What is Sphincter law?

Sphincter law

Sphincter law

You may be wondering what this title is all about! Well, this is something I learned about from an amazing midwife from the US called Ina May Gaskin. She has been supporting women through birth for decades and has made a fabulous observation about the way our bodies respond to certain environmental situations.

So this is her “sphincter law”:

The body has several sphincter muscles – the bladder, rectum, uterus and cervix – which are basically circular muscles whose sole purpose is to hold something in until there is a trigger to open and let things out. Usually this happens when there is sufficient pressure on the circular muscles for them to move apart and so empty or expel the contents. When this happens, the round muscles relax and expand (as much as is needed) to allow the contents to fall out.

Now what is interesting is that these sphincter muscles all have several characteristics in common:

Sphincters work best in an atmosphere of intimacy, calm and privacy – e.g., would you be able to do a poo in a public toilet without a lock?

Sphincters cannot be opened at will and do not respond to commands, e.g. “push” or "relax”

Sphincters involuntarily close if the person feels scared, embarrassed, interrupted or self-conscious

Relaxation of the mouth and jaw directly correlate to the relaxation of the sphincter muscles in the vagina and anus – laughing is a great way of relaxing these muscles. Ever laughed so much you have wet yourself?

When the person is stressed the sphincter muscles can also tense up

A classic example of the influence that a person’s thoughts and psychology can have over a sphincter muscle was a research study into the areas of the brain which were activated when a person’s bladder was opened. The research failed, as it required the participants to urinate whilst being watched and monitored – the participants found it really difficult and unnatural to urinate whilst being observed and so the research was abandoned.

Sphincters have a mind of their own. They can suddenly slam shut if the person becomes frightened or disturbed – men in public toilets will be able to relate to this! In the same way, an animal will stop birthing and move to a safe place if there is a predator or if they do not feel safe. Humans are the same; we just do not always understand the evolutionary wisdom behind it.

One of the areas of difficulty with the modern approach to birthing is that in many hospitals women are coached in when and how to push. Unfortunately, a sphincter muscle does not respond well to that kind of instruction and can simply tense up or clam shut. Given time and patience, the body will bring about the ejection reflex and there will be the overwhelming urge to bear down as your baby moves through the birth canal.

Ina May tells a story of a woman who was transferred from a home birth to hospital, following medical complications, when she was 7 cm dilated. She was met by a rude, abrupt obstetrician, who examined her roughly and painfully, saying that in fact she was only 4 cm. Even though the woman’s intellectual mind knew that she was in hospital for a good reason and that the obstetrician was there to help her, her cervix’s “mind” simply saw him as an intruder and a predator. As a result her cervix had quickly retracted, as her birthing body had felt that it was not safe to be open and birth her baby. Ina May examined her again and sure enough she was only 4 cm – her cervix had contracted back down.

This is a little-known and often-unrecognised fact amongst obstetricians, doctors and even many midwives: that it is entirely possible for a cervix to close as well as open during labour.