Preparing for birth: trawling through the birthing methods
While pregnant with my daughter Nina I dutifully attended the hospital run birth education classes which, although in all fairness to the Royal Women’s Hospital were very focussed on active labour, did feel a bit like a menu of pain relief options and possible scenarios for intervention. In the end I had a fairly positive experience – an 8 hour labour in which I only used TENS as pain relief. I certainly attribute my focus and breathing to years of yoga, but I do feel that if I’d have been more confident about what was happening in my body I could have avoided even the minimal intervention I did have (foetal monitoring and almost an episiotomy).
To prepare better for the second birthing experience I decided to do some serious research into options for birth location, caregivers, pain relief and birthing tools. Unlike the UK, in Australia it is not possible to have a home birth under the public health system. Home births seems to be becoming more common but an independent midwife has to be hired and this can mean out of pocket expenses of $3500-$5000. We decided to stick with the public system and booked into Sandringham Hospital (also under ‘The Women’s’) in the knowledge that they have a great reputation for their midwives and have a birthing pool.
While I decided against enrolling in any official birth courses, I read a few books and trawled blogs and websites to learn as much as possible about techniques for labour (see Recommended Further Reading below). What they all seemed to have in common is a strong belief that women have the ability to birth babies with minimal intervention and with the right knowledge, techniques and practice the birth experience can be completely beautiful and empowering.
“Hypnobirthing: The Mongan Method” by Marie Mongan is well worth a read (although I wasn’t completely sold on the ‘pain-free’ labour and new birthing ‘language’). It provides an incredibly powerful overview of the history of childbirth (including the era of women being knocked out with ether and babies pulled out with forceps as the norm). It also has loads of great information about the physiology of birth itself – think diagrams of how the uterus contracts and scientific evidence about the use of meditation and breathing exercises to override the brain’s stress response.
Breathing and meditation techniques
I felt like the techniques described in Hypnobirthing, Calm Birth and other methods, were incredibly similar to the mindfulness meditation, pranayama and postures I had been practising through yoga and in the end the section on Yoga breathing for labour in Francoise Freedman’s “Step-by-step Yoga for Conception, Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond” (2014) turned out to resonate most with me. The book lays out three breathing techniques for labour and birth (similar to those in Hypnobirthing). This is my interpretation of them:
- The Centring Breath: This is really a Mindfulness of Breathing practice, or Shamatha, bringing awareness to the ebb and flow of the breath to relax and focus the mind. This technique is used to relax and conserve energy between contractions – particularly as they get closer together.
- Breathing to Welcome (!) Contractions: The breath is used here to get rid of tension as the contractions come and go. As a contraction starts you breathe out deeply which helps muscles to relax, which enables the contractions to work more effectively and efficiently. Breathing through the contractions (I used my Ujjayi breath here), and as it peaks exhaling deeply, also helps to dispel tension quickly.
- Birth Breathing: As the cervix becomes fully open and the baby has descended ready to be born it is time to utilise the third breathing technique to help the baby out. The aim of this breath is to make space for the baby and relax the muscles of the pelvis (the pelvic floor and buttocks). As contractions come you breath out long and deep (perhaps voicing the breath) and visualise your body opening and your baby descending down. The longer you extend the breath out the further the baby can descend during the contraction. If you feel the urge to push you can engage the inner pelvic muscles (as if doing a poo!) but try to completely relax the rest of the body, including the facial muscles. Once the baby’s head is ‘crowning’ (stretching your perineum) you may be asked by the midwife to stop pushing and pant, or blow lightly to allow the perineum to numb and stretch without tearing.
These three breathing techniques were absolutely critical to my positive birth experience. You can read My Birth Story here.
Putting the theory into practice
While the books I read provided great background and theory for how to give birth naturally and mindfully, it was definitely my strong yoga practice that enabled me to put the theory into practice. Continuing with yoga postures throughout pregnancy ensured that I was fit, strong and very aware of my body and what it can do. Pranayama practice meant that I could learn the specific labour and birth breathing techniques quickly. Finally, and I think most importantly, Mindfulness meditation tools allowed me to stay completely conscious for the birth and enabled me to relax through the pain and focus my mind on the breath or on opening my body when I needed to. If something had gone wrong, and intervention was needed, I think it would also have helped me remain calm and accepting.
For those that have a strong, consistent yoga and meditation practice already – practising the above breathing techniques may be enough for you. If you feel you need more I highly recommend reading one of the many books on the subject (they usually come with CDs as well, including guided meditations) or better still attending classes in your area. Look up ‘Hypnobirthing’, ‘Calmbirth’, ‘Conscious birthing’, ‘Mindful birthing’ or ‘yoga for birthing’ in Google and you are almost guaranteed to find something nearby. Having an experienced teacher and support group, through one of these courses, will be invaluable. But, above all, trust that your body is designed to birth a baby and make every effort to remain focussed on allowing your body to do this job as efficiently as possible!
See my “Post-partum Recovery” post for tips on the post birth period.
Recommended further reading:
- “Hypnobirthing: The Mongan Method” by Marie Mongan (2005),
- “Step-by-step Yoga for Conception, Pregnancy, Birth and Beyond” by Francoise Barbira Freedman (2014)
- “Magical Beginning, Enchanted Lives: A Holistic Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth” by Deepak Chopra (2005)
- “Mindful Beginnings” – www.mindfulbeginnings.net.au
- “Calmbirth” – www.calmbirth.com.au
- “Yoga Birth Method” – www.yogabirthmethod.com
- “Mindful Birthing” – www.mindfulbirthing.org