As humans, there are many things that set us apart and make us relatively unique from other primates. Besides our capacity for abstract thought, our mastery of fire, and our obsession with reality television, the simple fact of being bipedal has had drastic effects in our ongoing biological and social evolution. Women, in particular, bear the brunt of these evolutionary consequences as they go through pregnancy and birth.
The pelvis supports the upper part of the human body and distributes weight onto our legs. While this gives us mobility advantages, it also means that the female pelvis had to evolve to accommodate bipedalism, in addition to large brained neonates, and secondary altriciality. Because we are the only mammals to walk exclusively upright, we have unique birthing challenges.
An article entitled Birth, Obstetrics and Human Evolution by Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan, says, “The series of rotations that the human neonate most commonly undergoes during birth is related to the locomotor pattern of bipedalism as well as to...a relatively large brain.” In order to keep the fetus from basically "falling out" from between a woman's legs when she stands upright, the pelvis developed into a unique shape. Unfortunately, this shape forces the neonate to navigate the pelvis as it is being born, completing two partial lateral rotations to accommodate its large head and broad shoulders.
Traditionally, it was thought that apes and monkeys had relatively easy births because humans were the only primates whose young had to undergo rotations to navigate the birth canal. Today we know this is not always true. Karen Rosenberg and Wenda Trevathan continue,
“One important characteristic of primates as a group is a large head and brain relative to body size...For most primates, this means that their neonates at birth have heads that are close to the size of the maternal birth canal through which they must pass. This is especially true of monkeys, lesser apes and humans.”
While too few animal births have been observed to draw a decisive conclusion, some studies have noted animal neonates rotating through the birth canal, though in different ways from humans. Non-human primates still have a distinct advantage over human women because their young are generally born facing toward the mother, so she can help guide them out and up to her.
What does all this mean for our births? Well, it’s not as bad as it sounds. Our pelvis’ may be perilously close to being too small and babies’ heads a hair's breadth from being too large, but our amazing bodies help compensate for that with the hormone Relaxin.
Relaxin helps to (go figure) relax the muscles, ligaments and bones in a pregnant woman’s body, concentrating its effects on the pelvis and lower back area. While these effects cause the unpleasant “pregnancy waddle” and balance woes associated with late pregnancy, they also allow the pelvis to expand as the baby moves through the birth canal.
And if your expandable pelvis wasn't amazing enough, babies are also well equipped to deal with the tight fit. Neonate skulls are soft and flexible with gaps between plates in their head. This means that the head can mould and shape itself to fit through the pelvis as needed. If it’s a tight enough fit, the bones can even overlap, causing the infamous cone head. If the baby does come out looking cone headed, its head will gradually go back to its normal shape over the course of a few days.
So while being the only primate to walk exclusively upright has its serious evolutionary drawbacks when it comes to pregnancy and birth, it also means that the human birth process is particularly amazing. Women's bodies are made to birth and babies are designed to be birthed. From an expandable pelvis to a squeezable head, mother and child work together in this intricate, exquisite process.
Special thanks to K. Holt Photography for the spectacular picture and Joanna Waechtler, who is the mother in the picture! Please visit K. Holt's website at http://www.kholtphotographs.com , facebook at www.facebook.com/kholtphotography, blog at http://www.kholtphotography.blogspot.com or shoot her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org - especially if you are in the Turlock, California area! She might be able to photograph your precious moments!
Kathleen Kirkpatrick-Holt is a mother of three from Central California who moonlights as a photographer specializing in birth and newborn photography. She is a member of the Professional Birth Photographer network and passionate advocate for women and babies.