Obituary: Frédérick Leboyer

Pioneering French obstetrician


It was through a guru he met in India that French obstetrician 
Frédérick Leboyer re-experienced his own birth trauma. Such memories, according to Swami Prajnanpad, remain deep within the human psyche. Leboyer’s mother Judith Levi, née Weiler was held down during his birth at the end of the First World War without anaesthetic. Although the memory became conscious only after meeting Swami, it clearly influenced the path Leboyer would take during his career within obstetrics.

Leboyer, who has died aged 98, delivered thousands of babies before realising that everyone was involved in the child’s delivery, except the baby itself. The prevailing view was that the newborn had no feelings.

Revolutionary in its time, his book, Birth Without Violence published in 1974, shattered all the preconceptions of the obstetrics world with its revelation that newborns can feel and must be respected, rather than regarded as a medical trophy. Leboyer was calling for equivalence in the treatment of the mother and the baby. The experience of childbirth, he maintained, would influence the child’s future and the immediate bonding of parent and child.

His book, written with poetic sensibility, delves into the senses experienced by the embryo and foetus before and after birth. He termed the early weeks of pregnancy as a golden age for the embryo, followed by a sense of entrapment. The book discusses when consciousness develops and analyses the pain and anguish experienced in what he called “medical births,” with their abrupt transition from womb to world. It goes on to describe the misery of the newborn’s encounter with sharp sensations of sight, sound and touch, contrasting with the cosy warmth within the womb.

Leboyer’s rigour in condemning the birth methods of his time and his determination to make radical changes led to the softer birthing practices of today. From the 1970s onwards, doctors began to take note. A noisy, brightly lit delivery room, was replaced by warmth, low lighting and soft sounds.

Leboyer advocated placing the baby on the mother’s belly after birth, whenever medically possible, massage, and immersing newborns in a small bath of warm water with their mothers, which he believed would alleviate the birth trauma and help bond mother and baby. As a result he was falsely credited with inventing the water-birth — that was the brainchild of French colleague Michael Odent — but Leboyer rejected it, believing it did not help the baby.

On his travels to India, Leboyer noticed that poorer women who could not afford hospital treatment had easier births than the wealthier in society who gave birth under similar conditions to their European counterparts. He also became aware of the deportment of poorer women; the way they squatted to grind flour helped him create postures and exercises that prepared the body for birth, described in his 1978 book , Inner Beauty, Inner Light.

Born in Paris to Jewish parents Judith and businessman Henri, he trained at the University of Paris, changed his name during the Second World War and became a leading obstetrician. As a boy he had spent a summer in Brighton where he developed a love of the English language. While visiting London between 1983-2000 he met his wife Mieko de Vens, who worked for a Japanese bank in the City. They married in 2005, a first for both of them. He was 86 and she, 50. Leboyer, so acutely absorbed in the world of the baby, was sadly denied what he called “one of the greatest privileges life holds.”

He went on to devote his life to writing, photography and poetry. His film Naissance compared labour to the waves of the sea and developed his theory of virtual non-intervention in the birth process. Coinciding with his 1974 book, it won first prize from the Centre National du Cinema Française. Later books included Loving Hands (1976) on the benefits of baby massage. In 2009 , having retired to a small village in Switzerland, he published The Art of Giving Birth with Chanting, Breathing and Movement. He is survived by his wife.

Frédérick Leboyer: born November 1, 1918. Died May 25, 2017

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