Birth is a Participatory Sport

About once a month, I go to our local hospital to speak to pregnancy groups about doula care.  It’s actually one of my most favorite things to do; these groups are midwife-run, full of families of all types, and they laugh at my lame jokes.  I’ve been doing this for nearly a year, and I’ve gotten into a nice routine of what I like to talk about, which stories I like to tell, and can anticipate the kinds of questions I will most likely get.

The expecting parents in this group don’t often open up to me a whole lot–I’m just there for twenty minutes, as a “guest speaker,” and there are varying ideals and attitudes in the group.  Some are hoping to go completely earthy-crunchy natural, some are planning a swift epidural, some are just freaked out by the whole idea and would rather be knocked out for the entire laboring process.  I don’t usually get to hear much as I come in, give my little talk, thank everyone for their time, and scoot back out.

This last meeting, however, they were wrapping up right after I was done, so I just stayed in my chair and wandered out quietly with the families.  There was more relaxed chatter, and I enjoyed just listening to the Mommas as they processed their group discussion, and talked about how their extended families were treating this pregnancy.  One thing that I heard actually rather shocked me.

“My grandmother was over for the holidays, and really putting a lot of pressure on me.  ‘I gave birth naturally, your MOM gave birth naturally, so it’s highly likely you will be able to, also…’  I told her ‘Grandma, I have NO CONTROL over what’s going to happen, so please keep your opinion to yourself..’ I mean, it’s nice and all that THEY were able to, but seriously, that’s not really something I can just plan on, you know?”

I so wanted to stop her, put my hands on her shoulders and have a heart-to-heart right there.  However.  I could just hear the NEXT elevator conversation about that “wacky, pushy doula-chick,” and decided that it might not be in anyone’s best interests.  So, I blog.  You’re welcome, dear readers.


I always tell my clients that birth is kind of like a wedding; you can pretty much count on something going wonky.  Another phrase they hear from me often is that the most predictable thing about birth is that it is unpredictable.  This doesn’t make it sound like there is much that a laboring Momma can do to actively control her labor, and that is true…but only to a point.

However, there is SO much that a Momma CAN do to give herself excellent chances of a smooth labor with outcomes that she is happy with.  Reasonable hopes are a first step:  a calm labor, feeling loved, supported and relaxed, healthy delivery, and strong recovery time are all perfectly reasonable.  Many of my clients add to that with the hopes of a complication-free vaginal delivery, and both minimal pain medications and medical interventions.  Sometimes they are almost afraid to state that they want these things, because, you know, we can’t control labor, but I really think these hopes actually are reasonable.

There are reasons why birth centers accomplish these kinds of births as their great majority, and it’s not because they only have exceptionally lucky mothers.  There are things that families can DO that greatly influence the kind of birth they have, and honestly, the more active a mother is in preparing for birth the better it all goes.  No, we can’t guarantee anything, but we sure can tip the scales more in one direction or another.


This is my list of great places to start–and it’s best to start some of these very early in pregnancy, as many of them set the body up long-term for health and ability.


How we eat vastly affects our health.  Getting in high-quality nutrients, with lots of protein and vitamins, and very few inflammatory-causing foods, is often the easiest and absolutely most beneficial way to set up well for birth.  I’ve written before about my love of Trim Healthy Mama, and I can’t think of anything better for the childbearing year.  They advocate a highly nutritious method of getting all the protein and fuel you need to nourish yourself and your baby while keeping excess weight at bay, and preventing inflammation.  Look here for a blurb about this system during pregnancy.


I remember how easy it was to justify sitting around with my feet up, simply because I was pregnant.  However, a sedentary body is not one that will be set up for success during the marathon that is labor.  There are TONS of pregnancy-safe workout videos out there, but I really, really love the Spinning Babies website.  Their focus is on helping Momma move so that baby can get in a good position.  This makes a HUGE difference in how well and how quickly labor goes.  If baby is in a wonky position, their little head won’t put pressure on the cervix in a good way, and that means a longer labor with little progress, and lots more pain in either the back or the hips.  If Momma has tight ligaments from lack of movement, her pelvis will have a more difficult time opening up and flexing to allow baby to move down.  This list of daily activities from Spinning Babies is simply ideal.


Knowledge is power, Mommas. Understanding how this whole labor and birth thing works will enable you to be much more pro-active in working with your body.  There are so many resources out there, that I’m just going to recommend two.  If I could get every expecting Momma I know to read just these, it would be so crazy helpful.

Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn is co-authored by one of my personal heroes, Penny Simkin.  It’s just wise and informational and level-headed, and it covers pretty much all the basics.

Breastfeeding Made Simple is simply the hands-down best book about nursing that I’ve ever found.  If you don’t have time to read the whole thing, just read chapters two and three.  Those are the ones that get into WHY baby needs to nurse as much as they do, and HOW to set up a good, comfortable rhythm.


A Mother’s initial choice in caregiver–whether that be a midwife or doctor–can influence nearly everything about her labor.   On the web, it is considered the most important decision a family can make.  I recommend thinking through how you would like your birth to go, and then finding a caregiver who matches those ideals.

And of course, hire a doula.  Duh.  One of my doula sisters would love nothing more than to support you in your birthy goals.  Even the American College of Obstetricans and Gynecologists (ACOG), has said that “one of the most effective tools to improve labor and delivery outcomes is the continuous presence of support personnel, such as a doula….. this resource is probably underutilized.”


I also tell many of my clients that moving through labor is primarily a mind game.  If you can purposefully relax, it will set off a cascade of hormones that both minimize pain and help the cervix open.  Practicing purposeful relaxation during pregnancy helps to lay down patterns of familiarity that will be ready for you when labor starts.

This can be as simple as turning on some favorite, soothing music once a day and settling back with a favorite blankie, to concentrate on slow breathing.  One of my doula sisters has told me about a birth she recently attended where Momma used relaxation techniques she learned from HypnoBabies. My sweet friend was blown away with how quickly and easily that birth went, and attributes much of it to Momma’s purposeful preparation in relaxation techniques.   We’re both looking into becoming “HypnoDoulas” now.

I wouldn’t ever want to oversimplify how fantastic and complex and amazing labor and birth are, but honestly, some simple and basic self-care can really set up for a gentler, faster labor.  Rather than having “absolutely no control over what happens,” we women can shape our birthing experiences in pretty significant ways.  Don’t let yourself slip into a passive role…birth is best when it is viewed as a prepared, participatory event.

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