There’s a lot of fear surrounding childbirth and for most of my life, the whole concept terrified me. It didn’t help that the only birth stories I’d heard were titbits from family and friends who involuntarily shared everything they went through – like the media, only flogging the bad news like it was a badge of achievement. Without any further knowledge, all I associated childbirth with, was uncontrollable tearing, long strenuous pushing, and unbearable pain. Before I even learned how to breastfeed, I was warned of nipples almost being ripped off, and the horrors of mastitis but that’s a whole other story.
I first came across hypnobirthing when a friend said she was so calm during the birth of her child, that the doctors and midwives thought she was asleep! From the moment I fell pregnant, I knew hypnobirthing was for me.
With nothing to lose, I went into it pretty clueless and a little scared (they’d emailed earlier to say we’d be watching at least three real birthing videos during the first class; as background info, in high school, I’d felt sick to the stomach and had to walk out of the classroom when they played a birthing video during a health & PE class so until the hypnobirthing class, I’d never actually seen what really happens during childbirth) and I came out of it so informed and empowered. I’m a big believer in ‘knowledge is power’ and the course equipped me with the tools I needed for whatever turn the birthing would take.
Although the term hypnobirthing sounds like something for hippies, it’s all about a positive birth experience. I love that it brought things back to the basics. Drawing from nature, we learned how mammals usually give birth in the dark; they prepare a relaxed environment for birthing by finding somewhere safe and serene. They aren’t taught how to give birth, it’s a primal instinct. A female body is perfectly designed by mother nature to conceive, grow and birth a baby. So much of this resonated with me. We also learned about the ‘fight or flight’ mechanism whereby our bodies shut down or slow down when we feel fearful, threatened or not in control. This is why so often you hear of labour either slowing down or stopping once women are in hospital – the actual perceived fear of birth plays such a large role in the birthing experience. To undo these fears, different terminology is used in hypnobirthing and these have stuck with me; for example, contractions are surges, like waves in the sea. I also loved the affirmations and for many weeks, I was practicing the visualisations and affirmations daily. I even actively searched for more hypnobirthing videos. Birthing was no longer scary or gruesome, I could no longer watch a birthing video without crying in appreciation of how beautiful it was to see new life enter the world. I was ready to experience this magical process and I trusted my body to know what to do.
Up until week 34, I’ve had a “normal” textbook pregnancy. Almost everything described in What To Expect When You’re Expecting detailed my exact symptoms and emotions at any given week. My morning sickness (though at night) disappeared overnight at precisely the end of the first trimester and throughout the following months, I continued to plot along to my regular routine. Many times, I’d forgotten I was even pregnant, accidentally bumping into people as I underestimated the width of my protruding pregnant belly.
Thinking this was the last routine 3D/4D scan, I invited my mum to join Zen and I at the week 34 scan so she could see her future granddaughter’s movements in real-time. We were smitten the moment we saw how her facial features had developed into the sweetest face. Her lips were definitely my lips, and her nose was a mirror reflection of my dear hubby’s.
The ultrasound technician started to slow down and repeat a few areas. She didn’t say anything but something didn’t feel right. “How large were you when you were born?” she asked. I looked to mum. “3.22kg” she said confidently — only to realise after the appointment that 3:22 was the time I was born, not my weight! (For the record, I weighed 2.94kg which is slightly small but relatively normal)
She stepped out to run the results past the specialist (not unusual) but then the specialist followed her back into the room.
As I struggled to make sense of the sudden change in mood, the words “growth restricted” came up in the conversation many times. By week 34, babies are supposed to weigh about 2.1kg but my little girl’s estimate weight was just 1.7kg and the scan was also showing significantly low amounts of amniotic fluid.
At my next OB appointment, unfortunately, my OB was away on leave and I saw her replacement. It was also the only OB appointment which Zen wasn’t able to attend with me, and probably the one I really needed him at.
“Were you aware this was going to be a small baby?” he asked.
Noone had ever mentioned it until the 34 week fetal growth & well-being scan I said.
Seemingly puzzled, he turned back to the computer and continued to go through the specialist notes and my file; he must’ve come across my plan to hypnobirth as he calmly explained — “At this stage, you are most likely going to have an elective caesarean before you reach full term at week 37. We can’t make a true assessment based on just one scan so we’ll be sending you back for another scan to check blood-work next week followed by another growth scan the week after.”
My eyes uncontrollably filled with tears as I held my breath to listen to his every word. Inside, I was running around like a mad woman. How could this be happening? Is this really happening? But this has been such a normal pregnancy! I cried deep-down but the tears stayed bottled up in position. Running my own business since the age of 25, I’ve learnt to withstand immense pressure without cracking. My head is usually quite quick to offer me a new perspective but this… this made me numb.
Never one to bring race into the equation as being Australian-born, I’ve always associated with being more Aussie than Chinese, I suddenly found myself asking if being Chinese meant my baby would be smaller anyway? The OB concurred that yes, the charts where my baby was at the bottom 3rd percentile for, were measured predominantly on Caucasian babies in Australia, but even if we refer to charts for Southern-Chinese babies (Northern Chinese babies were larger), mine would still be at the bottom 10% which would spark concern regardless.
“Couldn’t we leave the baby in there for longer to continue to grow?” I asked.
Was it my flexible-vegetarian diet? (But I’ve made such an effort to increase my meat in-take during this last trimester!)
Why was my weight gain still following the normal pattern — was I just getting fat?
Is my baby healthy?
Will we be able to have children again?
So many questions ran through my head.
I spent the weekend reading up on caesarean births, VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) and IUGR (Intrauterine growth restriction).
By Monday, I was scheduled to see my OB who was back from leave, first thing in the morning.
“Your pregnancy has thrown a curveball but you did everything right, there wasn’t more you could have done”, she said reassuringly. The baby was always at the bottom end of the growth charts but it was never alarming… until she fell below the 3rd percentile. She’d spoken with the replacement OB as well as the ultrasound specialist and today, we were going to put a plan into place.
She confirmed my suspicions that it’d be too distressing to deliver such a small baby naturally. This was definitely going to be a caesarean.
I’ve always taken peace in the way the baby works with my body to leave the womb in its own time and now I felt guilty we were going to take her out before she was ready.
I’d been organised and had already pre-booked to have my placenta encapsulated. I had plans for delayed cord clamping and I intended to spend an hour of skin-to-skin with the baby before they weighed her after birth. I’d been practising the affirmation and visualisation techniques learnt at hypnobirthing and I was even considering stem-cell storage. As we went through all of my concerns, it became evident that all of this was no longer feasible. We suddenly had more pressing matters to be concerned about.
I was too scared to even mention the word ‘stillborn’ in my head but I knew it was my worst nightmare. As though she’d read my mind, the OB concluded that she was going to do everything she could to ensure we safely deliver the baby and prevent a case of stillborn from happening.
From that moment at 34.5 weeks, I was monitored every 48 hours. Our plan was to reach full term at 37 weeks but if anything fell out of place, then I’d be delivering that instant.
Double checking the estimated delivery date against the date of my last period, my elective caesarean was booked in at exactly the date I reached 37 weeks. And just like that, we suddenly had a new goal.
As it turned out, further ultrasound readings showed that the initial amniotic fluid estimate was a false alarm as I displayed healthy amounts in all other scans. Tick. The baby was safe inside me for another day. As the doctors tried to figure out what the issue was, we also looked at the blood flow to/from the placenta which showed some signs of a placental issue but the baby and I didn’t exhibit the usual symptoms (usually the blood will be prioritised and go to the baby’s head so the baby’s head and body is typically unproportional which wasn’t the case). It was deemed inconclusive.
I was also being monitored for pre-eclampsia with regular blood pressure tests, blood tests and tests for protein in my urine; this was in addition to twice weekly CTG (cardiotocography) which monitors the fetal heart-rate and the uterine contractions during pregnancy, weekly OB appointments and additional blood-work and growth ultrasounds. My needle phobia became a thing of the past as I anxiously became a pincushion. It wasn’t just blood tests, I also had to have two steroid injections into my backside as an “insurance policy” to support the baby’s lungs. The needles felt longer and sharper, I felt every millimetre of it going into me, and the numbing pain seemed to linger for longer.
At another ultrasound session, the specialist emphasised that even if they had picked up the abnormalities at the 12 week NIPT (non-invasive prenatal test), they wouldn’t have been able to do anything until now so we hadn’t lost any time. While we saw some reassuring signals from the baby practicing how to swallow and breathe, he explained that there was a small chance of chromosomal abnormalities that we could test for (which would involve a fairly invasive procedure of taking an amniotic fluid sample). As we spoke about the possible physical and mental disabilities, my heart sunk as I pictured a life not being able to do all the mother-daughter things I had assumed we would do. We decided against the test as it wouldn’t have made a difference knowing if the baby had a disability or not. We would wait until we met her, and then take whatever actions we needed to, to help her live a fulfilling life. It was an easy informed decision, but emotionally, I felt that my body had let down my baby and I desperately wanted this nightmare to be over.
Day in, day out, I felt like a statistic. According to the Antenatal Childbirth & Parenting Program instructor at the hospital, about 60% of births at The Mater are caesarean – some emergency and some elective. I’m told this has to do with the increase in age of mothers in the Lower North Shore area. However, looking around my close circle of friends, I was to be the only one to deliver by c-section.
Although most people only do the hospital tour once before delivery, I became a regular visitor with all the tests and scans. A few days before my scheduled caesarean, I was advised to do a tour of the special care nursery as babies typically born smaller than 2.5kg are taken there for extra support. The facility was amazing and it was then, that it felt like we had made the right decision all these years to pay for private health insurance. A single night’s stay at the special care nursery costs around $1200 and we wouldn’t know how long the baby would need to stay there for. All of this would be covered by the private health fund so at least financially, it was one less thing to stress about.
Those few weeks were probably some of the longest days I’d ever experienced. The constant fear of losing her because I didn’t detect her decreased movements was so much pressure. The ECGs provided so much relief every time we heard her heartbeat. I put on a brave face for everyone around me as I didn’t want to have to deal with it. I tried to apply my learnings on managing stress in business – if I’d done everything I could within my control, then there was no reason to stress. Having a busy work schedule and working right up to the delivery date actually worked in my favour as there was little time to worry about the inevitable, but occasionally, I caught myself drifting in thought, full of worry.
I woke up at 5am on the day of delivery to eat because you need to fast for six hours before the operation. I had a toasted English muffin with butter and a smear of Vegemite, a cup of earl grey tea and a glass of water. It felt like any regular day, except I was now excited that the day finally came for me to meet my baby!
I went back to sleep and woke at 9:30am to get ready. The drive was a bit surreal. I played the hypnobirthing tracks, closed my eyes and breathed myself into a calm state. We were at the hospital by 10am for my 12pm appointment. It felt so unnatural to know that I was giving birth at that given time, but I no longer cared about not experiencing labour. I just wanted to hold my baby and to know that she was healthy.
I was given a blue gown to undress and change into, and showed to my room. We were ready to meet our baby!
After a small mishap with my bluetooth headphones not connecting to my iPhone, by the time I was being wheeled down to the theatre, I had brought myself back to a positive, in-control, calm state of mind.
The anaesthetist introduced himself and before I knew it, he was inserting the cannula into my arm. Remember by needle phobia? I was quietly freaking out. On one side, I was still trying to maintain my focus on the hypnobirthing track I was listening to, but once in the theatre, so many people needed to talk to me! The bright surgical lights were a shock awakening and I panicked when the anaesthetist asked me to sit up, lean on a pillow and cross my arms. “I can’t do this!” I screamed to Zen while fumbling with my headphones. Breathe. Focus. Visualise. In reality, the spinal block was done so quickly, I didn’t even have time to cry.
As I laid on the bench surrounded by a medical team of at least 12, I panicked when I lost sensation to my legs. I was asked to try and lift my legs but I couldn’t it. I was asked if I could feel the ice on my stomach, but I couldn’t feel it. Although I knew to expect all of this, being unable to control anything below my chest was initially quite terrifying. The OB said she was now going to put the catheter in and that it would be uncomfortable, but not painful; she was right. I closed my eyes and tried to ignore all the tugging that was happening behind the curtain. I repeated the affirmations to myself.
I prepare for the birth of my baby with happiness and joy.
I breathe my love down to my baby.
My mind is clear. I focus on the miracle of new life.
I am calm and at peace.
I am prepared to calmly meet whatever turn my birthing takes.
My body remains limp, all tension drifts away.
I am confident. I am happy. I am safe.
I feel secure knowing that my baby is safe, I am safe.
I am loved and supported.
My blood flows freely throughout my body.
My heart beats at the perfect resting level.
I trust my caregivers, I have confidence in them.
What felt like seconds later (Zen said it was about three minutes into the surgery), I heard the sweetest little cry. It was our baby! My eyes swelled up in anticipation of her status.
To our luck, even though the baby was smaller than the estimate weight, she was given the all-clear by the paediatrician and after Zen cut the umbilical cord, she was passed to me for some precious skin-to-skin cuddling. I was originally advised to prepare for possibly not being able to hold her if she needed to be whisked away for emergency oxygen support so to be able to hold her in the delivery room was incredible. I didn’t take any notice of being stitched back up as I entered into a newborn bubble. I was now the world to our little girl and she became my everything.
Zen followed the team and the baby up to the special care nursery while I was wheeled out to recovery. It was about two hours before I was wheeled into the special care nursery to be reunited with Zen and our little girl.
We spent that night apart but I was thrilled to be able to express significant quantities of colostrum which was delivered straight to the special care nursery for feeding. One of the midwives helped me up for a shower the next morning and I remember being scared of the removal of the catheter but it turned out to be such a non-event. I was offered a wheelchair to travel between my room and the special care nursery but I think I had so much oxytocin running through me that I was on such a high. I was back on my feet in under 24 hours and I spent the following days besotted and blissfully sleep deprived with our little one.
Commonly, most women’s fear in miscarriage drops after 12 weeks, but the truth is, I don’t think that fear ever really goes away until after the pregnancy and the baby is in our arms. Every day in Australia, six babies will die in their mother’s womb and be stillborn. It’s true that no matter how ‘normal’ your pregnancy is, anything can happen when it comes to delivery. This experience has made me grateful for every moment and I’m so thankful to have had access to medical intervention when I needed it, and to have had such amazing care and support from my OB, the midwives and the nurses at the special care nursery.
When I returned home, although leaving the baby behind at special care nursery, Zen and I looked back at our hypnobirthing course notes where we wrote down what it meant to have a positive birth. For us, it meant to have a connection to the body and baby, for it to be memorable in a happy way, for me to be calm and not panicking, for there to have less focus on pain, for me to have a quick recovery – and as it turns out, we ended up achieving all of this with a caesarean birth. As much as I wanted to have a natural delivery, all that really mattered in the end was that my baby was delivered safely into this world.
Baby Clara Rose joined us at home just ten days after her birth and I’m pleased to report that she had already doubled in weight by the time of her one month birthday!
As seen on Mamamia