Body wisdom: detecting birth by smell (part 1)

While the idea of ‘body wisdom’ as a form of knowledge held by women and midwives is not new, there has been little written about specific examples of this in midwifery or related literature. The exceptions to this (at the time of first writing this article) are Mavis Kirkham (1999) who wrote about the experience of feeling nauseous just before a woman reached the ‘second stage’ of labour and a handful of people who are exploring body wisdom from a women’s studies perspective.

Always on the lookout for interesting examples of midwives’ body wisdom, I was quite amazed when I was teaching at a University a few years ago to find three student midwives in one group (of about 27) who all discovered, when we spent a day looking at ‘ways of knowing’, that they shared the same experience. They had each noticed a distinct smell just before a baby was about to be born. The four of us chatted together afterwards to explore this, with the dual aims of looking at the commonalities in their experiences, and finding out whether there are other midwives or students who have the same ability. In this and my next blog post, I’m re-sharing what I wrote, along with Karen Roberts, Julie Howard and Sue Waters, at the time, in the hope of keeping alive the discussion about forms of knowledge that are currently less researched and respected in our culture.

 

These are the (then) students’ experiences, in their own words:

I don’t think it was until the last couple of deliveries I attended that I noticed it, I’ve witnessed 8 and delivered 7, the last couple I thought, hang on a minute, I keep getting this same smell every time the woman’s about to deliver. Up until then I pretended to ignore it and put it down to normal bodily smells, but it’s very distinctive!

At first I just dismissed it, I thought it was a smell that everybody smelt and so it wasn’t talked about. I thought it was a natural smell … and it wasn’t until I asked other people … no-one else could smell anything … it’s just a distinct smell that only I seem to be able to smell when the baby’s going to be born. 

I started noticing the smell during my ‘witnesses’, I put it down to being a student … being much more focused on what was going on rather than getting carried away with actually having to do things because I could stand back and observe. I began to put the two and two together because I did smell this smell…

 

Initially, each of these women thought the smell might be accounted for by body fluids or aspects of birth which are already known about, but have now come to think that this is not the case:

I think the first couple of times I smelled it I thought perhaps the woman was smelly, I know that sounds really dreadful … but it’s not that because it is the same smell every time. 

It’s really hard to describe, it’s just a distinct smell and I can’t put my finger on what the smell is, people said to me it could be amniotic fluid, it could be a mixture of sweat … but it’s not a labouring smell, it’s my own distinct smell that I can smell just before the baby is born. 

It’s not an offensive smell and I just put it down to human odours that are omitted when a woman is having a baby. I mean, last night I thought about it and I did wonder if a woman when she is that close to delivering actually does give off a fear or panic smell, a hormone smell, it is quite distinctive but I can’t describe it. 

I’m trying to visualise what’s happening in the woman’s body to give off the smell … instead of thinking it in fear terms, I was thinking of it as a woman just softening and opening up … softening up and letting herself go … it’s as if these juices were flowing and that’s what I was kind of visualising in my mind rather than a fear aspect.

I thought of it as a mixture of fear and like a release, it’s like when everything’s about to happen … excitement and anticipation, to me it just sounds so stupid but when that smell’s there I just know that everything’s going to happen.

 

One key theme in our discussion was the relief that was felt when the women who experienced this found out they were neither alone nor crazy:

I’ve worked with people and they can’t smell it. 

I kept it quiet for so long because it’s so strange when I asked other people they said no I haven’t got it, I thought it was just a weirdness that I had.

I was quite relieved to find other students who had the same experience because I did think it was strange, it’s not off putting but sometimes I didn’t like it and I’d think “oooh”, and I’d think perhaps I didn’t like birth or something like that. When I heard the others had it I was so relieved that someone else could smell my smell.

I’ve spoken to midwives I’ve worked with and asked them did they smell it and they all said no, so it was a relief yesterday to find there were two other people in the group that also experienced it. 

I’m curious to see whether other people do smell it or whether we’re all cracking up! 

 

Karen, Julie and Sue have each had at least two babies of their own, but didn’t smell anything unusual during their own birth experiences. When I first published this article, I asked if anyone else shared their experience and, in the years since I first wrote about this, I have met and heard from a good few other midwives, birth workers, doctors and other health professionals who have this same ability, although it is still unusual rather than the norm. As hard as I have tried to share in this experience over the years, however, I have never smelled anything unexpected and I remain merely the chronicler of this phenomenon. In my next blog post, I’ll share the rest of this article, in which we discuss what the smell smells like.

 

Kirkham M 1999  Bodily Knowledge: the wisdom of nausea.  Midwifery Today, No 51.

 

A version of this article was first published as Wickham S, Roberts K, Howard J and Waters S (2004). Body wisdom: detecting birth by smell. TPM 7(1):30-31.
Photo by Me Shroud on Unsplash

3 comments for “Body wisdom: detecting birth by smell (part 1)

  1. Sheryl
    January 31, 2019 at 7:09 am

    I can smell it when women are fully dilated. I’ve always thought it was from their cervix. I describe it as a meaty smell and not offensive. It wasnt until half way through my training that I recognized the familiar smell at 2nd stage of birth. I reckon it’s so cool.

  2. March 1, 2019 at 12:34 am

    There is a distinctive smell that I thought was a combination of amniotic fluid, the hormones thru the woman’s sweat, vaginal secretions, etc. Kind of tangy, salty, citrusy, sour. I have also had a friend midwife who said she felt she had to have a BM as the woman got to pushing.

  3. Caroline N‘Noko
    May 20, 2019 at 1:24 pm

    Provably Pheromones!

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