I've been a doula, as well as a doula course facilitator, for 17 years and my favourite part of the job by far, is unlocking the secrets to birth for expectant mothers and for aspiring doulas.
Pregnancy and birth are often perceived as highly complex and dangerous medical situations, shrouded in mystery. Medical professionals decide what's best for the mother based on tick-box questionnaires and routine tests, while her instincts, wishes and hopes are pushed to one side. This can result in disempowerment and a negative birthing experience, sometimes leading to a terrible start to motherhood.
I'm here to tell you, birth shouldn't be this way. And that's because of the biggest and most guarded secret of all:
**Women already know intuitively, how, where and when to birth their baby.**
That's right. Women have been designed to have a natural, physiological birth; we were literally born with the ability to do it! Now, this is not an alternative way of looking at this and I’m not trying to make you think positively as in, ‘my body can do this’, I’m stating facts here. Birth physiology is NOT about how the baby physically comes out of a woman’s womb; a physiological process is a function that the body performs without you having to actively think about it. Physiology means “the study of nature/origin” and some examples of physiological processes are digestion, ovulation, sleep, sneezing, coughing and yes, childbirth.
So women are born with the physiological ability to grow and give birth to a baby – without having to study, practise or least of all, think about it! If a woman is in an environment conducive to the release of the special birthing hormones, oxytocin and endorphins, her body will give birth, just like the food she eats is turned into energy and the waste disposed of.
I feel like I’m going blue in the face sometimes, going on and on about birth physiology but it's my job to help women let go of what they think they know about pregnancy and birth and re-engage with the knowledge their bodies already inherently have.
Here are my five top tips for any pregnant woman:
Observe yourself and your body
I encourage women to connect with their bodies and their baby's as early as possible in pregnancy, through yoga, meditation, breathing exercises and journaling to begin the process of mindfulness. Make sure you get plenty of rest, so that you have time and space to be still and observe how your body is changing, your baby is moving and what you intuitively feel you need to give to your body for nourishment and care. Living in such a busy and all-consuming world, it can take time and practice to tune into this, but setting aside just a few minutes a day will stand you in good stead for your birth. If you’re working, it might be wise to take your maternity leave sooner rather than later. It’s important to have time to adjust to life with a baby and part of that is spending time tuning in, which is difficult when you’re spending most days at work.
If you find it difficult to engage with your body, or have suffered trauma in the past, it might be a good idea to look into professional support, like counselling or other therapies.
One of the biggest obstacles to having a mindful, positive birthing experience is fear of the unknown. Fear produces adrenaline, which, during childbirth, interferes with the body's release of natural pain management hormones, such as oxytocin and endorphins, often leading to a more painful and difficult birth. The best way of combating this fear, is by educating yourself about all of your birthing options, so that when it's time to make choices, you understand what those choices are and can feel more in control. Do your own research, ask your medical providers questions, understand your birthing rights and challenge people who are not providing you with satisfactory information. Always ask for the research behind the advice you are being given.
Write a list of preferences addressing how you would like to be spoken to, treated and informed during your birth. Consider various labour outcomes and how you might like to deal with them should they arise. Make it clear to your birthing team that this is your experience and not only do you want to be included, but you want to be at the centre of your birth. And then, let it go. The more informed you are the more empowered and relaxed you’ll be during labour.
Don't get attached to birth plans
Birth plans are the birth place of unrealistic expectations. That's because childbirth is something that can't be controlled and trying to plan every single step of the way will, more often than not, lead to disappointment and regret. Having witnessed hundreds of births and read thousands of birth stories, I've learned that labour will progress and evolve exactly as it was meant to. All you can do is embrace and accept the twists and turns that come your way, while making informed choices, listening and responding to what your body needs.
The birth experience is not just yours, it’s the baby’s too. Its teamwork and if you’re able to move around freely and tune in to what feels comfortable and what is not, you can surrender and trust that all will be well. Try to avoid getting attached to a certain outcome and make sure you write down all the things that you would like, rather than all the things that you don’t want.
Acceptance and surrender
Sometimes the anticipation of pain and discomfort in labour is worse than the physical sensation itself. Being in fear of how something might feel causes needless worry, stress and suffering and isn't conducive to a positive birthing experience. The best approach is to focus on the here and now; accepting the feelings and sensations as you experience them, without judgement and surrendering to the miraculous journey your body is taking you on. Hypno-birthing, meditation and mindful breathing are fantastic tools to help you with this.
This goes for the birthing experience as a whole. Instead of anticipating what might go wrong, simply focus on the moment and as things progress, make the right choices for you there and then. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to birth a baby and as long as you’re listening to your body and your voice is being heard, there are no wrong choices.
Create a safe and comfortable environment
During a physiological birth, the body produces a number of hormones, including oxytocin and endorphins, which both work as natural pain management to help us manage the intense sensations of birth. If we feel scared or threatened during labour, adrenaline over-rides them, which has the opposite effect, in fact, it inhibits the release of the hormones you need. So it's important to create an environment conducive to supporting the hormones which best serve us.
For most women, a dark, quiet and warm room, with comforting smells and familiar faces is ideal. Many women opt for a home birth for this very reason, or at least spend the majority of their early labour at home. If and when they transfer to hospital, it's important to try and recreate the home environment with low lighting, music, warm socks, pleasant smelling oils, water, and hushed voices to support the body's natural process. Even during a caesarean birth, choices can be made to enhance the environment and ensure it’s as close to a natural birth as possible. Skin-to-skin is more than a ‘nice’ thing to do, it encourages your milk to come in, it keeps the baby warm and safe and you’re able to bond on a deep physiological level with your new-born.
The way we feel during birth matters and by following these tips, I hope you can have the positive and empowering experience you deserve.
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Kicki Hansard is a member of Doula UK, however any opinions expressed on this blog are personal views and not necessarily the view of Doula UK.