The thought of pushing out a little human being the size of a water melon through our intimate parts can be quite scary, particularly for first-time mothers-to-be, like I was. While, admittedly, delivering a baby is certainly no picnic in the park, it can be an empowering and immensely gratifying experience (read my birth story here). I attribute the fact that I had a positive birth experience partly to preparation and mindset, and partly to luck (because, sure enough, even with the most rigorous preparation nature will have its way). While the luck part in this equation cannot be influenced (only accepted, see my point about “letting go” below), your mind and body can. So, while there is no guarantuee, I do believe we can increase our chances of having a positive birth experience by tweaking the body and mind variables during pregnancy and labour.
Here are the five things which helped me manage contractions and get through the vaginal birth of my baby without medical pain relief.
1 Keep moving
One of my worst fears before giving birth was losing the freedom to move around as I please, either because of being hooked up to a contractions and heart rate monitor or because an epidural dumbs my legs. Luckily, the clinic I gave birth in had wireless monitors (ask if they have this option available when you look for a place for your birth) and only used them intermittently anyway. As for the epidural, I didn’t intend to have one (although I didn’t rule out the option completely either), partly for this reason. Depending on where you give birth, hospital policy might forbid you from getting up and walking around even if theoretically you could with a low-dose epidural, because of the heightened risk of falling over.
I knew that changing positions often and moving around would ease pain and help my baby find its way out. So that’s what I did. I kept walking up and down the aisle, I stretched my back, I lay down on my side. For a while being on all fours felt right. Tune into your body’s way of telling you what to do. You will know. Your body will tell you. Practising prenatal yoga during pregnancy helps build and increase the necessary body awareness.
During labour, we need all the oxygen we can get – for our own energy’s sake and for the baby’s health. As long as the baby is connected to our body via the umbilical cord and placenta, it is oxygenated via our blood. Especially the later stages of labour, when one contraction follows another with hardly any time to recover inbetween, can be overwhelming and leave us breathless. Yet, remembering to breathe deeply is vital to stay energized. It also helps to release muscle tension if done correctly. Inhale slowly through your nose, then exhale through your mouth with lips pursed. The exhale should be longer than the inhale to favour relaxation. A good birth partner (or the nurse or midwife or doula) will ideally give you instructions and help you focus. In my case, J was slightly tapping my nose as a signal to breathe in and tapping my mouth as a signal to breathe out. I loved him for this. A good prenatal yoga class will teach you relevant breathing techniques.
The more we relax and let go of unnecessary tensions in between contractions, the better our body will be able to do its job of pushing the baby down the birth canal. This is due to hormones. I won’t go into the details (you can read a fabulous, illustrated explanation in French here), but in short: oxytocine, also called the hormone of love and wellbeing, is responsible for making the uterus contract. It is produced when we are touched gently or hugged, when we receive a massage or have sex. When we are stressed or afraid, on the other hand, our body will crisp and release adrenaline, the hormone that triggers the fight-or-flight response in our body. This is bad because adrenaline blocks oxytocine from doing its magic. If you are following my logic here, you’ll understand the vicious cycle women in labour can get caught up in: being stressed or afraid produces adrenaline, which in turn blocks oxytocine, which means fewer or less effective contractions, resulting in a slowing down of the labour process.
The good thing is, you can get this cocktail of hormones to work in your favor for a faster birth. During the last trimester, stock up on oxytocine (yes, apparently you can do that!) by doing things that make you feel good: have a relaxing bath, make love, eat ice cream – whatever works for you. During labour: do everything in your power to relax and release muscles you don’t need, like your face, mouth, arms, hands, neck. Ask your birth partner to give you a massage. This will not only help to get the oxytocine flowing, but also save you valuable energy to go all the way. By practising prenatal yoga you’ll learn to consciously relax specific muscles in your body.
4 Trust your birth partner
Having J with me during the whole birth process was indispensable. Knowing that there is somebody who has our back, who interacts with medical staff when we are no longer capable, who is there to let us squeeze their hand, to help us focus, help us breathe, and encourage us in difficult moments is wonderful, I’d even say essential, for a good birth experience. That said, the person in question should be willing and ready to take on this important role. Attending a birth preparation class (yoga or other) together can help build the partner’s confidence and understanding of his or her role in the process, and teach them ways they can actively support us.
You may also consider hiring a doula. There is evidence that the presence and support of a doula before and during labour increases a woman’s chances of having a spontaneous vaginal birth without epidural, lowers the risk of Cesarean sections, reduces the duration of labour and generally improves the experience of child birth. The same study concludes that if a woman has continuous labour support (that is, someone who never leaves their side), both mothers and babies are more likely to do well!
5 Let go
In the end, we have to humbly accept that nature will have its way. Things will go as they go, not as we plan or wish them to go. This is probably the most important, and perhaps the most difficult aspect of giving birth: letting go of preconceived ideas of what the perfect birth would be like, and accepting what is. Living in the moment and going with the flow. Oh, and have I mentioned that yoga helps with that, too?
Now, let’s get that collective female wisdom working: Do you have any other tips to share? What did you do get through labour?