Labour of love: 'You want to be like a cow?'

Last updated 05:00 22/02/2013

BABY BLISS: Patricia Reesby's son at six weeks.

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A labour of love

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I'd never been pregnant before, and didn't know what to expect, so I bought a book.

It was 1965, I was 23 and living with a man who was no help at all.

The book was Life Before Birth by Ashley Montagu. The author believed the baby's umbilical cord should not be cut straight after birth, so the nutrient-rich blood could finish its transition from mother to child. That seemed to make sense and I resolved to mention it during my next ante-natal visit. Just to make sure it would happen.

I was enrolled at St Helen's Hospital in Melrose and went to a clinic there for my check-ups. Blood pressure and weight, the usual things. I don't know whether she was the matron or simply a nurse but she had the air of a headmistress or army general. The tests over, she sat behind her desk, scribbled a few notes and frowned at me.

"Any questions? If not, you can go and I'll see you next time."

I explained about Life Before Birth and that I'd been reading about the importance of not cutting the umbilical cord right away. She stared at me, still frowning.

"So will it be alright if the baby's cord isn't cut right away after the birth?" I prompted.

No response. Her stern brow unsettled me and I felt obliged to explain myself.

"I've seen calves born," I said. "And no one rushes up to cut the cord when a calf is born. It just naturally dries up and falls off after a while - that's how nature works, isn't it, so it must be the best way?"

She gave a cynical laugh, then finally spoke.

"I suppose," she scoffed, "you want to be like a cow and eat the afterbirth, too?"

Of course I didn't want to eat the afterbirth, but what could I say?

The months went by. At last I started having labour pains. I called a taxi to take me to St Helen's. It was early evening.

The driver didn't offer to help with my case and I felt a bit hurt. "I'm here to have a baby," I said.

He blinked. "I thought you were a nurse going back on duty." He carried my case into the hospital, wishing me luck as he drove off. I filled in the forms and was directed to a sort of trolley bed in the corridor until things started to speed up.

A vice gripped my back, I felt like a huge hapless insect impaled on a dissection board. Agonising.

"It's time now, I think," I heard someone say, and next thing I was being urged to transfer myself to another trolley alongside. Cast like a helpless ewe, I gasped each time I tried to edge myself over. I'd never known such inability to move an inch. Finally, I managed it.

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An hour or so went by in a haze in the labour room before the pain in my back faded away and a sense of urgency took over. Having forgotten in the drama of it all that I was here to have a baby, the sudden cry caught me by surprise. He was held up for me to see, as they checked off the vital signs.

"A boy. Eight pounds one ounce. Apgar 10." All well.

Next morning, now in my own hospital room, I lay in a glow of bliss I'd never known before and haven't since. It was over and here was this wonderful baby. I was to stay in St Helen's a whole two weeks, for those were the days when you could. It was a 'rooming-in' hospital and I'd be learning hands-on how to care for him, with nourishing meals provided, and even egg nogs. I felt thoroughly cared for. 

Of course, at the moment of birth I'd completely forgotten about the umbilical cord. I had no idea whether it was cut right away or not.

By the time my other two children were born in Palmerston North Hospital a few years later, the issue had slipped my mind entirely. They both had a touch of early jaundice, and from my recent reading it seems that delayed cord cutting can prevent that.

For it seems that Ashley Montagu was ahead of his time. Many medical people now believe the cord shouldn't be cut right away, at least not until the blood stops pulsating. The transfer of blood from the mother has been termed nature's first stem cell transplant. These days new parents are almost always given a say in the matter.

I've forgotten the name of that grim St Helen's matron, if I ever knew it. But if I could go back, with more confidence than I had then, I'd tell her that cows may have more sense than we think. There could even be good reasons why they eat the placenta, since other mammals do the same thing, apart from camels and most humans, that is.

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