Frédérick Leboyer, a French physician whose natural birth methods were adopted in delivery rooms around the world, died on May 25 at his home in Vens, Switzerland. He was 98.
His death was confirmed by his nephew, Antoine Leboyer.
Mr. Leboyer’s pointed criticism of the modern medical establishment was not to be found in peer-reviewed articles, in large-scale studies and trials, or in mountains of data. Rather, in his seminal work, “Birth Without Violence,” it appeared, unusually, in a form of prose poetry.
In the book, published in 1974, Mr. Leboyer argued that the modern delivery room bowed to the needs of doctors, women and procedures while often overlooking those of a primary player in the birth: the baby.
“Could childbirth be as distressing for the child as for the mother?” he wrote in the first part of “Birth Without Violence.” “And if so, does anyone care? It doesn’t seem so, judging by the way we treat the new arrival.”
Mr. Leboyer (he thought people made too much of their education and preferred Mr. to Dr.) argued that babies feel pain, anxiety and suffering, and that the manner in which they come into the world shapes the adults they will become. While he was not the first to advocate natural methods in childbirth, like eschewing unnecessary drugs and medical procedures, Mr. Leboyer set himself apart by focusing primarily on minimizing the baby’s suffering.
In the Leboyer method, the delivery room is kept quiet and dimly lit, to spare the baby from sensory overload. The newborn is not held upside down and spanked, and is not whisked away to be examined directly after birth.
Instead, the baby is gently placed on the mother’s stomach and lightly massaged. The umbilical cord is cut only when it stops pulsating. After a few moments with the mother, the baby is given a warm bath.
Mr. Leboyer drew scorn from the medical establishment. His ideas, his critics said, could endanger the baby and leave doctors open to accusations of malpractice. Doctors needed plenty of light to see the newborn’s color, they said, and as one skeptical doctor told The New York Times in 1974, “a good hearty scream” was important in checking the infant’s breathing. Some accused him of shamanism or quackery.
But he also drew converts. Shortly after “Birth Without Violence” was published, mothers in delivery rooms across the United States, Britain and France began requesting the Leboyer method.
“His book was not understood by doctors; it was understood by mothers,” Michel Odent, another leading French obstetrician, told The New York Times in 1989.
Dr. Odent expanded on Mr. Leboyer’s methods and became a primary proponent of water birth, something Mr. Leboyer had rejected.
Mr. Leboyer was born Alfred Lazare Levy in Paris on Nov. 1, 1918, to Rene Levy, a businessman, and the former Judith Weiler, a painter. He graduated from the University of Paris School of Medicine.
During World War II, his family moved to Megève, a French village near Switzerland, where he and his older brother, Maurice, changed their name to Leboyer to avoid detection as Jews by the occupying Nazis.
After the war, Mr. Leboyer moved back to Paris, where he worked in a hospital and then opened a private practice. He claimed to have delivered more than 9,000 babies using standard techniques, and more than 1,000 using his natural methods.
He began questioning modern obstetrics in the late 1950s, when, through a mix of psychotherapy in France and spiritual guidance from a swami in India, he was able, he said, to relive the trauma of his birth, in which he was pulled out of his mother with forceps as she was pinned down.
His re-experiencing of the trauma, he said, left him viewing the entire medical establishment with fresh eyes — those of an infant.
He often wrote from the baby’s perspective in “Birth Without Violence,” as he did in these lines of prose poetry:
Mother, oh my mother, where are you?
Without you, where am I?
If you are gone
I no longer exist.
Come back, come back to me,
Hold me! Crush me!
So that I may be!
After “Birth Without Violence” was published, Mr. Leboyer stopped practicing medicine — in part to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest, he said, and in part out of protest.
“Our society has come to an absurd point,” he told People magazine in 1976. “We are living in an aberration. I had to separate myself from it to save myself — to save my sanity.”
After giving up his practice, he dedicated himself to photography and film and wrote a number of books, including, “Loving Hands,” a how-to on baby massage, and “Inner Beauty, Inner Light,” a guide to yoga for pregnant women.
Mr. Leboyer continued to criticize conventional childbirth into his 90s, telling The Guardian in 2011 that cesarean sections were a form of “chickening out” on the mother’s part and that babies were still not receiving the proper attention in the delivery room.
Mr. Leboyer is survived by his wife, Mieko Yoshimura, whom he met London in the late 1990s while she was working at a bank. They married in 2005 in what was the first marriage for both of them. In addition to her and his nephew, he is survived by a niece, Marion Leboyer.
Not having children was one of his greatest regrets, he told The Guardian in 2011.
“To have children,” he said, “it is one of the greatest privileges that life holds.”
Correction: June 22, 2017
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the year of a People magazine interview with Mr. Leboyer. It was 1976, not 1974.