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Brains and Sphincters

Understanding how your brain and your sphincters (muscles that surround openings in your body, keeping them open or closed) work can help you understand what is needed to help make your labour and birth experience easier and more pleasurable. In fact, this information can also help you to achieve orgasms because both involve similar hormones.

Old brain, new brain
As humans evolved, our brains grew to include a complex structure called the neocortex. Thanks to the neocortex we can use language, logic and be rational - usually good things. However, according to theories by French obstetrician Michel Odent, the neocortex should not be stimulated in labour. His theory is that the more primitive structures of the brain, those that control our instincts and release hormones, cannot work well if the neocortex is being stimulated. This is especially true during labour and birth, when a woman should be able to use the instincts of the primitive brain.
When a woman’s neocortex is stimulated too often - like when people ask her too many questions, when she is exposed to bright lights or feels observed – she cannot relax into her instincts. This is not to say that women shouldn’t talk during labour and birth, but instead once labour begins and she is in her “zone” she should be left alone, especially during a labour wave and when she is in intense labour. Some women describe this as feeling as if they are on another planet, cut off from civilisation and find it acceptable to do things they usually don’t, like swear, scream and speak their mind without any filters. When you use only your primitive brain, your hormonal orchestra can do its work easily.
Feeling safe and unobserved can be different for different people and that is ok. It is important for you to realise what makes you feel safe, what you need to feel safe and to work with your birth team to achieve it.

Holding it in, or letting it out
Ina May Gaskin, a midwife from the United States, observed and described something that cultures around the world have known for thousands of years - and gave it a name - The Sphincter Law.
Sphincters are the muscles at your body’s openings. They are normally closed tight but can relax and open up to let something through - like your anus (which lets out poo) or urethra (which lets out pee).
You control both of these to some extent, but to relax and open your sphincters you need to feel safe and calm. Think about a situation when you were peeing normally and someone stormed into the room and startled you - your sphincter probably closed tight and the flow of urine stopped. Although it is not a sphincter, your cervix works in a similar way – in order to soften, open and shorten it requires privacy and that you feel safe and calm.

Some general rules about sphincters
1. They don’t obey orders
Just because you tell a woman not to push, doesn’t mean she can stop pushing.
2. They work best in private, familiar surroundings
Watching a woman under bright lights, having people walk in and out of the room or being in a room where there is no door all make it more difficult for the cervix to open.
3. They can close if you are startled or suddenly frightened
A woman can be nine centimetres dilated at home, but close up to five centimetres when she comes to the hospital or birth centre. This is a normal response that was very useful when our ancestresses lived in the wild, but isn’t so useful anymore.
4. Laughter helps sphincters open
If you are relaxed enough to laugh, it is easier for your sphincters to open. Laughter also releases endorphins which help labour progress.
5. Slow, deep breathing helps sphincters open
Breathing into your stomach causes you to relax and causes your muscles to relax. This is especially helpful if you have practiced yoga before and have experience relaxing in this way.
6. Relaxing your mouth, throat and jaw helps relax your cervix
Open your throat and make a deep, loud sound like „oooooo“. This helps relax and open your cervix. Opening your mouth wide and softening your jaw is also helpful.

Reading or sending text messages, calls or social media posts make you feel watched and stop your sphincter from opening. Put your mobile devices away during labour!