Secrets of the golden hour of birth
The “golden hour” or “Enchantment hour*”, refers to the first hour (or hours) following birth where both mother and baby adjust to their early postpartum state and forge bonds/ imprint on one another and discover their new selves.
This journey from the last moments of labour and birth until the new mother and child are settled and transitioned is an entire universe condensed into a speck of time. Hopefully, this description honours the spirit of the moment, if not every detail. For anyone about to birth or be with someone who will give birth.
Introducing the dyad
To understand “The Golden Hour” we first must acknowledge that the mother and baby are a ‘dyad”, a unit of 2 separate, complete and yet totally connected units whose wellbeing is interlinked.
A mother’s chest and abdomen are the absolutely ideal environments for a newborn to thrive. It is warm, familiar and safe. During the early transition to life a newborn continues to receive oxygen and nourishment from the placenta (latin for cake), as their remaining blood is transfused back into them. This concludes their relationship with the placenta and extradites them from the “feto-placental unit” which has sustained them in utero, and moves them to the exo-uterine environment- where they receive oxygen with their newly expanded lungs, and nourishment from their mother’s breasts.
In the first moments of life, some seismic changes occur quite quickly (in the scheme of things).
The rhythmic beginnings
If the babe has been fortunate to experience labour, their way to the world is primed by the rhythmic massage of the uterus, flexing its unique muscular dance. Fluid filled lungs aid fetal development, but in the new world hinder respiration. This repetitious squeezing of the multi-layered uterine muscles begins the process of clearing this fluid.
If the baby has made it all the way to the birth canal, (otherwise called; and less associated with gondolas, the vagina), where some firm and gentle squeezing helps expel both them from the uterus as well as a good sight more of this now superfluous fluid from their lungs. Simultaneously, surfactant is being secreted into the lungs – getting ready for the great expansion.
Once the lungs have inflated for the first time, this surfactant will help them remain open forevermore, throughout each breathe, creating a gentle ebb and flow of air transfer, but never returning to their collapsed state.
It starts with a breath
And oh! What a delicious breath that first one is! Establishing that glorious expanse may, quite understandably, take a small moment. A minute even. But with everything else going on, a minute is really a very small parcel of time.
Once each alveolar is expanded (often with a roar of a cry), the chain reaction has commenced! In the breathes that follow, moment to moment a number of changes occur.
What commences is the very complicated process of heart channels and blood flow shifting and changing. For physiologists among us that includes, most notedly, the constricting of the Ductus Arteriosus, Umbilical Arteries, Umbilical Vein and Ductus Venosus and of course the dilation of the now much more useful Pulmonary Artery. For the laymen what is happening is – the entire way this baby has received oxygen and nutrients shuts down, with the pre-prepared pathways now switching on. Blood flows in different directions. Organs shut down and others begin working in new and pioneering ways. The mechanics of these are complicated to say the least, and yet every moment of every single day, newborn infants all around the world are doing this all without a single conscious thought.
If left to wait until the umbilical cord ceases pulsing, this infant will be granted the remaining 30% of its blood returned to it, after which, the latin pancake has quite worn out its usefulness. Now the mother has the rather important work of expelling it from her enlarged uterus. The baby may find itself surprisingly helpful to this task by attaching itself to the mother’s breast. Doing so will release a cosmic surge of oxytocin, which you will remember as that busy hormone that helped encourage baby out in the first place.
The beginning of the end
With peak levels of oxytocin and endorphins, the placenta is rightly released from the uterine wall as the wall itself begins to clamp down on those interwoven blood vessels, no longer required to deposit large volumes of nourishing blood to sustain the fetus. Instead, the uterus begins the process of involution and reduces its height from tipping the ribs to nestling just below the umbilicus (or belly button). Here it will rest a moment before making its much slower decent to the pre pregnant and pear-like shape and size it was before conception. This process will not be complete until around 12 weeks postpartum, although after only 6 weeks we will no longer be able to palpate it above the pubic bone.
Fortunately for the infant, they have been practicing the act of suckling in utero for some time. The scent of milk is deliciously similar to amniotic fluid – which they have brought with them on their hands, as they paw their way to the breast. A familiar smelling pathway guides them to the soft and welcoming nipple. Understandably, the journey there has been a tiring one, so once arrived, they may well fall fast asleep.
Upon awaking the babe then makes a series of gestures to get to know their new environment, touching, pawing, licking, nudging. Really sizing up this new hurdle. Again, another nap may be warranted.
Eventually, perhaps with a squark or two, some gentle licks and open-mouthed kisses, propelled by those strong legs gaining hold on the abdomen, by way of the now much less dramatic fundus (or top ridge of the uterus), this newborn infant opens wide to draw the nipple deep into their mouth. It may, justifiably, take a few tries to get just the right spot.
Another joyous addition to our hormonal cocktail is Prolactin, which although quite high at birth, requires suckling at the breast to be maintained. Prolactin gets straight to work encouraging the body to make milk. It sits in good company with oestrogen, helping the new mother react and respond urgently and with interest to the many concerns – real or imagined, that her offspring has over the next hours, days, weeks, months and years.
Adrenaline, which was needed only minutes ago to embolden the pushes of the mother and inspire the newborn to breathe begins to subside.
The body warmth provided from her baby helps counteract the sometimes cold and shivery feeling women may experience, and, as is the nature of symbiosis, the mother also lends this new and immature babe her own body warmth, to stabilise their transition to the world. In fact, the mother, by simply holding her baby, can help her baby regulate their temperature, breathing pattern, heart rate and additionally maintain their blood sugars. Additionally, if they willing and able to feed them from their breast, of course, they are a complete ecosystem.
The real work
These complex shifts and world-shaking steps to solidifying life in the great wild, is happening simultaneously as the mother and child forge a neuroprotective bond. In fact, if observed as other mammals, we would identify the mothers instinctive behaviours she enacts to ensure the connection and survival of her new infant. We would also caution any one present to be silent and observe- Lest they interfere with this essential process.
The mother, after ensuring primarily the survival of her babe, now begins to explore them with her fingertips. She may stroke them, and hold them, possibly cuddle them up towards her, often to her left side (where her heartbeat is heard the loudest) making eye contact she greets them, beginning a lifelong conversation, often afterwards introducing them to her mate.
Fortunately for the mother, who is scanning constantly for signs of connection, her newborn infant is absolutely primed for this first meeting and arrives with their own unique ways to communicate and respond, reacting to each coo and sound of their mother, listening for her voice they already know so well, eyes with perfect vision and focus set perfectly to the distance from the breast to her face.
In the calm, low-lit and undisturbed space where they were born, the first introduction sparks the flame that is a beautiful ballet of bonding and connection. Where each party learns to listen and respond to the other. This primary – nay – primordial relationship sets the path for all relationships to follow. As a social species, the vital importance of that cannot be overstated.
So what can the supporting cast of loved ones and professional people do to assist? Nothing would be best! No bright lights, no chatter, no questions, tests or interference, you don’t even need to utter a word of congratulations. Take your cue from the mother. Sit back and watch in quiet anticipation. Quiet murmurs of recognition if she presents her wondrous prize towards you, but nothing more.
Think of her, if you will, as a wild animal. She has birthed in captivity but like all mammals must not be spooked. Don’t make the mistake of caring for her rational mind. Let it sleep just a few moments more while her instinctive self attends to the job at hand.
You must guard this sanctuary with vigour. Understanding that her same body that created the intricacies of sight, hearing and taste, the uncharted wonders of thought, that moulded eyeballs, brain matter and deliciously pink fingers and toes will have no trouble finishing the comparatively primitive task of evicting a well-used but now superfluous organ and opening the floodgates of milk production!
But be alert. This wondrous shift is most keenly experienced by the unobserved. Have a thought as to how you will camouflage your body, your voice, your fears and worries which all must be dimmed along with the lights.
In short. Let all fade to the background to better serve her illumination, and the radiance of her babe in this golden hour of enchantment.