Audrey Bird and her husband Peter homestead in central Alaska, 150 miles from the nearest road. To get to their house, she explains when I interview her by phone (after the Skype connection cut out), you fly from Fairbanks. And then you take an hour-long boat ride across Lake Minchumina.
When Audrey, who is 26, got pregnant for the third time, she knew she would give birth at home. A trained midwife herself, she had her first baby in the hospital. She had her second at home.
For baby #3 she felt completely confident about giving birth at home, even though she’d had a pretty heavy post-partum hemorrhage after her second birth.
Her husband Peter, who was trained in emergency childbirth through the sheriff’s department, handled the bleeding like a pro, Audrey says.
But Audrey didn’t just want a home birth. She wanted to have an outdoor birth. Into the waters of Lake Minchumina.
“We spend most of our time outside in the summer time, because it’s just beautiful,” she explains. “Why not have her in the environment that she’s going to grow up and be in and play in every day?”
Mother Nature changes their plans for an outdoor birth
Two days before Audrey gave birth, however, Mother Nature put a dent in the family’s plans to have an outdoor birth: A torrential summer downpour filled Lake Minchumina with water and debris.
The lake water was higher than residents who had lived their all their lives had ever seen it. And the lake was so filled with debris—fallen logs, dead animals—that having an outdoor birth no longer seemed safe. The Birds were not deterred.
Even if they couldn’t have lake birth, they could still have an outdoor birth. So Peter built Audrey a birch-tree platform six feet off the ground, which he draped with mosquito netting to keep out the bugs.
Is unassisted birth on a Central Alaska island safe?
While we know that midwife-assisted birth with licensed midwives is as safe or safer than hospital birth, no data that I am aware of exists about the safety of planned unassisted outdoor birth. But Audrey and Peter Bird were confident they were making a safe choice.
“I think you just have to look at yourself and your family and what’s best for you and your baby. That’s going to be the safest,” Audrey says frankly.
“For us that was right outside our home. I was the calmest, most peaceful, and happiest. I didn’t have any fear of complications. Also, we had a good back up plan in case there was an emergency to transfer.”
They had alerted the local medevac, which had a helicopter that could fly her to the hospital in Fairbanks.
I interviewed Audrey for an article on outdoor birth I wrote for ResetMe. I also talked to a first-time mom who had a horse-assisted outdoor birth. And a mom who gave birth to her baby on her side patio in Poughkeepsie, New York. As well as a Texas mom who birthed her fifth baby into a tub set up in an oak tree grove on her property in Texas.
Click over to my article, “Outdoor Birth: Why Some Women Choose Nature—Not Just Natural—Birth,” to read about those outdoor birth experiences.
The perfect night to have a baby
Back to Audrey Bird: Her contractions started while she and her husband were out canoeing on the lake. Her mom and 17-year-old sister were watching the two older kids.
“We decided to go back home, they were coming pretty hard and fast,” Audrey remembers.
In July in Alaska there are 24 hours of sunlight. It was a warm evening, the perfect night for having a baby. The sun hit Mount McKinley, turning the landscape a glowing pink.
Audrey, who says she is a “vocal birther,” remembers the sound of the chickadees, spruce grouse, and robins, as well as the wind rustling through the leaves as she labored outside.
A difficult outdoor birth
As idyllic as that sounds, the birth itself, Audrey admits, was difficult.
Though Audrey didn’t hemorrhage this time, her daughter was sunny side up. The baby’s head was cocked at an angle, making it hard for the baby to get under Audrey’s pubic bone and out of the birth canal. Audrey made a lot of noise, moving around during the entire labor.
“I just moved and moved and moved,” she explains, getting on her hands and knees to push.
She says she had to work extra hard to birth this baby—who they named Piper—and she is certain if she had been in a hospital the birth would have ended in either a C-section or a vacuum-extraction.
“As a midwife, when I attend a birth, I sit back,” Audrey explains.
“I allow the mom’s body to do what it needs to do. I’m there as a lifeguard, in case something happens. Usually it doesn’t. For me, when I have an unassisted birth, my husband knows what to do. We are paying attention the entire time to the baby’s heart rate and to our instinctual feelings. We are prepared. Birth generally happens the way it needs to when it is undisturbed.”
At the end of the interview, Audrey confesses she’s pregnant again. The new baby is due in June. But the lake water will probably be too cold, she says.
Still, she’s planning another outdoor birth.
Published: Dec 18, 2015
Last updated: April 5, 2021