by Sarah J. Buckley
Lotus birth is the practice of leaving the umbilical cord uncut, so that the baby remains attached to his/her placenta until the cord naturally separates at the umbilicus- exactly as a cut cord does- at 3 to 10 days after birth. This prolonged contact can be seen as a time of transition, allowing the baby to slowly and gently let go of his/her attachment to the mother's body.
Although we have no written records of cultures which leave the cord uncut, many traditional peoples hold the placenta in high esteem. For example, Maori people from New Zealand bury the placenta ritually on the ancestral marae, and the Hmong, a hill tribe from South East Asia, believe that the placenta must be retrieved after death to ensure physical integrity in the next life: a Hmong baby's placenta is buried inside the house of its birth.
Lotus Birth is a new ritual for us, having only been described in chimpanzees before 1974, when Clair Lotus Day- pregnant and living in California- began to question the routine cutting of the cord. Her searching led her to an obstetrician who was sympathetic to her wishes, and her son Trimurti was born in hospital and taken home with his cord uncut. Lotus Birth was named by, and seeded through Clair to Jeannine Parvati Baker in the US and Shivam Rachana in Australia, who have both been strong advocates for this gentle practice.
Since 1974, many babies have been born this way, including babies born at home and in hospital, on land and in water, and even by caesarean section. Lotus birth is a beautiful and logical extension of natural childbirth, and invites us to reclaim the so-called third stage of birth, and to honour the placenta, our baby’s first source of nourishment.
I am a New Zealand GP (family MD in America), and have 4 children born at home in my adopted country, Australia. I have experienced Lotus birth with my second and subsequent children, after being drawn to it during my second pregnancy through contact with Shivam Rachana at the Centre for Human Transformation in Yarra Glen, near Melbourne. Lotus birth made sense to me at the time, as I remembered my time training in GP obstetrics, and the strange and uncomfortable feeling of cutting through the gristly, fleshy cord that connects baby to placenta and mother. The feeling for me was like cutting through a boneless toe, and it felt good to avoid this cutting with my coming baby.
Through the CHT I spoke with women who had chosen this for their babies, and experienced a beautiful post-natal time. Some women also described their Lotus-Birth child's self-possession and completeness. Others described it as a challenge, practically and emotionally. Nicholas, my partner, was concerned that it might interfere with the magic of those early days, but was happy to go along with my wishes.
Zoe, our second child, was born at home on the 10th of September 1993. Her placenta was, unusually, an oval shape, which was perfect for the red velvet placenta bag that I had sewn. Soon after the birth, we wrapped her placenta in a cloth nappy, then in the placenta bag, and bundled it up with her in a shawl that enveloped both of them. Every 24 hours, we attended to the placenta by patting it dry, coating it liberally with salt, and dropping a little lavender oil onto it. Emma, who was 2, was keen to be involved in the care of her sister's placenta.
As the days passed, Zoe's cord dried from the umbilical end, and became thin and brittle. It developed a convenient 90 degree kink where it threaded through her clothes, and so did not rub or irritate her. The placenta, too, dried and shrivelled due to our salt treatment, and developed a slightly meaty smell, which interested our cat!
Zoe’s cord separated on the 6th day, without any fuss; other babies have cried inconsolably or held their cord tightly before separation. We planted her placenta under a mandarin tree on her first birthday, which our dear friend and neighbour Annie later dug up and put in a pot when we moved interstate. She told us later that the mandarins from the tree were the sweetest she had ever tasted.
Our third child, Jacob Patrick, was born on the 25th September 1995, at home into water. Jacob and I stayed in the water for some time after the birth, so we floated his placenta in a plastic ice-cream carton (with the lid on, and a corner cut out for the cord) while I nursed him. This time, we put his placenta in a sieve to drain for the first day. I neither dressed nor carried Jacob at this time, but stayed in a still space with him, while Nicholas cared for Emma, 4, and Zoe, 2. His cord separated in just under 4 days, and I felt that he drank deeply of the stillness of that time.
His short "breaking forth" time was perfect because my parents arrived from New Zealand the following day to help with our household. He later chose a Jacaranda tree under which to bury his placenta at our new home in Queensland.
My fourth baby, Maia Rose, was born in Brisbane, where Lotus birth is still very new, on 26 July 2000. We had a beautiful ‘Do It Yourself’ birth at home, and my intuition told me that her breaking forth time would be short. I decided not to treat her placenta at all, but kept it in a sieve over a bowl in the daytime, and in the placenta bag at night. The cord separated in just under 3 days and, although it was a cool time of year, it did get become friable and rather smelly. (Salt treatment would have prevented this). Maia’s placenta is still in our freezer, awaiting the right time for burial, and I broke off a piece of her dried cord to give to her when she is older.
My older children have blessed me with stories of their lives before birth, and have been unanimously in favour of not cutting the cord- especially Emma, who remembered the unpleasant feeling of having her cord cut, which she describes as being “painful in my heart”. Zoe, at five years of age, described being attached to a ‘love-heart thing’ in my womb and told me “When I was born, the cord went off the love-heart thing and onto there (the placenta) and then I came out.” Perhaps she experienced her placenta in utero as the source of nourishment and love.
Lotus birth has been, for us,
an exquisite ritual which has enhanced the
magic of the early post natal days. I notice
an integrity and self-possession with my lotus-born
children, and I believe that lovingness, cohesion,
attunement to nature, trust, and respect for
the natural order have all been imprinted on
our family by our honouring of the placenta,
the Tree of Life, through Lotus Birth.
Asking The Next Question
We midwives are widely known for asking questions. As embryonic midwives we read Niles Newton, Lester Hazell, Sheila Kitzinger. When our own bellies grew rich with child we had Jeannine Parvati Baker's "Prenatal Yoga" to guide us. Raven Lang's "Birth Book" and Suzanne Arms' book, "Immaculate Deception" inspired us and we asked the obstetrical world: Why? Why so many routine vaginal exams? Why stirrups? Why the shave? Why the high rate of cesarean birth? Why should I consider epidural anesthesia? Why ultrasound?
When we were not satisfied with the answers, or lack of explanation we naturally asked: Why must a healthy, low-risk woman have her healthy baby in the hospital, a place set aside for people who are seriously ill? The next logical question was: Why not home birth?
Receiving babies at home midwives continued to ask why. They listened to expectant parents also asking why. Why do obstetricians practicing in hospitals cut the umbilical cord so soon? It was a quiet, yet profound revolution when midwives learned to wait. Obstetrical medicine may have viewed it as a giant step backwards in history. Back to a time of family centered, woman-helping-woman birth protocols. Indeed indigenous people of our planet are still allowing birth to unfold, naturally. The families we serve are pleased to experience birth without the interference of technology. Faith in Mother Nature and Father Time, in God's design for human reproduction is strong in the hearts of home birth families.
However what birthing women and their babies experience in most hospital settings, not only in the U.S., but in the medical protocols that western medicine has exported to the "developing world", are procedures and practices which do not have this "faith" as a foundation. Instead, the " Baby's House" became the "uterus". The uterus, from what I can tell, having worked in many hospitals, is perceived as the enemy, a dark and mysterious place from which doctors must rescue babies! Armed with induction and the pitocin drip, they are ready and able to move those babies out.
Once a woman in a hospital has reached full dilation (and with all the routine vaginal exams, that is quickly established), the vagina becomes the enemy. With or without expulsion contractions women are told (I've seen them forced) to push. If she does not bring the baby out quickly enough, fundal pressure is applied. Next forceps or vacuum suction. PUSH! PUSH! Episiotomies are cut to hasten the exit of baby, accomplishing the rescue in less time. The cord is immediately clamped and cut. The baby is rushed away from the mother. To be washed (getting all the enemy slime and smells off), weighed, measured and evaluated as a survivor. Her temperature is taken anally. She's dressed and placed in a warmer.
What a contrast to the five home births I had and to the births of the many hundreds of babies I've been honored to receive in their homes. Homes with extravagant carpets, homes with bamboo walls and packed mud floors, all those loving homes in-between where birth took place without violence. Mother was never the enemy in these homes. We had no high-tech infant warmer. The babies were snug on mother's skin, in her arms, cradled on her soft belly, suckled at her breasts. Primitive? Perhaps. A step backwards? I wonder?
With your permission I'll take you to a family scene, 24 years after my first perfectly natural home birth… My now grown daughter Déjà is in a panic. "I've lost my purse! Mother help me. I'll die without my purse!" Déjà's purse is oval shaped, weighing about 1 1/2 lbs., is brown-red in color and has a long strap. Misplacing it causes her to panic, her breathing becomes labored. She cries for mother. Moments after Déjà cried, "I'll die without my purse!" Our eyes met in a moment of "a-ha". She laughed out loud and said, "This is all your fault mother, you never should have let my cord be cut." We hugged and one of Déjà's brothers unearthed the essential purse, the surrogate placenta.
Just the previous weekend Déjà had assisted while I served as midwife for her friend, Priya. The family had decided on Lotus birth, they chose not to cut baby Pranavkrshnan's umbilical cord. The glowing new father, Pradheep, a PHD in biochemistry, felt spiritually moved to choose a non-violent way. As a scientist he was curious to see for himself how nature would handle the relationship between his son and the placenta. We brought a bowl of warm water close and washed the excess blood away. We dusted the placenta with ground rosemary, turmeric and salt. Gingerly, respectfully we wrapped it in a diaper, while the baby remained naked, warm against his mother, still attached to his 'little brother'.
Over the course of the magical first week of Pranavkrshnan's life, the cord dried up, we changed the placenta's diaper and added herbs daily. There was no unpleasant odor. On day five the baby's grandmother made a discovery. She observed that when her grandson nursed, the placenta, lying approximately 14 inches away, would pulse. She pointed this out to her son-in-love, who was astounded.
When I arrived for a visit, Pradheep could not wait to demonstrate. I was witness to nothing short of a miraculous revelation: even five days after the birth, though the umbilical cord was dry, seemingly lifeless, the placenta was responsive to the baby being nourished at mother's breasts. In the words of the father-biochemist, "I am certain that something here is being communicated. I am not fooled by the dry appearance of the cord, deep in the center there is life. Something essential is being provided to my baby by his placenta."
Many, many years ago I read about Jeannine Parvati Baker's Lotus births. I was moved, yet I did not imagine that I could accomplish this kind of patience. When I mentioned it to my own midwife (now deceased), she laughed and assured me that it would be too inconvenient. I let the idea go, though I was to birth three more babies, I was not ready to look that deeply into my own process. Today it is the one thing I would change about the births of my children. Yes, my daughter laughed when she realized she would not 'die' without her purse. Yet I can't shake the memory of her recoiling when her cord was cut. Yes, it had stopped pulsing, or so we thought at the time.
Prior to 1995 hundreds of times I've cut cords. Too often I've heard the babies cry out at the moment, or flinch, or clutch their fists, sometimes I perceive no reaction. In Bali I learned to wait until the "Ari-ari" was born before ever cutting. This is the tradition, never to 'kill' the placenta, the little brother or sister, before it dies a natural death. This Ari-ari would die shortly after the birth but live on in spirit as the child's guardian angel, for the entirety of the baby's life. After death the Ari-ari would go with one to heaven and testify as to whether or not this human did his or her life's duty. A Balinese child greets her placenta when she rises in the morning. At night he prays and implores his placenta to protect him in the dark. Every new moon, full moon and on each Holy day offerings are placed at the burial site of one's placenta.
Here in Iowa I've received now ten babies whose cords were not cut. Only ten. The vast majority of families still choose to cut the cord. However since 1995 all of the babies I have received in Indonesia, the Philippines and Iowa (with the exception of one serious nucal cord baby) have enjoyed the benefits of waiting until well after the birth of the placenta before their umbilical cord was cut. (Usually one to two hours) Another midwife who has moved out of State had also facilitated a few Lotus births.
In Asia I did notice that the women were in no hurry to cut the cord once the placenta had been born. It was the men who wished it done. They felt compelled to bathe and bury the Ari- ari quickly. Culturally it was the men's responsibility, and so the women accommodated them. More than a few grandmothers and great-grandmothers rebuked the men for rushing the cord cutting, even an hour after the birth of the placenta.
I am now blessed to have a copy of Jeannine Parvati Baker's Lotus Birth Information Packet. Each of my home birth families reads it while expecting. Since Jeannine sent it to me, none of my families has chosen to cut the cord. Amazing how simple it is to begin a sweet revolution, just by providing honest answers to simple questions. Thank You Jeannine. Recently another gift from Jeannine landed in my mailbox: A book by Shivam Rachana called, Lotus Birth. (published in 2000 by Greenwood Press, P.O. Box 233 Yarra Glen, Victoria 3775 Australia) What a gift this author has given the world. I have hung on every word and highly recommend it.
Midwives are the guardians of normal birth. Yet in these times we may have forgotten what normal is. We are certain that a close bond between mother and child is normal. My experience is that Lotus birth facilitates that bond. Yes, it is inconvenient to move around with the baby attached to her placenta. So mother lays-in, close to the baby and placenta, breastfeeding is established in this sacred circle of quiet, restful seclusion. Yes, few visitors feel welcome while the placenta is still attached. It is during this space out of time that family may be invented, that the new mother reinvents herself.
Midwives, please ask yourselves the next question: Why are we buying into the medical ritual of cord cutting? When I see one of my Lotus birth babies gingerly holding her cord, I feel the goodness of leaving them intact. HER cord, HIS placenta, the baby's companion in the womb, who has sustained mother and child through pregnancy, has shared the baby's magical prenatal world…
We live in a world of MINE, of
mountains of possessions. I wonder if the roots
of consumerism are planted in the practice
of taking babies' cord and placenta away, before
they naturally let go. And, I ask myself: Why
cut the cord?
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