What happens to your body during labor and childbirth? How can you prepare yourself for a successful natural birth? Is natural childbirth just a matter of trusting your body, or are there more ways to prepare?
Getting ready for labor is one of the most important parts of preparing for your baby's arrival.
I've had eight wonderful, natural births. It drives me crazy when people say "you're just good at having babies" - and believe me, after eight babies, they say that a lot!
Well, yes, I'm good at it - but that's because I get ready for my baby's birth! You can have an excellent natural birth too. After 8 babies, here are my top 7 tips to help you get ready for safe, natural birth.
Every day of your pregnancy is part of preparing for birth.
Most women think about pregnancy as a time to grow a cute bump... and a cute baby. But pregnancy is so much more than that - it's also about preparing your body to give birth to your baby (and to breastfeed after your baby is born).
Taking care of yourself during pregnancy is a huge part of preparing for a safe, natural birth - birth doesn't start with the first contraction!
Great pregnancies are not just about good luck - there are so many things you can do to prevent complications from ever happening. Taking those steps also prepares your body for birthing.
Think about this - your uterus is more than just something that holds your baby. It's an incredibly powerful muscle. Would a woman preparing for a weight-lifting competition ignore how her diet impacted her muscle strength? She would know exactly what to eat to make sure her muscles had the energy they needed. But most women go into birth never giving their uterus a thought at all. The uterus must be well-nourished to have the strength and stamina to push your baby out.
The same steps you take to keep your body well-nourished and healthy during pregnancy will help your uterus (you could think of your pregnancy diet as a baby-building, uterus-building diet :p). The primary purpose of great pregnancy nutrition is to expand your blood supply, which means plenty of nutrients to:
Nutrition is the primary step you can take to have a low-intervention pregnancy.
You can physically prepare for birth - thought it's not going to be as intense as preparing for a weight-lifting competition 😉
Exercise in pregnancy is not about weight control, it's about mental well-being and preparing your body for birth. Giving birth is a bit of an endurance exercise for most women, so regular, light exercise is really helpful. Here are some do's and don'ts to help you plan a sensible routine:
When you maintain a regular exercise routine throughout pregnancy, you help keep your circulation going and build stamina-boosts into your day.
Exercise also gives you a chance to pay attention to:
All of these are helpful when it comes time to birth your baby - when you want to consciously relax and soften your body and muscles so your baby can come through.
I have been helping women prepare for natural birth for over a decade at this point. I've enjoyed helping women through this website, through my online birthing classes, and while assisting at births. One of the things I've noticed is:
The women who have the best experiences are the women who prepare the most
I tell my birthing class students that I want them to ask questions on our weekly call because the mamas who ask the most questions tend to have the best births!
When you commit to really preparing for a natural birth, things tend to go the way you want them to. It's frustrating to see women say things like "birth is just natural, I'll be okay..."
...or "I'll try to go natural but if I need the meds, I'll just get them."
Both of these mamas are likely to end up asking for medications -
Neither woman prepared.
If you want to have a natural birth, commit to preparing for a natural birth!
Insider tip: If you want a natural childbirth, do not take hospital classes!
An independent class is not biased towards hospital policies, and focuses more on helping you have the birth you want than on helping the hospital have a nice "assembly line" experience when you come in.
As a side note, birthing classes are an excellent way to prepare for birth even if you're planning a home birth or a birth center birth. Many midwives recommend that first-time parents take a local or online natural birthing class. Educated parents feel more confident handling the adventure of birthing.
And sometimes interventions are needed - parents who have taken birthing classes and feel prepared may feel disappointed that something was needed, but ultimately tend to feel like they were included and respected during their baby's birth and not belittled or forced into something they didn't want.
Be sure you choose a class where you can connect with the teacher and personally ask her questions - you might want clarification on something in the class, or you might just want her input on something you're facing with your own pregnancy. Having her perspective can be really helpful when you're confused or you're not sure which choices are right. She'll leave the ultimate decision up to you, of course, but having a listening ear is always helpful!
Obviously, I'm biased, but if you're looking for a good natural childbirth class that covers all aspects of preparing for a natural birth, my own online childbirth class is a great option!
MamaBaby Birthing classes are a six-week, self-paced series designed to help you feel confident and fully prepared for your baby's birthday. Plus have a live, weekly Q&A call where you can bring any (and all) of your questions. Check out full details at MamaBabyBirthing.com.
There's no underestimating the importance of choosing a care provider supportive of natural birth. Your care provider can literally "make or break" a good birth. Along with that, where you choose to give birth has a big impact on your birth experience. It's important to pick the right place - and the right people.
Birth is an incredible time on many levels - it's incredibly intense, incredibly powerful, and paradoxically, it's also incredibly vulnerable. In fact, pregnancy is incredibly vulnerable. It's interesting that at a time when a woman is at a height of personal power and energy, she's also very susceptible to other people, especially "authority" figures.
One of the reasons for this is because as a pregnant woman, you realize that you're doing something precious - carrying a baby. Care providers know this too, and can and sometimes will use it to manipulate you.
It's crude, but I want to share with you a term birth workers use to describe how this is used to manipulate women:
S/he used the dead baby card. or S/he waved the dead baby flag
You can probably guess exactly what this means - a care provider will (usually angrily) tell you that if you don't do exactly what s/he said when s/he says it, your baby will die (or be hopelessly handicapped for life or some variation of that theme).
It happens way more often than you'd think.
Even implying that a woman is being a neglectful mother or putting her baby in danger is often all that a care provider needs to do to get her to go along with his or her wishes, even if that's not actually ultimately best for the mother and baby. Even if it's simply for the care provider's convenience or to follow some institutional or insurance protocol.
Honestly - I'm not trying to scare you away from using a particular care provider. I just want you to realize that manipulation can and does happen. Many care providers are concerned with pleasing institutions, governments, and insurance companies. They want to look "good" for their peers. There are many political, peer, and bureaucratic pressures on care providers - and research is looked at skeptically, especially at first.
Even if a procedure was never backed by evidence, many providers won't abandon it until test, after test, after test, after trial, after trial, after trial has disproven the procedure.
It would be funny if we weren't talking about real mamas and real babies here.
The bottom line is this:
You must be the one in charge of your pregnancy and your baby.
You must be willing to research and make the choices that are right for you and your baby. That's not to say that you won't consult your care provider - I believe that a good care provider is a huge asset during your pregnancy. But in the end, you need to listen to what feels right... and what feels wrong... to you, and be willing to look into things more deeply if you're feeling strongly that something just isn't quite right.
And if a care providers feels a little (or a lot) "wrong" - figure out why that is and what to do about it.
It's very possible to find a good care provider, or at least find a care provider who is content to let you handle your pregnancy and birthing much how you'd like to.
Be willing to interview several care providers to find the one who is right for you. Understand the different options available to you:
Many of these terms vary by where you're located (for example, certified professional midwives are in the United States; independent midwife is a term often used in the UK or Australia for a midwife who is not part of the national health care system). It's a good idea to get a feel for what kind of care providers attend births in your country.
In general, midwives tend to have a more holistic view of pregnancy and birth - seeing you and your baby as connected, and seeing you as more than just a baby-growing machine. They believe that pregnancy and birth have physical aspects, of course, but that you are a whole person - physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, are important too. Appointments are often longer than typical doctor's appointments, and your midwife gives you a chance to talk about anything on any level. Your midwife will listen to the baby and also feel baby in your belly (called palpation) if you're far enough along.
In general, doctors tend to have more of an "assembly line" arrangement, where you're seen by nurses for standard screenings (urine, weight, etc.), then the doctor pops in for a moment or two to listen to the baby and ask you if you need anything. Doctors don't usually palpate or spend much time discussing your thoughts or concerns.
Obviously there are exceptions to both of those rules - but just as care during pregnancy is often very different, care during your birthing time is also often quite different. Midwives are more likely to let your birthing time start on its own, and let you move around and work with your baby so that your labor progresses naturally.
The moment of your baby's birth is an important one - and if you want a care provider who will be more "hands off" you need to talk to him or her beforehand. Many care providers - both doctors and midwives, are very "hands on."
You may not yet have an idea of what you want, which is why it's nice to read birth stories, take a good birthing class, and explore options to see what feels right to you.
Sometimes issues in your pregnancy or pre-existing conditions will influence your decision on care providers - that's fine. Just have an idea of what those things mean to you and how they'll impact your birth... and gauge how willing your care provider is to work with you.
Just as your care provider has a major influence on your pregnancy and birth, so does where you choose to give birth.
There's no doubt that giving birth at home is going to give you the greatest flexibility and control over your birthing time.
In addition, it's very safe. Read my extensive article on homebirth for more information on safety and practical considerations for homebirth (as well as what a home birth looks like!).
But hospitals and birthing centers are also options. Remember to look at your care provider, because they will make a big difference no matter where you're birthing. Then look at the policies and procedures for the place you're considering.
Questions like these can help you understand what you might experience - or need to fight - during your birthing time.
Remember that birthing women are in a vulnerable place. It is a powerful place, but also a place that can be exploited by rules, regulations, and "well meaning" staff during your birthing time.
There are some things that can help...
...for example, stay home as long as possible during labor.
Hiring a doula can also make a big difference.
Doulas have been proven (via multiple research studies) to help women during childbirth. They make it much less likely that a woman will request pain relief medications, or require interventions. They are very, very effective. A doula can also help run interference for you (give you space to consider care provider/hospital requests and demands) during your birthing time.
Explore your options and know what to do to have a great birth wherever you are thinking about giving birth. Expect that planning and preparing for a natural birth will take more than just deciding that it's a nice idea - think about how to make it happen 😉
Your birthing partner - be that your husband, your mom, your best friend, your sister... whomever - can be a huge help during your birthing time. They can also be no help at all 😉
You probably want someone who is really going to help you - and again, that takes some planning and preparation!
It's ideal if your partner can go through birthing classes with you. For an in-person class, you'll probably want them to go to each class session with you. If you're doing an online class it may be designed for both of you to go through each lesson, or some lessons may be geared towards you and others towards you and your birth partner. MamaBaby Birthing is a full online class with sessions that are beneficial for both of you as well as some you can go through on your own if you'd like to - I've had students who go through everything together, and some where the mama goes through and chooses what she'd like both of them to go through.
Regardless of what class you choose, be sure your partner goes through the important parts of it with you:
These are the top points to cover - obviously your birthing classes can go into a lot more depth and cover other important topics (like prenatal nutrition).
We talked about this above, but I think it's important to emphasize that home birth is a great option for many mamas and babies. It's not the most "popular" choice, but it is a safe choice - a choice that actually keeps you safe from many interruptions and routine procedures that you don't actually need to have.
A planned home birth with a healthy, well-prepared mama is a safe option that gives you and your baby an amazing start. Click here for my detailed information on deciding if homebirth is right for you and your baby.
If homebirth is not an option, at least consider spending as much time at home in your early birthing time as is possible - that way your labor pattern is well-established and hormones are flowing freely when you arrive at the hospital. Procedures are much less likely to interrupt.
But, again, consider if it might just be easier to stay at home in the first place 😉
I couldn't talk about preparing for a natural birth without talking about fear. Worry, anxiety, fear... they tend to go along with pregnancy. Having a baby is such a momentous change on so many levels. Not only does your body completely change, but your entire life is shifted to make space for this new little person - a person who really, really needs you!
All of those are things to consider during pregnancy, because ignoring them doesn't help much 😉 Take some time to think about what you feel anxious or worried about. How can you handle those things? Time spent on this now (though not pleasant) really pays off later.
The big thing most women worry about is birth. How can you handle natural childbirth? Will you have what it takes? Again, think about this ahead of time. Here are some specific tips to help:
Many mamas planning a natural birth worry about having unnecessary interventions forced on them. There are several things that can help prevent this from happening:
Another vital step is understanding interventions. When you know why an intervention is available, you know when you might need it.
You'll also realize it's true that many interventions are not supported by evidence - there is no need for them. You can comfortably decline most "routine" interventions - your body and your baby know better.
Some interventions are needed sometimes. It's always wise to think through three options when interventions are offered:
Often waiting (and changing something - like your position) can really make a difference, helping you to create room in your pelvis, giving baby a chance to move down, or just helping you mentally gear up for things to happen.
Understanding interventions - and the possible responses when they're offered (or pushed on you) - makes a huge difference.
I hate to say it, but sometimes listening to the well-meaning stories of others isn't the best idea. Here's the thing - you're going through this pregnancy and preparing for your birth with a completely different paradigm... a completely different mindset... than most other women today, and it's certainly very different than what most of our own mothers and grandmothers experienced.
Somebody's else's perceptions of pregnancy and birth can profoundly shape their choices and experiences. If a woman saw pregnancy as "dangerous" or complications just as "bad luck" or even "inevitable because I'm high-risk," that likely became a self-fulfilling prophecy. And if you prepare for childbirth expecting it to be a horrible experience, that's likely what it will be 🙁
It's not wrong for other women to share their stories - I think sharing stories is a powerful first step to creating change. But when you are walking through pregnancy and preparing for birth you have to protect yourself from the wrong messages. You're not hiding from reality - you're creating an environment that supports the reality you want.
Here's an example - you're really careful to eat well because you know that an excellent diet can prevent many pregnancy complications, help you grow a very healthy baby, and give your body lots of energy reserves for a safe, effective labor.
Being confident about your healthy pregnancy is not ignoring reality at all - it's being proactive with your health and your baby's health.
When you carefully prepare for the best outcomes, you can go through pregnancy with confidence.
The stories you hear can (and do) replay over and over in your mind, becoming messages that are hard to ignore. So if someone starts sharing a pregnancy or birth "horror story" with you, politely ask them to wait to share after your baby is born. Explain you're working hard to stay healthy and prepare for a great birth, and that's where your focus needs to be. And don't be afraid to step away from negative situations.
Being careful of the influences you have during pregnancy and birth is a first step towards good mental preparation. Sometimes people think that "mental preparation" is silly - some sort of weird, "out there" concept.
It's actually pretty smart 😉
Think about professional athletes. They spend a lot of time on their "mental game" before they ever get to the real game. They spend time preparing for victory, and then spend time picturing, or visualizing, the outcome they want. They see themselves achieving their goal.
Nobody jeers at athletes for doing this (in fact, modern society practically worships athletes!) - so don't feel weird. Take time to think through what you need to do to stay healthy during pregnancy, and to prepare for birth.
Picture your "perfect birth" - I actually recommend you take a little time every day to do just that.
It's literally like "practicing" for birth.
Your real birth may not look quite like that, and that's OK. None of mine have gone quite like I pictured (for some reason I was really loving the idea of baking a lasagna in early labor with Corwin... well, that never happened :p!) - but I have still had great births.
Mental preparation gives you chance to work through concerns and fears. If you have something that's bothering you, you can research how to prevent that concern - or plan how you'd handle it if it did happen (that's powerful). Even if you have "remote" concerns, you can think about how you'd handle those. For example, I always take a couple of times to picture how I'd handle things if I ended up birthing when Scott wasn't here. I don't picture that every day, like I do with my ideal birth, but enough to feel confident that I could handle things if baby came fast 😉
Mental preparation is important - sometimes it means seeking positive stories, guidance, or someone to listen to your concerns. All of those things are OK. Do what you need to do to get ready for baby - body, mind, and soul 😉 (need someone to encourage you, listen to you, and more during your pregnancy? check out my personal prenatals - available no matter where you are :))
Birth is an intense thing. I don't say that in a negative way. Think about sports again - think about a woman climbing a mounting, or competing in a triathlon... she is INTENSE, but we are cheering her on! She is beautiful, awe-inspiring, and in her zone.
Childbirth is beautiful, intense, in the zone.
And even when you've done all the preparation - physical, mental, etc., it's intense.
I believe that it's beautiful, intense work that all women can do - but that doesn't mean that it will be easy, or that it should be easy. I know that some of this is my own belief structure, but giving birth is bringing a new soul, a new being into the world. That is awesome work.
Your baby is working right alongside you 🙂
It's totally OK for it to be intense and require all of your attention. It's okay for it to push you, stretch you, challenge you, and show you the incredible strength and power that you have inside of you.
You are going to need that strength to mother your little one. Open to it, welcome it, and let it pour through to bring your baby into your arms.
Birth plans are trendy right now, but they're often completely useless.
Why? It's because they're long, impersonal lists of demands! Care providers don't read them and don't respect them. Think about it - do you really even know what's on that long list? Or did you just use a "birth plan generator" online, checking a few boxes and printing out the results?
I don't think you need to agonize over creating a birth plan, but you should consider each point. You should decide what's most important to you. And it's good to keep it succinct. This makes it far more likely that staff will actually read your birth plan.
One of the great strengths of a well-written birth plan is that it helps you talk over your wishes - well before you go into labor. Bring your birth plan to your prenatal appointments the last several weeks of pregnancy and discuss the points with your care provider. I also recommend that you include a few lines on your birth plan about the preparation you've done for your labor and birth.
I have a full article discussing this - check it out and get templates for creating a good birth plan here: Why Birth Plans Don't Work (and How to Write One That Does).
The big day is finally here! How do you make sure you have the best chances for a natural birth? Here are three critical tips:
This is the most important tip:
Do not go to the hospital too soon
Rushing in when you have the first hint of labor is not a good idea. In the past, hospitals sent mamas home when they came in too early (and some still do). But today, hospitals often keep you if the fetal monitor shows "regular" contractions, even if they aren't that strong or even close together. The problems start when the clock keeps ticking but no baby shows up. Hospitals have protocols and policies about how long mothers should be "allowed" to labor.
Most women have a long early labor - a gentle introduction that leads to active labor
You don't want to be at the hospital (or even birthing center) during this early stage. If you're planning a home birth, it's probably too early to have the midwife there, too 😉
Instead, plan on normal activities. Ask yourself "what do I want to do now?" If it's daytime, take it easy - rest, eat regularly, do a little cleaning or baby prep, watch a funny movie... If it's nighttime, go to sleep!
When things pick up in intensity and you know you're really working, then it's time to go in. You can always call your doctor or midwife to give them a "heads up" and stay in communication, but resist the urge to get excited and rush to the hospital! When the thought of going in feels more like a pain than exciting, it's probably time to go in 😉 The "411" rule is a good rule of thumb: Contractions are 4 minutes apart (from the start of one to the start of the next) and last for about 1 minute, and have been that way for 1 hour. If this is a second or subsequent baby, you may choose to with the 511 rule instead - contractions 5 minutes apart.
We never expect professional athletes to perform while starving. When people run marathons, there are stations set up with water, energy gels, etc. to help them keep going - to keep them from "hitting a wall."
Labor is often an endurance event and the uterus is literally a huge muscle.
You and your uterus need energy!
You may not want to eat full meals in labor, but nibbling on things to give you quick energy is a good idea. Here are some possibilities:
One of my mentors says that giving a mama a Mountain Dew or Sprite is better than letting her go with no energy!
Don't be afraid to eat because you're worried about vomiting - it does happen to some women and it's OK. Your birth team has seen it before. I've been talking with women about birth for well over a decade now and every woman I've talked to who threw up during labor says she felt better after and it was no big deal. Just sayin'!
For more detailed information on food and drink in labor vs. IV fluids, check out this article: IV vs Drinks in Labor: a Birthday Smackdown
If you're drinking and staying well hydrated through your birthing time, you need to make sure you're also going to the bathroom. A full bladder gets in the way of the uterus. Happily, going to the bathroom also gives you a chance to get up and get on the move 🙂
That's a great introduction to the next point. Moving in your birthing time is really, really important. Your baby is working hard, too. Many people think that babies are kind of like big lumps during birth - just dropping out of a mama. But that's not the case. Your baby is actively moving and rotating to help with the birthing process.
Another common misconception is that the pelvis is rigid. Your pelvis is actually naturally flexible, and becomes even more flexible throughout pregnancy thanks to hormones like relaxin. Even a little bit of flex can create a lot of movement in your pelvis and let your baby rotate and slip through.
When you stay active and moving during labor, you help your body to open and your baby to do the work that s/he needs to do. Walking, swaying, even climbing stairs can help get baby down into the pelvis and through your bones. A birth ball is a good tool to help you get a lot of mobility in your pelvis, even in a small hospital room.
Ask for intermittent fetal monitoring so you're able to be up and active throughout your birthing time. Need more information on fetal monitoring vs. movement in labor? Check out Is Fetal Monitoring Really Saving Babies?
Birth is completely natural, but most women don't grow up with good examples of birth. We're also told that pregnancy is tough, that childbirth is nothing but pain and mess and that "you're gonna ask for the epidural, you know" or "you can't do it without the drugs!"
First things first - those statements are false. You can totally give birth to your baby... naturally!
But because our society doesn't give good examples of birth, you probably need to discover what birthing "looks like" on your own. Unless you're an apprentice midwife or doula, you might not be watching many births, but you can still get an understanding of what a woman in her full power does during a natural birth. This is where reading natural birth stories is really helpful. You can also watch natural birth videos, but I actually recommend being really careful about that because video imagery can stick in your mind. Stories make it easier to pick and choose what you want to keep.
Another huge help in discovering birthing techniques is a good natural birthing class. Like I said above, but I believe my online birthing classes - MamaBaby Birthing are an excellent choice while you prepare for natural birth.
Here are some more tips for good birthing:
Many, many women like laboring in the water. A warm tub of water provides support and buoyancy, bringing instant relief to most mamas. That's one of the big reasons women use it, but water has additional benefits:
Many mamas just labor in the tub, but water birth is an option too. Water birth is very safe for both mama and baby, and may help you with slowly and gently birthing your baby. It also helps facilitate "mother directed" pushing, which evidence shows decreases the risk of tearing.
We discussed this above when we talked about movement, but it's so important that I wanted to mention it again - move and change positions during labor. If things are feeling really hard to manage, a position change can often make all the difference in the world.
Wait until a contraction is done, catch your breath, and then try shifting to a different position. Here are three good positions to try:
If you're feeling really tired or overwhelmed, side-lying on your left side can sometimes help you rest for a few contractions. You can actually push your baby out while lying on your side - have somebody help support your leg pulled up, close to your body.
Many mamas tell me that the most helpful thing they got from me was this:
You are not doing this alone - you are working with your precious baby
Sometimes things seem tough and overwhelming during labor, but keeping your baby in mind, that you are doing this with your baby and for your baby can make a huge difference. Hold that thought in your mind as you change positions, move, breathe, spiral, spin, and work your way through the energy and power of birth.
Changing positions and keeping baby in mind can help you keep labor moving and effective. But breath is powerful to help you get back in control if you feel like you're losing it - so it's an important tool.
You don't really need a special "breathing technique" for labor, though understanding breathing really helps. You can get a good idea of how breathing helps (and when it doesn't) by paying attention to how you breathe right now.
Think about that right now and over the next several days - pay attention to your breathing. Just being aware will likely teach you quite a bit 😉
Want a list of quick tips for handling labor? Check out my Pain relief tips checklist!
Here's more information on preparing for a natural birth: