The spring of 2011 before I gave birth to Parker, I remember driving home listening to the radio. Windows Are Rolled Down by Amos Lee came on and I had a moment. Loud music plus driving plus the anticipation of big life moments do that to me. I didn’t really know what was in store, though I knew this growing belly wouldn’t stick around forever but soon be replaced by a baby and what would that be like? Feel like? Both literally and figuratively? There’s nothing particularly unique about that, but it certainly felt big to me.
I do, however, hope this post can serve as a bit of a primer, if you will, for those who are interested in birth, who might fear birth, who are about to give birth, who aren’t sure what steps to take to have the birth they’d like to have. Many of you will be neither interested in it, nor need this information, but maybe (I hope) it’ll help one person even a little bit. It’s not earth shattering, but more of a regurgitation of what I learned leading up to my own birth experiences, what I found very useful, mixed in with some of my personal experiences. I’m not an expert, doctor, nurse, medical professional of any kind, birth coach, midwife, or doula; I’m just a woman who really loved giving birth (and finds the whole thing to be fascinating). It goes without saying, but be sure to seek the advice of a medical professional when giving birth; this post should not be a substitute for the advice they give you. I’m simply sharing what worked for me.
If you have the funds and the time, I would highly suggest looking up and attending a birth class in your area. Ours was a Bradley Method-based class, a birthing technique that’s been around for a long time. Its subtext is “husband-coached childbirth” so it very much includes your partner in the whole birth experience. Steve and I attended a class (taught by my sister!) while pregnant with Parker. It is a decent time commitment (ours was 24 hours total; 3 hour classes for 8 weeks) but I came away from it with so much information. Most people spend more time researching their first cars than their births. I know I am unusually interested in birth, but that seems crazy to me. I knew this moment would be a wildly important one, and I wanted to go into it with all the tools at my disposal. Not necessarily to ensure a natural birth but to, at the very least, know my options, know the risks and benefits, know what stages my body would go through as I labored. To have had the natural birth I hoped to have would be a bonus (and have made the class well worth it, in my opinion.). Knowledge is power, and that is so true in this case. For instance, I learned that transition can be enormously emotional and, even the coolest of laboring mothers, can doubt themselves and let fear creep in while there. Simply knowing that is a powerful tool. Labor for me was very mental. So, if suddenly my calm and collected demeanor dissolved to terror and “I can’t do this” during labor, simply knowing this is normal and you’re in transition is amazing!02 / Read good birth books + watch good birth movies
There are many birth stories out there, on blogs, parenting articles, in books, and movies. They all have their place in this world but I think it’s wise to surround yourself with positive ones, especially in the days leading up to delivery. Before Parker was born, I would leaf through Spiritual Midwifery as I went to bed at night. It’s in short essay form, so it’s very easy to read one birth story, and then close the book. Ina May Gaskin is the author who, in case you’re not familiar, is basically the reigning queen of the natural birth and midwifery world. The birth stories are powerful and beautiful and do their best to dissolve some of the fear and trembling that surrounds birth. I also read Your Best Birth and watched The Business of Being Born. Both swept the natural birth scene several years back. There are differing opinions on the documentary, I’m sure, but I really enjoyed watching it back in 2011 when I saw it for the first time. I think the downside to it is that it can make women expect pushback at the hospital–that their birth plan won’t be respected, that your doctor/nurse will push for pitocin and/or an epidural even if you don’t want it, etc. While that may be true for some people, it wasn’t for me. I think it’s important not to expect a fight. Chances are, you won’t get one. Better to be prepared for one then to go in all guns blazing.
03 / Choose your provider
My OB practice has doctors as well as midwives. Through the many prenatal appointments, you get to know your chosen provider well. I chose to see the midwives from the beginning. There are five of them altogether and they are fabulous. I think it’s important to jive well with your provider and I’m really lucky that I liked all of them. I got to know some more than others, but genuinely wasn’t concerned with one being on call when I gave birth over another. When I think of the midwives at my practice, I sort of want to hug them. They’re really amazing women who know birth through and through, and I felt entirely comfortable in their hands.
04 / Decide if a doula is right for you
This is tricky. In an ideal situation, your husband is very hands-on come labor time and is, in essence, your doula. Of course, labor, especially the first one, is something both parties are going into blindly so one can’t be sure how they’ll react. Will he step up to the plate when he sees you in pain? Will the sight of blood make him squeamish? Is he an attentive listener? Are you good at giving direction? I chose not to have a doula because my Mom was in the room with us, for both births (she’s been present for most of her grandchildren’s births), and while she has an amazing energy all the time, she especially does when her daughters are in labor. She’s quiet and calm about it, moving about the room as needed, taking a step back when not. In some ways, she was an even bigger support for Steve who was nervous going into my labors. He calls her “The Unflappable Marianne.” He was not used to a natural birth, and having to be at all hands-on (in fact, he passed out four times in the births of his children as soon as Shannon got the epidural. Once with each kid except Lindsey (progress!)–twice with Nathaniel.). For the record, he did great.
05 / Decide where you want to give birth
There are hospitals, there are birth centers, and there is your home. Some hospitals are better than others, and the same goes for birth centers (and homes too, I suppose). We toured our hospital’s birth center before I gave birth to Parker and I was able to ask a few questions. These questions can also be asked at your OB appts., of which there are many! Some good ones: how many successful natural births do they have? Vaginal? C-section? Is a water birth something you have your heart set on? Does your hospital allow them? Do they let you walk the halls (or go home) if you arrive before your labor is terribly active? What are their induction policies? How late do they let you go? What is their preferred method of induction (there are many and some are less invasive than others)? Is it a very baby-mom friendly hospital? For instance, are the nurses going to strongly suggest you utilize the nursery on night one? Or do they encourage baby staying in the room with Mom? Are their lactation consultants checking in daily? Can the partner stay the night with Mom and baby? What are the visitors’ policies? My hospital made huge strides between Parker’s birth and Anders’ birth. There was no nursery option when I had Anders (the nurse suggested I use it when I had Parker; I chose not to.), I could nurse through the in-room heel prick (Parker’s was in the nursery-area; he couldn’t nurse through it nor could I hold him through it; suffice it to say, we were both crying.). All in all, it has, in a few short years, become even more baby-friendly than it was. Next, there are birth centers. I don’t know as much about them, as I didn’t give birth in one, but I do know you can get a really fast discharge (within a few hours of labor), you can have a birth very much your own, it’s not a hospital atmosphere, they’re capable of handling nearly all medical issues one might have. And then there’s home. I stuck with my hospital for a few reasons: I loved my midwives, it was very close to my home, it didn’t seem like the type of hospital in which I’d have to fight for my “birth plan”, their birth center is not a terribly hospital-like atmosphere. Therefore, I didn’t think I’d have a lot to gain by having my babies at a birth center or at home. While a home birth could’ve been an option for me, with all the kids around, I wasn’t sure I’d get into the right frame of mind to give birth and I didn’t want to be scrambling last minute to get everyone out the door and to their respective friends’ houses. Additionally, I liked knowing the hospital could handle any unforeseen medical issues, however rare they might have been. And so, I had two amazing births at the same hospital–no regrets!
06 / Come up with a birth plan
I had one with Parker, I didn’t have one with Anders. As it was, there was no need to wave it around like some I-don’t-want-drugs flag. There was never mention of anything that wasn’t on my birth plan. I think some nurses/midwives/doctors see birth plans and roll their eyes a bit. I don’t entirely blame them. They’ve probably seen many a woman walk in demanding a natural birth to then scream for drugs the moment she has a strong contraction. They’ve probably seen birth plans that are worded too strongly, verging on rude. Everyone could use a little grace in this whole birthing business, eh? Write your birth plan. At the very least, your hopes are on paper and that’s not a bad thing. If you want to give it to your provider, do that too. Include the type of birth you hope to have once you’ve done your due diligence to figure out what that is exactly. Be nice. They’ll be nice too.
07 / Make a birth playlist
I’m a music girl, through and through. I had music playing the entire time I was in active labor with both boys. I was even sure to ask Steve, between contractions, to bring the music with him into the tub room where I gave birth to Anders. My birth playlists are sacred to me. Through contractions, I breathed and listened. Even now, they have an ability to transport me back to those amazing moments. It was more than just background noise. In fact Jonsi’s Why Not was playing when Steve held Anders for the first time and now that song makes me cry every time it’s on (which is often; I cry almost daily.). If music is your thing, I’d highly suggest making a birthing playlist a few weeks before your due date. Listen to it as your due date nears. Pack your iPod and your sound dock. Birth playlists are very personal. Slow music? Fast? Folk? Rock? Here’s mine when I gave birth to Anders; do with it what you will!
08 / Pack your bag
I have no genius what-to-pack tips but I have found you really don’t need much. I wore comfortable clothes to the hospital, at the hospital, and home from the hospital. Pajamas and sweats. My own water bottle. I had an outfit to bring the boys home. I wore the mesh hospital underwear instead of my own. I had some soft nursing bras. I had my own socks (I can’t stand hospital socks). I had my toothbrush and toothpaste and a little bit of makeup, a sound dock, phone, charger. That’s really about it.
09 / Contraction-management techniques
I can try to give advice here on how to “get in the mindset” and “prepare yourself” as well as other cliches, but the truth is it’d be hard for me to do that. Everyone’s pain threshold is different, everyone’s body responds to birth differently, babies’ heads are not all the same size. I can only tell you what worked for me and/or what birth was like, and hope that it may be of help to you too. I wouldn’t call contractions and labor in general painful. I associate pain with a bee sting or a burn and this would be more along the lines of… intense. Something that demands your full attention. I would call it hard work (so, the name labor, is really perfect). The part that would be classified as pain, definitely, would be when Parker crowned but it lasted all of two seconds. Between a water birth, a second birth, and whatever else, labor and birth with Anders was easier and there was no tearing. Just the intensity and hard work of labor. I didn’t have back labor with either boys (I hear that can be very distracting and truly painful; I’m sorry to those of you who had back labor!) so I can’t speak to that either. Four things that helped me get through the contractions were:
(1) Visualizing them as waves. It was really a perfect visualization tool because, like waves, they build in intensity, crest, and then fall. And in between, there are breaks. So when you hear someone had a sixteen-hour labor, the total time spent in contractions should be a significantly smaller number.
(2) Not letting my face contort/wince in pain. If I kept my face muscles relaxed, my mouth slack and my breathing regular, my body seemed to follow suit and progressed towards the final stage of labor without much trouble.
(3) Being vocal; this one was hard for me to get on board with at first because being vocal is a little bit embarrassing. By transition with both boys, any shame I’d had was long gone. When I say vocal I don’t mean screaming or even talking. It was more of a steady hum/groan that matched the intensity of the contraction, mouth slack the entire time. Apparently there is good science behind your vocal chords and your cervix (open mouth, open cervix!) being connected. I don’t have the science to link to here, but I do know, things progressed nicely in my births so perhaps there’s something to it. And I should add that it was the most natural sound to make even though in birth was the only time I’d heard myself make that sound. Let yourself be vocal!
(4) Changing positions. I moved a lot with both boys (especially Parker). Bouncing on a birthing ball, standing, rocking, on all fours. Find what works for you and your baby while helping him move down the birth canal. Let gravity work FOR you (i.e. lying on your back doesn’t do this and, when in a contraction, is the last place I want to be. Of course this is probably your only option if you’ve had an epidural but otherwise!).
Additionally, I’ve heard of using hypnobirthing or essential oils. I used neither in labor, so I can’t speak first hand about those.
So, that’s it. That’s my birth novella. We’re all so very different, in both mind and body, so while it won’t be for everyone, I hope it’s for at least a few.
Any questions? Comments? I love talking about birth, so I’m all ears!