When I tell pregnant friends I delivered all three of my babies without pain meds, most of them look at me as if I'm crazy: Why would anyone in her right mind pass up an epidural? Um, large needle to the spine? No thanks!
Turns out, ditching the drugs has advantages I didn't even know about. Women who get an epidural (as the majority giving birth vaginally in the U.S. do) have a greater incidence of risky interventions to get Baby out, such as vacuum extraction and delivery by forceps, or even a c-section, according to a recent study in National Vital Statistics Reports. An epidural can also mean short-lived but unsavory side effects for Mom, including low blood pressure, headache, and fever. Not exactly the warm and fuzzy feelings you want in those first moments with your newborn!
Recovery, too, can be smoother for those who go au natural. "These moms are up faster, feel better, and often experience less tearing and swelling," says Ryan Dickerson, M.D., an obstetrician in Baton Rouge. (Women who skip the meds instinctively push, rather than exerting when they are told, which mean less pushing -- and less tearing, Dr. Dickerson explains. Other reasons they stay more intact: They generally don't need equipment to get Baby out and they get vaginal exams to see how far labor has progressed.) And whether they end up with an epidural or not, patients who intend to forgo the drugs often make a more concerted effort during their pregnancy to eat right, exercise, and learn relaxation exercises that keep them feeling more in control during labor, Dr. Dickerson says.
Want to give it a go? Tap into these strategies from experts and moms who made it through without meds. Even if you do opt for the epidural (hey, we're not judging!), you can stay calmer and more comfortable till the anesthesiologist arrives.
Get Into Marathon Mode
They have more in common than huffing and puffing: Like long distance running, childbirth calls for energy and stamina. "You increase your chances for success [of natural birth] by being very physically fit," Dr. Dickerson says. You'll want to consider the 10 months of pregnancy your training period, and start preparing for labor early on by working out regularly, he says. Dr. Dickerson's prescription: 30 minutes of movement, seven days a week. Hit the elliptical machine or stationary bike and aim to get your heart rate up to 150 beats per minute and keep it there; lace up your sneaks and walk whenever you can. (However, if you were not physically fit before becoming pregnant, check with your doctor to come up with a safe cardio plan for you.) Flexibility, especially in your hips, will help you when it comes time to push, so stretching sessions are important too. Shoot for 30 minutes of prenatal yoga (either a video or a class) one or two days a week. Cautionary word to the wise: Your body produces relaxin in pregnancy, which makes you naturally flexible, so be careful not to overstretch or work yourself too hard.
Kate Clow, a mom of three in Chatham, New Jersey, credits her pregnancy workout routine for getting her through her third labor: "When I was at 10 centimeters and my midwife told me to push, I was like, This is it?!" says Clow. "It was night and day from the labors I had had with my two daughters." Her regimen: 45 minutes of jogging three days a week (she switched to walking at 20 weeks), plus strength-training once a week, which included push-ups and squats.
Exercise will also prevent you from gaining too much, which correlated with delivering a bigger baby. The larger the baby, the harder she'll be to get out, emphasizes Dr. Dickerson. Of course, following a healthy diet is also key. Pass the veggies, please!
Believe in Your Body
It's designed to grow a baby for nine months and welcome her into the world. "The pelvis and vaginal tissues were built for delivery, the brain releases endorphins that help with pain, and the fetus has a soft spot on her head so it can mold to fit out of the birth canal," says Dr. Dickerson. What's more, "complications are the exception -- not the rule." So each time you look at your beach ball of a belly in the shower and start to panic over how that baby is going to squeeze out of there, repeat this mantra: Birth is a natural function. My body knows how to do it, just like it knows how to breathe. You were born to breed!
Learn to Let Go
From my second trimester on, each night before falling asleep, I tensed and released various muscle groups while chanting a mantra that went like this: I am relaxing my forehead, I am releasing my forehead, I am relaxing my forehead. I am relaxing my nose, I am releasing my nose, I am relaxing my nose. I focused on each part of my body from head to toe, imagining melting each one into my mattress like a scoop of ice cream on a hot sidewalk. This exercise, called Progressive Relaxation, teaches you to isolate muscle groups, so you're aware of them during labor and can make sure they are limp and lax, says Julietta Appleton, certified childbirth educator, hypnotherapist, and labor doula in Bedford Corners, New York. "During labor you want all of your voluntary muscles -- like your jaw, shoulders, and back -- to let go so your blood supply is focused on your hard-working uterus." Practice releasing your muscles 15 minutes per day, says Appleton. They'll be more mellow when it's go-time.