Every woman’s definition of a positive birth experience varies. Some of what I mention here is part of my vision but may, of course, differ from yours. Other elements will benefit anybody preparing to meet their baby. Hopefully, if you’re pregnant and reading this, there is something here for you.
I was lucky enough to come out of Primrose’s birth feeling empowered. That said, I did quite a lot to prepare for it (unlike for the postpartum stage, which I wasn’t prepared for AT ALL! Read about Primrose’s arrival here if you’d like.
Hypnobirthing: Lauren and I both used The Wise Hippo and, as mentioned in previous posts, can’t recommend it highly enough. Dany has created a brilliant Birthing Programme, based on her experiences as a hypnotherapist. Many hypnobirthing books and programmes use US terminology but The Wise Hippo is firmly designed wih the UK and NHS terminology in mind. Their primary focus is on giving women and babies ‘The Right Birth on the Day’, however that may look. The affirmations and MP3s are seriously relaxing and one cannot fail to feel empowered throughout and beyond the classes. They are also a great way for partners to be actively involved in baby’s birth, rather than feeling like a helpless onlooker. This in itself creates further feelings of positivity.
Perhaps most fundamentally, this course taught me that fear = tension = pain = more fear, more pain, more tension and so on. It was this realisation that made me determined to do everything possible to ensure my mind and body were as ‘birth ready’ as possible.
Tip: Find a local instructor here.
Yoga (or other gentle exercise): Stretching your body and staying active is incredibly important in pregnancy. There is no doubt, though, that this gets trickier as your bump swells and you near your EDD! I started NCT Relax, Stretch & Breathe classes in week 12 (week 16 in my last pregnancy). In addition to helping my posture and flexibility, these classes are fantastic for teaching you valuable breathing techniques; helping you understand your body and what it does in labour; aiding restful sleep (I always sleep best on Monday nights, after class!) and meeting other pregnant ladies in your area. Interestingly, my instructor says she has better birth outcomes from ladies who’ve attended these classes than those who attend regular NCT classes – fewer inductions, less requests for pain relief, fewer interventions in labour and fewer emergency c-sections.
Focusing on your emotional needs rather than the material: The reason a Blessingway appeals, rather than a ‘Baby Shower’ is that it focuses on bringing all the women in your life together to centre on your emotional needs in the final weeks of pregnancy, in labour, and postpartum. In our Western world, it’s all too easy to focus on the material – designing nurseries, spending hours researching travel systems and buying cute clothes, that our emotional and spiritual wellbeing can be neglected. Make sure you look after yourself in the lead up to your baby’s birth and be prepared for the weeks and months after they arrive – I definitely wasn’t prepared for this and wished I’d learned more about my hormones, breastfeeding and infant sleep expectations, especially. You can keep your emotional wellbeing in check in a variety of ways. Again, each woman is different, but this list covers the basics:
1. Self care: Again, I was great at this in pregnancy last time, but sucked at it once Primrose arrived. In fact, if it hadn’t been for my husband, I would have been in a right state! See this post for ideas on self-care, and treat it as a necessity, not a luxury. Put things in place before you give birth that will make caring for your postpartum self a given… the more rested and positive you feel going into labour, the better.
2. Communication: Scared? Overwhelmed? Excited? Nervous? Anxious? All of the above, depending on the time of day? TALK. To your partner, a trusted friend, your parents, a helpful midwife… anyone you feel comfortable discussing things with. Be honest and open. Be mindful, also, that your partner is about to become a parent, too – keeping the lines of communication open is really important as nothing puts a strain on even the most stable of relationships like welcoming a new tiny person into the fold. In most cases, at least, you are stronger together than you are being distant.
3. Choosing your ‘team’: Some women want their partner by their side, others, their mother, sister, best friend. For some people, birthing alone feels like the way to go; others want to be surrounded. The choice is yours so give it some serious thought. Who is most likely to make you feel that ‘you’ve got this’ feeling?
Check out our guest post on doulas here. Doulas are absolutely invaluable if you are at all nervous, have had a previous birth trauma, or if you (or your partner) simply want someone else on your ‘team’ during labour. Doula UK is a great place to start and will also give you information about their access fund if you’re keen to have a doula but are worried about the cost.
4. Choosing your environment: Where are YOU most comfortable giving birth? It makes sense that you will have a more positive experience if allowed to choose for yourself… Hospital? Home? MLU? Whilst your local trust can refuse to allow you to birth in an MLU if they see you as ‘high risk’, or if you go over 42 weeks, they cannot stop you from birthing at home. Again, we’d advise you to do as much reading and research as possible on each option before making an informed choice.
Writing your birth preferences: Lauren and I have both mentioned before that having a plan in mind matters. You wouldn’t rock up to an interview/buy a house/go on holiday/get married without doing any research and, as life events go, having a baby is right up there in the number one spot in terms of importance.
Whilst we’re all for going with the flow, having a plan can actually help that ‘flow’. The subconscious mind is a powerful thing and the very act of writing down your preferences, knowing that these will be read by midwives, doulas and consultants, is powerful.
Of course, things don’t always go to plan but you can include a Plan B. For example, I am planning a homebirth (more on this next week) but will have a contingency plan in place should I need to transfer to hospital. Last time, I knew that I wanted a water birth in the MLU, but had a backup plan in case the pool was in use. It really does pay to be prepared, to avoid feeling like you’ve been blown off course.
Tip: A brilliant resource is Milli Hill’s ‘Visual Birth Plan’, the template for which is available on the Pinter & Martin website, here.
Focus on your ‘due window’ rather than your EDD: As is so often the case, this is all about the power of language and its positive or negative effect. In France, women are given a ‘due month’ rather than a specific day. I am a huge advocate for this (and the fact they allow women to go to 43 weeks gestation before intervening).
It’s only natural that so many women reach this date and immediately feel fed up, especially when they’ve shared it with family and friends and keep getting messages to ask if anything is happening. Every day feels like an eternity!
Tip: Try to reframe you EDD as a window of five weeks, from 37-42 weeks – your baby is highly likely to appear during this time and there’s a very good reason why only 5% of babies arrive on the ‘correct’ date.
Raspberry leaf tea: I (mistakenly) used to think that this was an effective way to bring on labour. In fact, drinking too much in one go to try to induce labour can make contractions too fast and unmanageable.
In my last pregnancy, I drank it sporadically in my final trimester to help strengthen my uterus and potentially make contractions more effective. There is also some evidence to suggest that it reduces the likelihood of needing intervention.
Tip: This time round, I drank Neuner’s Pregnancy Tea until 35 weeks and have since been drinking one cup of raspberry leaf tea daily for the reasons outlined in this article. Again, research the pros and cons carefully before you make YOUR choice.
Music: Another highly personal choice. For some, rocking out to Rancid will be their thing, whereas others like the calming effect of classical tunes. Many women we know have made two playlists – one for getting them moving/dancing and releasing oxytocin and another for keeping calm. Whatever your preferred genre, never underestimate the power of music to help you relax, feel grounded and to help release oxytocin.
I listened to a classical CD en route to the MLU last time, then my hypnobirth MP3s once there, having listened to them every night since week 32. In preparation for this birth, I’ve used the same MP3s, plus a brilliant CD sent to me by Relax Kids, called Magic Unfolding. It is so relaxing, focusing on mindfulness and bonding with your baby. It can also be used postnatally and, if anything like the hypnobirthing MP3s, may also calm your baby in those early days – if she was distressed Primrose used to settle much sooner when we played them, presumably having heard them so frequently in utero! Just don’t listen to it whilst driving(!)
Tip: Load playlists on to both your phone and your birth partner’s phone, just in case one breaks/loses charge during labour. Take headphones if you go to hospital – you may find you want to block out all other noise.
Perenial massage: Always seems to raise a snigger BUT it can help first time mamas reduce their risk of tearing if giving birth vaginally. Unless you have a compact bump or freakishly long arms, you’ll have to get over the initial awkwardness of getting your partner to help you. Don’t bother buying special oils or gels either – olive or coconut oil work just fine. Undecided? Take a look at this article, which is very informative.
Bonding with baby: This is a very personal topic – each lady bonds with her baby in different ways. I’m not the ‘singing to my bump’ or reciting poetry type and spent much of my first pregnancy feeling bad about that BUT then realised there are other ways. For me, it’s practising our hypnobirthing techniques and affirmations, yoga, massaging the bump, music and mindfulness. I’ve also booked to have a henna applied to my bump before I’m due this time round, ready for my Blessingway.
Tip: Whatever you do, make sure YOU are comfortable with it – there’s no point in doing something that makes you feel weird or uncomfortable just because you think you *should*.
Reading positive material. This breaks into three areas for me:
1. Understanding your body: If your only knowledge of how your body works is from a GCSE Biology textbook and watching OBEM, it’s likely that you’re wondering how the flip you can possibly birth a baby! In fact, almost every film and programme I’ve ever watched makes it look like the most horrendous experience. And yet it’s exactly what our bodies are designed to do (in the overwhelming majority of cases). One of the first things our hypnobirthing instructor told me was to stop watching OBEM and she was right – even if you think the negative vibes aren’t filtering into your brain, it’s highly likely they are. Remember that shows like this are heavily edited to be sensational and dramatic.
2. Knowing your rights: In short, it’s ‘your body, your way’. Nobody – no midwife, consultant or anyone else – can force you to do something you do not want to do. You can decline all scans, blood tests, screenings and vaccinations in pregnancy and you can refuse all vaginal examinations, fetal monitoring and intervention during labour. But it is YOUR choice.
Want a home birth but been told you’re ‘high risk’?
Had a previous c-section and want a VBAC (or even an HBAC)?
Been offered a CVS or amniocentesis but don’t feel the need?
Been told you ‘have to’ be induced at 40 weeks because of your age?
Over 40 weeks and feeling pressured into a membrane sweep?
Want a gentle/mother led C-section but being met with resistance?
Check out Birthrights, set up by Elizabeth Prochaska and Rebecca Schiller, to ensure that no woman ever feels stripped of her dignity, choices, respect and autonomy during pregnancy and childbirth. Their factsheets are brilliant!
A good example of this comes from a close friend of mine was told in her teenage years that the shape of her pelvis would make a natural birth problematic. When she decided to have a baby, she felt enormous pressure to try for a natural birth, going against her gut instinct, which told her to have a planned caesarean. Sure enough, she ended up with a fairly traumatic forceps delivery and doesn’t remember her labour and birth as positive at all – her choices, she feels, were made for her, rather than by her.
DO YOUR RESEARCH! Make decisions based on factual evidence and not on what you’re being told to do. Ask for evidence based information from your midwife or consultant if they tell you that you ‘need’ to do something. Do what feels right for you and your baby and never feel pressured into anything that makes you feel uncomfortable. Whether it’s in pregnancy or labour, use your BRAIN:
B: What are the BENEFITS of what you’re suggesting?
R: What are the RISKS involved?
A: Are there any ALTERNATIVES?
I: Is there a chance or further INTERVENTION if I do what you’re suggesting?
N: What if I do NOTHING?
3. Positivity Breeds Positivity: Reading books by those who have dedicated their lives to ensuring women feel empowered and in control of their bodies in pregnancy and labour helps allay and reframe any fears or anxieties you may feel about the impending birth of your baby. Obstetricians like Grantly Dick-Read, Fernand Lamaze and Michael Odent, pioneering midwives like Ina May Gaskin, Sheila Kitzinger and Carol Leonard and, more recently, other mamas, such as Milli Hill, have numerous books between them that will not fail to give you an ‘I CAN DO THIS!’ feeling, whatever ‘this’ looks like for you.
Tip: Facebook groups such as The Positive Birth Movement, Positive Birthers and Fear Free Childbirth are great for filling your newsfeed with empowering stories. Cathy at Chilled Mama (who wrote our doula guest post above) has recently set up a FB group called ‘Chilled Mama’s Lounge‘ – a great place to ask questions about pregnancy, birth and parenting in a supportive arena. Similarly, if you search for your specific interests and needs, you’ll find support groups for almost anything: VBAC, HBAC, gestational diabetes, Home Birth UK, Big Birthas (if you’ve been told you’re ‘high risk’ because of high BMI), 10 Month Mamas (if you go over your EDD and are feeling the pressure to be induced)…
Tell us – how are you preparing for a positive birth experience? Have your plans been met with resistance? Do you feel like control of your birth isn’t yours? Have you had a previous trauma that is affecting your feelings about your birth? Tell us about it below.
Jo, The Mother Side xx
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Cover Image courtesy of Emma Tunbridge Photography