Sea Turtles Laying Their Eggs

Sea Turtles

It’s a “Labor of Love”

 

We get off the boat and walk single file through back alleys and across the soccer field in the tiny town of Tortuguero, Costa Rica. Fernando, our guide, leads us through the grass and mud, pointing out the larger puddles so our group ranging in age from 8 to 48 might make it back to our hotel later, close to midnight, as dry as possible.

We trek for what feels like hours and finally stop at a covered structure in the middle of the jungle. We aren’t allowed to have our phones, or any other light source other than the ones our guides provide. The Costa Rican jungle is a very dark place – especially in the middle of the rainy season with the moon only sporadically peeking out between the clouds.

We’re met by a man dressed completely in black: hat, shirt, pants, shoes. The only light seen is the small red dot flashing from his walkie-talkie. Fernando gathers our small group together to give us instructions and explains what to expect next: “We’ll wait here until the scouts on the beach find a sea turtle which has made her way out of the ocean and is moving up the beach to begin the process of laying her eggs. We only have two hours of time to get the chance to see this happening, and we have no idea if we’ll be lucky tonight or not. If we hear from one of the scouts, we’ll begin our walk through the jungle immediately. It might be a short hike, or it might be a very long walk – we won’t know until we get the call. Until then, we wait.”

I ask a lot of questions and our guide is happy to oblige me. Fernando, is a local Tortugueran who lives in this small town on Costa Rican’s Caribbean Coast. He’s been guiding tourists through the rainforest-covered sandbar of the Tortuguero National Park  for years as a part of the Sea Turtle Conservancy. Their mission is to help protect the world’s endangered sea turtles. I can tell how much he loves these magnificent creatures that have been around since the age of the dinosaurs. Fernando is 65 years old and has been doing this work for over half of his life. He’s a wealth of information, and I’m an eager student – especially given that we’re here to see something that’s right up my alley – birth.

While we’re waiting for the call, I get a tutorial about sea turtles and how they lay their eggs. Sea turtles return to the beach they were born on to lay their eggs, season after season. There are several stages that a sea turtle must go through as they nest:

  1. She must first emerge from the ocean and ascend the beach. Sea turtles are very heavy creatures and they have to crest a wave large enough to get them out of the surf and onto the beach. She’ll be looking for “just the right spot.” And if she doesn’t feel like she’s found it, she’ll turn around and head right back into the ocean. The perfect place will be one that’s dark, quiet and has the right temperature variation so her released eggs will develop into an equal number of male and female baby turtles. The depth of the track that a sea turtle makes in the sand speaks to how heavy these creatures are. (The largest sea turtle on record was close to 9 feet long and weighed over a ton!)
  2. Once the right spot has been chosen for the nest, the sea turtle begins the digging process. She creates a “body pit” by using all four of her flippers. First, she removes the dry surface sand which will be used to cover up the nest once she’s done laying her eggs. After she’s created the body pit, next she has to dig the egg chamber using only her rear flippers and alternating between the right and the left, to scoop out all of the damp sand.
  3. When the egg chamber is deep enough and her flippers can no longer reach down farther to scoop out any more sand, she pauses and begins to have contractions which make her rear flippers rise up off of the sand.
  4. She then enters into a trance-like state and begins to lay her eggs. With each contraction, she might release anywhere from 1-4 eggs at a time. She continues to fill the egg chamber almost up to the top. (On average, sea turtles will release 110 eggs with each “egg clutch” and the range for egg clutches is 2-8 per season.)
  5. When her egg clutch is complete, she’ll close up the nest using her rear flippers the same as she did to dig the egg chamber – only in reverse. She places damp sand on top of the egg chamber and fills up the hole completely. She then presses the damp sand down with her massive body and lastly begins to camouflage the egg chamber by throwing the dry surface sand behind her as she moves forward. This is done to protect her eggs from predators.
  6. Finally, she makes her return trip, dragging her heavy body along with her front flippers and then waits in the surf for a wave large enough to carry her back into the ocean. She does not tend this nest again. Her job is done.

All of a sudden, the flashing light on the walkie-talkie goes off and there are some whispered instructions from one of the scouts: some turtles have made their way up to the beach and Fernando is given the coordinates of where to find them.

We break up into smaller groups and head off through the jungle again in single file with only the light from Fernando’s headlamp to guide us. When we get to the beach even that light is extinguished and we’re told not to talk above a whisper and to not move any closer as nesting sea turtles can feel vibrations through their bellies on the sand and will avoid nesting if they feel a potential threat or think a predator is nearby.

We huddle together at the tree line and wait for the scout on the beach to give us the go ahead to move in closer. We’re told that it’s important to not move in until she’s in the process of releasing her egg clutch. Once that part begins, it can’t be stopped until all of the eggs have been delivered. Her trance-like state during delivery would allow us to have a closer look.

After what seemed like a really long time, we’re told to come out of our hiding place and move in closer – but not because the sea turtle is laying her eggs. She’d started the nesting process and had found what appeared to be a great spot, but changed her mind and was now heading back out to sea.

We keep a safe distance, but are able to watch and follow this magnificent creature as she makes her way down the beach. She’s massive! Her shell is at least 4 feet from top to tail, and while we have no scale to weigh her, the track she leaves in the sand is several inches deep!

I’m struck by how intense this process is. She’d already put in so much work! She dug her body pit and even began scooping out her egg chamber – but something was just not right. Maybe the temperature of the sand was off by a degree or two, maybe she felt the spot was not as well protected against predators as she’d like – but for whatever reason, she stopped the process mid-birth and turned around to go back into the water.

I find out from Fernando, that each sea turtle only has a few days to release an egg clutch. He couldn’t be sure, but she might have one or at most, 2 more evenings to try and make her way back to the beach and find a better spot to lay her eggs. Those eggs, once released, will sit in the nest she’s created for about 45-55 days, on average. The eggs themselves are usually oval in shape and have a “pouch” of air to allow the baby sea turtle to breathe as it makes its way up and out of the sand. When the sea turtles begin to hatch they do so en masse, all of them working together to break free from their shells, causing the dry sand to spill out and around the other eggs causing them to rise to the surface together.  Sometimes this process is called a “turtle boil” because the sand looks as though it is bubbling up like water boiling.

Baby sea turtles are “phototactic” and use the reflected light of the moon off the waves in the surf to guide them back into the ocean where they spend their early years hiding and growing, hopefully into adulthood. Where they will begin the process of fertilizing and laying their own egg clutches back on the beach where they were born, and so on. Sadly, it’s estimated that only 1 in 1,000 baby turtles will get this opportunity.

I feel so lucky to have had the chance to witness an endangered sea turtle’s process of nesting. I was so impressed by this Momma’s willingness to do everything she needed to do to give her babies the best start in life. Even if that meant getting half-way through the process, only to determine that the conditions were not ideal and carry herself back out to sea and try again the next night.

It makes me think about how motherhood is so strikingly similar across species!

We, as birthing women, also need to have ideal conditions in order to give birth. And whether we realize it or not, we’re using all of our senses – including our gut – to determine if things “feel right” before contractions can begin in earnest. Only then are we able to move into the trance-like state of active labor and bring our babies into the world. And once our little ones have been born, how hard we also try to protect them and bring them safely into adulthood!

If you ever get the chance to witness any part of the sea turtle nesting process, go for it! Sitting quietly on the beach of Tortuguero National Park, with the ocean waves crashing on the shore, and a raging storm miles away providing us with a spectacular light and sound show, we got to watch these strong, determined, and powerful Momma sea turtles do the hard work of labor and birth.

And this is something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.

I dedicate this post to our amazing Costa Rican trip guides, Gabby & Fico, as well as our incredibly knowledgeable and passionate Sea Turtle Conservancy guide, Fernando. The work that Costa Rica is doing as a whole to help preserve and save endangered species is of huge benefit to us all. Thank you.

BREAKING NEWS!!!

“Partner’s Touch Reduces Pain For Laboring Woman”

receiving-hands-1920865_1920In a recent study published in Nature, it was discovered that a partner’s touch resulted in something the researchers termed, “physiological coupling.” The same study also found that empathetic touch from the partner contributed to an analgesic effect via the woman’s autonomic nervous system.

In other words, when a partner held the hand of the woman they cared for and a pain stimulus was activated, the couple would begin to synchronize their breathing and heart rate patterns, otherwise known as physiological coupling. In addition, the woman would report that her pain lessened while holding hands with her partner. If they were sitting next to one another, but not holding hands, her pain level would not be affected.

Obviously, this has implications for the families I teach, which is why I joke about this study being big news and something I didn’t already know about. But it’s important to share this news far and wide, because even though I’ve been preaching it for close to 20 years – “Everything you do for your partner while she’s in labor makes a difference! Even if all you do is hold her hand!” – partners still don’t seem to believe it!

Labor is not just something that a birthing woman experiences. Her partner experiences labor too, just in a very different way. For far too long, we’ve either diminished or ignored the partner’s experience of labor – to everyone’s detriment.

I’ve mentioned many times before that I have a soft spot in my heart for the partner’s experience. I realize that it makes sense to pay close attention to how a woman experiences and moves through her pregnancy, labor and birth. But if we’re not paying equal attention to her partner’s experience, we’re not setting this new family up for success. In fact, we might be doing the exact opposite.

I spend a lot of time discussing the second stage of labor (pushing and delivery of the baby) using my uterus and baby doll props to share what to expect and what it will look like from the partner’s perspective. At this point, the nurses and provider have their attention focused on the laboring woman and baby – with good reason. They need to be aware of any changes in the heart rate as the baby moves through the birth canal, and they need to remain alert as the baby’s shoulders make their way through the woman’s pelvis.

But not enough attention is being paid to what the partner experiences during this critical time. Partners need to know what a newborn baby really looks like and what the process entails so that the moment their baby enters the world it’s a moment full of joy for the whole family! When we forget about the partner’s experience, and they have no idea what to expect, that moment can result in a partner frozen with fear and in a state of shock at what they’re seeing and what’s happening – and this can negatively impact their transition as a new parent in a significant way.

Likewise, if partners don’t realize the importance their words, actions and touch can have on the laboring woman’s experience, many partners will freeze up and feel helpless as they witness the power and intensity of labor and birth. They may end up feeling as if their efforts and suggestions for comfort measures are without any effect. But this couldn’t be farther from the truth!

Sometimes I use a marathon analogy to discuss how important the efforts of the partner can be in helping a woman through labor and birth.

Imagine you’re running your first marathon. You’ve heard from friends and family how challenging it can be, but you’ve also heard about all of the “extras” along the race route that will help you make it across the finish line: the excitement and camaraderie of other runners, the music blaring at checkpoints, the mileage post signs marking your progress, the water stations providing hydration, snacking on energy-packed gummies, reading signs of encouragement from strangers, and awaiting you at the finish line, cheering crowds and some of the best peanut butter sandwiches and chocolate milk you’ve ever tasted! Now, these “extras” might not seem very important – until we take them all away.

What if I painted a very different picture of your marathon experience?

You’re told to stand at the starting line alone and when the gun goes off, run for 26.2 miles toward the finish line with nothing to help you along the way – no water stations, no music, no snacks, no encouraging crowds, no one waiting for you at the finish line… nothing.

The difference between the first scenario and the second is stark. Without all of those “extras” even the experienced marathon veteran would have a hard time completing the race. Let alone, crossing the finish line with even a hint of a smile.

So it is that every little thing a partner does to make the laboring woman more comfortable matters, and it matters immensely. Every sip of water offered, every new position suggested, every word of encouragement, every reminder to breathe, every single touch, provides comfort to the laboring woman. And partners need to know this and believe in the power that their undivided attention and connection can bring to the laboring woman.

I’m reminded of this when I think back to being in labor with my first, some seventeen+ years ago…

I had two doulas – one for me, and one for my husband! I came prepared with a full team of support for this birth. They all worked so hard to support me in what ended up being a long labor that began, as most labors do, in the wee hours of the morning. I wasn’t the only one exhausted some 20 hours into the experience – my husband had been awake and working hard just as long as I’d been. And he was getting tired.

I remember hearing my two doulas talking in a stage whisper with my husband: “Go ahead and lie down. Try to get a quick nap in now before the really intense labor begins. We’re both here – we can take care of her.”

A statement that was completely true! One of my doulas was an L&D nurse (soon-to-be-midwife) and the other was my best friend who knew my husband and me almost as well as we knew ourselves! They were more than capable of helping me through contractions, which up to this point I’d been handling really well.

Upon their urging, my husband walked about three feet away and lay down on the daybed in the labor and delivery room. And then strangest thing happened – I completely lost my rhythm and my ability to breathe through contractions! It was as though I’d lost my way, somehow. The next handful of contractions felt incredibly painful to me. So much so, that I cried out in anguish which woke my husband up and he hurried to my side and held my hand once more. And then, just as quickly, I found my rhythm, my breathing returned, and I was able to continue and handle my contractions, until I gave birth several hours later.

I know from talking with my husband and other partners about their own experiences how challenging it is to watch the person you love go through labor and birth. It pulls strongly on the heartstrings and can leave partners feeling incredibly helpless to do anything that will be effective in increasing their partner’s comfort level.

But here’s why I think the findings from this latest study are so important: it’s the feeling of shared empathy between the laboring woman and her partner that causes the physiological coupling and analgesic effect that help a woman when she’s experiencing pain.

That’s why I’ve always told the partners in my classes that even if they hired an army of the world’s greatest labor doulas, if the partner provides the laboring woman with their unwavering, focused and empathetic attention during the labor, she will tell everyone that she could not have made it through without her partner – even if all they did was hold her hand!

I love it when someone else does the research and publishes findings that support what I’ve been teaching my families for the past twenty years!

Because, let’s face it… Some partners in my classes may think that I’m just trying to make them feel better or elevate their role in the birth experience. (Which is exactly what I’m trying to do, by the way!)

But I’ve also known forever that empathetic touch – combined with all of the other wonderful comfort measures partners learn in our time together – really can help a laboring woman when she needs it the most.

And now, I have the science to prove it.

Can you relate to this post as a laboring woman? Did your partner’s touch (among other things) actually make labor and birth easier for you? What about partners – have you felt helpless in labor? Does this information about how your words, actions and touch really helped her through labor and birth make you feel any better? Let me know your thoughts. I love hearing from you!

Risk Assessment

Risk

At the end of one of my weekend classes, a healthy and fit-looking Momma came up to ask a question.

“I’m 35 years old,” she began, and I already knew where this was going.

“And yours is considered a “Geriatric Pregnancy,” am I right?”

She kind of laughed and said, “Yep – ‘Advanced Maternal Age!’ And my provider wants to induce me at 39 weeks. I just wanted to know what my chances are of having an induction that goes okay. One that won’t end up with me having a Cesarean.”

Now, I don’t know this woman’s health history, and I’m not a medical provider, so I’m not going to debate this plan of action with her. But I could tell she wanted to know if this induction at 39 weeks would be considered “medically necessary.” Again, without knowing her personal health history, I wasn’t going to comment on that – it’s not my place.

So here’s what I said instead: “If your provider ever had a Momma over the age of 35 who had a “negative outcome” during a birth that went past 39 weeks, it might change how they practice from that point forward. But many providers are only looking at the risk of increased complications that can happen to all women over the age of 35. Is your provider looking at you as an individual, considering any other risk factors that might increase your risk? And what’s the risk, anyway? What numbers are being considered? This information might help you understand ”increased risk” really means for you.”

For example, a provider might read a study that states a woman’s risk of stillbirth increases after the age of 35. The provider might then choose to focus solely on the age of the woman in their care, and encourage an induction at 39 weeks to prevent stillbirth.

Now, stillbirth is a terrible experience which most people would like to avoid at all costs. But women need full information to be able to assess if their risk of stillbirth in waiting for labor to occur on its own is high enough to agree that an induction at 39 weeks is the right decision for themselves.

The risk is real, it’s true – but there are many other factors to consider in assessing an individual woman’s risk for any complication, not just the risks associated with “Advanced Maternal Age.”

I might be a little bit touchy on this subject, if I’m being honest! I didn’t get married until I was 28. I had my first child at 31. Baby #2 came along when I was 33 1/2. My third was born when I was (gasp!) 37, and the last one came along at the ripe old age of 41.

And while it is true that my relative risk of stillbirth climbed with my age, my absolute risk as a multipara (woman who’s had a baby before) with Baby #4 was probably lower than that of a primipara (woman who’s not had a baby before) at a much younger age.

Part of that lowered risk has to do with my proven record of straight-forward, healthy pregnancies and deliveries. And part of that lowered risk can also be attributed to the fact that I was much healthier at 41 than I’d been when I started this whole baby-making enterprise a decade before!

The language – older mother, mature, advanced maternal age, elderly, and my personal favorite, geriatric pregnancy – coupled with the assumption that a woman is automatically high-risk because of her age really bothers me!

The power of words cannot be understated.

And when a woman is told that she’s high-risk, strictly because she’s over the age of 35, this absolutely affects how she experiences her pregnancy and can have negative implications for her birth!

So with all of this as a backdrop, I suggested that this Momma do some research and that she might find some good information online. Rarely, do I send anyone to the inter webs for information. First of all – there’s just so damn much of it! How are you supposed to sift through all of the mountains of information that now exist in the world on the subjects of pregnancy, birth and parenting? But in addition to that, there’s so much out there that’s opinion only and not evidence-based – and that’s really scary!

So there are only a few online resources I recommend and trust for this kind of research. One of those resources is Evidence Based Birth. Rebecca Dekker, a PhD-prepared nurse researcher and founder of EBB, is on a mission of “Putting current, evidence-based information into the hands of communities so they can make empowered choices.”

Her references list used to research any one issue can sometimes be pages long, and her articles are always reviewed by a panel of experts before she publishes them online. Plus, they’re written for the lay person, not a medical researcher, so they’re easy to understand. Here’s the article from the EBB website that speaks directly to this issue of Advanced Maternal Age.

After doing this important work of researching, I encouraged this Momma to have some more dialogue with her provider about her particular situation. In the end, she might come to the same conclusion that an induction at 39 weeks is reasonable for her and her pregnancy. Or, she might not. But what’s most important, is that she’ll be engaged with her provider in a shared-decision making model and her decision will be made using full information.

In this day and age, I think we should be encouraging women to know what their risk is so they can make truly informed decisions for themselves about their pregnancies, their births, and their babies.

In the meantime – can we please come up with another way of describing a woman who happens to be having a baby at the age of 35 or beyond? The terms we’re currently using are demoralizing. And I should know!

Thankfully, it’s not all bad. Based on this article, us “Geriatric Mommas” will have the last laugh: “Women who had their last child after 33 were twice as likely to live to 95 or older, compared with those who had their last child by 29.”

I’m not a math whiz by any account, but if my calculations are correct, this means I will live to be at least 125 years old seeing as I had my last baby eight years after the magical cut-off  of “33” as quoted in this article.

But before I get my hopes up, I think I’d like to know what my absolute advantage is, not just the relative advantage based on my age.

Know what I mean?