Indigenous Birth by Angela Bowen
Research has shown that childbirth can be a positive, empowering experience for a woman. However, if the care she receives during childbirth lacks cultural security, it can cause confusion, anxiety, depression, and trauma that stays with her throughout her life, it can impact how she parents her child/children, which can affect their growth and development. Indigenous women may feel particularly vulnerable during childbirth, as they often must leave their communities and families, especially their mothers, and can find themselves in situations that do not incorporate traditional, culturally- secure practices or ceremonies into their birth experiences. Birth has been medicalized in the Western way for many Indigenous women, resulting in a loss of traditional birth practices and rituals; however, there is a renewed interest in reviving these traditions, with many Indigenous women wanting to reclaim their birth experiences.
Indigenous people are affected by chronic diseases, such as cancer, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and mental illness, more than non-Indigenous people, and many of these conditions have their origins in early life (conception, pregnancy, birth, and early childhood). Improving access to midwifery and culturally-secure maternal care is considered best practice for the health of Indigenous communities, to support the regeneration of strong families. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada (SOGC) acknowledges the gaps between birth outcomes for Indigenous and non-Indigenous women. The SOGC supports returning birth to women’s home communities as one way to improve their health through the promotion of traditional and cultural practices. They stress that women birthing in their home community establishes roots for the mother, her infant, and the family, and children born in their home community develop a clear sense of identity that helps them to become resilient and responsible. However, not all women can give birth in their home community for accessibility or medical/obstetrical reasons, pointing to an urgent need to provide culturally-competent care not only where the woman gives birth, but also during and after pregnancy.
In a study of Indigenous women giving birth in a large tertiary care facility, women identified a lack of choice in place of birth, the type of delivery, and no say in their birth decisions caused them distress. They reported lack of support from staff and trauma associated with going through labour without support from their partner, family, or culture. In contrast, mothers who were able to birth in their home community said they appreciated the care and follow-up that their midwives provided to them.
Engagement of Indigenous people in health care can be viewed as a continuum, that begins with cultural awareness and progresses through cultural sensitivity, and competency, ending with cultural security. Learning about different peoples and cultures is a key component of cultural competence; therefore, increasing our understanding about Indigenous birthing experiences from women will promote cultural safety and increased engagement in their prenatal and postpartum care and improved outcomes.