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Tribute to Frederick Leboyer

It is with great sadness that I bow to the memory of Frederick Leboyer, who died on 25 May 2017 at the age of 98. He loved the oriental gesture of bowing, also a gentle forward bend that renews the ever-needed flexibility of the spine, for pregnant women and for us all. As I was walking with him in London after lunching in his favourite London restaurant two years ago, when he was 96, one of his shoe laces came undone. Refusing any support, he reached his shoe effortlessly and tied up a perfect knot. The silent acknowledgement of this graceful instant was rich in messages that, beyond any doubt, I knew were intended. First, there was a reminder of beauty in simple gestures, so important to him. Then, as we resumed walking, the conscious integration of body, mind and soul came to the fore in our joint motion. In a subtle way, then, as in each of the meetings I have had with him for over two decades, he conveyed that his main concern was the union of self and Self.

As I read the many obituaries and articles that have been published in the last month, I am struck that they seem to miss a fundamental aspect of Frederick Leboyer’s singular and monumental contribution to changing childbirth and the public perception of newborns in the twentieth century: his profound familiarity with India. It is the ancient tradition of embodied knowledge in India that shaped his exquisite poetic sensibility. His motivation to change the treatment of newborns, and then childbirth itself, was an outcome of his personal awakening not only through psychoanalysis but during his ensuing travels to India.  His own birth during the First World War was traumatic; a difficult arrested labour with no anaesthetics available to his mother. He saw this as the source of his lifelong fascination with childbirth, with the initial calling to save women pain at all costs, and progressively, to reveal to women the miracle of birth and the wonder that newborns bring as they enter the world. After gaining awareness of his own birth trauma, Frederick Leboyer, as an experienced obstetrician, suddenly “saw” the ignominious treatment that newborns suffer while subjected to hospital protocols such as being spanked upside down for healthy crying and taken away from their mothers at the very moment when they seek their gaze.  He could no longer condone the medical system that imposed norms he saw as absurd and cruel. Turning his back from the affluent Parisian maternities where he had ‘delivered’ 9000 babies, he moved to other hospitals where he could impart his understanding of birth and babies.  But there too he soon encountered misunderstandings. When the warm newborn bath he is famous for, to promote a gentle continuity between intra-uterine life and a dim-lit quieter transition from womb to world, was tested, outcomes were not conclusive enough to warrant standardised practice, even in baby-friendly hospitals.

Frederick Leboyer’s first and most famous book, Birth Without Violence (1974) changed readers’ perceptions of newborns all over the world. The impact of theblack and white photos contrasting the faces of roughly treated newborns with the ecstatic smiles of gently welcomed babies continues to hold strong with each new edition of the book. Yet Leboyer, while celebrated in alternative grassroots circles, continued to be ostracised by a mainstream public who did not respond well to his (very Indic) dialogues between ignorant and enlightened characters. Anglophile, he crossed the Channel to a country that he perceived to be more liberal than France (and closer to Indian culture). His mission was no longer that of a clinician but that of a writer. Loving Hands (1976), the book that gifted baby massage to the world through the gentle expert hands of Shantala, a mother photographed and filmed on a pavement in Calcutta with her baby, is less celebrated than Birth without Violence but perhaps needs to be acknowledged as Frederick Leboyer’s main legacy. In this book, his reverence for maternal love is expressed with disarming simplicity and beauty. Thereafter, the books he wrote for pregnant women, who were his favourite audience, heralded birth as a portal of consciousness and light worth going through. He often compared labour pains to a tumultuous torrent which opens into a flood leading to the sea, and sought to help women surrender to this elemental force. His Indian yoga guru, Swami Prajnanpad, influenced him in his quest from non-violence (Ahimsa), to yoga and on to “inner light”, the art of breathing and the art of loving touch and sound in the sacred gateway of birth.  All his books reflect his involvement with the Indic tradition and Mother India, that he extolled to rally childbearing Western women to a gentler, more spiritual way of giving birth.  To see Leboyer as a champion of rights for the newborn and a precursor of water birth is missing the point. To chastise him as a women hater is simply wrong. The crass anti-feminist remarks that he often enjoyed making can better be understood as part of an old fashioned male defensive arsenal to remain in the league of the bad boys (“les mauvais garçons”) and protect his sensitivity, rather than to be taken at face value.

The opening to personal transformation that Frederick Leboyer understood childbirth to be went far beyond reformist activism. While introducing Indic practices that could help Western women to have conscious births in non-violent maternity care environments, he was ahead of the evidence produced from scientific research and unveiled by some of his contemporaries, such as Marshall and Klaus in the USA for obstetrics and Berry Brazelton for paediatrics. His most complex relationship was undoubtedly with Michel Odent, whose interest in science he denigrated in surprisingly aggressive terms. Leboyer searched, found and showed embodied practices for approaching childbirth and caring for babies.  He was passionately anti-method. He enjoyed disconcerting those who wished to pigeon-hole him or stage him as an expert.  Invited to an international congress on Yoga at the Faculty of Divinity in Cambridge in 2001, he surprised the audience by presenting Tai Chi as a practice he rated over and above the Yoga of BKS Iyengar, featured in his 1978 book. The art of breathing he advocated as a bridge over fear and pain during labour is a very simplified version of Pranayama, as it consists of gradually extending and expanding the exhalation. His presentation of what we now call “exhale pushing” is a gem.   Leboyer’s pioneering use of sound to prepare for and ease birth followed the art of long vowel sounds, as taught by the wonderful Indian teacher Savitri, whom we can still follow on videos. But it is in his poetic understanding of the mother-baby connection at birth, presented artistically in his book Le Sacre de la Naissance  with European birth paintings and some of his own photographs, that Frederick Leboyer writes most eloquently about life and birth as a triumph of love, the “Me” prevailing over the “me” through the force of love.

I look at you
I ask
I consume you with my eyes
Your milk”
It is your love I want first. (p.141)

Frederick Leboyer’s book-poems, with dialogues, rhythms, interrogations and responses, challenge and reach readers’ emotional core. They have Indian inflexions and at the same time the text is precise and accurate, somewhat like the Zen gardens of Kyoto that also inspired Leboyer, whose wife was Japanese. In workshops, he fiercely drew pregnant women’s attention to the metronome and the tampura for correct rhythms. He had an exquisite understanding of birth positions and could adjust any woman’s semi-squat with bent knees so that her back would be at the angle most conducive for an empowered birth. Following Leboyer’s teachings was not easy: the minute one thought a practice had been mastered, he would take it apart or show something else. As infuriating as he could be, he was invariably right. There was always a better alignment, better ways to find deeper breathing and to make a colourful sound. He talked quietly, as if telling secrets. Indeed, he talked mostly about the miracle of life and the power of love. His lyrical style and uneasy quest for perfect aesthetic simplicity were alien to mundane interactions and even more to conferences. His dramatic departure from our Birthlight conference in 2006 is memorable. In the absence of confrontation, however, he relaxed into the most rewarding exchanges of affection, dare I say, of “soul love”. I treasure the moments when Frederick Leboyer willingly shared with me his immense knowledge of birth as an intense spiritual journey that mother and baby experience both separately and together. For this man born in 1918, the growing role that fathers came to have in childbirth was new: we can forgive him for not letting dads do skin to skin contact or give their babies their post-birth bath.  In the photos, in the words and their rhythms, Leboyer invites us to look and pay attention, to journey through birth and its tempest- with a yogic “empty gaze”, eyes fully open and yet with attention turned inward, gently, slowly, lightly. To birth-light.

Françoise Freedman
Birthlight Founder & Director