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Mark Sloan grew up in a Midwest town where the milky odor from a nearby baby formula factory permeated the neighborhood.

Perhaps it was that constant subliminal aroma ? coupled with his classic, postwar Irish Catholic upbringing where siblings arrived with regularity while their origin remained a mystery ? that fueled his lifelong fascination with babies.

?I remember my mom bringing home the last two and just sitting and staring at them,? recalls the Santa Rosa pediatrician, who has cared for thousands of kids over the past 30 years and attended some 3,000 births, including that of his own two kids, now teen-agers. ?But I didn?t know where they were coming from. The only way you could tell people were having babies was to count the cousins.?

Sloan?s boyhood fixation with the birds and bees advanced into an insatiable curiosity about babies? slow, circuitous, painful and sometimes perilous journey from womb to world.

His four-year quest for answers often dropped him down what he characterizes as a ?rabbit hole? of research that led to some fascinating discoveries, not only about the hard science of labor and delivery, but the history, anthropology, folklore, culture, morality and politics around childbirth. The result of his work is ?Birth Day? (Ballantine Books), an in-depth and often humorous look at labor and delivery, peppered with personal anecdotes.

?It?s partly memoir and woven into that is the science and history of birth,? says Sloan, who is on staff at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa. ?I thought there were plenty of how-to and advice books out there that are very good. With this I wanted people to learn something about a subject they think they know a lot about already. And I wanted to write it for the general reader, not just for people about to have babies.?

Even the avowed childless might be intrigued.

He unearths compelling research that suggests a man who spends a lot of time with his pregnant mate will experience an increase in his female hormones such as estrogen and prolactin, a phenomenon, Sloan says, that is probably scent-induced and biologically aimed at softening a he-man into a dithering, doting daddy.

He also answers the question why larger primates are such a ?study in childbirth efficiency,? blessed with small fetuses that all but glide out of their big, roomy pelvises through an efficiently designed cylinder, while human childbirth is more, as he puts it, like an ?Olympic bobsled run? slowed through a pinched and winding course?

Blame Lucy, our 3million-year-old australopithecine ancestor, whose early attempts to walk upright led to a whole lot more thinking activity, which in turn led to larger brains. The fetal brain over 1.5million years wound up evolving at a faster clip than the pelvis could widen to accommodate it. Ouch.

Early moralists pointed their fingers at Eve ? concluding childbirth pain was a punishment on all women for that first bit of gluttony in Eden. Sloan, however, uncovers a much richer story, not only of how childbirth attitudes have changed, but a whole intriguing history covering everything from birth positions to pain management.

He discovered that the practice by ?advanced cultures? of battling gravity by lying down during delivery harkens back to a weird fetish of King Louis XIV.

It seems the Sun King was a bit of a voyeur, who so fancied the idea of gawking at his mistress giving birth that he commanded a viewing table be built. Leading obstetricians of the day copied the king. Women gave up their traditional and more effective birthing positions like squatting, crouching and use of a birthing chair, in favor of the far less efficient practice of lying prone.

Sloan also uncovered an odd cast of characters.

Consider Dr. James Barry, a British Army surgeon described by Florence Nightingale as ?one of the most hardened creatures I have ever met.? The diminutive doctor, says Sloan, who padded his shoulders and wore elevator shoes, had the distinction of executing the first successful Caesarean section in the English-speaking world in South Africa in 1826. But that, says Sloan, is not the most interesting thing about Barry. It seems he was a she, who managed not only to make obstetrical history, but also to pull one over on the British military for 40 years. Her true gender wasn?t uncovered until her death.

?When you?re writing a book, every expert on the planet loves to tell you all about what they?re doing,? Sloan says. ?With the story about James Berry masquerading as a male surgeon, at one point I had the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh and the Royal College of Surgeons in London and the Wellcome (Medical) Trust Library in London and I think the University of Edinburgh, trying to find the notes she wrote on the day she did that surgery because they wanted to know what she actually thought about it.?

While the issue of pain management during childbirth remains a topic of impassioned debate, those laboring moms who appreciate some relief have Queen Victoria to thank for pioneering the way. The tiny, 4-foot-10-inch monarch had 9 robust babies in 17 years. She described the process as an ordeal of ?aches and sufferings and miseries and plagues.? By her eighth, she?d had enough and called for chloroform, then a fairly new and still highly controversial anesthesia for childbirth.

Concerns about safety, Sloan says, were raised. But there were also bizarre moral arguments that it would lead to drunken ravings and sexual depravity during childbirth. The desperate queen said phooey. She delivered two babies under chloroform. And while it didn?t set off an immediate clamor for anesthesia, he found, her choice laid to rest any arguments against the relief of labor pain on moral grounds. To do so would be to cast aspersions on the morality of the monarch.

Sloan doesn?t take a radical approach when it comes to contemporary debates over C-sections and epidurals. But he did find ?worrisome? recent studies that showed that ?kids born to women who had C-sections for any reason had an increased risk of asthma or eczema.?

?Babies of mothers who had not labored have different bacteria years later than kids who went through the birth canal. That?s how your body learns. So when you alter that, it makes your immune system respond to things way down the road that we don?t even know about.?

And that is a concern, he says, at a time when elective C-sections are gaining traction among some young moms who take the well-publicized ?I don?t want to go through labor pains? position of Britney Spears.

?We?re starting this giant uncontrolled experiment. ... Are we going to regret it?? he asks.

He said judging from a tiny sample in his own family, there might be something to it. His daughter Claire, 18, born vaginally, had no later health problems while John, who arrived via C-section, ?had asthma like you wouldn?t believe.?

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@

pressdemocrat.com.