The pregnancy of actress Katie Holmes -- partner of actor Tom Cruise -- has put a media spotlight on "silent birth." The childbirth method is practiced by supporters of the Church of Scientology.
Holmes has been studying Scientology, which counts Cruise as one of its most famous (and devoted) adherents. Founder L. Ron Hubbard preached the idea of "silent birth" as a way to shield newborns from supposedly harmful words heard during the traumatic birth process.
In his writings, posted earlier on the Scientology web site, Hubbard stated that "for the benefit of the mother and child, silence should be maintained during childbirth. This is because any words spoken are recorded in the reactive mind and can have an aberrative effect on the mother and the child."
During Holmes' pregnancy, photos have appeared showing six-foot-high "birthing boards" being carried into Cruise's Beverly Hills mansion, with instructions such as "Be silent and make all physical movements slow and understandable."
Other famous Scientologists, like John Travolta and his wife, Kelly Preston, and actress Anne Archer, have spoken out to defend "silent birth," saying that it's about creating what most women want -- a quiet and peaceful birth environment. Laboring women aren't told they can't moan or grunt, they say, but just to avoid speaking. Everyone else in the room is also supposed to refrain from using words as well.
Doctors Sound Off About Silent Birth
Is there any medical evidence behind any of this?
"It may be in the Scientology literature, but it's not in the scientific literature," says Damian Alagia, MD, associate clinical professor in the department of obstetrics and gynecology at George Washington University Medical Center. "In my understanding, L. Ron Hubbard never spent any time in medical school, studying pediatrics or studying neonatal development. To think that a baby born in silence is going to do any better than a baby born, say, listening to Hank Williams is just foolhardy."
Babies in utero have heard their parents' voices from the time their auditory capacity develops --and certainly throughout the last trimester, say experts like Patricia Connor Devine, MD, a maternal-fetal medicine specialist who directs the Labor and Delivery Unit at Columbia University Medical Center.
"Babies have heard noise and responded to noise for some time before they are born," she says. "There's absolutely no scientific evidence that taking that away at the time of delivery will have any effect on outcome for the baby or the mother."
If "silent birth" is something the parents want, Devine says, then their wishes should be respected. "People have different desires for their babies' births. The most important thing for care providers to understand is what the woman is looking for as far as her birth experience," she says.
"I think that all people would agree that having delivery occur in a calm environment is pretty important," says Devine. "If a silent birth is how someone wants to achieve that, it's reasonable. But remember: You can't banish words completely. It still has to be a birth environment that's safe. If the goal is to have it quiet and peaceful, that's fine -- but it can't be enforced to the point that it would hinder clinical outcome by preventing care providers from communicating."
Devine also notes that birth plans can often change on the fly.
"Especially for someone having their first child, labor is a long and very uncomfortable process. Women are in pain, and they often want to know, 'Am I OK? Is everything going all right? Am I doing what I'm supposed to be doing?' Or they want to hear supportive words from family members. If you're willing to be flexible, it makes it much more likely that you'll have that positive experience at the end."
Are There Any Risks?
There's no specific medical evidence that silent birth is particularly harmful -- but certified "doula" and perinatal educator Rachel Silber Korn, who has attended more than 100 births in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area, wonders if the sudden silence might not be alarming for a newborn infant.
"The baby has been in a very noisy environment for a long time. They're hearing the sounds of blood circulating, digestive noises, Mom's heartbeat, the family dog barking, Mom and Dad talking, maybe even Mom and Dad yelling," she says. "The decibel level inside the uterus has been found to be the equivalent of a jet plane taking off. If all of a sudden the voices go away and things are much more silent, I would think that might actually be very frightening to the baby."
Silber Korn notes that research has found that young infants who don't hear sounds -- especially their parents' voices -- can become despondent. "It's sensory deprivation, and they can shut down emotionally."
This brings up another issue that's appeared in the media about the Cruise-Holmes birth: rumors that Holmes has agreed not only not to speak during the birth process, but to care for her baby without talking throughout the baby's first week of life. If true, that could be a problem, say doctors. "I would think that would have a negative impact on bonding with the baby," says Devine.
"Silently breastfeeding and silently swaddling for a week, while not talking to and cooing with and establishing a verbal connection with the baby, could really impair the bonding process," agrees Alagia.
Scientology doctrine teaches that newborns shouldn't be subjected to medical tests for their first week of life. "That would really be suboptimal care," says Devine. "There are standard screening tests that are very important during the first week. We can't diagnose all problems prenatally, not even close, and all babies should undergo a full, thorough postnatal exam to ensure that they're normal and healthy."
As far as the silent birth itself goes -- there's absolutely no evidence it will help anything, but if it's important to a couple, Devine says, it probably can't hurt either. "If these families want to have this kind of birth experience, then they should have it. But they also need to have realistic expectations and let the caregivers do their jobs, so that at the end they have a safe, healthy baby."
By Gina Shaw, reviewed By Ann Edmundson, MD
SOURCES: Damian Alagia, MD, associate clinical professor of obstetrics and gynecology, George Washington University Medical Center, Washington, D.C. Patricia Connor Devine, maternal-fetal medicine specialist; director, Labor and Delivery Unit, Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, New York City. Rachel Silber Korn, CCE, CD, Beautiful Births, Potomac, Md.