Does it really matter how we are born and what happens to us around the time of birth? Coming from me or any midwife, this is of course a rhetorical question. Of course it matters.

We feel this deeply and know intuitively if not scientifically. We are troubled with unnecessary interventions in the birth process, or when it is suggested that perhaps routine elective cesarean section would improve outcomes for both women and babies. Michel Odent has been gathering data to support the theory that birth and the time surrounding it matters critically, that events during that time have far-reaching effects in the life of each of us.

Michel Odent, Primal Health, and the Scientification of Love .

Odent has established a database of studies that make this connection, studies from all over the world and from general scientific and health literature. (You can find this database at the BirthWorks website.) In doing so, he brings together shards of a broken mirror (to use his simile) that once fit together will reflect a complete picture. These studies correlate events in the “primal period,” from conception to one year of life, to social, psychological, and physical health later in life. Odent’s conclusion is that the capacity to love is largely determined at the time of birth. In his book, The Scientification of Love , he proposes that the capacity to love is an important potential new strategy for human survival, and that the old survival strategy, the domination of nature and other human groups, is no longer appropriate. Could there be a better time to look at such a strategy?

According to Odent, all cultures throughout history have ritually disturbed the first contact between mother and newborn baby. We have all seen this in births that we have attended; in fact, we have all taken part in these rituals. Those of us who have seen or read about the rituals of birth in other societies can attest to it in them as well. The purpose of the interruption of the intimate contact between mother and baby at this critical time has been to shift the development of the capacity to love to the development of a capacity for agression. The rituals in some societies (e.g., ancient Sparta, where male babies were thrown on the floor at birth) were more violent than in others; hence, some societies developed more aggressive, bellicose members than others. The capacity for agression has given man an evolutionary advantage up to the present time, but clearly is no longer serving us well. In order to survive as a species, we need to turn away from agression and toward love. As Odent states, “Humanity is at a turning point, when all our deep-rooted perinatal beliefs and rituals are losing their evolutionary advantages.”

In his book, Odent says that we now have scientific evidence that explains how the capacity to love develops through a complex interaction of hormones, hormones that are secreted during many experiences of love and close human interaction including sexual intercourse and conception, birth, lactation, and even sharing a meal with loved ones. The role of oxytocin, the “love hormone,” is particularly important. Natural oxytocin delivered by human touch, but not synthetic oxytocin delivered by an intravenous drip, has important effects on many organs in the body, including the brain. (Synthetic oxytocin does not cross the blood/brain barrier.) Odent discusses some of the many studies that have looked at “love” at the molecular level, that is to say at the level of hormones and their activities in the body.

Looking at PubMed, I see a lot of work on the effect of natural hormones, including recent corroboration that “the neurohypophyseal neuropeptides oxytocin and vasopressin have been shown to influence a number of forms of social behavior, including affiliation, aggression, and reproduction.”(1) There has been interest in the effect of mating behaviors in mares on the release of oxytocin and other hormones, in the physiological substrates of monogamy in prairie voles (interactions among oxytocin, vasopressin and glucocorticoids), in the effects of the oxytocin fragment prolyl-leucyl-glycinamide on sexual behavior in the rat, in inhibiting post-partum maternal behavior in the rat by injecting an oxytocin antagonist into the cerebral ventricles, in the effect of stimulating natural oxytocin release on adoptive behavior in mares, in the sites of oxytocin action involved in the onset of maternal behavior (the olfactory bulb is a critical site in the rat), and on and on. These studies provide more shards in the mirror that we need to clearly see the role of hormones in our reproductive lives, but it will take a monumental effort to make sense of these shards and to form them into a cohesive whole. In the meantime, man’s capacity for agression continues to get us into trouble and lead us to violence and war. We haven’t much time to change this. As midwives, we have the possibility to play a small but significant role every time we attend a birth, every time we counsel or teach, every time we are With Woman. Let us not waste these precious opportunities. 

If you oppose violence and war and want to have a more immediate effect, go to the MoveOn! website and sign on to their petition asking the U.S. Congress, in the absence of hard evidence that Iraq poses a clear and present danger to the U.S., to prevent a war on Iraq.

1. Odent M. The Scientification of Love, Revised Edition. Free Association Books: London and New York, 1999.

2. Ferguson JN, Young LJ, Insel TR. The neuroendocrine basis of social recognition. Front Neuroendocrinol 2002 Apr;23(2):200-24.