Jane Gordon & Jean Williams
The Mail on Sunday, You magazine, 18 August 2002
The Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth offers a pioneering, holistic approach to childbirth which has won the approval of celebrity mums form Cate Blanchett to Kate Winslet.
In a leafy North London suburb, there’s a maternity unit that has become a firm favourite with celebrity mothers-to-be. Cate Blanchett, Kate Winslet, Emma Thompson, Sadie Frost and Jerry Hall have all had their babies at the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth in St John’s Wood, where the supportive, innovative environment has made it the place to give birth. It’s rumoured that Kate Moss, too, plans to have her baby there this Autumn. Indeed, the popularity of the private unit, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in April, now rivals the Portland Hospital among fashionable new mums.
The Portland may boast a champagne-and-ice-cream menu, but luxury food isn’t a priority at John and Lizzie’s, as it’s affectionately known. ‘This isn’t a hotel service,’ says birth unit manager Anita O’Neill. ‘We do not offer opulence and five-star food.’ What they do offer is a pioneering approach to childbirth, and double beds (so partners can stay over). In fact, the beds are one of the hospital’s biggest selling points. ‘As it’s the beginning of a family, it makes sense for the father to stay, so that they can become a family unit as soon as possible,’ says Anita O’Neill. (Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger reportedly enthused about this aspect of the birthing process.)
Unlike the Portland, the maternity unit is part of a general hospital and so has intensive-care facilities – this is clearly invaluable if the mother suffers major problems during the birth. However, John and Lizzie’s doesn’t offer a special-baby-care unit, which is why it doesn’t deal with premature births (pregnancies must have progressed beyond 36 weeks).
The centre’s staff deliver about 500 babies a year and have a thoroughly holistic, non-interventionist approach to childbirth. ‘We don’t believe in administering pethidine or morphine because we believe the mother should be mentally present for her baby,’ says O’Neill. ‘We also have a very high midwife-to-patient ratio, and we rarely use agency nurses. We have created a calm, relaxing atmosphere that makes childbirth a positive experience – even if ultimately it isn’t achieved as naturally as the patient hoped.’
Sadie Frost is a big fan of the unit – she has given birth to two of her babies at the hospital and is expected to give birth to her fourth there. She enthuses about the treatment she received when she had her first child, Finlay. ‘It took seven hours from start to finish. He was born in water and, because there were no numbing drugs, I really enjoyed the process of pushing him out,’ she says.
Pioneering obstetrician Dr Yehudi Gordon launched the unit and is now part of a team of eight consultants.
‘At this hospital we acknowledge babies as unique individuals, even before they are born,’ says Dr Gordon.
‘We try to make the birth experience a positive one for the baby, because birth is one of life’s major transitional experiences. If the baby gets through birth easily, then maybe he or she will get through other transitions, such as puberty or leaving home, more easily too.’
Despite the hospital’s celebrity connections, there is nothing obviously privileged or extraordinary about the women attending an antenatal class here today. True, most are successful, professional women in their mid-30s, with incomes that can easily cover the fees they’ll incur (between £4,500 to £6,000) for having their babies here. But some have taken out loans, or pay monthly for a year.
None of the women seem to have been lured to the hospital by the prospect of finding themselves bump-to-bump with stars such as Kate Moss. They have other things on their mind – such as listening to a talk about the way in which parenting changes your priorities.
These women couldn’t be further from the ‘too posh to push’ brigade – that exclusive clique of women wanting a ‘social caesarean’ that will fit in with their diaries, resulting in the least amount of pain and inconvenience. On the contrary, they choose the Hospital of St John and St Elizabeth because they believe it will help them achieve as natural a birth as possible. While the rate of elective caesareans in most private hospitals is believed to be as high as 60 per cent, at John and Lizzie’s caesareans account for around 23 per cent of the births, and only six per cent require forceps or ventouse (vacuum extraction), according to unit manager O’Neill.
At John and Lizzie’s the care is based on Active Birth principles: the idea that women have faster, safer, easier deliveries (and their babies a better birth experience) when they move about in labour and give birth standing or squatting, rather than lying on their backs. This is the approach that Dr Gordon, together with childbirth educator Janet Balaskas, promoted in the early 80s, despite much initial opposition within the NHS (and which ultimately led to Dr Gordon’s departure from the NHS to work privately).
Dr Gordon’s interest in natural birth was prompted, in part, by his own experience of becoming a father.
All three of my children [Gabi, now 33, Nick, 31 and Tanya, 28] had very high-tech births with forceps deliveries, and I just felt that it couldn’t be right. It was too technical,’ he says. Dr Gordon was also one of the pioneers of water births throughout the 70s and 80s, another idea that ran into stiff opposition at the time. Now visit any good NHS maternity centre and you’re likely to see women in labour pacing the wards, birthing pools routinely on offer, and choices given about the preferred method of delivery, pain relief and obstetric care.
The guiding principle at the hospital is that women and their partners are given the freedom to choose the childbirth that suits them best. Support is given for nine months after delivery, because the philosophy of the birth unit is that this is the birth of a family as well as the birth of a baby. The fee buys the entire antenatal, birth and nine-month postnatal support package, and mothers-to-be are also offered extras such as yoga, reflexology, aromatherapy, massage, and breast-feeding classes.
Many also sign up for the hospital’s birth-and-parenting preparation programme, and some choose, in addition, to attend the Birth Fitness programme offered independently by Dr Gowri Motha. This also aims to make pregnancy and childbirth a positive experience for both mother and baby. ‘I kept thinking, “How come expectant mums are stuck on a bed with a drip and monitors, and it’s all so difficult and depressing?” says Dr Motha.
She advocates moderate exercise and a strict dietary regime which, combined with therapies such as reflexology, help to prepare the body for labour. But probably the most important part of the programme are self-hypnosis and visualisation, which help the mother overcome any fear of childbirth and give her the confidence to believe she can achieve a natural childbirth. I am always amazed how just sitting with the mother when she is in labour, rocking her and repeating, “Your cervix is opening,” like a mantra, can make it happen,’ says Dr Motha. ‘I have just presented a report to the Royal Society of Obstetricians that revealed a marked reduction in the number of women who have caesareans or assisted births if they’ve gone through my programme.’
Dr Motha wishes that all women had the opportunity to have a gentle birthing experience. ‘I think we need a revolution in antenatal care,’ she says. ‘It would be good if the NHS took on some of my methods, such as reflexology. In the long run, it would be cheaper because it would mean fewer epidurals, fewer postnatal complications and less depression after birth. And, most important of all, it would create happier, healthier children.’
This focus on the wellbeing of mother and child is paramount at John and Lizzie’s. Despite the celebrity clientele, staff remain reassuringly unfazed. ‘We do have famous clients,’ says Anita O’Neill, ‘but that really isn’t important. What makes me proud is the fact that we have a 94 per cent rate of breast-feeding and the lowest rate of medical intervention within the private sector in London.’
The Mail on Sunday, YOU magazine, 18 August, 2002