Vietnam’s home birth trend goes against medical, animal and anthropological studies

By Tran Van Phuc   March 20, 2018 | 02:08 am PT
Vietnam’s home birth trend goes against medical, animal and anthropological studies
Some people in Vietnam are advocating the practice of leaving babies' cords naturally detached, but the World Health Organization recommends cord clamping between one to three minutes after birth.
Irresponsible mothers are embracing the dangerous practice and disregarding medical care.

I grew up in a small village that was home to several hundred families, all living in mud huts covered in thatched roofs.

There was a huge graveyard in the village, where people buried babies who died at birth. The place was a monument to the thousands of women who were tormented by childbirth, some of whom lost their own lives with their babies.

The graveyard is where my grandmother was laid to rest.

She married at 16 and her husband was the only one helping her every time she gave birth.

My father was her eldest and luckiest child, he said.

My two uncles survived the delivery but were constantly sick.

At the age of seven he started suffering from high fevers and seizures. The neighbors said he'd been possesed by ghosts, so they tied him to a banana tree, poured urine on him and whipped him black and blue. He died three days later.

The same fate awaited my other uncle when he was 10.

My grandmother’s fourth child was a girl. She was in labor for three days and once her baby was born, she was so exhausted she died in a pool of blood. She was 29.

She never got to see her daughter, and my aunt never got to see her mother.

For my father, it was an extremely painful experience.

When my mother and father got together, the match was opposed by his entire family because she was disabled.

He went on to marry her anyway, but decided not to have children due to threat a pregnancy posed to his wife's life.

The good news was that our commune opened its first medical center that year. One of my relatives and two other villagers were sent to study to become midwives, and when they returned, it changed our fate forever.

My four siblings and I were all born at that center. Other children in the commune were too. Only a few people needed the old graveyard after that.

My family still feels very grateful to the center, so this new trend of "natural births" in Vietnam has really bothered me, with some people hailing the practice of delivering babies at home without medical support.

First, I read a story on Facebook about a young woman in the northern province of Hung Yen who gave birth at home by herself. She did not have the baby vaccinated or remove its umbilical cord, said the post, which included photos of the baby and the placenta in a small basin.

Then the other day, another Facebook post spread the story of a woman in Ho Chi Minh City who died with her baby during a similar home delivery.

Neither of these stories have been confirmed, but they have spread rapidly. In a time of confusion, such stories have become trusted far too easily.

So to be clear, let’s break down this trend.

It was adopted from the practice of “Lotus Birth” in the west, which was named after the American Claire Lotus Day.

In 1974, Day began studying the work of the primatologist Jane Goodall, who spent years observing chimpanzees in the wild where she noted that they did not chew or cut their offspring’s cords, instead leaving them intact and leaving the placenta naturally detached.

Day believed that the practice had to do with chimpanzees being social, peace-loving animals, so she advocated the non-severance method, which is said to give time for the placenta to complete its job to facilitate babies’ transition from the womb to the outer world.

But some animal researchers have countered the theory as they said placentophagy, or the consumption of the placenta by the mother after birth, is common among wild chimpanzees.

Studies have proved that the placenta remains helpful to babies only a couple minutes after birth. Out of the mother’s womb, the placenta decays quickly and serves as an ideal environment for bacteria. The World Health Organization recommends cord clamping between one to three minutes after birth.

Was Lotus Birth a total lie?

Apparently, it is not safe. It was built on the assumptions of a mother and worshipped by the community as something magical, and followed by irresponsible mothers.

The results are that their babies are at serious risk of diseases, and so is the community at large.

In the west, couples have the right to choose to deliver their babies wherever or however they want. But the birth of a child is not as simple as some people dare to claim.

Anthropologists have proved that the pelvis of a modern woman is smaller than her ancestors’ to support straight posture, while embryos these days grow bigger heads. Thus, it is harder for babies to come out of their mothers’ wombs, and medical intervention is often needed.

Home delivery must be a choice only when the mother and baby have received proper checks that prove there’s minimal risk, and they have medical support which is as good as a hospital at home. The couples have to receive careful training and their houses must be sterilized.

Even when all these conditions are met, home delivery is still considered a risk.

Also, such a well-prepared home delivery would be much more expensive than a hospital birth, and that's hardly feasible given Vietnam’s economic situation.

The way the Lotus Birth is being idolized is similar to the way some Vietnamese mothers are extreme about breast milk.

Many believe that a congenital disease can be cured with breast milk, that a baby’s severed finger can grow back by being breast fed. As a doctor, I have met women with such blind confidence they have kept their sick children away from hospitals.

Let’s wrap up the argument with this quote by Stephen Hawking: “The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance, it is illusion of knowledge.”

*Tran Van Phuc is a doctor working in Hanoi. The opinions expressed are his own.

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