Birth is an instinctual thing. As labour progresses, let your mind and body naturally focus inward. It won’t serve you to distract yourself or mentally check out. As counterintuitive as it might sound, as you gear up for a physically demanding event, try to relax. Get out of your body’s way – that should pretty much be your mission throughout labour. Your softness is your strength. If things get difficult, see that as a call to connect with your baby. I believe a lot of mothers endure for their babies in ways that they might not be able to for just themselves, and I’m not just referring to birth. This is your child’s journey just as much as it is yours. If it helps, think about the way in which you want your baby to experience their first encounter on the outside. Regardless of what flurry of activity may be going on around you, you can firmly hold a place of peace for your child. I’m a believer that how we first enter the world deeply impacts how we exist in that world.
Labour invites ritual. It starts off slow with the ebb and flow of contraction and rest, a squeeze and a release. It’s vitally important to rest between contractions. Rest really is the key. My doula would say, “Good. Now blow it away.” When one is done, be done with it and put all your focus on resting, because you require it. When the next one starts, surrender to it to the best of your ability. When the intensity increases, find a motion and/or a sound, maybe a groan or a hum, that helps you move through it. My doula or my partner would apply counterpressure on the back of my hips while I swayed. She would remind me to relax my jaw and keep my moaning low-pitched (high-pitched sounds indicate tensing and loss of control). The mantra in my head was, Let it happen. Let it open. Understanding what your body is accomplishing is helpful so that you can move with it, not against it. Your cervix needs to efface (thin) and dilate (open), so reactions like clenching, tensing or panicking resist against the action your body needs to take.
The baby also needs to get into an optimal position. Keeping this in mind, you need to be re-evaluating and removing signs of resistance along the way. Sometimes you become comfortable with your ritual, but the baby requires more movement from you. You have to be willing to adjust to facilitate that end goal. It has to get more intense and more uncomfortable for the waters to break and for the baby to move down into your pelvis. The better you understand the mechanics of what needs to happen in order to meet your baby, the more likely you’ll be able to calmly surrender and allow it. There’s no need to fear. Pain does not equate to panic. If a new sensation triggers panic in you, look to your midwife, doctor, doula or nurse. Describe to them the nature and location of the pain or pressure, and they will confirm if it is normal and a good sign that things are moving in the right direction. If they are not concerned, you don’t need to be either.
Why is labour and birth painful? That’s the question most women want answered, present company included. The act of birth is testament to the self-sacrificing nature of mothers. If I were designing it, I wouldn’t make it so. But since pain is an expected part of birth, we can seek to understand the function that pain serves. In simplistic terms, pain is our body’s alert system. It’s communicating that you need to find a safe place to be. It’s telling you, in no uncertain terms, to drop everything else and put your sole focus on this assignment. It’s telling you to move your body. It’s telling you your baby is in place to be pushed out, when it’s time to push. When it comes down to it, the reason for the pain is exactly what you think: It’s because there is a life-size human baby travelling from your uterus, through your cervix and out your vagina. A critical aspect that too many women overlook is that the pain is manageable. If the pain factor is something that terrifies you – and I know for many of you it does – remember this: It does hurt, but it is manageable. Between contractions, there is no pain. It’s not continuous. There is a gradual increase. It is not permanent. When there is pain, continue coping as you are able, one contraction at a time, one push at a time. Many mothers describe their birth as a healing experience, and I think that sentiment is derived from the non-avoidance of the pain; the process of going through it and getting to the other side.
Coping can mean using breath, sounds and movement. It can mean physical counterpressure or hugging. It can mean hypnotism, visualizations and mantras. It can mean heat, ice, or water. It can mean swearing, squeezing and biting. It can mean crying, screaming or asking for medication. It can also mean saying, aloud, “I don’t want to do this,” or “I can’t do this.” My doula had a helpful strategy that we discussed ahead of time, which is having a code word which would mean I can no longer cope. Our plan, because she knew my highest wish was to have a natural birth, was that if I were to say that code word three times, then she would act on it and get me to a hospital. The beauty of the code word is, it allowed me to freely cope in whatever way needed to arise, even if that way looked like I wanted to give up, without there being uncertainty of whether or not it was time to change our game plan. It meant I could do or say whatever I needed to, and my support people could continue to support me where I was unless or until I indicated otherwise. The reason we came up with the three times rule is because often when it’s getting the most intense, what can feel momentarily unbearable, is when you’re almost there. Your future self could really thank you for seeing it through from that point. It may comfort you all to know that I never used the code word, nor did I even consider using it. I think that goes for most women in a home setting or at a birth centre – if you are realistic about what is about to take place, you’re probably not going to feel the need to escape it. Having said that, it’s still nice to have that safety net in place and planned out ahead of time.