It often feels like life is moving faster and faster all the time, but in the delivery room, things are actually slowing down. A National Institutes of Health study found that childbirth for first-time moms now takes 2.6 hours longer than it did 50 years ago. To make that extra time in the delivery room less painful and more joyful, it helps to know how to make the hard work of having a baby more manageable. Starting today, here are 12 things you can do to make your birth experience that much easier.
Take a childbirth course and enroll as early as possible: Not only do classes fill up fast, but some, such as The Bradley Method courses, run 12 weeks, which means you need to start them in your second trimester.
Also, find out what your doctor's philosophy is on Cesarean sections and epidurals versus drug-free ways of managing pain. Ask tough questions—and "stupid" ones, too— to learn about the different stages of labor so you know what to expect. "The better prepared you are, the more choices you have during labor," says nurse practitioner Lynette Miya, M.N., R.N.P., of Torrance, Calif. "You don't want to arrive at the hospital without any idea of what's going to happen." Once labor starts, no surprise is a good surprise.
"The most important thing women learn through yoga is how to focus," says Carmela Cattuti, L.P.N., a Boston-based Kripalu certified instructor specializing in prenatal yoga certification training. "It also strengthens the entire body, increases flexibility, and gives you stamina. But what is possibly even more helpful is that it helps your mind relax." This, in turn, leaves your body free to go about the business of birthing.
Some childbirth educators believe graphic images, catastrophic tales, and words of discouragement ("You'll never be able to get that monster out without a C-section!") can affect your subconscious and create a mental block during labor.
At best, negative thoughts make labor stressful; at worst, they'll actually intensify pain. Change the channel on the TV, tune out or walk away when the subject matter makes you uncomfortable; also, shield yourself from scary labor Facebook threads by logging off.
When you're in the grip of labor, it's too late to crack open that self-hypnosis book or locate a birthing ball. Preparation counts.
Case in point: Squatting increases the size of the pelvic opening by about 28 percent. But if you wait until you're in labor to try it for the first time, your squatting stamina won't add up to, well, squat.
Doulas are nonmedical professionals trained to provide emotional and physical support as well as information to women during pregnancy and labor. Studies have found that with a trained doula's continuous support, labor times are shorter and the need for epidurals, C-sections, oxytocin for induction and forceps were decreased by about half. Another study concluded that women who received support through a hospital- based doula program were more likely to attempt breastfeeding. Check out DONA International (dona.org) to help you locate a certified doula in your area.
Learn several effective techniques to manage pain during childbirth, such as self-hypnosis, labor position changes, heat pack application, and different breathing methods. "If you don't know what your options are, you don't have any," says Tracy Hartley, a certified doula and owner of B*E*S*T Doula Service in Los Angeles.
Upright positions, such as standing, walking, kneeling, slow dancing, sitting, and squatting, allow gravity to help move the baby down and out.
"Sometimes, getting the baby into the pelvis is like fitting a key into a lock," Hartley says. "You need to do a little jiggling. Rocking back and forth on your hands and knees may help to get the baby into position."
For most women, a dark and quiet environment is ideal during labor, so ask your nurse or partner to dim the lights and minimize noise. Little touches make a difference: a favorite pillow, pair of socks , or soothing scent.
Many hospitals also offer alternative delivery rooms that look more like your mom's house than a maternity ward. "Our birthing-center rooms have queen-size beds, regular curtains, even area rugs," says June Egee, R.N., coordinator of the birthing center at Women and Infants Hospital, in Providence. Even if you end up with a standard hospital room, make sure to give it a personal touch. Take along a picture from home, or make a playlist. (Many women find that listening to soft music with a steady beat helps them count through their contractions.)
"The more at ease a woman is, the better able she is to deal with the challenges of labor," says Melody Cook, a certified prenatal and postpartum massage therapist in Richardson, Texas. "She's also going to think more calmly and clearly."
One of the latest techniques for staying calm during childbirth is HypnoBirthing, in which mothers-to-be learn how to put themselves into a deeply relaxed state. A study by the University of Florida, in Gainsville, found that women trained in self-hypnosis were better able to manage their anxiety and discomfort and had fewer complications and shorter hospital stays than other women.
Not sure you want to go quite that far? Try visualization. "I encourage my patients to picture a field of flowers or think about holding their baby in their arms," says Linda Given Welch, director of nurse-midwifery at Louis A. Weiss Memorial Hospital, in Chicago. Feel free to improvise. That's what Kathy Chia, of New York City, did. "My husband helped me visualize the contractions by describing the graph peaks on the monitor. I closed my eyes and imagined myself cycling up a huge mountain, reaching the top, and then coming back down."
The warmth and weightlessness of a bath can be soothing throughout your labor, so if you have access to a warm tub, take the plunge. (Be sure to get your doctor or midwife's green light before doing so; there's a risk of infection if your water has broken.)
If a soak isn't possible, try taking a shower.
Added pressure might seem like the last thing you'd want during labor. But touch can help ease a woman's tense body. "Massage releases endorphins, the brain's feel-good chemicals," says Cook. A neck or foot rub can do wonders to take a woman's mind off her contractions. Or have your partner or birthing coach apply counterpressure with these three techniques.
Tailbone press. With each contraction, your partner presses on your tailbone with the heel of his hand or a tennis ball.
Back caress. Your partner lightly runs his fingertips over your shoulders and down your back.
Pelvis press. While standing behind you, your partner puts his hands on your hips and pulls back on them firmly with each contraction (you tell him when). This maneuver can also help open the pelvis slightly to make room for your baby.
Labor transforms you, but it won't make you suddenly love lime Jell-O, New Age music, or the sight of your in-laws as you breathe through a contraction. People may push all kinds of suggestions on you during labor; listen but don't feel you have to go along with them.
It's your body, your baby and your labor, so stick to your guns. Consider it practice for when your baby is a teenager.