The Vagina [vs. Caesarean Birth] Monologues
Can having a C-section influence the likelihood of a newborn becoming a mass-murderer later in life? This article addresses that and other sensationalist claims using cutting edge science.
Over a century ago, a German doctor named Ferdinand performed the first modern caesarean section on a 26-year-old pregnant woman. Prior to that fateful day, complications during prenatal development were significantly more likely to result in terrible outcomes, like death, for the developing fetus, the mother, or both.
Today, the caesarean section (C-section for short, probably due to the ambiguity of spelling and pronunciation) is incredibly common and each year saves the lives of many, young and old. Recent reports show that C-sections are performed in one out of every three births in the United States, and upwards of 46% of all births in China. Issues like fetal distress, umbilical cord prolapse, preeclampsia, and others require brisk surgical intervention to limit severe consequences. All in all, the C-section is a modern wonder.
In the last 15 years or so, prevalence rates have gone from 20% to 33% of all births in the U.S. This sharp increase is partly due to improvements in medical intervention, but may also reflect the notion that not all C-sections are performed out of necessity. Hospitals may have financial incentives to perform the surgery. For instance, if it is cheaper to neatly schedule a time-period for experts to be on hand, rather than wait for nature to run its course with no regard for the human social clock, hospitals may emphasize the benefits of getting things moving along with a convenient nip, grab, sew, and hello.
Or, perhaps in an attempt to avoid pain from a natural delivery, some women are opting for elective C-sections. This seems like a pretty tempting option… take a nap and wake up when it’s all over. Meanwhile, others report very different reasons. Apparently, women in China are opting for the procedure in order to deliver on a “lucky” calendar date. Perfectly normal, perfectly healthy…
Whereas there’s absolutely no doubting the value of a caesarean section in many cases, critics argue against its use whenever unnecessary, given, as one group of researchers put it, “significant risks for the baby with no known benefit to the mother.” In some studies, caesarean procedures have been linked to a higher likelihood of maternal death, 13 compared to 3.5, per 100,000 births.
There are risks with all major surgery, but the C-section is special given its potential effect on the mother’s responsiveness to her child and therefore the strength of attachment bond, which may impact all areas of future development. The early social relationships a baby is exposed to are incredibly important predictors of their overall development. During the earliest stages of life, the brain is remarkably plastic, or moldable, constantly forming and reorganizing neural connections. Social relationships, particularly with early primary caretakers, provide much of the experience-expectant growth our human brains need. Immediately after birth, the first days, the first hours, even the first moments, may be critical for the rest of our lives. Therefore, does delivery method effect the child’s development, and if so, how?
In order to delve into this issue, a group of researchers based out of Yale recruited 12 first-time mothers–six of which had a C-section, and six who delivered the old fashioned way. A few weeks after birth, the mothers’ brains were carefully monitored using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) while listening to three distinct recordings: 1) their own baby crying, 2) a strange baby crying, and 3) static, or white noise.
According to the fMRI data, which provides real-time information about activity within the brain, there was an important difference between the two groups of mothers. When listening to their own baby cry, the natural/vaginal birth mothers showed significantly more brain activity in areas associated with the processing of empathy and emotion. Within structures of the limbic system, including the amygdala, there is a storm of electricity-based communication as neurons release neurotransmitter chemicals to communicate with other cells, forming strong emotional memories. Importantly, these cellular behaviors were less common in the women who underwent a caesarean. Meanwhile, there were no significant differences between the two groups of moms’ brains when listening to static or a strange baby’s cry.
The Yale researchers suggest that vaginal deliveries bring about a number of important differences that may alter a mother’s responsiveness to her child (measured by brain activity in this particular study), and, therefore, the overall attachment bond. First, natural delivery is accompanied by the release of oxytocin, which is like the 007 of hormones. Oxytocin has been linked to the facilitation of social relationships (Bond-ing, if you will), as well as maternal responsiveness, specifically. In specific experiments, for example, participants who received a nasal spray of oxytocin were significantly more likely to trust others, compared to those who received a placebo.
In addition, women who deliver naturally usually get to hold their babies sooner, and early skin-to-skin contact is linked with bonding as well. Meanwhile, those having a C-section typically need extra time to recover from surgery, before interacting with the newbie, and therefore may offer less responsive parenting right off the bat.
How important could this difference be? Theoretically, if a mother begins lower in biological sensitivity to her infants’ needs, this could snowball into a gigantic ball of snow. Suddenly, little Johnny isn’t getting the warmth and affection he may need to “normally” develop, which causes him to interact differently with the world around him, and vice versa, and it’s not long before he grows into a monster of a human.
Fortunately, natural deliveries aren’t the only means for acquiring a secure attachment. Among others, breastfeeding is a leading factor, which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends doing up until age 2, with solid foods added at 6 months. Breast milk provides an ideal balance of nutrients, and oxytocin is actually a facilitator here as well. The WHO claims breastfeeding would save millions of lives if practiced widely, particularly in third world countries.
But, back to the C-section. Many of you reading this right now owe your life to the surgical procedure. Did you turn out okay?
Incredible as it may be, the caesarean procedure should not be seen as an easy solution to the miracle that is pushing a bowling-ball-sized person through the cervix. Sure, we can intervene with destiny, if necessary, but we must beware of the results. In the future, Yale may perform follow-up research to determine whether or not serial killers are more likely to have been delivered via C-section.