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Preparing your body for labour and birth

By Clair Heenan, Doula — Home Birth NSW 

Labour and birth are often referred to as being akin to your body working as hard as if you were running a marathon. As a doula supporting many women through their births, I’d like to suggest it’s a little more like interval training. There are slow strolls and enjoying the scenery, high-intensity bursts of running, stopping to rest and time for a quick snack as you go. So, rather than preparing for an arduous, long, snack-free marathon, it might be useful to prepare your body with the knowledge that whilst there will be hard work, there will also be rest.

First and foremost, women innately know how to birth. No advice about preparation replaces your own inner compass or your body’s perfectly designed wisdom of birth. These tips are just a little platter of extra treats for your mind and body. But please, beautiful women, know that you can birth your baby inclusive of your unique physicality, lifestyle and regime.

As a member of the Homebirth NSW committee, I am one of a team who believes in physiological, natural birth as being the safest option for mothers and babies unless of course there is a medical necessity for intervention. Evidence tells us that natural birth is more likely to occur in the home with a known midwife. You can read the research and evidence behind this by clicking here.

Where ever and however you choose to birth your baby, preparing your body is helpful in supporting ease of labour, after birth recovery, stamina and physical alignment for comfort in late pregnancy and during labour and birth. It must also be said that the most significant factor in how women feel about their birthing experiences, is their care provider. Your birth team’s alignment with your plans for your birth trumps physical alignment any day.

Whilst we can do ALL THE THINGS to prepare, birth is a maze we can only navigate when we have entered its winding, wonderful pathways. And the most powerful part of the body in this maze? You guessed it! The mind.

Tip Numero Uno: Prepare your body by preparing your mind

You know that whole jazz about the mind-body connection? In labour and birth, that’s where it’s at! Working as a doula means that I am privileged to be in women’s sacred birth spaces after working closely with them
during their pregnancy. Often, our prenatal sessions are about what’s going on in the mind, and accessing the power of mind over matter.

When your mind is calm and still, the body will respond with calming hormones. When something is perceived as scary by the mind, the body responds by creating tension which can in turn create heightened pain. If labour and birth are welcomed as power, and even productive pain, the body will respond by creating oxytocin (a.k.a the love hormone). Just as an animal produces adrenaline as a protective mechanism in the wild, our human hormones respond to our beliefs and emotions.

Breath is the fastest and easiest way to unlock the mind-body connection. Exhaling for longer than you inhale, sends a little message to your brain to activate the parasympathetic nervous system and therefore relax the body. So take a deep belly breath and sloooow down your out-breath. Practising this whilst pregnant will create a pathway for your brain to quickly access this tool during labour. Feeling zen? I thought so!

Tip number two: The blissful benefits of prenatal yoga

Prenatal yoga is the happy place of pregnant women all over the globe and it’s hardly difficult to see why! Prenatal yoga is perfect for learning and practising some useful positions and movements for labour and birth. Women often move instinctively in labour - swaying, hip-circling and rocking. Prenatal yoga is like an array of beautiful breath and body work that can be adapted to your individual body and circumstance and used as a ‘run through’ of labour and birth ahead of time.

Yoga helps to stretch the ligaments, align the pelvis and strengthen the muscles, which are all important physical aspects of working towards an active, upright  labour. If you are having a cesarean, prenatal yoga and breathwork is just as relevant! Preparing your body for recovery, holding your baby and breastfeeding are all catered for in prenatal yoga. Have you googled your local studio yet? I know you have now!

Tip number three: Physical alignment to facilitate your baby’s positioning

When I say positioning, I mean where bub is in utero. You may have heard of terms like ‘breech’, ‘posterior’ and ‘anterior’. We won’t go into those or this little blog would be an epic novel! Basically, in order for your baby to move down into your pelvis and through the birth path, your own physical alignment can assist.

I’d suggest seeking professional, pregnancy-specific support in creating alignment in the body, especially in the pelvis. This could be a physiotherapist, chiropractor, bowen therapist or any practitioners offering this type of service. In my doula work I use techniques called ‘Optimal Maternal Positioning’, you can check out the website about this here.

If your pelvis is in alignment, there is likely to be more space for your baby to move head down and into a helpful position for being born. Babies are usually team-players, so once that space is available, they are more likely to get moving on down.

Tip number four: Exercise intuitively

Pregnant women have a really clear, heightened instinct about what feels right in their life-growing body. Exercising intuitively is all about doing what you love! And hey, routines are great but babies don’t tend to follow them so exercising without a strict regime might be good practise for parenthood! It would be ideal to aim for a bit each day, but go with whatever feels manageable for you.

It’s actually a great asset in labour and birth to have some ‘looseness’ in the body, so it can be wise to avoid hardcore resistance for a while. It’s important to be mindful of the extra pressure pregnancy places on your pelvic floor. Seeing a women’s physiotherapist who specialises in this can be helpful in deciding what exercise is best for you. Walking, yoga, dancing, light resistance and swimming are all wonderful options!

Lucky last, tip number five: Nourish yo’ self

Growing an entire human is a pretty big feat, huh? Your body, baby, and your mind, need and totally deserve high quality nourishment! This might look a little different for everyone, and so it should because different bodies have different needs. Some small steps to start with could be decreasing refined sugar, heavily processed foods and foods containing ominous ingredients that sound like the latin name of a species of frog!

Stick to whole foods where you can, with a splash of indulgence here and there. But hey, who am I to tell a pregnant woman what to eat?! If you think about what feels right for you, what feels nourishing and brimming with vitality, there’s your answer. The fuel you use for your body in pregnancy is the fuel driving your labour
and birth, so making it satisfying, nutrient-dense and intuitive is a no-brainer. Not to mention, nourishing your body can help with breastfeeding, your own sleep and your overall immunity and gut health.

I truly wish you all the very best in your labour and birth! And remember, intuition is key. Move intuitively, eat intuitively, listen to your own individual body because in labour and birth, your own instincts matter most. All tips aside, you have the tools for labour and birth simply by being a woman.

Claire Heenan (Media & Communications for Homebirth NSW, and Sydney based doula)

Homebirth NSW is a non-profit organisation and the only group of its kind in NSW that promotes and supports homebirth as an accessible and attainable birthing option. By sustaining a centrally organised group of like-minded people, gathering information and making it available to anyone who is interested in childbirth alternatives and the myriad of related issues, we perform an extremely important function - keeping basic human rights in childbirth at the forefront. 

If you’d like to connect with me in regards to my birth and postpartum doula work, you can find me on socials using @claireheenandoula or head to my website at www.claireheenandoula.com.au