During the final months of my mother’s pregnancy with me in 1968, she took part in a medical trial being conducted by her paediatrician, Dr. Faulkes.
The trial required my mother to spend about 30 minutes each day in a plastic bubble covered by an air-tight sleeping bag connected to an air pump (probably fashioned from a modified vacuum cleaner motor!). The pump sucked the air out of the enclosure, creating a mild vacuum inside the bag and lowering the atmospheric pressure on my mother’s abdomen and the unborn child, i.e. me.
The goal of this clinical trial was to establish whether abdominal decompression during pregnancy and labour could result in:
- Easier, safer pregnancies
- Shorter, less painful labour/labour
- Healthier, brighter children
Unfortunately my parents never discovered the results of the trial or even whether it was completed; Dr. Faulkes never followed up after my birth to see if the decompression had achieved the desired results.
I rediscovered the photo of my mother pregnant with me in the decompression machine when I first started putting together my personal website, and became very interested in the technique of abdominal decompression during pregnancy and labour. What was the idea behind it? What was it supposed to achieve? How was it supposed to work? And were there other people like me?
After researching some of the literature, I discovered that the technique of abdominal decompression during pregancy and childbirth was pioneered in the 1960’s in South Africa by a Dr. O.S. Heyns. The technique then spread to the United Kingdom and the United States, and more than 10,000 decompression babies were born before abdominal decompression fell out of medical vogue in those countries (although I’ve since heard that it’s still widely practiced in Slovenia, where it’s offered for free by their national health service!).
So did it work in my case? First, here is what my mother had to say about my birth (which was also her first childbirth):
I knew something was happening from the beginning of the day (Sunday), just niggly little pains. It was not until around 9pm that I first called the midwife but she didn’t come out and said it would be hours yet! It was after midnight when we rang her again and by the time she arrived it was too late to use the decompression unit to offer relief during labour. You were born around 3.45pm. The doctor was called and he appeared with his trousers over his pyjamas and sat in the corner of the bedroom with a cup of tea at his elbow, a cigarette in one hand and you cradled in his other arm. He did not come out for the birth of any of the other three [my younger siblings] – it was just because I had been using the decompression unit.
So, nothing too conclusive about the effects of decompression on the actual childbirth there — either the midwife was too late arriving or I was too early for my mother to get into the decompression machine for the birth!
But what about the “healthier, brighter children” claim?
I was a big, healthy baby, and continue to be in good health 44 years (and counting) later, but I can’t claim to have ever been physically exceptional in any way — I never excelled at any sporting or athletic activities at school, for example. I also have slightly high blood pressure, and was diagnosed with sleep apnea some years ago.
However, I do remember being an extremely smart kid when I was young — almost to the point of precociousness, in fact — and was consistently in the top 2 or 3 students in my class at school, right up until it stopped being cool to be clever around 11 or 12 years’ old. Obviously I don’t know how much the decompression contributed to my childhood intellect, but I remember feeling quite a lot smarter than most of my peers when I was at infant school.
I don’t claim to be a genius as an adult, and have never taken an official IQ test, but I have both bachelor’s and master’s degrees, was enrolled for several years on a Ph.D research programme in the late nineties (which I abandoned in order to move to the United States in 1999), and was a part-time Adjunct Assistant Professor at NYU’s Graduate School of Arts & Sciences until I became a father myself a few years ago — so I think it’s fair to assume that I am of above average intelligence.
Of course, this is purely anecdotal evidence, and cannot in itself validate the efficacy of prenatal abdominal decompression. Only a scientifically rigorous clinical trial could do that.
But personally, I do believe decompression made a difference, which is why I created this website — I believe the technique could potentially have wide-reaching benefits, and deserves to be re-evaluated, rigorously and scientifically.