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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Monday, December 16, 2013

"Victorious Occultism": Unconscionable Treatment of Infants in Russia, and Matching Attitudes in the U.S.

Over the last few weeks I have been sent a lot of news by Yulia Massino and Nina Sokolova, two Russian women who are very concerned about potentially harmful “New Age” practices related to childbirth and child-rearing. Much as I sympathize with these problems in Russia, I’m equally disturbed about the fact that the United States is also home to related belief systems and practices. The less centralized government of the U.S. may make it even more difficult than it is in Russia to regulate treatment of pregnant women and infants in ways that will prevent harm, and American views of tolerance for religious-based practices may have a similar effect.  

For those of us with little or no Russian, being at the mercy of Google Translate can make news from Russia quite confusing. For example, the name of a Russian birthing center is translated as “erysipelas” (an unpleasant skin disease), which has nothing to do with any of the problems to be dealt with. However, with repeated readings some information does filter through.

First, let’s have a look at the practice of “water births”, as espoused by a number of earlier mystical thinkers like Mme. Blavatsky, but practiced in the 1980s by one I.B. Charkovsky (see As all observers of the “New Age” know, this technique involves having the laboring mother more or less immersed in water, so the baby emerges into a water environment. As humans are lung-breathers, this situation would be fatal if the baby were kept underwater too long, but in fact, because there is no air in the uterus, at birth the infant has its lungs and respiratory passages filled with amniotic fluid and mucus. Although much if this fluid has been squeezed out by pressure during a vaginal delivery, babies usually need some help in draining and suctioning the liquid that impedes breathing of air. Born into water or air, the baby has the same possibility of needing assistance to start breathing air. (Anecdotally, I’ve come across some accounts of infants being slow to start breathing on their own if born into warm water, but I know of no systematic study of this issue.)

What was Charkovsky’s reasoning about  water births? The claims for both spiritual and physical benefits were numerous and can be seen at the link given above. (One interesting one is the idea that women giving birth in water experience orgasms at the time; I will leave this ludicrous suggestion to the imagination of women who have had babies.) Having persuaded himself and others that water births were beneficial, Charkovsky carried his reasoning further, to claim that sick infants and children could be cured by repeated immersion in icy water, and that this would prevent or cure mental retardation. The immersion is repeated rapidly with scarcely the opportunity for a breath between dips, thus closely resembling the torture practice of “waterboarding”.

I don’t think we have to fall for the idea that all problems are caused by trauma to realize that such a practice has the potential for powerful traumatic effects. It’s clear that newborn babies, especially less mature ones, can respond to being chilled with a cascade of internal responses that can include brain damage from increased blood flow toward the brain and death of intestinal tissue from a reduced blood supply there. As for older infants and children, the terror of this experience must be greatly multiplied by the awareness that a parent is nearby and does not stop what is happening. Why, then, would any parent choose this treatment? Part of the answer presumably has to do with the sad readiness of desperate parents to follow any guru who offers hope, but in addition I think we have to look to common metaphors of contamination as the cause of illness and washing as a health measure--  and these we see in the myth of Achilles, who was dipped into a river to make him invulnerable (except that that heel did not get wet), or in the custom of baptism by total immersion. These familiar ideas may prepare parents to accept what would otherwise be seen as a bizarre and dangerous practice.

Another practice advocated by those who recommend water births is “baby yoga”. The link above contains very disturbing photos of extremely young infants whose limbs have been forced into “yoga postures” (and I should point out that in the newborn the hips are not nearly as flexible as you might think, with a limit on the movement of the leg that gradually decreases until at  5 or 6 months the baby can pull the foot to the mouth ). How this was done, or what the occurrence of hip dislocations was, is not made clear.

But there is even more to “baby yoga” than this. Some readers will already have come across the claim that babies can be made extra strong by adults who essentially fling the babies around,  holding on by one hand or one foot as the baby shrieks. A discussion and some footage of this can be seen at (why do these guys have to wear scrubs to be on TV, I wonder?). Elena Fokina, a proponent of “baby yoga” and of Charkovsky’s methods, is presently the subject of an on line petition: (Yes,”pracitce” is what it says.)

There’s one more person that I must fit into this post, because she provides such a good example of how politics can confuse views of these practices.  This is Janna Tzaregradskaya, whose perinatal advice organization (or cult) was in the news because of some gunfire ( In an interview (, Tzaregradskaya volunteered her opinions that ultrasound causes birth defects and that criminality and alcoholism are explained by such people having been born in hospitals. She also commented elsewhere that 90% of children remember their births.

Unfortunately, the criminal charges for the shooting incident described in the link above were not emphasized in a Daily Mail ( article that claimed that breastfeeding was an uncommon practice in Russia and that Tzaregradskaya was being hounded for encouraging breastfeeding rather than for persuading families to avoid medical care. This was, I think, less a matter of reportage than of carrying on with the current cross-fire of political pop-guns between Russia and the West.

Obviously, Russia has some difficulty controlling practices that are potentially dangerous to women and children, but that are easily framed as “ancient wisdom” or “the ways of our ancestors”. What about the United States? Do we have similar difficulties? Yes, and many of them also derive from what is now called the “New Age”, but is actually identical with the “New Thought” of the 1880s (yes, that’s the correct century). ( Some others, like the advice of Michael and Debi Pearl of Tennessee or of the now-diminished “Baby Wise” group, are descendants of Calvinistic views of submission and obedience to parents as analogous to the Christian’s submission to God. ) Among the “New Age” group the paramount organization is the Association for Pre- and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH), whose members have fostered Lloyd DeMause’s beliefs in the “poisonous placenta” and its psychological damage as well as  the position taken by Stanislav Grof that LSD or oxygen deprivation could yield true pictures of experiences during gestation and birth (rather than images of what someone imagined gestation and birth to have been like). The APPPAH member David Chamberlain has claimed that all children recall all the details of their births and even earlier events, while another member, William Emerson, specializes in massaging young infant’s heads and necks so they will re-experience the pains of their birth and “cry out” those traumas. Emerson’s viewpoint is an example of the belief held by some of these people, that infant crying is a necessary way of getting rid of negative emotion and should not lead to attempts to comfort or soothe the baby—an ideal of indifference to the child that also seems displayed in the Charkovsky cold-water method.

State laws in the U.S. do not prohibit the teaching of most such beliefs or the use of potentially dangerous methods for birth or for child-rearing--  especially if it is claimed, as it is both here and in Russia, that there is some religious principle associated with a practice. Although it would be possible for professional organizations in medicine and mental health to ban the use of these methods by members, and to make efforts to educate the public about the practices, this has only very rarely been done. In fact, the ethics code of the American Psychological Association discourages such moves by requiring psychologists who object to a therapy to speak directly to one of its proponents in an attempt to resolve the conflict, rather than ”going public’.

A prominent Russian thinker has used the term “victorious occultism” to describe the situation in Russia. We’ve got it here, too, and the only way out I can see is for concerned people to speak up loudly.


  1. The only thing I'd heard about water birth was that it was supposedly less painful than normal childbirth. I have no idea if that's true or not.

    1. I don't either, and I think it would be awfully difficult to determine this in any way that was both ethical and valid.

  2. You certainly have named a lot of reckless practices in this blog.

    Water births have, alas, proved to be a lethal practice. The hot tub water not something you want going into a newborn's lungs. The infant can also become seriously chilled.

    Amy Tuteur ("SkepticOB") – a good source of information on the dangers of home birthing in the USA – has written about this irresponsible "natural" birthing practice:

    "The most critical task for the newborn is to take its first breath. Inhaling a mouthful of fecally contaminated water instead of air is profoundly dangerous....Neonates can and do inhale copious amounts of fecally contaminated water during waterbirth. Indeed, they have been found to inhale such large quantities of water that the water dilutes the concentration of sodium in the bloodstream to fatally low levels (hyponatremia). Even small amounts of inhaled water can introduce significant amounts of bacteria into the neonatal lungs leading to pneumonia and other infections..."

  3. To see a very disturbing home birth via hot tub, where the newborn was close to death: it is blue, no muscle tone, and not breathing. (Start at 7:30 minutes)

    I highly recommend Dr. Tuteur's YouTube film on the many problems of home birthing.

    1. Thanks, Linda, for the RN viewpoint. I will be saying more tomorrow about the belief systems behind some of these misguided practices.

  4. I should say a bit about American's homebirth midwives.

    Most are "Certified Professional Midwives" (CPMs) who are essentially lay midwives. (They should NOT be confused with Europe's midwives or America's nurse midwives who have formal training and experience.) CPMs need only follow around other CPMs for a few dozen deliveries and take a certification exam. They claim to be "experts in natural births." It is likely they have little or no significant experience with handling emergencies, which is the most important reason for having a birth attendant.

    Our lay midwives, like those in Russia, tend to be religiously or ideologically motivated; many are radical feminists who consider transferring a laboring woman to the "male-dominated" medical system or have a c-section to be a "failed birth."

    CPMs claim their practices are cheaper and safer than hospital care. The Midwife Association of North America has collected years' of data on the perinatal mortality rate of their member CPMs, but is not releasing that data. One state, Colorado, is required to collect data on CPMs as a condition of re-registration, revealing that their perinatal death rate has reached 15 times what should be expected of uncomplicated pregnancies.

    CPMs have a host of bizarre beliefs and practices, including:

    * Offering laboring women only homeopathics for pain and refusing their requests to be transferred to a hospital.

    * "Power birth": telling the woman to begin pushing when she is only 5cm dilated.

    * "Placenta medicine": Charging around $100 to make the placenta into capsule form to ease postpartum blues, and aid other conditions.

    * "Lotus birth": Not cutting the umbilical cord, but carrying it around with the infant until it drops off on its own in a couple weeks. CPMs give hints on how to deal with the smell.

    Colorado state disciplinary records indicated that CPMs lack the most basic knowledge of OB, e.g. two CPMs did nothing about spikes in blood pressure in women who apparently went on to develop a life-threatening condition called preeclampsia.

    For more information, see "Hurt by Homebirth" website has personal stories:

    1. Thanks for this information! I will be commenting on the connection between Charkovsky's beliefs and ideas like "lotus birth". The placenta is the "eighth chakra", they say.

  5. I think it is not necessary to believe Russian women if they say "It does not hurt."
    Self-sacrifice is a part of Russian culture. Women are capable of great suffering and do not consider it necessary to complain if there was a successful outcome. It is necessary to talk to women who have had bad water birth. If the child is healthy but the woman is forced to be treated for a long time after these genera ...... she would say that everything was OK.

    1. I don't think one has to be Russian to forget the pain of childbirth. We are all fortunate to be able to forget pain and not be able to imagine it when it is not happening. But you're right, this is not good evidence that there was no pain at the time.