Although I now work with parasites in food, my educational background is in Animal Science-pretty much anything having to do with raising livestock and their delicious edible by-products (I mean eggs, meat and milk). My biology and anatomy lessons were learned on dog, pig and cattle carcasses. I studied reproduction by poking and prodding cattle uteruses (uteri?) donated from the slaughter plant. So naturally, when I read/think/talk about pregnancy and childbirth in humans, I mostly think of animals.
For instance, during a workshop I attended on breastfeeding, whenever oxytocin and milk let down was mentioned, I was thinking about the dairy parlour. Last week when a fellow prenatal yogi announced that she was leaking milk late her third trimester, I proudly told her that the same thing happens to mares before they foal-it’s called “waxing up” so it might mean that baby would be arriving soon! Good right? I’m not sure she was impressed. No one likes to be compared to a large animal when they are 41 weeks pregnant.
So, although some may find it offensive to be compared to a cow*, much can be learned from nature. Here are some lessons from an Animal Scientist that may be applied to pregnancy and childbirth in humans:
- Exercise: Every cattle producer worth his/her salt will tell you that a fit cow is less likely to have difficulty calving. To facilitate exercise in pregnant bovines, the producer will often strategically place water and feed in spatially distant locations so that the mammas have to waddle 1 or 2 miles between the feed and water troughs. Fit cows pop out smaller calves more easily. Application of this in humans may be difficult (I’d like to see you grab a pregnant’ lady’s dinner plate and take off down the street yelling, “Here honey! Come and get it! It will be good for the baby!”), however a good daily exercise program to improve stamina is certainly not a bad idea. Labour and delivery is no cake walk. (Did someone say cake?)
- Weight gain: If cattle are subjected to the food/water separation exercise plan, excessive weight gain is typically not an issue; it’s generally recognized that overly fat cows will have more difficulty calving. I personally like to refer to my pregnancy weight gain as a nice “finish”, or layer of fat that in a market animal, would be considered desirable. I have adequate depth and cover in the loin area and my udder is filling out nicely. Post-partum, I hope to regain more “dairy character” and “angularity” that is considered desirable in a milk-producing animal. However, for the time being, I am quite happy resembling a well-fed bred heifer.
- Ante-partum preparation: During the last few weeks of pregnancy, the cows would be brought in from pasture and fed a richer diet to facilitate milk production and to ensure calves are not born out in the bush somewhere. Similarly, human mothers tend to stick close to home during the last few weeks, organizing closets, freezing meals, napping and eating ice cream (No? Just me?). In cattle, signs of eminent calving include a relaxation of the ligaments around the tail head (or saggy looking lady parts for those who prefer a more direct visual), “bagging up” (udder looks full and distended), and an increase in vaginal mucus production (no further description required). Producers watch carefully for these signs and may isolate cows who appear ready to calve soon. In humans however, publicly drawing attention to any of these or other signs that the birth is eminent (due date is close, due date is passed, baby has dropped, mamma is waddling, mamma looks like a house, mamma can’t reach her shoes, etc, etc) is generally met with a low growl and an evil stare. Human females never need reminding that the baby is coming soon. They know. Trust me.
- Labour and Delivery: Generally this is a quick and straight forward process for cattle with the following key features: cow isolates herself when near calving, and stays upright and moving until it’s time to push the little gaffer out. Obviously it is not always that simple and sometimes calves need to use an alternative side exit or be assisted by a veterinarian-and thank goodness for that. However, it should be noted that the following practices are not routine in cows: labour induction, continuous fetal monitoring, pain medication, labour augmentation, cervical dilation checks, episiotomy, or feed/fluid intake restrictions. Also, she will quite happily eat her placenta afterwards and none of the other cows think she is crazy. Humans (thankfully) do not have to give birth out on pasture or in a barn. We have trained professionals (doulas, midwives, nurses, doctors, obstetricians) and clean, safe places to bring our babies into the world and take life-saving measures when necessary. Still…maybe there are a few things we could learn from Mrs. Cow.
- Post-partum: If everything has gone smoothly, the instant baby drops, Mrs. Cow is up and licking him like it’s the most important thing she’s ever done. She “talks” to baby with low grunts, and encourages him to get up and nursing as soon as he’s able to stand to ensure he receives colostrum and develops a healthy immune system. Interference in this important process is generally met with snorting and head shaking-cow translation: “Back off bitch, we’re bonding”. In humans, this time shortly after birth is called “skin to skin” and involves lots of naked snuggling, cooing, and staring in amazement at the miracle of life in your arms. Eventually, he will be lured away for cleaning, measuring, and cataloguing and will return in the form of a large burrito with a hat. After a nice hot shower (a fortunate benefit of being human) and some peanut butter toast, you are wheeled away to a small pen to “mother-up” before finally being let out on pasture with the rest of the herd. Welcome to Motherhood.
* My mom wrote a really awesome poem about being compared to a cow during pregnancy. I will post it sometime.
Photo courtesy of: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cboheler/4295579918/sizes/m/in/photostream/