March 01, 1976 12:00 PM

Frederick Leboyer is still trying—at 58—to compensate for the agony of his birth. He remembers being born, he says, in excruciating detail. Cries of pain. Cold metal of forceps. Shock at emerging from the struggling body of his mother. Glaring lights. Shouting. Anguish at being so suddenly thrust into a strange and inhospitable world.

So Frederick Leboyer likes the dark. He basks in quiet. He speaks in soft, wistful tones. He gestures often, gracefully. He touches gently, whether things or people.

Leboyer is being introduced in a shabby Santa Cruz, Calif. movie theater to an overflow audience of doctors, child psychologists and young parents. A few babies are crawling in the aisles, heedless as the master of ceremonies says, “Here he is, this cute little French elf who, like Till Eulenspiegel in the fairy tales, runs around wild, telling people it doesn’t have to hurt.” This is the man who says there can be birth without violence, Dr. Frederick Leboyer.

Leboyer appears to a standing ovation, a camel-colored sweater casually slung across the shoulders of his impeccable gray suit. He sizes up the audience, then tells them, with only a slight French accent, “The medical profession says, ‘Well, yes, it may be rather unpleasant being born.’ Actually, it is as unbearable as being stabbed.” Then he wrinkles up his brow, squints and drags down the corners of his mouth in a not unconvincing imitation of a newborn baby’s face.

Leboyer has practiced medicine for close to 40 years and delivered, by his own estimate, 10,000 babies, most of them in France and most of them by conventional methods in traditional hospital delivery rooms. Over the last couple of years, however, Leboyer has become a cult figure, something like a Ralph Nader of obstetrics, because of his book Birth without Violence.

Since the work was published in France in 1974 and in this country last year, Leboyer has spent most of his public time lecturing, giving interviews and conferring with doctors who are interested in what he does not want called “the Leboyer method.” (“It’s the attitude that is important,” he insists.)

His private time he has increasingly devoted to trips to India, the study of Yoga and a similar Chinese discipline, Tai Chi, and sundry mystic endeavors. His attitude has become progressively detached, reaching the point recently where one exasperated reporter who tried to question him about medical matters ended up describing Leboyer as “very yoga-yogi, let’s all love each other, yum-yum.”

Leboyer himself no longer practices obstetrics and does not want to be thought of as a doctor; he calls himself an author and photographer now. “For me to stop delivering children was my way of protesting against today’s society. Our society has come to an absurd point. We are living in an aberration. I had to separate myself from it to save myself—to save my sanity.”

Unfortunately for Leboyer, just as he is trying to “Om” his way out of society, society is discovering it doesn’t want him to go. Birth without Violence appeared at a time of rising interest in midwifery and avoiding the “unnatural” in all things, including childbirth. The book’s message, while heavy on blank verse hyperbole—”Poor little creature! What a fate, to be born and to fall into our hands, victim of our ignorance and cruelty!”—touched some nerves of common sense.

Why not, Leboyer asked, ease the baby’s transition into the outside world, where all its systems are abruptly called upon to sustain life? Why not deliver a baby in a room that approximates its old environment—dark, warm and quiet, except perhaps for some Far Eastern background Muzak? Leave the umbilical cord intact as long as it is functioning and place the baby on its mother’s stomach so it can be gently stroked. Then when the cord is cut, bathe the baby in warm water before wrapping it in soft clothing.

Why not, indeed? asked many parents and would-be parents and not a few doctors and nurses.

The Leboyer philosophy became the subject of newspaper stories—and cocktail party arguments. The book’s American edition (it has been published in nine countries) has sold 85,000 hardcover copies, and the paperback is due out this fall. A movie that Leboyer commissioned to demonstrate his controversial techniques was widely shown on U.S. television during his promotion tour last spring.

The antiestablishment wing of U.S. medicine latched onto his ideas, and some of its members even formed medical centers to put them into practice. (The Holistic Childbirth Institute in San Francisco is one.) But more conservative physicians found Leboyer’s ideas challenging too. Dr. Warren Pearse, executive director of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, says, not happily, that so many U.S. doctors have used at least some Leboyer methods that the college may have to take an official position on them. Meanwhile, the ranks of both converts and skeptics grow. Dr. Zofia Szymanska, a resident in obstetrics at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke’s Medical Center in Chicago, tried a Leboyer delivery last April and has been trying ever since—so far unsuccessfully—to set up a program at the center to employ his methods. “That delivery was a unique experience,” she says. “When you expect an uncomplicated birth, Leboyer’s method is beautiful.”

Leboyer’s critics are not so sure. When he first talked about his techniques in France, they were uncharitably described as “old-fashioned,” “absurd,” “mystic.” Though the doctor was generally received more politely in this country—he has lectured at Harvard, UCLA and Massachusetts General Hospital among prestigious institutions—a review in one journal (Modern Medicine) likened his “fanciful narrative and baroque rhetoric” to “the effusions of a medical Rod McKuen.” It concluded that Leboyer had substantiated none of his arguments.

Other medical critics say Leboyer’s techniques could be dangerous if the dim light in the delivery room prevented doctors from noting changes in the baby’s color or severe bleeding by the mother. They argue that Leboyer’s aversion to sterile drapes might lead to infection. Dr. Pearse says that washing the baby could remove the protective natural oil it needs in the early minutes of life, and that Leboyer’s reluctance to suction blood and_ mucus from the baby’s nose and mouth might lead to lung problems. Other obstetricians, such as Dr. Martin L. Stone of New York Medical College, have disputed even Leboyer’s basic point that traditional deliveries are unduly abusive. Scoffing at Leboyer’s recommendation to stroke the newborn infant, Stone says, “I don’t know if there’s any value to it. But I’d love a massage myself.”

Ever a model of serenity, Leboyer answers his critics: “If you insist on 100 percent sterility for the child, I’m afraid you will have to boil it.” He says that his new methods have caused no complications in the deliveries in which he has used them. He stresses that emergency equipment is always on hand. He points to a recent study by Dr. Danielle Rapoport, a child psychologist at the Sorbonne, of 120 children from 1 to 3, all born the Leboyer method. She found them to be developing much faster—with far fewer problems in toilet training, for example, than normal.

When all other persuasion fails, Leboyer becomes transcendentaler-than-thou, as he did at the Santa Cruz lecture when a child psychiatrist asked if Leboyer had done electrocardiogram studies on any of his babies. “I am not a scientist,” Leboyer interrupted. “I am not a technician. Why do you ask me this question?” When the doctor said he wanted only to be able to defend Leboyer to other scientists, Leboyer replied with an air of Nirvana-like finality: “You cannot defend me. Language cannot express life. If they watch my movie, there will be no questions.”

Leboyer is even more reticent about his own life and must be pressed for details. Born in Paris in 1918, he studied at the University of Paris School of Medicine. After serving in the military during World War II, he went to Germany to treat displaced persons. He later returned to Paris to practice privately and at the university clinic.

A trip to India in 1958 first inspired him to question the obstetric methods he had been using. “I haven’t lived sufficiently near children in India to make a judgment on how they are respected,” he says with typical convolution. “I think it is very probable that they are, though. And it was in India that I realized that the pain of birth is greater for the baby than the mother.”

Not long after this trip, Leboyer began undergoing psychoanalysis. “I did psychoanalysis very late—past 40,” he says. “At that age, it forces you to call into question many, many things in your life. After a certain age the structures are formed. It is difficult and dangerous to touch them.”

Leboyer says he was able to relive his birth through analysis: “My mother suffered terribly. She had forceps, without any anesthesia. She had gone beyond the term of her pregnancy by three weeks, and for a child that is terrible.” His unsettling “memories” play a large part in Birth without Violence, where at one point Leboyer adopts the newborn baby’s point of view and writes, “My mother, my hated prison—where are you? Alone, I am nothingness, dizziness. Take me back. Contain me again. Destroy me. But let me exist…” (Many medical critics seriously question Leboyer’s devotion to the Freudian theory of the importance of birth trauma, since the theory itself, which says birth experiences have lifelong, subconscious effects, has fallen into some disrepute.)

As a practicing obstetrician, Leboyer changed his methods only slowly, beginning in 1963. “At times I was asking myself, ‘What am I doing?’ ” Leboyer says. “I felt it might be better to go back to the routine. But then I would see the reaction of the babies. The baby looks at me from the bath as if to say, ‘Who is this face? What is happening to me? Where am I?’ and very little by little he begins to relax and sigh. I say, ‘No, no, I am right.’ ”

In Santa Cruz, one mother who had followed Leboyer’s suggestions when her own baby was born at home told him, “He never cried. He knew our voices right away and looked glad to see us. Eight months later, the baby was fantastic—very happy, very calm, very alert.”

In his search for simplicity, Leboyer had already given up a luxurious house for a small apartment in Paris, and when his book became a success in France in 1974 he hung up his stethoscope. He has written a kind of sequel to Birth without Violence that advocates Indian massage techniques to relax infants. (It will be published in the U.S. this spring as Loving Hands.) He has plans for a future book on yoga, then some fiction. “I am very fond of my short stories,” he says. “They have nothing to do with medicine.”

Leboyer has never married, “probably because my own birth was so traumatic.” When asked if he has ever been a father, his reply is, “Not yet, unfortunately.” Still, he insists that he does not want to become the proxy father—or even the proxy obstetrician—for a world full of “Leboyer babies.”

“Frederick Leboyer has no importance,” he says. “He is of no interest. What is important is children.” And what, someone asks him, can be said about children?

“Say,” Leboyer answers, “that we don’t understand them at all.”

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