The BBC2 TV series, Five Star Babies: Inside the Portland Hospital, professed to be an ‘exclusive glimpse inside the UK’s only maternity hospital’ and presented an image of childbirth which was glamorous and aspirational. Here, footballer’s wife turned fashion guru Victoria Beckham had her babies, with the customary C-section to ensure that the process of bringing a baby into the world ran to time and was supposedly pain-free. But Dr Michel Odent, a ground-breaking obstetrician who wrote the first articles about the importance of breastfeeding during the hour following birth, is not sure that a five-star hotel cum hospital is the ideal place to deliver your child. Instead, he believes a familiar quiet space, preferably with an experienced companion nearby, is the ultimate luxury for a new mum.
‘I didn’t see the series but from what people have told me, Five Stars Babies was extraordinary – not least because of the vast expense involved. But you don’t need to pay for the things that really matter when it comes to giving birth. Wide screen TV, canapés and vintage Bollinger are not substituted for a familiar place where you feel safe.
In general, I find there is a deep-rooted cultural misunderstanding about what is necessary for a safe delivery. It’s not dinner a la carte and a manicure by the bedside.
Just looking at childbirth from a bacteriological and immunological perspective, women who give birth in a place they know, like home, are also in an environment that is full of familiar bacteria. When babies are born, they need to be rapidly immersed in a rich microbial environment which is ideally the one that the mother is already familiar with. This means that her antibodies – transferred to the baby in utero via the placenta – are the correct ones to ward off familiar infections. This rich microbial soup is also what helps to colonise the baby’s body with good bacteria, building the pillars of a healthy immune system for the future.
In the Portland, like most hospitals, cleanliness and hygiene are high on the priority list, but these sterile environments give the newborn baby no kick start towards a healthy bacteria population in the gut. And nowhere is free from microbes, even places washed down regularly with strong bleach. In these environments, harmful bacteria can flourish, filling the vacuum as it were.
Around half of Portland hospital mums have a C-section, far more than should ever be necessary. This surgical birth means that the baby never passes down the natural route, picking up the mother’s bacterial flora on the way.
In my experience, mums do best when they are with a single competent female and left to get on with delivering their baby in peace. I have never seen an authentic ‘foetus ejection reflex’ in a mother that is being watched and disturbed. This is the reflex that helps a calm unwatched mother give birth. So there are many reasons not to be too envious of Portland mums.