Laila Ali: CJ’s Birth ‘Was the Way It Was Supposed to Be’

04/08/2010 at 04:00 PM ET
Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic

The best laid birth plans can — and do — go awry!

Laila Ali learned as much with son Curtis ‘CJ’ Muhammad, 19 months, when her hopes for a homebirth and all natural delivery were dashed by complications. You won’t catch the Dancing With the Stars alum voicing any regrets, however.

“He is healthy, he is here, and even though everything didn’t go the way I would have liked it to have gone … I’ve always said since the beginning that everything is going to happen the way it’s supposed to,” Ali, 32, explains to My Best Birth.

“I still believe that that’s the way it was supposed to be.”

Pain relief wasn’t the first birth plan departure for Ali. During the fifth month of her pregnancy, she learned that C.J.’s growth had become restricted and that a hospital birth would be necessary.

Having already stated her intentions for a homebirth, Ali was forced to reconsider.

“They didn’t know what the problem was,” she recalls. “The midwives got a little nervous because it has to be a normal situation, and even though it wasn’t an out of control situation, he needed to be monitored.”

Two weeks before her due date doctors then recommended an induction because “conditions [for C.J.] would be better on the outside than they were on the inside.” Ali checked herself into a hospital and reluctantly agreed to the labor-stimulating drug Pitocin.

“[It] makes your contractions twenty times harder, and with me wanting to go natural, that scared me,” she admits. “I was nervous, [and] I wasn’t ever nervous until then.”

Her worst fears were realized when C.J.’s heart rate began to drop with the induction, and a c-section was briefly discussed. When a doctor offered to rupture her membranes with the hope of triggering natural contractions, however, Ali says she jumped at the chance.

“I said of course I’m going to try that,” she recalls. “So we did … and he was okay; My baby was okay.”

The same could not be said for Ali, however. “Those contractions … by the time we got to a certain level it was very, very hard,” she confesses. “I was handling it, but 14 hours and a lot of pain [later], I still was only dilated to 3 cm.”

When doctors suggested that labor could continue for another “six or seven hours,” Ali says she was conflicted.

“I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can hang that long,'” she reveals. “I wasn’t able to eat, because we didn’t know if I would need a c-section; I was dehydrated, I was tired, I felt like I was going to faint, I felt like I wasn’t going to have the energy.”

An informal poll of her friends and family — including husband Curtis Conway — gave Ali the vote of confidence she needed to accept an epidural.

“I felt so bad,” she shares. “I remember asking everyone, ‘Are you going to be disappointed in me?’ And they were like, ‘No, no … get it!'”

Once the decision was made, Ali says she felt no guilt. “No, what I felt after I had it was, ‘This is why women get the epidural,'” she says. “I was like, ‘Man, this is easy!’ No wonder women just keep having babies and want an epidural; They don’t have to feel anything.”

The pain relief, in turn, allowed Ali to “relax” and deliver C.J. “a lot faster” than she would have without it.

While she might still pursue an unmedicated homebirth with subsequent children, Ali says she is proud of C.J.’s delivery nonetheless.

“I did the best that I could,” she proclaims. “I want to do a home birth, because the first time I saw it I said, ‘That’s beautiful, to be in control, to be at home, without medical intervention…’ But it wasn’t something that I was just so adamant about that I was gonna put my baby in danger, or myself in danger.”

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Showing 19 comments

jen on

this is a nice ‘across the spectrum’ perspective of birthing possibilities. kudos to her for remaining in logical headspace and thank the powers that be that CJ was healthy!

Janna on

How telling is it that her thought process included wondering if people would be disappointed in her. What is wrong with us women?!?! Must we ALWAYS be SuperWoman®? 🙂

Her story is fantastic, insightful, realistic. I just love this woman and I don’t even know who she is!!

He’s healthy and she’s happy…. THAT is what birth is all about!

Amanda on

I agree that mothers should be open to all possibilities, birth is something you can have hopes for but not something you can plan.
I do disagree that pitocin makes contractions worse than normal labor contractions. I had my first two children completely natural (well, I had some nubain with my first) and had to have pitocin with my third. Despite the warnings I kept an open mind about it and was not set against it and everything went wonderfully, the contractions were comparable to those I had with my first two children and I delivered again with no pain meds. I think the fear of pitocin often leads to the pain being worse because women are expecting the worst due to all the pitocin horror stories.

Amy on

This shows a typical progression. Once you get Pitocin, your chances of not getting an epidural go way down. Then, of course, your chance for a c-section goes way up. I hope she educated herself beforehand – even if you plan on having a natural birth (I did, it was wonderful!), you need to know what steps you want to take if things start to go not-as-planned. (Bradley Method is excellent for this.)

Glad her baby is well and she’s happy with the birth.

Louise on

Good for her! She did what she thought was best, and shame on anyone who tries to make her feel badly for taking an epidural.

steph on

I’m sorry she didn’t have the birth she wanted, but I’m so happy that she has come out and talked about it. Even when mom and baby get through healthy, it can be so very hard to cope when the birth is drastically different from expectations. She can help a lot of women by talking about it.

I’m also really glad “my best birth” has acknowledged a non natural birth. I always thought the website was a good idea, being a fan of “the business of being born”, but thought it was way too one sided. It would be more accurate to call it “my natural birth”. Such one sided coverage of birth only makes it harder for a women whose birth plan went awry to deal, and it offers no support to women who need to grieve the natural birth experience they have lost. The truth is, some women’s best birth involves the use of the epidural, and it bugs me that this website completely ignores that.

It also amazes me how many women aiming to “go natural” pressure themselves to forgo pain meds with an induction (and I was one of them). It can be possible, but it’s not always best for the mother. A lot of natural birth activists gloss over this. An induction can be pain med free, but an induction is not “natural”, and letting a woman think she should be able to do it just the same as in a spontaneous labor is unrealistic. The only compassionate advice I have encountered regarding this is in the book “birthing from within”, and anyone who hoped to “go natural” but is facing an induction needs to read this book.

kristen on

I had my first baby 3 weeks ago. I wanted a homebirth too but ended up with a c section1 I would so much rather have had an epidural hospital birth than a c section becuase now I have wounds and scars that I wouldn’t otherwise. It is hard.

Sara on

Just to keep these comments balanced. I was entirely educated about my birth choices. Gave birth quickly to my first son with no drugs. It was lovely and fine, and the pain was more annoying than bad. Had to be induced with my second son for what sounds like similar reasons to Laila Ali. I was in prodromal labor for weeks, dilating ridiculously slowly. When my son seemed to need to be delivered right away, the same doctors who supported my first labor said, okay, we think he needs to come out. We think we need to induce. I trusted them, and we induced. It was terribly painful–nothing like my first labor, but in the end my son came out alive and healthy and so did I. That’s all that mattered in my case, and all that matters for Laila and her son. Every birth is different, and doing it once or twice doesn’t make us experts.

Mona on

I am happy that she doesn’t obsess over her ideal birth not coming true. I had a natural birth and for me it was traumatizing. I actually liked my C-section better – even with the painful recovery afterwards. I would never have guessed that when I was due with my first. I wanted to be all natural, but for me it was awful. I really respect Laila for being honest that while, yes, she wanted a different birthing experience, she doesn’t feel let down that it didn’t happen that way. She’ll just try again next time. Good for her for being so open to what life hands her.

Laura on

Another thing to keep in mind while discussing Pitocin is that Pit protocols and administration vary. An induction is typically a much higher dose than an augmentation, and first-time mothers (typically, if all other variables were the same) take longer to dilate than mothers who have given birth before. Even the dosage and time intervals (i.e. start it on a 2 and go up every 15 min) may be different birth to birth, depending on the OB and the desired effect. As a doula, I’ve seen women maxed out at a 20-something Pit level and in agony but still stuck at 3-4cm, and women where just a “whiff of Pit” seemed to send her into advanced labor without too much unbearable pain. It’s just so variable. Baby’s position can also be an important aspect of the equation. Posterior and otherwise malpositioned babies often bring on back labor which can worse than the pain of the contractions themselves (of course, an epidural is often the last thing a malpositioned baby needs because it further makes rotation difficult – however, I can understand why a women experiencing terrible back labor and a very slowly progressing labor might opt for an epidural, esp if her care providers are not encouraging her to try positions that might facilitate rotation).

dd on

OF COURSE she couldn’t ‘hang that long’…they were not allowing her to eat! Studies show that food in mothers belly rarely if ever causes complications during c-sections. It is cruel, sick, and wrong to withhold food from a laboring mother.

CelebBabyLover on

dd- Actually, with most major surgeries (of which a C-section is one), you are not allowed to eat for a certain amount of time beforehand, especally when general anesthesia is required. This isn’t so much because it can cause complications during the surgery, but because some people react badly to general anesthesia and feel sick and vomit afterwards, especially if they have a full stomach.

Also, if you get an ileus, also known as a paralyzed GI (gastro-intestinal) tract post-surgery, having undigested food in your belly is going to be anything but good!

robinepowell on

Good for her, following doctor’s orders. So many women think it’s a good idea to have a home birth, when it’s not always the case, thinking they know better then the doctor.

While I’m not against home births or natural deliveries, there’s a reason for hospitals, epidurals and C-sections. The technolagy is there, why not use it.

Lalya is a smart and confident woman, who puts herself in her doctor’s care for her pregnancy and birth.

Now that’s she had her first baby and knows what to expect, I hope she can get her wish in the future and have that at home natural birth.

Lisa on

This is a perfect example of *why* homebirth is so safe – the midwives picked up on something wrong, something out of their comfort zone, and referred Laila to the specialists who would better be able to care for her and the baby. IMNSHO she did everything right, including the epidural when the pitocin contractions got to be too much. Glad mom and baby are both here and healthy! Hopefully someday she’ll still get a homebirth if that’s what she wants.

Jen on


I think dd’s point is that while that is the doctor’s concern, studies have shown that it isn’t really a significant risk. People have emergency surgery all the time with general anesthesia, and the likelihood of aspirating during surgery is really very low.

That all said, I’m glad that Laila went through this experience and is proud of the choices she made and the end result. It’s so nice to see someone want a certain kind of experience but accept when it is not possible and appreciate what she is able to have.

Robine, I also get what you are saying, but whenever possible, I DO think women should be encouraged to have unmedicated vaginal births.

Mal on

when I started working in Labor and Delivery I was dead set against epidurals. I had too many of them that either didnt work or they would lead to a cesarean (usually for a heart tone issue). I have had them save several of my patients from cesareans because they allowed them to relax and dilate so I am all for them in some cases. No need to play hero ladies. Giving birth is a big deal in itself and each woman needs to do whatever she needs to get through it. It doesnt make you less of a woman if you use pain medicine. It def beat the knock em out and drag em out method from back in the day 😉

Angie on

I have had 3 children, all induced. My 1st I had an epidural that worked beautifully, 2nd had a failed epidural(s) and felt everything, and went pain med free with #3. My ‘natural’ birth with pitocin had the fastest recovery time. I certainly do not feel like the choice of no pain medication/epidural is “playing the hero”!!!

Elena on

I had an induced childbirth with pitocin and an epidural, which I knew I wanted and asked for as soon as possible. My doctor ordered it given to me when I was already dilated to 5 cm, to make sure I didn’t get stuck at 2 or 3. I had a terrific birth experience. I was never in agony, I was able to control my body enough to push my daughter out, my husband was by my side the whole time encouraging me but not having to see me suffer terribly, and I don’t associate my daughter’s birth with any trauma or unbearable pain. I can’t imagine not wanting an epidural with my next birth.

Grace on

What a great example of exactly what excellent midwifery care is supposed to look like.

Congrats, Laila, for doing what was best for you and owning your choices.