Mindfulness is a popular practice that's great for your health—including your mental health. Here's how to make it work for you during pregnancy.
The benefits of mindfulness are well-documented—study after study shows how much it can help practitioners with everything from anxiety and depression to insomnia and weight loss. But did you know mindfulness is a seriously beneficial practice during pregnancy, too? Simply tuning in and being aware can be a powerful tool to lessen stress, calm anxiety, and help you feel more connected during those long nine months.
Low cost, low-risk, and easy to learn, mindfulness in pregnancy is increasingly researched—and recommended, including by doctors. A 2017 systematic review of evidence suggests that mindfulness practices can help anxiety, depression, and stress during the perinatal period. Another recent study showed that mindfulness-based childbirth education helped women deal with fear and pain during childbirth. And a 2015 study published in the journal Early Human Development found that maternal mindfulness during pregnancy could positively affect babies after birth, too.
But what exactly is mindfulness? According to Tracy Donegan, a medically-trained midwife in Ireland and founder of popular worldwide childbirth education program GentleBirth, it's the simple act of "paying attention, on purpose, without judgment." Yes, it's similar to meditation, but mindfulness is a bit more simple and informal—it's a lot less "om" and a lot more "everything is going to be OK." Mindfulness often happens in the form of breath awareness, focused concentration, or simple sitting.
And no, you don't need to be a hyper-flexible yogini or a zenned out meditation guru to reap the benefits of mindfulness. It can be as uncomplicated as checking in with your body and mind and focusing on the present moment. Ashley Jonkman, a freelance writer and mother of three, used simple mindful awareness during her third pregnancy. "Honestly, with two other children to care for and my own business to run, I didn't have a lot of extra time," she says. "My mindful practice often happened while I was doing the dishes, reading a story to my boys, or trying to get everyone into the car in one piece."
Donegan, too, stresses how easy it can be to incorporate mindfulness into your life: "Mindfulness is something you can do as you empty the dishwasher, as you take a shower. It's not about overloading you with additional work you have to do during pregnancy."
In the maze of blood tests, baby gear, and birth plans that come along with modern pregnancy, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and stressed out. So don't think of mindfulness as yet another to-do list item before baby comes, but as a significant tool to keep you healthier and happier.
Nancy Bardacke, CNM, a certified nurse midwife, mindfulness teacher, founding director of the Mindful Birth and Parenting Foundation, and author of Mindful Birthing, says mindfulness is one simple way to feel more content: "Parents today have a lot on their minds, as life is moving very fast, and we know that many health-related difficulties are related to stress. So how can we learn how to slow down and calm down? Mindfulness is about training the mind to work with the body, so you are more in balance."
If you'd like to try mindfulness during pregnancy, don't be intimidated. There are many few books, apps, and other tools that can help you get started. (Expectful and the GentleBirth app are both specific to pregnancy, but any mindfulness program, like Headspace, can help. You can also look for a childbirth education program that includes mindfulness training.)
Remember that it's important to keep it simple—don't start off trying to meditate for 30 minutes a day and feel guilty if you can't keep it up. "Begin with just brushing your teeth mindfully," says Donegan, "then slowly weave it into an already busy schedule." Every little bit helps, even just a few mindful minutes at a time.
Bardacke says you can actually use your pregnancy as a way to remind yourself to be mindful: "Let the baby be your mindfulness teacher from the very beginning. When you feel the baby moving, stop and come back to the present moment, if you can. Feel the baby in your belly, feel the breath as the belly rises and falls, and just be present with your baby."
Both Bardacke and Donegan say mindfulness can be a powerful tool well into parenting, too, including during the intense few weeks immediately after birth. For Donegan, being mindful "really helps you keep a flexible mindset when it comes to birth and parenting. We go into it thinking we know how it should be and it often turns out very different. Mindfulness builds emotional resilience so if something comes up you don't expect, you can bounce back."
A little mindfulness, practiced in whatever way makes sense for you and your lifestyle, can truly aid your transition into parenthood. Jonkman says her mindful practice continues to provide benefits after giving birth: "I love mindfulness because it's a small, invisible thing I can do for myself that helps me make it through the day as the person—mom, wife, friend, self—that I want to be."