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French Doctors Lamaze and Vellay Developed a Method of Childbirth That Supporters Say Allows Women to Become 'Masters of Themselves'

March 24, 1987|TIA GINDICK | Gindick is a free-lance writer living in Paris. and

PARIS — The idea that human beings must be born in agony is as ancient as human memory. That it is not necessary, read on.

--Dr. Pierre Vellay, translated from the French in his book "Childbirth Without Pain."

By tradition, childbirth had always been a grim business. Done without anesthetic, it was heartbreakingly painful, the miracle of birth prefaced by screams and howls.

When done with anesthetics, all was silent--the woman totally unconscious while her baby was being brought into the world. Either way, the risk to mother and child was great, the mortality rate for both horrifyingly high.

Breakthrough Birth in 1952

Then, on Feb. 7, 1952, in a Paris hospital, Dr. Pierre Vellay delivered the first child--a girl--using what is now known in the United States as the Lamaze Method. In France, it was referred to as childbirth without pain or natural childbirth. It was a completely new concept, and it revolutionized childbirth.

If a woman is "prepared, understands that the pain is avoidable . . . (she) will be relaxed and able to be actively conscious and active during the process of delivery," said Dr. Claude Sureau, former president of the World Assn. of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and current president of the Society of French-Speaking Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

"And this," Sureau added, "is absolutely formidable."

Fernand Lamaze died in 1957 of a heart attack. He was 63. Not surprisingly, perhaps, more is known about the Lamaze Method than the man himself. He was trained and practiced in Paris. He was active in the medical wing of the French Resistance during World War II. During the 1940s, he established the maternity wing of Centre de Sante des Metalurgistes, a hospital financed by the trade unions for its workers, and the Belvedere Clinic, which was private and catered to Paris' wealthy mothers-to-be. He was married and had one child, a daughter.

"He was serious-minded, but very human," said Lamaze's close friend and protege, Dr. Pierre Vellay, sitting in his home office in a fashionable neighborhood of Paris' Left Bank one day recently. Vellay, who met Lamaze in 1947 and also was active in the Resistance, though much younger, said his mentor was admired by other doctors.

Passionate Spokesman

Vellay is probably France's most passionate spokesman for the Lamaze Method, the true Lamaze Method--no drugs of any kind at any point in the delivery; rather a series of classes and exercises through the entire nine months of pregnancy and, at the time of delivery, the presence of the baby's father and midwife-trainer in addition to the doctor and the mother. This method was a virtual overnight success in France when it was introduced in 1952 (the father was brought on the scene in 1956), but in recent years it has declined in popularity.

More typically in France, prospective mothers now get an overview of the Lamaze theory of relaxation and breathing, then opt for a spinal anesthetic which allows them to be conscious during delivery but relieved of discomfort.

Vellay delivered four of his five children and Lamaze's grandchildren via natural childbirth. He has written six books and countless papers on the subject. He is clearly disturbed by the trend toward drugs.

"With drugs, a woman is manipulated," he said.

If Lamaze is more prevalent in the United States than in France, said Sureau, it is probably because it satisfies the need many Americans have to distance themselves from technology.

"For many French women though," he added, "it is less cumbersome to have an epidural (spinal anesthetic) than to complete the Lamaze preparation. Since there is a way to block the pain, yet remain conscious, they say, 'I wish to have it.' So doctors follow that evolution."

Not the First

Though the method bears his name, Fernand Lamaze was not the first to perceive that there could be childbirth without pain. A British physician named Grantly Dick-Read and the Soviets were simultaneously developing similar methods in the postwar years. The British, said Sureau, resisted the entire notion. The Soviets did not, and during a trip to Leningrad in 1951 with a group of French doctors, Lamaze saw a baby delivered "by an exceptional method."

Lamaze, by all accounts, was a man transformed. He returned to France convinced it was possible to change obstetrics. He and Vellay read Dick-Read's research, obtained translations for the Soviet documentation and then put together their own preparation--apparently taking the best of both and adding more psychological orientation.

The French medical community was almost immediately receptive. Any reluctance, said both Vellay and Sureau, was not so much aimed at the idea of natural childbirth but at the man who was promoting it.

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