Before getting pregnant, my experiences of birth were limited to a terrifying-as-hell video in Year 11 Human Biology (I did go to a Catholic boarding school after all, where I can only assume they were trying to frighten us out of ever having sex) and equally horrific scenes from movies like Knocked Up that showed women screaming, grunting, swearing and generally wishing they were having a limb cut off instead.
This Hollywood view may be great entertainment, but it’s incredibly daunting for anyone who’s just fallen pregnant and realised the challenge of your newborn baby being the size of a watermelon but where it comes from being… well… a lot smaller.
It would be easy to freak the hell out at this alone. But when I found out I was out pregnant I wanted to work out how I could make my first birth as natural and positive as I could, and even look forward to it rather than dread it.
A natural birth to me meant choosing not just to go unmedicated (i.e. without an epidural or being induced with artificial hormones), but also educating myself on my options, creating a positive mindset, practicing deep breathing and meditation, learning about helpful massage techniques and birthing postures, and being physically fit. Preparing for a natural birth starts long before you’re actually in the delivery room!
Here are the ways I’m preparing for a natural birth, and how you can do the same.
1. Take hypnobirthing classes.
Hypnobirthing sounds a bit woo-woo, but essentially it’s just reprogramming yourself to not be scared of birth and to see it as an empowering, connected experience that our bodies were designed to do.
There are books on the subject but I think classes are better as they’re guided, you can ask questions, you usuallt get resources (like CDs, meditation scripts and affirmation cards), plus you get to meet other like-minded people. (Classes are normally a few hours a week for several weeks or a 1-day intensive workshop. You can do them at any time during your pregnancy, though it’s recommended to start from 24 weeks onwards. I started classes a forntight ago at a holistic community centre near my house, which are 3 hours each Saturday mornings for 4 weeks.)
Hypnobirthing teaches you:
- How to relax yourself on cue with different breathing, meditation, visualisation and massage techniques
- Postures and positions that help your body open and relax instead of tense during the birth
- How to think of the birth in a positive way instead of an “oh shit, how am I ever supposed to do this” way
- Different words and phrases (like ‘surge’ instead of ‘contraction’ – I’m a big believer in the power of language, so I love this part of it)
- Different birth options and choices – e.g. location (home birth, birth centre or hospital); support (midwives, doulas); if you do need intervention or a caesarean, how to still make it a positive experience; and much more.
Hypnobirthing doesn’t tell you that epidurals are evil, that western medicine doesn’t have a place or that hospitals are empty and soulness so you should give birth in a pool, at home, surrounded by chanting unicorns.
It just provides you the tools, resources and knowledge of what your choices are. For example, in my class we’re encouraged to come up with two lists – firstly what our ‘dream’ birth would look like; and secondly if something did go wrong, a list of what interventions we were re comfortable with (e.g. epidural, forceps, induction, episiotomy). And if you do need a caesarean, you’re given information around your options like asking the doctors to dim the lights, playing music of your choice or having the screen up or down so you can see the baby coming out.
Nothing is preachy or negative. It’s just educational and incredibly inspiring.
If I could recommend one thing for every expectant mother to do, it would be this!
2. Read positive birth books.
These are my favourites:
The Positive Birth Book by Milli Hill. I read half of this in one night. It was practical, funny and detailed. I particularly loved the part which broke up the labour and birth process into 14 stages – so you have a better idea of what’s going to happen when, instead of just a general “part 1 is having contractions, part 2 is pushing the baby out and part 3 is after”.
Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin. One of the oldest and most popular natural birthing books. The first section is birth stories based on the author’s experience setting up a remote community in Tennessee in the 1970s, where women still travel now to give birth naturally with a team of experienced midwives. The personal accounts of how so many women actually loved giving birth was inspiring. The second section is a guide to the natural processes and systems in our bodies that mean we’re designed to give birth (like the 4 specific hormones released during the process that create a happy natural pain relief cocktail), how to create a safe and comfortable birth environment, and tips for having the most positive experience possible.
Buddhism for Mothers by Sarah Napthali. Even if you belong to another (or no) religion or have no experience with Buddhism, this is a great book about how to manage anxiety, increase your inner calm and feel a greater connection to yourself and your children. Although this is my first pregnancy and I don’t already have kids, much of the content is applicable to pregnancy and general life, not just motherhood, so I’ve already got tons of useful info from it. It’s useful, practical and non-judgemental.
3. Say positive affirmations.
If I didn’t lose you with the hypnobirthing suggestion, stay with me on this one. The thought of saying affirmations can seem ridiculous, but I promise it’s not. There’s plenty of science behind why repeating a positive phrase over and over is beneficial – it’s enjoyable to focus on what we value, it can help regulate our emotions, and it can help us distance ourselves from the things we’re worried about.
Saying positive affirmations isn’t about blindly chanting irrelevant, sappy sentences like “I recieve love, I am love, I am at one with the world” (while crying with a packet of chocolate biscuits because you don’t believe what you’re saying). It’s about coming up with statements that resonate with you personally, you enjoy saying and you genuinely believe. They’re a reminder everyone gets scared sometimes – but we don’t have to listen to those fears, and can choose a positive mindset instead.
I got a pack of affirmation cards from my hypnobirthing class, but admittedly most of them were a little out there even for me. (Also my husband Ben let slip that last week he took my pack of cards and was delighting in reading them out to his family while crying with laughter. I definitely had a giggle at this. I understand they’re not for everyone!)
So I chose to write my own and keep them stored in my phone, and whenever I feel anxious about the idea of birth (which is very normal) I stop what I’m doing, close my eyes, start breathing deeply and repeat them 10-20 times until I feel better. For example:
- My body has been perfectly designed over thousands of years for this experience. It knows exactly what to do.
- Any pressure or intensity (I consciously use these words instead of ‘pain’) is temporary and manageable.
- I’m capable of incredible, extraordinary things.
4. Seek out stories of other women who’ve had positive naturals births.
I’ve chosen not to read birth ‘horror stories’, and when people want to tell me about their bad experiences, I gently ask them not to. Instead, I seek out and keep a list of benefits to a natural birth plus examples of positive stories. For example, to help me stay strong in my desire not to have an epidural, these are some examples from the pregnancy forums I’m part of:
An unmedicated birth helps you feel more in control, empowered and connected:
- “I loved the rush and feel of a natural labour.”
- “There’s something wonderful and empowering about giving birth, and going all natural gives more control over labour.”
- “I feel over time that we’ve become disconnected from our most natural biological processes, including birth, and I wanted to fully experience it if I could. That included the pain and the ‘rush’ of birth.”
- “I wanted to be fully present. I’m wasn’t afraid of pain, but I was afraid of being out of control of my body.”
- “I felt in control because I could actually feel my body.”
It helps you recover faster:
- “Not having an epidural helped my labour progress much faster, as in under 2 hours.”
- “Recovery was much better for me after the natural birth. I went home at 11pm, the same evening as having baby, and was out doing stuff like normal the next day. The epidural birth, I stayed in hospital and was sore for a lot longer afterwards.”
You avoid potential side effects, numbness and needles:
- “I’ve had two epidurals and I will definitely going without one. Last time they hit a nerve in my back and it still bothers me now. They also removed my catheter too soon and almost ruptured my bladder.”
- “I had friends who had side effects from their epidurals such as back pain, lingering numbness, and even long-term spinal issues.”
- “The epidural made me itch and shake for hours afterwards.”
- “The thought of an epidural makes me feel antsy. I don’t like being able to move or feel parts of my body.”
- “I had a massive fear of having a needle in my back. I don’t do well with any kind of needles.”
It means you can stay active instead of lying down:
- “I wanted the freedom to labour how I want to, without being confined to a bed.”
- “I loved walking around, change positions and using equipment like a birthing ball and going in the shower.”
I genuinely understand that people wanting to share their bad experiences is not them trying to scare you. I believe their subconscious thought process is “I had a bad experience and if I can my story share with you, perhaps you’ll be better prepared and will suffer less than I will.” Which actually comes from a good place! So I just remember any negative stories are them wanting to project their experience, and I can consciously choose to have a different story.
5. Believe in your body.
If there’s just one key takeaway, this is it! Women’s bodies were designed to grow a baby for nine months and bring them into the world. Here are just a few physical reasons why:
- The bones and muscles of the pelvis provide support for the growing uterus and baby
- The pelvis is wide enough to accommodate a baby’s head during delivery
- The joint between the two pubic bones at the front of the pelvis softens during pregnancy and can stretch during labour
- We have a natural, in-built pain-relief system via the release of hormones like endorphins, adrenaline and oxytocin
- The baby has a soft spot on its head that moulds to fit out of the birth canal.
It’s not luck of the draw that we needed to propagate the species and women just happened to have this task relegated to them instead of men. The female body is designed to have babies!
Very Important Bit: Please note I’m not saying that women who don’t want to have kids, can’t fall pregnant or have trouble doing so, or have complications during birth are not doing what they were ‘designed’ to. While I believe we biologically evolved to go through this process, our ability to start or complete this process is not a measure of our womanhood, femininity, human-ness, worth or value.
It also doesn’t mean birth is easy. None of what I’ve written above negates the fact having a baby is one of the hardest things in the world. It’s not about kidding yourself that it’s going to be a walk in the park or thinking “I’ve learned all the breathing techniques and have read all these books so it’s going to be fine!” That’s just delusion. Life is messy and complications happen. But they’re the exception, not the rule.
It’s about setting yourself up in the best way possible. If you want children and therefore have to give birth, why not have the best attitude you can? Why not choose to feel excited? Why not focus on the good instead of the bad? Why not understand it’s going to be a challenge, but one that’s ultimately one of the most rewarding experiences possible? That’s where I’m coming from and I truly believe it’s only going to benefit me.
Are you pregnant and intending to have an unmedicated birth, or have you been through that experience previously? If so please share what you’re doing or have done to prepare for it!