In the lead up to my baby's first birthday I find myself reflecting on this time last year when I was full bellied and patiently/not-so-patiently waiting. I was equal parts confident and anxious. I cried because I wanted it all to be over. And as I rubbed my belly and felt my baby kicking I cried because it was almost over.
Percy's birth taught me more about humility, patience, grace and gratitude than any other experience of my life. It was a long, complicated birth and yet every step of the way I felt like I knew what to do.
Facing the unknown with a set of skills that supported and comforted me made me feel strong and confident and empowered - even in the face of immense fear. It may have been my third birth but there were many skills that I was using for the very first time; skills I had taught countless yoga students and their partners.
Regardless of the birth you are planning and regardless of the birth that you eventually experience, I urge you to get some skills. Woman to woman, trust me when I say they are important. Essential even! For your birth and ultimately, for motherhood.
1. Learn how to breathe.
You know how to breathe, I get it. But do you know how to breathe when the intensity of a contraction literally takes your breath away? Do you know how to breathe and stay completely still when the anesthetist is preparing the epidural? Look beyond the esoteric, hippy-la-la birthing circles where you are encouraged to bbbreeeeaaaaaathhhhhheeeeee and instead, recognise that your breath is your life-force for you and your baby. Long, deep breaths help you stay relaxed, connected and centred, regardless of the enormity of the contraction. Long, deep breaths into your belly are good for you and your baby.
How: Place your hands under your belly and feel your baby rise as you inhale and fall as you exhale. Practise every day, for twenty breaths. Over time you'll notice that your breaths get longer and deeper. Try not to control the practise but instead, just watch and listen. You'll notice that there's space between the end of your inhalation and the start of your exhalation. Let there be space, observe the space, relax in the space.
When: breathe long, deep breaths in late pregnancy, to calm your nerves and to ease you in and out of contractions. Use them as resting breaths between contractions during second stage (pushing). And use them when your two-year-old is writhing and screaming on the floor of the supermarket. But, don't use them if you feel the urge to push but for whatever reason (eg: cervical lip, not yet at the hospital) you can't. Instead, lift your chin and breathe short, sharp breaths into the air (this lifts the baby out of your pelvis and relieves the pressure to push).
2. Move your pregnant body - standing, sitting, crouching, squatting, dancing.
Is moving really a skill? It is when there's a head in your pelvis and fluid dripping down your legs. Moving when you're pregnant gets the blood and breath flowing and helps to ease the aches and pains associated with growing a baby. It strengthens your legs so you can endure hours of walking and squatting during labour and it opens your hips in preparation for baby's journey. But most importantly, it helps you to know where you feel most comfortable - it's those positions that you'll naturally gravitate towards in labour.
How: Get off the couch and onto the floor, leaning forward so your baby's back falls towards your belly (this encourages baby to get into the ideal anterior birth position). Get on your hands and knees, rotate your pelvis and swing your hips from side to side. Dance with your legs wide and your knees bent. Rotate your shoulders and shake out any tension.
When: start moving as soon as you feel well enough but makes sure you don't create too much heat in the body, particularly in the first trimester. In late pregnancy when all you want to do is flop on the couch know that rest is good but so too is movement - it keeps the energy flowing which ultimately helps to kick start labour. When you get to the hospital treat your birthing suite as your own, private space. Move, dance, squat, sway, rock and if you do want to lie down, lie on your side to keep the pressure off your lower back.
3. Get comfortable with sound - oooooh, aaaaaah, oooooom
You may be thinking that the screams that escape from the labour ward are necessary but let it be known that they are, in no way, constructive. Keep your sound low and you'll keep your energy low - exactly where it needs to be. I'm convinced that sound is the key to releasing stress, anxiety, fear and tension in labour - it's the ultimate, natural pain relief. Did you know that there is a neuro-muscular connection between your jaw and your pelvic floor, your throat and your birth canal? So what does that mean? Well, if your throat, jaw and mouth is tight and tense so too will your birth canal and pelvic floor be tight and tense. The key to releasing and relaxing? Soft lips, relaxed jaw and low sounds. The vibration helps to soothe the nervous system and sends lovely, calming motion down to your baby.
How: Once you've practised 20 rounds of deep, belly breathing (see 1.) you can start to make sound on the exhalation. Start with light ahhhhh sounds and slowly progress to deeper ooooohhhhh and oooooooommmmmm.
When: The sound you instinctively make in labour says a lot about what stage you're at - the deeper the sound, the closer birth is. In early labour you may feel the need to exhale with a sigh or an ahhhh. As labour progresses you'll graduate to deeper more guttural noises until your roaring like a lioness, proudly so.
4. Discover your intuition and listen, listen.
A mother's intuition is all-powerful and listening to it is vital during pregnancy, birth and motherhood. The best way to discover it is to simply be aware of your body. When you are aware of your body and what it can do, it's much easier to trust it and to have faith in its ability. Spend time sitting in stillness and you'll start to know your mind, too. And when they connect? Powerful intuition.
How: In my opinion, yoga is the best way to develop awareness of the body, breath and mind. Pre-natal yoga is a nurturing, informative and inspiring practise during pregnancy and while you will be encouraged to move you'll also learn to listen and observe through simple meditation practise.
When: If something doesn't seem right, speak up. When all feels good, it usually is. Be guided by your intuition, don't be afraid of it.
5. Create and maintain a grounded, positive, focussed mindset. The mindwork you do during pregnancy can promote a positive birth experience - regardless of how or where you birth. Likewise, the thoughts that circle your mind in labour can be pretty powerful when it comes to how your labour progresses.
How: think positive affirmations and good intentions. Just like it takes time to learn to breathe into the belly, it takes time and practise to establish a positive, focussed mindset, particularly when faced with a situation that induces fear and doubt. Firstly, choose an affirmation or birth intention. It may be: "I will carry to full term and confidently birth my healthy baby," "I am growing my baby in happiness, I will birth my baby in happiness," or "I can and I will, I can and I will." Place it in the back of your mind, write it down, draw it, and mentally repeat it to yourself every single day, like a mantra or a prayer.
When: As soon as you notice fear, doubt or anxiety creeping into your headspace, come back to your mantra and repeat it till you feel comforted and confident, again. Language is incredibly powerful in the birthing space so arm your birth support team with words that resonate with you. Words like: surrender, breathe, believe, faith, power, open, light, deep, soft, flow, love." Phrases such as: You CAN and you ARE doing it" can be incredibly powerful when a labouring woman starts to give up.