If only labour happened as it is described in books. No matter how many women you talk to, you will probably find that no two ever describe the same experience. Each person’s experience is unique to them so, while the guidelines may give you some idea of what to expect, a lot depends on your body, the person you are, how easily your baby comes into the world and how much support you are offered.
I’ve had two babies and each birth was completely different. I delivered my first with the help of an epidural and my second with no pain relief. In each case, I needed to use breathing, movement, meditation and sound at various stages to get me through. There is no ideal way to labour. But you can always benefit from preparing yourself as much as possible.
Whatever kind of birth you envisage having, here are ten tips that can help to manage fear and pain in labour.
1. Be Prepared
Being prepared means having some idea of what to expect during labour. Attending antenatal classes in your hospital will tell you what you need to know about the options available. Reading about birth lets you explore the different philosophies and approaches available. Taking up a prenatal yoga class from the second trimester on can show you breathing techniques to relax and poses to help with birth. Being informed during labour can help you and your partner to communicate with the midwives and doctors.
2. Practice Breathing
Getting stressed in labour can cause you to ‘panic breathe’ and tense your muscles. But knowing how to use breathing techniques can release tension and conserve important reserves of energy. Antenatal or yoga classes introduce the basics of deep slow breathing. The emphasis is on the exhalation which releases and calms. Some women find using sound as they exhale really helps to release tension. It is good to build up a regular practice throughout pregnancy, ideally a few minutes every day. Prenatal breathing techniques
3. Exploring the pain
Labour is hard physical and emotional work. In the book Birthing From Within by Pam England and Rob Horowitz, they suggest being curious about the pain in labour rather than trying to ‘push away’ from it. This approach can make pain manageable and less frightening. You can practice exploring the sensations of discomfort and pain by holding a challenging pose (e.g. a squat) for longer than you would normally and breathing into the sensation rather than shying away from it. England and Horowitz also suggest holding an ice cube until it melts and breathing with it. None of these examples come close to labour but they can help you to focus and prepare.
4. Be aware of the pelvic floor
The pelvic floor muscles are the muscles that help bring your baby into the world. Exercising them throughout pregnancy can lead to an easier labour. You become aware of the pelvic floor and can breathe down into it to relax the muscles for birth. Most prenatal yoga classes teach you how to become aware of and exercise the pelvic floor. Regular exercise of the muscles also helps you to regain the tone of your pelvic floor after delivery.
5. Let your partner play an active role
In the midst of labour you might not be able or want to communicate with midwives and doctors. Get your partner involved so he can ask questions on your behalf or request that the lights be dimmed, that you take a shower, etc. Even something as simple as a glass of ice or water can be a godsend at the right moment. Partners can also help with breathing at difficult moments or simply be there to offer support (tactfully). They can also use massage techniques. Some women love this during labour, others hate it – but it never hurts to practice.
6. Change positions
Listen to your body as much as you can during labour. It knows instinctively what positions feel best. If you have opted for no pain relief you may find you just can’t lie down but have to move around, rock on all fours or squat. It is important during the early stages to move around as well, walking in the corridors or using the ball, partner’s embrace, whatever you need. Yoga and antenatal classes (or a good book or DVD) show you all the positions available and how to practice them at home.
7. Go within
On the birth of my daughter, I was surrounded by people saying I might have to go to theatre, the lights were too bright, I had to lie on the bed while my baby was monitored, my husband got nervous and it felt like no-one was listening. I was in pain and all I could do was close my eyes and go right into myself and tune everything else out. Practicing breathing or meditation, repeating a word that gives you confidence, these are all techniques that can help you make it through tough parts of labour.
8. Make whatever sound you need
It can surprise you what comes out of your mouth in labour. Sound is another way to release tension and relieve pain. Some women will be very vocal and need to make noise, others won’t. It’s important to let yourself go with whatever sound (or phrase!) arises. I aimed for long soft exhalations but found myself groaning every time I exhaled. It felt completely right.
9. Take a shower
When things are getting intense in labour, a hot shower can make a huge difference. The feel of water cascading on your back during a contraction is a great relief and can reboost your energy. Get your partner to ask the midwife if you can take a shower in case you forget.
10. Throw out all plans
It is good to plan the labour you would like to have and it is equally beneficial to be prepared to throw the plan out the window and accept whatever happens on the day. You might have a straightforward labour that is relatively quick and can practice all your breathing and positions. You might be nervous and want pain relief but find you’re managing better than you expected. You might want to birth in a certain position but end up lying down on a bed. You might need intervention or a cesaeran without delay. Knowing a little about birth and practicing the techniques you learn is the best way to go into labour but so is knowing when to let go of any ideals of what a birth should be.