Home birth in Japan

A friend of mine – a French woman whose son is in the same class as B. – just had her third baby here in Tokyo. She had a home birth. My third baby, M., was also born at home.

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M. with one of our midwives soon after her birth

My first two births were very good experiences, although the labors were very long. I had those babies at a birth center in the U.S. The first birth felt particularly special because I had been hospitalized with a complication for nearly a month from 33-38 weeks. To have been able to birth my baby as I'd hoped to was unexpected and very sweet. I think it's likely that had I birthed in a hospital back home, the births would have been hurried along in some way, since the pushing stage in the first labor was four hours and not much shorter in my second. 

The day before we moved to Japan, I found out I was pregnant with our third child. So one of the first things I did when I got settled in was look for a midwife. 

There are many options for birth here. Usually women birth in a hospital, clinic, or birth house. I think the culture here probably supports natural birth better than back home, regardless of where you choose to birth. (I birthed my fourth baby in a Japanese hospital – and someday I will tell you that story, too – it was quite similar to my birth center births). The vast majority of my Japanese friends have had unmedicated births (in hospitals), so much so that it's utterly unremarkable. That I've had four babies naturally is taken for granted here; even the discomfort of labor is not spoken of that much. Among my friends here, birth isn't not spoken of with particular pride either – it just is what it is. Women give birth – their bodies were made to give birth – that's the message I hear, here.

I've also met quite a few women who have given birth at home. Here's the cover of a book written by one of them, my friend Ito Emiko, who blogs here. Her husband took photos of their fourth child's home birth for this wonderful photo essay:

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I had no real reason to fear unnecessary interventions or a high c-section rate if I chose a hospital here for my third baby, but I decided to look for a home birth midwife. 

Having a home birth here was such a wonderful experience on so many levels. It was, of course, amazing to be able to labor and birth in my own home. I felt extremely relaxed, and it was good to know my boys were nearby, with all of us in a familiar environment. I'd woken up in the middle of the night in labor, called our midwife, and even baked a cake (inspired by a friend of mine who had baked a pineapple upside down cake in early labor). I loved being able to putter around in my own home during labor. Labor moved so quickly that I forgot to put eggs in the cake!

It was really interesting to compare midwifery care between the U.S. and Japan. There were many more similarities – the focus on emotional, not just physical, care for a pregnant and laboring mother; the way pregnancy and birth are regarded as natural processes; the midwives' quiet, unobtrusive presence once active labor begins. One of the main differences I noticed had to do with diet. My Japanese midwife focused a lot more on what I ate than my midwives back home had – not weight gain, but what I was eating. I was advised not to eat anything that would chill my body, particularly my midsection. There's a tremendous emphasis on keeping your midsection adequately warm when you're pregnant, based, I'm guessing, on traditional medicinal beliefs about keeping your core warm. Many women wear belly warmers, even in summer. The other area I was advised to keep warm were my feet and ankles. Almost all the Japanese pregnant women I saw were wearing leggings and socks, even in the heat of summer. I was advised to do moxibustion on my inner ankles every day. I was a total skeptic at first, I'll admit. I've heard of moxibustion being performed to help breech babies turn, but it was hard for me to find information about it really helping promote a smoother labor (although the inner ankle points are the same ones used to help induce labor naturally via acupressure). But I figured it couldn't hurt so I tried it for the last few months. And I did start to tune in and notice which areas of my body were feeling cold . 

In any case, my girl was born within five hours. What a happy morning that was!

My friend Jennifer reports on homebirth under fire in the U.S. It makes me sad – especially given my perspective and experience about how normal and unremarkable it seems to be to give birth naturally here – that birth is such a fraught, contested issue back home. 

I'm fascinated by how birth is regarded around the world. What sort of birth options are there where you live? What's the dominant cultural message you hear about birth? 

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18 thoughts on “Home birth in Japan

  1. Mel

    Wow I have just found your blog when looking for some scrapbooking tutorials lol and I love reading about your take on life over there – it always amazes me seeing how different people react to different cultures – so interesting:) In Australia it is still mostly hospital births with an increase in elective cesearian although the medical assocsiation is trying to switch this to hospital delivery natural – I think there in still a high induction rate – I had my first son in hospital natural delivery and I was induced, as I don’t think there is enough homebirth material and info out there to consider it for me personally and my second son was born 15 weeks early by emergency cesearian – on this day I was particualary grateful for the marvels of modern medicene as without it my son wouldn’t be here today.thanks for your views and I will be back to read more 🙂

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  2. MarthaAndMe

    Thank you for sharing this – I find it interesting to read about how birth is handled in different cultures. It seems that it has become so regulated and overmedicated here in the US. The part about keeping your belly warm and wearing socks was weird! I was so HOT all the time when I was pregnant that getting cold was not a worry at all!

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  3. Christie

    The photo of your little M is so sweet! Home births are available here in Ontario, Canada too, although I only have one friend who went that route. It sounds lovely to have been able to give birth in familiar and comfortable surroundings.
    I had very positive experiences here with hospital birthing centres where moms labour, give birth and recover all in the same suite. (I managed to do most of my labouring at home though.) My husband was with me both times for my entire hospital stay.
    During labour, I don’t recall ever feeling that I was being rushed or pushed to take any medications. I gave birth the second time without medication.
    The message here, in my experience, was that interventions were available if required, but not necessary. The nurses just kept telling me I could do it and that was all I really needed!

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  4. At Heart

    You know it’s funny that you would post this just now. There was a discussion recently on the NY Times Motherload blog about whether or not there is an ideal way to give birth or if all that matters is a healthy mom and baby. The discussion turned into a questioning of why women who have natural births say that it was an empowering or transformational experience. I wrote a response to it that can be read at http://aucoeur.wordpress.com/2010/07/16/empowerment-in-birth/ if you’re interested. One of the things I was thinking about in formulating my response was how part of the empowerment comes from living in a culture (American) which does not support or normalize natural birth, but being able to overcome the fear and pain and successfully do it anyway. You mentioning that natural childbirth is more normalized in Japan, which makes me wonder what impact that has on how women perceive their experience (growth?) through the birth experience.

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  5. Denise Schipani

    What a lovely post! The commenter above also left a comment on that Motherlode blog, in which Lisa Belkin quotes extensively from my essay in Babble.com about my c-section experiences:
    http://babble.com/pregnancy/giving-birth/did-i-really-need-a-c-section/
    I’ve gotten a lot of support, and also a lot of flack, for expressing my lingering regrets. But just as you have your wonderful experiences to talk about, I feel I have a right, if not a duty, to express my regrets. Because if I shut up (which so many people want me to!), then no one gets to hear the other side of the story, about how over-medicalized births, and an overly clinical approach to pregnancy and childbirth in general, are making stories like yours seem exotic, when yours should be the normal story.
    Terrific post!

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  6. becca

    hi there
    do you know where i can buy a copy of your friend’s photo essay? is it for sale? i’m planning to birth my second baby at home in december and would love to show this to my husband (japanese) and daughter.
    I was pregnant with my daughter in japan and thought the whole thing about keeping feet and ankles warm was odd..it was just too hot to do so! but numerous people told me i should…although they couldn’t explain why. i also shouldn’t have ridden a bicycle or swum and they would probably be horrified to know that i am still nursing my daughter through this pregnancy.
    i found the non-medicalized and matter-of-fact approach to birth in japan refreshing. Here (UK) there are so many drugs available, generally women seem to think they can’t manage without them and I’m sure lots of unnecessary interventions when birthing in hospitals.

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  7. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Hi Becca,
    Here is a link to the book on Amazon Japan: http://amzn.to/aTyDmx
    Let me know if you need further help getting it – I’d be happy to help you! I really love this book. Another great book for children about homebirth is “Welcome With Love” by Jenni Overend and Julie Vivas but I’m afraid it might be out of print.
    It’s so interesting how cultural beliefs impact pregnancy and childbirth! It sounds like the U.S. and U.K have many similarities. I’ve only seen one pregnant woman riding a bicycle here, and that’s because she had several other children she needed to ferry around. Not sure what people thought of that. About nursing through the pregnancy – I wonder. I think breastfeeding is much more normalized here, but it’s true that I don’t know many people who nurse through toddlerhood or pregnancy (I’ve done both). No comments when I’ve done so here, though, unlike back home!

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  8. Christine - Origami Mommy

    I really enjoyed your post on Babble (I remember when it came out) and I agree – your story, your thoughts, your lingering regrets – all should come out. (I’m sorry to hear you have detractors, though I guess this topic hits a real cultural nerve). Perhaps our writing about our childbirth experiences is a way for us to help change the landscape of childbirth in our country. I hope so!

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  9. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Oh, I missed that discussion when it came out, but thank you for linking to your response! My experience was very similar to yours – I feel like the birth of my first son (especially after a threatened premature labor/c-section due to placental abruption) was probably the most transformative experience of my life. And I know that much of that if not all was because of the natural birth. My month-long stay in the hospital in my third trimester also helped me to come to terms with and prepare for any emergency scenario that might happen. BUT, my husband and I found that we had to be very proactive – I ended up switching doctors and hospitals a few times until I found one whose judgment I could trust. I too wonder how women perceive their birth experience here. I think I will start to ask around.

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  10. At Heart

    Good for you, switching doctors! We had a midwife who was part of a practice with OBs, and I ended up wishing I had someone different by the time I was 36 weeks, but couldn’t imaging changing at the time because of how close we were to the due date. Next time, we’re definitely going to have a home birth.
    If you do get any responses from women there, I’d love to read a follow up piece. I’m really enjoying the blog since stumbling on it somehow. 🙂

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  11. sheryl

    What a fascinating story you tell. And what a world of difference there is between your experiences and mine (in a hospital setting). I wish I had known/been given the option/known you before giving birth. The way you describe it sounds so manageable and lovely. Hospital experiences are so fraught with anxiety and intervention.
    Lovely post!

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  12. Becca

    Hi Christine,
    Thank you so much for the links-I need to get some more japanese books for my daughter so shall order it at the same time from amazon. and the other book is (i think) the same as ‘hello baby’ by the same author, which I think I can get hold of quite easily..it looks like a beautiful read! Thank you!!
    Breastfeeding is definately a lot more normalised in Japan but when my daughter was 18 months and lots of my friends were getting pregnant for the second time I remember someone saying that ‘oh! you can’t nurse through pregnancy, it’ll cause the uterus to contract and you’ll have a miscarriage.’…there seemed to be a lot of nonsensical myths about breastfeeding out there i thought (but i was living somewhere rural, so perhaps the health visitors there were a bit behind the times?).

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  13. Jennifer Margulis

    Our dominant cultural message in America, and even in the small, “progressive” town where I live, is that birth is something dangerous and risky and fearful. It’s so sad. I don’t know how we’ve come to this in our culture. In SO MANY WAYS it sounds like they are doing things in a more natural and healthy way in Japan than in America.
    Thanks for telling us this story. I would love to read a follow-up post about the complication you experienced, though maybe that feels too personal to write about? But I remember reading — maybe on this blog — that you didn’t have a homebirth with baby #4 because of it?

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  14. Christine - Origami Mommy

    Yes, there was a complication. In every birth I’ve had a significant amount of postpartum hemorrhage right after baby is born (I’ve also had bleeding issues during pregnancy that I was hospitalized for twice). It got worse with each successive birth, and after this birth it became fairly clear this was a pattern that would continue with any future births. My home birth midwives were very competent, as they are trained to take care of the rare complication that might crop up in a normal, natural delivery. They stopped the bleeding, but we all knew that we didn’t want to risk a worse episode, and so my fourth baby was birthed in a hospital where they could take proactive measures to help contain the bleeding earlier on, knowing my history.
    I remain an advocate of home birth while being grateful that there are other options out there for people like myself who need them. I’m looking forward to talking about that birth experience too – including the cloth diapers we were given to use for our babies (no disposables!).

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  15. Claudine M Jalajas

    I’ve had three children. I’ve had three c-sections. I always get defensive about this because it was a disappointment, it was so hard, it was so awful, and yet it likely saved my first from having serious problems. The other two were different reasons; but the first one makes the others naturally more difficult. I’ve always wished I could have had children naturally. I will forever wonder what it’s like to go into labor on my own, wake in the night and say “this is it” and then go through all that emotion and effort to have a lovely result. I had 20 hours of induction followed by emergency C. Not quite the ideal you dream of when you finally become pregnant. There’s nothing I can do about it now and I’m not going to question or put myself back in that “what if” mode. But a c-section is rough stuff. All three of mine were different but the recovery–oy.

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  16. hoiyan

    hi origamimommy. very nice to hear about your homebirth. There is a revolution of giving birth at home starting in malaysia too. check out my homebirth picture here. http://evanhwong.com/tfb_hoiyan_and_xinyuan.htm
    we didn’t have a midwife, it is illegal to for the midwife to facilitate homebirth here. Read about more homebirth stories here from malaysia. one of them is mine. http://hypnobirthing.com.my/testimonies
    the founder of the website above had a DIY homebirth twice. receiving baby in her own hand. http://hypnobirthing.com.my/my-third-birth

    Reply

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