Wednesday, November 08, 2017

Reflections on Russia

What an amazing week I just spent at the Life Birth Pelvis conference in St. Petersburg, Russia! It was challenging and overwhelming (in a good way). This is the 8th international conference that Katerina Perkhova has organized.

Some thoughts, in no particular order:

Breech knowledge doesn't always cross political or linguistic borders
I gave two presentations on breech birth: one on the history of maneuvers from 1609 to the present, the other on evidence on term breech since the Term Breech Trial. Everyone involved with breech birth in North/South America, Europe, Australia/New Zealand, and many parts of Africa and Asia is familiar with the Term Breech Trial. But not Russia! "What is this Term Breech Trial you are speaking of? We have never heard of it." I had to explain the background and significance of the TBT in order for my presentation to make sense.

Conversely, Russians were quite familiar with Tsovian, aka the Tsovyanov. I suspect they were surprised we didn't know about him! I have now discovered 15 obstetric journal articles about his methods in Russian, Czech, Hungarian, Polish, and--in one case--Spanish. I also found contemporary Czech textbooks that mention Tsovian (spelled Covjan--sneaky Czechs making it harder for me!) and a Dutch article examining whether Bracht's or Tsovian's methods came first.

I am so excited that I get to help breech knowledge cross political and linguistic boundaries! My wonderful translator Alesya is excited to translate the articles and book chapters I am working on. And perhaps some of my breech conference summaries...

Hot & Cold Water
I was puzzled at how hot and cold water were frequently suggested as remedies. Your newborn needs resuscitation? Use hot and cold water! Is your premature baby having a hard time nursing? Hot and cold water!

I didn't fully understand this concept until I did a full Russian sauna on the last night of the conference. This includes going naked into the sauna, being beaten with bunches of oak leaves (it feels heavenly, like the heat is being beaten deep into your body), and then plunging into an ice-cold pool of water. And then doing it again several times. After the fourth cycle, I got the biggest endorphin rush of my life--comparable to being in labor. You know the dizzy, buzzing, high feeling you get all over your body between contractions? That endorphin rush. It lasted for about 2 hours.

And then I got it. Hot and cold water as therapeutic? As a way to maximize health and well-being? Yes, for sure! I have a friend here in the States who is a Russian translator, and she says that Russians often use the expression "tempering the baby," as one would temper steel with repeated applications of heat and cold.

In Western (is that the right word?) obstetric practice, we're concerned about getting the baby warm and dry immediately. Allowing a baby to be cold and/or wet is absolutely verboten. Maybe we could learn something from the Russian use of hot and cold water.

Right brain, left brain
This was the most right-brained conference I have ever attended. We had one "normal" conference room with rows of chairs and a projection screen for Powerpoint slides. This is where I gave my two breech lectures, a talk on unassisted birth, and a session on newborn resuscitation with Sister Morningstar.

But our other conference room was a Red Tent room. The walls were draped with red fabrics, the chairs were replaced with bean bags, and candles and incense and altars took the place of projectors and pointers. The floors were covered with intricately embroidered fabrics. In the corners were private alcoves for doing yoni steams, draped on all sides with red fabric.

Days were partially left-brained, partially right-brained, but evenings and nights turned magical and mystical. Sometimes intimate and sacred, sometimes raw and brutally honest, but always healing. Having Sister Morningstar, a Cherokee midwife, to lead the evening sessions was an honor. I've been quite cynical about religion lately, and these five days were a reminder that women have tremendous spiritual power and that spirituality in its widest sense is so much grander than anything one religion can offer.


  1. I am an expat living in Russia. Is it possible to get a list of Russian midwives, particularly ones who will do a home birth? Last time I pursued a midwife here, I was given the impression home birth is mostly an underground movement and th few midwives who do it have a long waiting list.

  2. I don't think there's a list of any sort, because the situation is exactly as you described. There is no legal route for any trained attendant (midwife or doctor) to attend home births. So there are some midwives who do home births "under the table," so to speak. There are lots of families who birth unassisted. Russian doulas are essentially becoming the new class of lay midwives because many Russian parents are under the impression that they are another type of midwife. Like it or not, Russian doulas are often pushed into performing midwifery-type roles (monitoring labor, checking heart tones/dilation). It's actually rather fascinating because doulas in Russia are doing what the lay midwives of the 1960s and 70s were doing in the US: learning midwifery from the ground up by attending other women's births.

    I might be wrong with some of these details, but this is what I learned from the doulas and midwives and mothers at the conference.

  3. On the "hot and cold water!" front I have to tell you about the protocol my middle-Tennessee homebirth midwife gave me to fight off mastitis with baby #2. Her grandfather had worked in the hydrotherapy wing of a hospital, and she learned some things from him. She had us put a towel soaked in ice water over my bare breasts for 30 seconds, take it off and then put on a towel that had been soaked in the hottest water I could stand for 3 minutes with blankets laid over top to hold the heat in. That cold-hot sequence was done 3 times in a row and then I was to cover up and lay still for 20 minutes or so as, as she said, that protocol would do funny things to my circulation and I would end up in the corner if I tried to walk around to soon. We repeated the regimen 3 times each day until my temperature went down and then one extra day just to be sure. The beginnings of mastitis were nipped in the bud with just 2 days total of the regimen that time and we have used it 3 or 4 times since then (that baby is now almost 4 and I have had a baby since). Amazing what just hot and cold water can do!

  4. I keep coming back again and again to this line, "Allowing a baby to be cold and/or wet is absolutely verboten." What an absolutely fascinating insight and I love the way you describe your realisation of the therapeutic potential of hot and cold water - something, as you so rightly point out, that is completely lost on Western logic.

  5. So glad you went and gave them some of your internal fire and gems! ! Those women are kinda like my offspring! YESSS!

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