The Amish and Birth
By Sophie Fletcher
I’ve been really interested in how Amish women birth recently as they nearly all birth at home, unless there is a medical risk. This is partly cultural but also because of expense of going into hospital or antenatal care, many Amish don’t have insurance. Interestingly, research shows that despite a higher prevalence of several risk factors for perinatal and infant death among the Amish, neonatal and infant death rates for Geauga Settlement Amish in Ohio have been very similar to the corresponding rates of white children in Ohio State.
Amish women do not tell people apart from their midwife or husband that they are pregnant, it’s said that when they go “they go quick”, probably because they are not tied to due dates. Neither do they have pain relief during labour. They don’t believe in birth control so they often have huge families, sometimes around 10 -12 children. As a result pregnancy and childbirth is a normal part of everyday life, someone is pregnant or in labour all the time and they don’t fear it. Children see this natural process and, as they grow up, girls are not exposed to the international culture of fear and uncertainty around childbirth. Amish children don’t grow up fearing that there is something wrong with their bodies or that they are incapable of a normal birth.
Amish women birth quietly, often just with their husband a birthing mother, and older woman from the community, who often plays a similar role to a Doula. When in labour, very often they continue doing their daily chores around the home until they are unable to any longer. They certainly aren’t preoccupied with imminent birth or early labour itself! Research also shows a link between their psychosocial state, which is typically secure and unstressed, and positive birth outcomes.
Ina May Gaskin works closely with the Amish communities, which are close to her birthing centre, in fact it was from the Amish that she first learned breech birth was possible. Nowadays we know that the Amish have a c-section rate of around 2% similar to the Farm, Ina May Gaskins Community.
What is also interesting is the absence of autism in Amish communities. Amish women are very rarely induced as they don’t have ‘due dates”. Recent research shows that some forms of autism are associated with oxytocin deficiency, and questions are currently being raised about the links to this and the use of artificial oxytocin, syntocinon (Pitocin) or other drugs routinely used in labour. There have been very few studies done, but there are calls to investigate this link further. This article explores that link further.
Here is an extract dictated by a midwife with experience of working in Amish Communities.
Taken from http://www.citypages.com/1999-05-01/feature/the-culture-of-childbirth/
Sarah* is a direct-entry midwife in New York state. She practices in rural dairy country near the Canadian border among the many Amish and Mennonite families living there. Currently, Sarah attends more than three-fourths of the births that take place within these close-knit, insular groups of highly-religious families. In Sarah’s own words, here is what is like to attend an Amish or Mennonite childbirth at the beginning of the new millenium:
“The women I work with give birth at home, almost exclusively. This is a matter of finances, for these folks mostly milk cows, which isn’t a big money maker if you have a small herd and milk without machines, as they do. They do not carry health insurance because of their religious beliefs. Additionally, they feel very suspicious of the medical establishment not honoring their beliefs and treating them with respect. They prefer to remain at home, where they have control over such things as allowing nature to take its course rather than, for instance, trying to save a very premature baby.
When the time comes time for an Amish woman to give birth, there is always an older woman from the church community with [the birthing mother]. The mothers have their husbands present as well, but the whole thing is a big secret to their other kids. The Mennonites usually do tell their other kids. Many of the Mennonites prefer to birth with only their husband present. When a young woman in either of these communities gives birth for the first time, she has never really heard much about what the birth experience is going to be like. I usually tell first-time mothers what to expect and that’s all the education they get, except for what their mothers tell them. The pregnancy is absolutely hidden until the baby is born.
I have never seen one of these women ask for medication for the pain of childbirth. I don’t know why they don’t use pain relief. The one time I asked, the woman acted as if she had never heard of the idea. They just don’t seem to have terrible pain.
These women have between ten and twenty children each. They give birth well into their forties. The Amish seem to have as many babies as a human can, spaced according to how long they can go without having another child, usually one per year or year and a half. I have personally delivered the sixteenth baby of a forty-six-year-old. The Mennonites–some of them–use birth control.
The women almost always give birth in a semi-sitting position.They wait until the baby is about to crown to even lie down. They stay clothed the entire time, but the women have special dresses that they wear at birth where the belly can be exposed so that the baby can be immediately placed on the mother’s belly after birth.
The Amish women in the community who attend births are called “catchers,” but since Amish religion prevents anyone from getting an education past the eighth grade, the catchers are not formally educated, carry no equipment or drugs, and generally do not know how to treat most serious complications, although they are very well-versed in herbal medicines and I have learned a lot from them. Their main role when I am there is taking the baby immediately after birth and wiping it from head to toe with baby oil, binding its belly, and dressing it in a special dress and bonnet. The young brides seem to take great pleasure in sewing the dark blue baby dresses and caps and quilting a baby blanket. They like to get the baby dressed as soon as possible, with his belly bound and feet wrapped, and covered with many blankets.
One thing the Amish believe is that there is no breastmilk at first, and some don’t feed the baby until the next day. Some give the baby things like jello water or watermelon seed tea, which is supposed to be good for preventing jaundice.
For postpartum women, they use sheperd’s purse tea for bleeding. For a month after birth, the new mother has a ‘hired girl’: an Amish neighbor who, for $15 per week, lives there and does all the household chores including cooking, child care, canning, and quilting. Occasionally another one will stop by to help with laundry.