When you’re reaching the end of pregnancy, it’s normal to wonder what labor will be like and how you will manage to give birth. This is especially true for first-time mothers. But even women who have given birth before question if labor will be shorter or easier than previous births – maybe even worrying that labor will be difficult if prior births were challenging. With a little planning, though, you may be able to have an easier, shorter, more manageable labor.
1. Learn About What To Expect
Start by reading as much as you can about pregnancy and birth. Then, find a childbirth class to attend. Research shows that when women attend a birth preparation class during pregnancy, they use less pain medication, have shorter labors, and feel better about their birth experiences. Ask other new mothers for class recommendations, and check with your healthcare provider or the facility where you plan to give birth to see what they suggest.
You may hear of Lamaze, the Bradley Method, Hypnobirthing, and more. Explore what each class and each instructor offers. Do you need a class just about epidurals? Are you interested in natural birth? Do you have time for a series of classes, or are you looking for a single-session seminar? Do classes include instruction about baby care or breastfeeding? Find a class that best suits your goals.
What most classes have in common is a focus on the process of childbirth. You will learn what to expect during labor and birth, how to manage contractions, what to do if you are feeling pain, fear or tension, and options available for managing the work of giving birth. Hopefully this will take away at least a little bit of the apprehension about giving birth. Another great benefit is meeting other women going through the same thing as you are, and they may prove to be a great support network as you all prepare for becoming parents.
2. Let Go Of Your Fears
Women who are fearful about birth tend to experience more painful labors. In his classic book, Childbirth Without Fear, Grantly Dick-Read suggests that this fear can lead to bodily tension, which can lead to more pain and additional fear, and ultimately, a longer labor. Research about hormones and birth confirms the physiologic basis of this – if your body is releasing lots of fight-or-flight hormones, your labor will slow or stall completely, leading to more medical intervention. Consider writing down all of your fears and joys related to pregnancy, birth and parenting. Then work through your list and see if there are ways to combat those fears now. If, for instance, you’re fearful of needing a cesarean birth, learn more about how to prevent such an event.
3. Stay Fit During Pregnancy
Women who exercise regularly during pregnancy are better able to deal with the physical demands of labor, and may have shorter births. Remember – it’s called labor for a reason – it’s hard work! If you were physically active before becoming pregnant, you may be able to keep up your routine with adjustments for comfort and safety as your baby grows. If you were more sedentary, start slowly. Ask your healthcare provider before starting any exercise program, especially if you have risk factors such as preeclampsia or a history of preterm labor. Experts recommend 30 minutes of moderate exercise everyday. Walking, swimming and yoga all make excellent pregnancy exercises.
A healthy diet of natural foods will keep you feeling your best. Limit processed and refined ingredients as much as possible, and eat plenty of fruits, vegetables and proteins. Learning what foods are best for pregnancy, and what foods to avoid will keep your body healthy, and get you ready for the work of birth.
Just as regular exercise will overall keep you in shape, doing specific exercises targeted at your perineal region may get your body ready to actually push a baby out. While the research about the benefits of pelvic floor exercises is sometimes contradictory, doing regular Kegels will at least help you tune into that part of your body. Then when it’s time to push, you will at least have an idea of what muscles to use (and those muscles may be stronger). So, how do you Kegel? The next time you urinate, stop midway. The muscle that clenches is your pelvic floor muscle, and the one you want to exercise.
5. Get Your Baby Into Just The Right Position
Getting your baby into the best position to be born can lead to a shorter labor – if your baby is well aligned with the birth canal and is head-down, your labor will go more smoothly. Consider doing the ‘cat pose’ – get on your hands and knees, and slowly tuck your pelvis in and arch your back a bit, then release and return to a nice flat back (not swaying it toward the floor). This gentle movement will nudge baby along with the help of gravity so that his back is along your abdomen like a hammock – a perfect position for being born!
6. Hire A Doula
Research shows that women who have continuous support during labor have a shorter, more comfortable labor, experience fewer interventions (including cesarean birth), and use pain medication less often. A doula is a woman trained to support others through the birth process. A doula has faith in your ability to give birth, but also knows tricks and tips to help make it happen more comfortably. She won’t replace the support of your partner, but will enhance the experience for both of you.
7. Avoid Induction Unless Medically Necessary
While it’s great that we have the ability to start labor artificially if it’s medically necessary, induction should only be used when the benefit outweighs the risks. And one of the risks is a longer labor and the greater use of pain medications and other interventions. If your healthcare provider suggests an induction, ask plenty of questions to be sure you understand why it is being advocated and what the risks are. Then educate yourself about how to combat those risks – such as by having a doula present.
8. Stay Home As Long As You Can In Labor
Many women go to their chosen birth location too early in labor. Once there, it’s more likely the medical staff will intervene to speed labor along. You will be more comfortable in your own home, with your partner and maybe other family members, using your own kitchen, bed and bathroom. The familiarity of home helps you feel safe and secure – two important conditions for the optimal release of birth hormones. For some women, just the move from home to their birth location is enough to disrupt their hormones (and thus their contractions), and it takes a little while to acclimate to the new location before labor begins progressing again. Most healthcare providers say to stay home until your contractions are coming every three to five minutes, lasting a minute each, and have been that way for an hour. Take into consideration your distance from the hospital, but know that staying home as long as possible may actually shorten your labor.
9. Keep Moving And Change Positions Often
Lying flat on your back throughout labor will slow things down and be more painful for you. Get up and get moving. Any shifts of your pelvis – such as from walking or from climbing stairs – will nudge your baby into position. And gravity will help – upright positions will allow gravity to pull baby against the cervix and toward the birth canal. If you are feeling pain in the position you’ve chosen, move and change positions. Use the information your body is giving you to find comfort, and with comfort comes labor progress.
10. Push In An Upright Position
Squatting, hands and knees, standing, semi-reclining, on a birthing stool or an exercise ball – all of these positions can shorten the pushing stage of labor by letting gravity assist baby’s descent. Some positions, such as squatting, will also open the pelvis a little wider (giving baby more room to maneuver through) and may shorten the birth canal (so baby has less distance to cover to be born).
Talk to your partner, and work together to write a birth plan taking all of the tips above into consideration. Whether you’re 13 weeks or 33 weeks, it’s never too early in pregnancy to begin considering your options, researching alternatives and preparing for the work ahead.