Tips for Natural Birth (Part 2)

Tips for Thriving During an Unmediated Birth

  1. Visualize opening and releasing (not contracting). Some women find it helpful to rename contractions “surges” or “waves” because those are more fluid and open terms.
  2. Work with and surrender to your contractions (this is partly physical and partly mental/emotional)
  3. Consider an essential oil blend (e.g., lavender, clary sage, myrrh and peppermint) which can be applied to the insides of your ankles, lower abdomen and lower back). Some oils help relieve pain, others are for emotional balance. Warning: do not use clary sage at all until after labor is established.
  4. Keep your mouth/jaw and hands/feet slack and relaxed with each contraction/surge.
  5. If at all possible, take a bit of food every hour or so in order to keep up strength. Also be sure to take frequent sips of water.
  6. If at the hospital, ask for intermittent monitoring (good idea) and a hep-lock (if you must) but no constant IV drips. This serves to make the next tip possible.
  7. Be able to move around and do so as much as you can. At home, this is a given, but you may have to ask for it at hospital.
  8. Change positions as often as needed based on what feels best to your body. You don’t need to stay on the bed, nor do you need to be on your back. Other options include walking, hip-circles on a ball, sitting in a rocking chair, having a shower or a bath, squatting by the bed or across from your partner, lying on your side, or being on your hands and knees. Sometimes a simple shift in position can make contractions feel much easier and it may also suddenly speed up labor!
  9. Use hydrotherapy, which is really just fancy talk for getting wet. Standing in a shower with water pounding on your back or submerging yourself in a bathtub can give a surprisingly effective measure of pain relief.
  10. Ignore the numbers and measurements and cover up the clock. These things apply an often false sense of pressure to perform. For example, if you are told that you aren’t as dilated as you thought you were, you may get discouraged, and worries about your body being faulty can begin to creep in. Clock-watching can also cause feelings of “this should be over by now” or “why is this taking so long?!” If your care provider believes it is necessary to do vaginal checks of your dilation, station, and effacement, consider asking them not to share their findings with you.
  11. Take it one contraction at a time. Be fully present to your body and your baby one contraction at a time, instead of thinking about how many are left or how much longer you can or cannot do this.
  12. Remember that just when it seems the most unbearable and you most want to beg for an epidural, you’re probably almost done!
  13. Vocalize if you need to (it can feel awesome and powerful!), but aim to keep it low and deep, avoiding screeching and screaming, which tend to cause tightening in all the muscles of the body
  14. Breathe deeply, especially in between contractions.
  15. Talk to your baby if it feels right to do so. Tell him/her that you’re looking forward to meeting them and give him/her little pep talks (“We’ve got this! Come on, baby! I love you!”)
  16. You don’t have to push with every contraction — your body will actually do it without your help and you can let it if you want to. Also, trust your own style of pushing. Counted/coached pushing (which is the standard of care in hospital settings) doesn’t work for every woman. It’s okay to ask for a nurse to stop that and to do instead what’s called “mother-led pushing,” which means you just go with whatever your body is telling you to do!
  17. Know your rights. You are under no obligation to birth your baby on anybody’s watch other than your baby’s! If you feel at all pushed or rushed or pressured to have an intervention, confidently delay or reject it. You are the consumer and therefore the boss, and as much as you may respect your OB (or midwife), he/she isn’t actually the one in charge.
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Tips for Natural Birth (Part 1)

A while ago, a friend who wanted to attempt a completely unmedicated birth with her third child asked me how she could begin to prepare. Instead of a quick, short answer, I ended up writing her a long list of suggestions.

This is Part 1, which focuses on things that can be done ahead of time to prepare for birth. Part 2 will focus on what can be done during labor to keep things free of interventions.

Of course, at the end of the day, birth is inherently unpredictable. We do our best to set ourselves on a trajectory that will result in a joyful, physiologically normal birth, but at the same time we must always hold loosely to it, not making it an idol and not being set against medical help to the point of foolishness.

Tips for Preparing for an Unmedicated Birth

  1. Get clear on WHY you’re doing this. No one is very good at sticking to convictions that aren’t firmly rooted in a compelling WHY. So find your why.
  2. Assemble a birth team that believes you can do it and is free of fear. A doula is a fantastic choice. You will want to be surrounded by people who can look you in the eye without concern or fear, acknowledging that they understand that it is hard and painful work but that you are absolutely going to be okay. For many women, having a woman friend or doula present who has personally experienced natural birth (and loved it) goes a long way toward reassuring her! Conversely, an anxious nurse or mother who hasn’t experienced physiologically natural birth can often bring unease and reduce confidence in an impressionable laboring woman.
  3. Do a ton of squat repetitions in the weeks leading up to your birth. Alternatively, I like to spend 15 minutes each night in a deep squat while reading a book. Squats open up the pelvis and begin to stretch the perineum with gentle pressure.
  4. Walk at least a mile a day for the last weeks. This encourages baby to settle into the pelvis.
  5. Red raspberry leaf tea in copious amounts for the last trimester. Red raspberry leaf helps tone the uterus for labor.
  6. Learn counter-pressure techniques with your partner or doula and practice them before labor begins. Rebozo can also be incredibly helpful, though you’ll likely need to find someone trained in that method.
  7. Consider a class like Hypnobabies or Bradley Method or one offered by your local midwife or Birth Center.
  8. Get your head in the game
    • Mantras and prayers — the Lord has given me certain simple statements or truths to hold onto in each birth. They become a repeatable phrase that brings comfort as you whisper it to yourself throughout labor.
    • Birth affirmation cards — you can pick up a set on etsy (like these ones) or make your own using words and phrases inspired by those made by others.
    • Read and listen to positive birth stories — books like Adventures In Natural Childbirth or Ina May’s Guide to Natural Childbirth contain many wonderful natural childbirth stories that serve to reassure and affirm that functionality and safety of birth without medication. Birthwithoutfear.com is also an amazing website for reading birth-positive stories. Additionally, I’m always very happy to share my own birth stories with any other woman who cares to read them.
    • Watch natural birth videos on Youtube of births that include very little intervention and very hands-off midwives/doctors — this allows you to witness normal physiological birth and picture what it can be like, which is an important counter-balance to all the media portrayals of birth. It also will help make you more comfortable with the sounds and emotional stages of natural birth so that you aren’t surprised or concerned when you experience them in your own labor and birth.
    • Remember you were literally made to do this. God literally designed your body to give birth, and women have been doing it for as long as humanity has been in existence, and for the vast majority of history (and many parts of the world still) they’ve successfully done it without medication! You are in good company!
    • Accept that the pain is purposeful. You don’t need to be afraid of it because it is accomplishing something… and then it will be over!
    • Learn about the hormonal processes involved in labor and birth. Let your amazement at that exquisite design help you keep resolve to leave that beautiful process undisturbed so that you and your baby can reap the full rewards of it! Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering by Dr. Sarah J. Buckley contains an incredible chapter about this. It seriously blows my mind.
    • Look at animations and diagrams of a baby descending through the birth canal, crowing and being fully born. I find it really helpful to be able to visualize the path and movements my baby is traveling. Here’s one example, and another.
  9. If you have specific fears around this birth, talk them out in detail with your partner, a good friend or doula, or your care provider. Sometimes just bringing them out into the light helps release their grip. If you need more information or reassurances to ease some of the fears, figure out how to get that. Remember, fear causes tension and tightening, so the less of it you carry into your labor, the better off you will be, since a smooth labor depends on a relaxed mama!
  10. Pack honey sticks, hard-boiled eggs or nuts, berries or bananas plus a water bottle with a lid and straw into your hospital bag. These little easily-snuck snacks can help see you through labor if it starts to get a bit long or you start to feel weak.
  11. Get adjusted regularly (once or twice a week) throughout pregnancy, but especially in the last trimester. Find a chiropractor who is also certified in the webster technique, which helps release ligament tension and optimally position baby for birth. Chiro + Webster has been shown to shorten labor times significantly.
  12. Grow in your ability to listen to and trust your body/gut/intuition. Get comfortable with this unique form of wisdom and knowledge that God has given us as women (it may even be the Holy Spirit!). Practice following it in small ways in your everyday life. You’ll need to be able to trust and rely on this when you’re in labor.
  13. Don’t be induced if you can at all help it. Why? Induction usually involves pitocin. Pitocin creates abnormally intense contractions. Abnormally intense contractions are a safety risk to baby and are statistically more likely to result in a mother’s request or need for an epidural. If you want to avoid an epidural, avoid the factors that are likely to lead to its necessity! A pregnancy is still of NORMAL term at 42 weeks. There isn’t a rush.
  14. Set up a prayer circle. Get a list of women who love you and save their numbers on a list in your phone. When labor begins, text them all and ask them to hold you and your baby in prayer until you text again to announce the birth. They could possibly even each light a candle for you as a reminder to continuously pray.

 

Fear and Pain in Childbirth

I wrote in my Mama Natural birth story write-up that I’d advise a woman to “eliminate the word pain from your vocabulary” as she approaches her birth.

I’m rethinking that now. Because there may be pain. For the vast majority of births that’s probably true. And while it’s not helpful to DWELL on the pain, and in fact some of the most helpful labor techniques are those which move attention elsewhere, it’s not something we’ll usually skip over entirely.

I wouldn’t describe my last two births as painful. Not up until the very end. The fact that that is my experience has been surprising to me. I remember clearly the first time I met a mama who informed me ahead of time that she was expecting to have a pain-free birth. She explained that she had been praying very specifically and with expectation not to have pain, and that she had confidence based on her understanding of the Bible that Jesus would bear that pain instead of her. Frankly, I thought she was nutty. I wasn’t even sure that it was an admirable goal because  (and I still believe this) pain can be a worthy way of sacrificing, of dying to the old self so that you can be re-born as a mother, a mother willing to reorient her life and her self around her babies so that they can thrive in the world. Pain can be redemptive, symbolic, it can bring us to places we wouldn’t otherwise ever get to. Pain can be a rite of passage, and on the other side of it we discover we are capable of much more than we had ever dared to imagine. That’s the sort of suffering that the Christian faith calls us to in Jesus.

So why were my last two births not painful? Unlike my past photography client, I did not pray for that, did not go in expecting it to be painless. But what I did do was find a way to approach birth without fear. It comes from having witnessed so many births that were characterized by power, love, joy, freedom and lack of intervention and emergencies. As natural physiological birth begins to replace old images and paradigms of births fraught with screaming and resentment, drama and emergency, fear just starts to dissipate. You can also choose to cooperate with that, by actively resisting fear. As fears rise up in your consciousness, you pick it up and take a hard look at it, then you work through it however is appropriate. In some cases, dealing with fear will mean processing it by talking it out with a trusted midwife/doula/friend or journaling about it until something clicks and it loses its power. Sometimes dealing with fear will mean coming up with a plan to deal with whatever specific aspect/outcome you’re dreading so that you feel prepared and safe. And in a more general sense, we can shrink fear by filling our imaginations with images and feelings and stories of births that were not fearful. Working to clear out fear ahead of time, we can actually significantly reduce pain. There’s a complicated and very real physiology behind this. I’ve linked to a great article about at the bottom of this blog post.

I’m reading a book called Giving Birth: A Journey into the World of Mothers and Midwives by Catherine Taylor. There’s a small section in there about the idea of pain as compared to suffering or affliction, and I want to quote that here. This excerpt begins with her describing a section of a doula training course she attended with Pam England (author of Birthing From Within)…

Pam winds up the day by telling us that she wants us to spend some time thinking about the distinction between pain and suffering. “You can experience every sensation, even pain, and not suffer,” she says. “Start trying to make that distinction for yourself, and then you can make it for your others.” I remember that another nurse-midwife once told me, “The whole concept of suffering is something that should not be in a birth vocabulary. Pain does not equal suffering. Suffering is when you have no hope, when there is no end in sight. That’s torture, that’s suffering. But the pain of childbirth has an end point, so there is hope and there is pain, but it doesn’t have to equal suffering.”

Adrienne Rich, in her book Of Woman Born, says that French writer Simone Weil made a similar distinction, although she said that suffering was “characterized by pain yet leading to growth and enlightenment,” whereas “affliction is the condition of the oppressed, the slave, the concentration-camp victim forced to work endlessly and to no purpose.” Weil stressed that affliction occurred where pain was associated with powerlessness and disconnectedness. When pain was inevitable, it could be “transformed into something usable, something which takes us beyond the limits of experience itself into a further grasp of the essentials of life and the possibilities within us.” I start to consider the distinctions among pain, suffering, and affliction and find my lingering dread about my own upcoming labor begins to shift.

This is so good, and so important. This is perhaps a big piece of the work of midwives and doulas and childbirth educators: that we help women to make peace with — to even befriend — fear and pain so that they can glean the gifts it has to offer them.

Maybe what I’d say now, instead of “eliminate the word pain from your vocabulary” is something more like “eliminate fear” or “remember that pain does not equal suffering or affliction; and even suffering can be purposeful.”

For more on the subject of pain and childbirth:

  • Why Labor Hurts – an amazing piece about the physiology of fear and pain and how that impacts a birth process. I highly recommend giving it a read-through.
  • Soul Labor – I haven’t read anything but an excerpt from this book yet, but the author deals with the role of childbirth pain in the journey of Christian faith
  • Reducing Fear of Birth in US Culture — a TEDx talk by Ina May Gaskin