Giving birth for the first time was one of the most empowering experiences of my life. My water broke, my contractions started, everything progressed smoothly, and, less than six hours later, my baby girl was born. It was an ideal birth experience, except for one thing. That one thing made my next few weeks of recovery extremely painful. I tore. I really tore.
Despite the painful recovery, this was actually the lesser of two evils for me. Though some caregivers continue to cut episiotomies in as many as 80% of their patients, medical research does not support routine episiotomies. Studies from as far back as the 80s made it clear that routine episiotomies have no benefits and carry real risks. One of the most detrimental risks is that episiotomies can lead to further tearing, sometimes extending into the anus. These fourth degree anal tears almost never occur without an episiotomy. In addition, a spontaneous tear may only reach into the surface layers of skin, while an episiotomy cuts into far more layers. Episiotomies are rarely warranted and should be reserved for those unusual emergency cases. Ultimately, even without all the evidence, I just didn't want someone cutting me. I knew, going into my first birth experience, that if I had to choose between them, I would choose to tear. And, tear I did.
The best case scenario, obviously, is neither. The best outcome is a happy, healthy baby and an intact perineum. So how does a woman improve her chances of keeping her perineum intact?
1. Choose a midwife, or a doctor whose practice is evidence-based. The typical midwife's philosophy of birth is one of non-intervention. Most midwives tend to avoid episiotomy and are aware of the best positions and techniques to avoid tearing. I saw a group of certified nurse-midwives with my second daughter's birth, and was relieved to hear, at my first appointment, that 70% of their patients end up with intact perineums. I had only a very minor tear--what my midwife described as a "skid mark"--and my recovery was vastly superior to the first. If you choose to use a doctor, be sure that he/she practices evidence-based medicine, is aware of the research against episiotomy, and understands your desire to remain intact.
2. Exercise regularly. We all know exercise is beneficial to our health, but it's also beneficial to your perineal tissues. Women who are physically active are less likely to end up with episiotomies and are more likely to retain strong pelvic floor muscles post-partum. General exercise is great, but doing exercises specialized for the pelvic floor--"Kegels"--will not only strengthen those muscles, but also increase your awareness of how those muscles function so you can learn how to fully relax them for birth.
3. Have a doula present for your birth. A doula is a trained labor support professional. Research has shown that a doula's presence reduces a laboring woman's risk of requiring pain medications by 36% and forceps deliveries by 57%. Epidurals and forceps deliveries are both associated with increased incidence of tearing and episiotomies, so a doula is handy to have around when you're trying to stay intact. Doulas are the most highly rated providers of labor support and work wonders in improving women's birth experiences, so it won't just be your perineum that thanks you.
4. Deliver in an upright, hands-and-knees, or side-lying position. Research clearly indicates that the worst possible position for delivering a baby is the very position most hospitals direct women to take--on the back, legs stretched out wide, feet in stirrups. The best positions for avoiding perineal trauma are unconventional in most U.S. hospitals, but the evidence is clear. If you want to maximize your chances of staying intact, don't let hospital conventions hold you back. Be sure your caregivers know of your intention to deliver as you choose--upright, on your hands and knees, or on your side. Fortunately, the best positions for avoiding perineal trauma are also the ideal positions for a smoother, easier delivery, so you won't be sorry about breaking with convention.
5. Use "spontaneous" pushing rather than the conventional Valsalva method. Most women in U.S. hospitals are encouraged to take a deep breath, hold it for ten seconds and bear down--the Valsalva maneuver. Breaking with convention in this case is also beneficial for your perineum. Women who push spontaneously are more likely to avoid tearing. Spontaneous pushing typically involves shorter periods of pushing and more breathing in and out which promotes relaxation of the perineal tissues. A woman following her body's instincts and impulses will deliver her baby far more easily, efficiently, and painlessly than one who is being coached to disregard her body's guidance.
Episiotomies should be rare, and tearing isn't inevitable. Women who arm themselves with information and support can travel through birth uplifted, empowered, and intact. I, for one, intend to do just that the next time around.