced woman. So I picked a solo practice midwife and asked my friend who was also a doula to be there. I’m not sure having my partner there was the best choice.

Birth is so socialized in human culture—even in relatively un-industrialized societies—that it has become filled with fear, intervention, rules, requirements, and safety nets.

As we try to naturalize, normalize, and bring calm and confidence back to birth, we are attempting to make birth primal again. One of the ways we do this is by bringing more people to our births—notably dads. I believe that we are attempting to neutralize the negative effects of socialized birthing by bringing more of a calming or ‘cheering section’ and that it often backfires.

Having your male partner with you in your birthing room brings a familiar smell and energy to the room. His presence (hopefully) means protection to you, and he may have to actually protect you from over-zealous medically minded providers. This is beneficial for your birth. Everything familiar helps with the release of oxytocin. No oxytocin, no birth.

But men in birth rooms are an extremely new phenomenon, not 50 years old in thousands and thousands of years of birthing history. Most things that are that new make me nervous. What did our foremothers know that we don’t? Could there be some element of masculine energy that inhibits birthing? Or maybe the pre-industrialized ban on fathers was merely another way of socializing childbirth. It’s worth thinking about.

Friends? Family? Photographers?

A midwife local to me spoke about the births of her recently emigrated African clients, who like to have lots of women present. She says the births have a party-like feel, but they almost universally take longer than births with fewer people. There are a few cultural sayings from around the world that say basically, two midwives make the baby stuck.

Birth photography is beautiful, but how many extra contractions does it cost? You want to give your mom the gift of seeing her grandchild’s birth. How many minutes of labor is it worth to you? Students need to see birth in the flesh. Is your body OK with that?

Only the inner you can answer these questions. Get in touch with the inner you.

Birthing privately, oxytocin flowing freely, with a baby in the right position, many women won’t need to push at all.

How about a doula?

Doulas deserve their own discussion. Our socialized methods of childbirth make birth hard. A doula can negate a lot of that and bring comfort and calm to a foreign and sometimes scary time. She can make your birth easier, faster, and safer. The right doula is oxytocin embodied.

There are precious few knitting midwives anymore; they are overworked and spread thin. A doula will stay with you; sit in the corner and knit–if that is what you need. She provides continuity of care when you don’t know who will show up at your birth. She is there for you, no matter what.

But a doula can also wreak havoc. The wrong doula–they’re just people after all–or a doula when you don’t really need one, can slow, stall, and complicate your labor. You can avoid most of this by being extra careful when you pick your doula, and by being sure you actually want one.

Ideally, there is no one in the room, no one that even knows you are in labor, unless you feel a visceral need for their support. One silent and experienced midwife, sitting in the corner.

If there is no one else you trust to “be there for you”–whatever that means for you–and you don’t like the idea of birthing alone, then you need a doula. The overwhelming majority of doctors and even midwives today are not going to “be there for you” except as a precaution against medical troubles. There are some; I’m sure you know one or two.

If you are birthing in a hospital or even most birth centers, you will probably want a doula. Screen her carefully; make sure your oxytocin feels very high when you are with her. And as with anyone, any birth, don’t feel bad about kicking her out of your birth cave when you’d rather have some time alone.

What it comes down to

You can make birth harder by adding people, machines, lights, words, and un-familiar surroundings. You can make it easier and often safer by taking away those things and the feelings they bring. Beware neo-cortical “on” switches. Just changing one thing can make a huge difference. Consider changing your birth place, provider, invitation list, or expectations of those in the room.

Just like orgasm–perhaps more so–fetal ejection reflex won’t happen if there isn’t sufficient privacy. The ejection reflex is as primal as it gets. Michel Odent says, “It does not occur if there is a birth attendant who behaves like a “coach,” or an observer, or a helper, or a guide, or a support person.” If you believe you need help to get the baby out, you will need help.

And really, that’s OK. We have a lot to kick back against, and it’s better than wanting–or needing–help and not having it.

Maybe in the future we will go back to the past, and there will be birthing rooms at hospitals that have zero equipment and no one enters without being asked for. More women will want to birth at home and there will be plenty of midwives to sit and knit, readily available and covered by insurance, backed by loving doctors. Perhaps someday we can get back to the point where laboring women are trusted and left alone to birth primally, full of oxytocin, power and creative energy.

Peace on earth begins with birth.

First, though, we have to believe we are capable of that. You have to believe it about your body, I have to believe it about mine, and collectively we have to believe it about the bodies and selves of womankind. We can start right here, right now. Let’s start to believe in and love the everyday primal power of our own bodies and trust ourselves—trust in our ability to birth without so much pushing.