Born again: The practice of rebirthing

"The babies were so peaceful in the water, they even fell asleep" ... Tirren Hanna
"The babies were so peaceful in the water, they even fell asleep" ... Tirren Hanna Photo: Spring Photography

Ask most mothers to describe the birth of their children and you’ll get a passionate response; ranging from calm and serene to painful and frantic, the range of emotion is intense. Those nine months of anticipation can culminate in an explosion of uncontrollable emotion, and the result isn’t always as expected. And while many breeze through on a cloud of happy hormones, for some it can literally be a life or death scenario.

It’s a commonly held belief that as long as baby is healthy and mother is physically fine it’s a ‘good’ birth, but the truth can be far from that.

“We know that the first two hours after birth are essential, and if that doesn’t happen it can result in a number of difficulties for both mother and baby,” says clinical midwife Heather Harris. She says that the ramifications of a bad birth experience can include issues with establishing breastfeeding, poor self image, relationship difficulties, bonding issues and even postnatal depression.

Tirren Hanna with her twins during the rebirthing ceremony.
Tirren Hanna with her twins during the rebirthing ceremony. Photo: Spring Photography

“With caesarean births, the mothers generally haven’t laboured like a natural birth. The same oxytocins aren’t released and other natural processes are delayed because of the procedure,” she adds.

Inspired by the ‘Oral Tactile Imprinting’ work of lactation expert Dr Elsie Mobbs, Harris formulated the practice of rebirthing - a technique that aims to restore control in a sometimes uncontrollable situation, and repair what for some mothers can be a painful memory. 

Harris’s plan essentially recreates the experience of birth. “We use warm water immersion in a comfortable and draft free environment. Mother and baby should both ideally be naked and the baby gently submerged up to his shoulders," she explains.

"The infant should float gently in the water for about a minute before being placed on the mother’s belly just above the water-line. Following that the baby should naturally crawl to the mother’s breast."  

The practice of rebirthing has evolved into ceremony, and doulas across Australia are helping parents heal from births that didn’t go to plan. A rebirthing ceremony brings in the elements the mother was hoping to have at the baby’s birth, in attempt to replicate a calm and natural birth and heal any emotional ties the mother may have.

Nicole Jones is a doula who performs rebirthing ceremonies with her clients, and she says that women seek her services for a number of reasons.

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“The mother may have hoped to have a natural vaginal birth but went on to have a planned or even emergency caesarean. Sometimes it may be a mother who had a natural birth that was quite fast or traumatic,” she explains.

Tirren Hanna was one such client. She rebirthed her twin girls when they were three months old, and she now reports a closer bond with her babies.

“During my pregnancy we knew I would be having a caesarean, and a rebirthing ceremony was discussed with while I was pregnant," she says. "As it turned out, the twins were born two months premature via emergency caesarean.”

Unlike the birth itself, a rebirthing ceremony is carefully planned and a great opportunity for family and close friends who may have missed the birth to feel part of the event. Often a professional photographer is in attendance to capture the occasion.

No two ceremonies are the same, but a typical rebirthing experience begins a few days before the event, when the doula will get to know more about the mother, what her birth wishes were, and also find out how she is coping with the new baby.

On the day of the ceremony, massage, soft music, candles and aromatherapy are used to get in the right frame of mind. Mother and baby will then enter a deep bath, where blessings, prayers or affirmations may be spoken to mark the occasion.

Jones also chooses to direct her attention to the baby. “I explain that their mum did everything she could so you could be born in a peaceful and beautiful way. But things didn’t go as planned, and we’re doing this ceremony now so you can be welcomed into the world and your mother’s arms in a beautiful way,” she explains.

The ceremony concludes with the baby’s submerged body being brought up to the mother’s chest as though she has just birthed the baby.

Tirren’s rebirthing ceremony offered her the chance to replicate the birth experience she missed out on in the clinical setting of her babies actual birth.

“The babies were so peaceful in the water, they even fell asleep. When I pulled them onto my chest they cried a small newborn cry," she says. "There wasn’t a dry eye in the room.”

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