"The best labor support will protect a woman's privacy and insure that she is not disturbed so that she can tap into her inner wisdom and dig deep to find the strength she needs to give birth."
Oxytocin - the love hormone - plays a major role in childbirth. A birthing mother is often supported by a loving partner or family member and this person has a key role to play in the birth because they hold the Oxytocin - Aroha - Love. This support can be freely given to the mother when her support team understand the birthing process and trust the lead maternity carer/midwife.
Through my Childbirth Classes I teach birthing partners how to provide this support - so that they feel confident in their role as birth companion. Sammie and Stephen Murray's birth story talks to how key this role can be - I was lucky enough to support Sammie and her partner during the birth of their first baby. However, this role can be filled by any loving family member, sensitive partner, friend and of course - your main support person - your midwife.
Sammie says "everyone needs an Erica. Let me be more specific: Everyone needs a calm, trusted, reassuring person in their birth space. For us, that person was Erica. She was calm, supportive and empowering throughout the entire process."
"Everyone needs a calm, trusted, reassuring person in their birth space"
How can you be a trusted birth companion?
A trusted birth companion listens. In the weeks leading up to the birth, I spent some time with Sammie and Murray, learning about their birth choices, and listening to their wishes, hopes and fears for the upcoming birth. When Sammie went it to labour, it was a long process taking over 4 days to get into established labour. I would visit her and check in with her frame of mind. We talked about the frustrations of the labour not progressing quicker and the fear that this may mean a hospital transfer. I assured her that she was doing an amazing job coping with this uncertainty and to keep up her work on affirmations/mantras to keep in a positive frame of mind. Sammie says that this calming relaxation and Mantra work immediately put her at ease.
A trusted birth companion gives time. I have a fantastic resource that I refer to often, it has a series of suggestions for supporting women in labour and the one thing that gets repeated over and over again is "give more time", "give more time", "give more time". Sammie's birth is a great example of this. As long as the midwife says that the mother and the baby are healthy, then we can allow birth to take the time it needs to take. The more we hear this message from those around us - our midwife, our birth companions, our partners, our family - the more at ease the birthing woman can be.
A trusted birth companion stays positive. I was truly amazed by Sammie's ability to keep in a positive birthing mindset. That is not to say she did not get upset at times, but she worked hard to prevent her mind from worrying about the future and to keep in the moment. It was essential for Sammie's support team to also offer this confidence to her and to make offers of support. Sammie had surrounded herself with birthing mantras on her walls, which we referred to and reminded her of. We also encouraged Sammie to change her scenery from time to time. I have a vivid memory of her walking through her backyard in a beautiful robe, simply feeling the fresh air. The length of her labour meant that having fresh support was important, as it would have been easy for Murray to get despondent: "I loved how my husband and Erica worked together as a team to support me while I went off to labour land. She was a woman and a mum and she knew what was happening and I cannot even begin to tell you how empowering that was for me. She was someone to talk, laugh, and even cry with."
A trusted birth companion gives space. There is nothing worse than feeling as if you are being watched during labour. As partners and companions we need to listen sensitively to the birthing woman. At times I would leave Sammy and Murray alone to cuddle and rest. At other times Murray needed time to rest and reset his own frame of mind so I would step in. Through-out, Sammie's midwife would come and quietly to listen to the baby's heart beat. If you were looking down on this birth from above, the labouring woman would be in the centre and you would see her birth support team migrating closer to her to give comfort and then further away to give privacy. A sensitive birth companion understands this dance: "Erica knew when it was time to engage and time to step back. She was just the right amount of everything. I laboured with my husband and I laboured with Erica."
A trusted birth companion does not judge. As a birth companion you also need to know that your role is a passive one. There are times when a birthing woman needs a companion to be more hands on, or to remind her that she is strong and that she can do this. However, this is always in response to a need - not because of imposing your idea of what birth should look like. As birth companions our role is to be of comfort to the labouring woman, not to try to analyse the medical side of the birth. This is why we need absolute trust in our midwives and medical teams. As birth companions, we also need to trust in the mother's ability to give birth without intervention unless proven otherwise. The birthing woman will be sensitive to whether you are at ease with the process unfolding or not. Sammie says: "Erica's approach to labour and birth gave me the permission to move and feel with freedom and without judgment."
A trusted birth companion brings trust and aroha. Any loved one who has trust and confidence in the birthing process and midwife can be a wonderful birth companion. This trust and confidence will provide a cocoon of safety around the mother and baby - it will bring the aroha into the birthing room.
Much gratitude to Sammie and Stephen Murray for inviting me into their birthing space and for sharing their experience.
Most of us would love a handbook of birthing instructions. Clear steps that would lead to an easy and calm labour. This would remove the uncertainty of birthing, give us confidence in what we are doing and allow our fears to be pushed aside.
I realised this when my sister was more than a little pissy at me when none of the movement I taught her during antenatal classes took away the pain. I make sure to give that disclaimer in each class now: "I cannot prescribe you a set of moves that can make birthing easier or less painful" - birthing is more personal and individual than that. Maybe this is also the reason that midwives who respect the birthing process "sit on their hands"? They wait for the birthing process to manifest itself and are watchful for any signs of need for intervention.
If there are no set instructions for birthing, then what does "active birthing" and "movement for childbirth" entail? I propose that "active birthing" is a state of mind. Underlying all of the movement that your body may ask of you, comes the confidence and trust in your body's ability to give birth. The trust that all is safe and "normal" unless proven otherwise; the trust to give your worry to your midwife; and the trust to let any active doing be initiated by your own body wisdom.
How do you find your inner birth groove, your "jungle mumma", your primal birthing spirit?
First comes stillness:
If you start from this deep stillness, you may surprise yourself by the way you respond when you get to step 4. You may be by nature a quiet and introverted person but find yourself roaring and squatting up a storm. Equally likely, you may have a strong instinct to stay still and simply focus on your breath.
For some women focusing on their breath in a still and sometimes quiet state takes them through much for their labour without need for any visible movement at all. This is still "active birthing", but like icebergs, we only see the tip of the inner work being done.
Sara Bailey described to me how she preferred to stay in one place during labour: "once labour was fully established I always just leaned over the couch with my face resting on a pillow. My birth team would sit behind me and lay hot towels over my lower back and hold them in place over my tummy. The only time I moved was to go to the toilet or have a shower. It was easier for me to focus my thoughts by being still and shutting out everything around during contractions."
Some women such as Brooke Moore, have such fast labours that it takes all their energy just to cope with the waves of intensity being thrown at them: "I was in active labor right away with both births... all I wanted was to be silent, have a firm surface to lean on (forward leaning while kneeling), and no one touching me."
This silent birthing does not mean it was an easy process for Brooke, her focus on her breath and affirmations matched the intensity of her labour. Her favourite affirmations were "relax, open, surrender" and "just this one contraction". Brooke says that when her mind "jumped to the future I felt pain, when I brought myself back to the present with that affirmation, 'pain' was 'just' manageable hard work". Like Sara, she practiced her breathing in pregnancy. "My favourite breath we practiced [at yoga] was the out breath being twice as long as the in breath" says Brooke.
Paradoxically, being still during birth is also extremely physical. There is a chance that women will find a position they like and then use all their stamina to hold it for hours on end. Having a strong and supportive birth team can really help in these situations. Katy Baynes describes holding onto her husband while leaning on the pool for most of her labour: "Mostly I just zoned right into my body and concentrated on what the contractions were doing, how baby was moving down and the difference felt after each one. It helped me to focus on her journey through the birth canal which kept me going!"
Remaining focused on your breath as contractions surge, makes you dig deep. Sara describes burying her face into a pillow and visualising a flower opening and reminding herself that each surge was bringing her baby closer. Sara says she was telling herself "sternly to stay calm and breathe and i did! It was a very happy labour." To achieve this, Sara had practiced these visualisations and breathing techniques from "hypnobirthing" during her pregnancy.
At other times women will go through most of the birth being very internal and still and then let it rip towards the end. Brooke describes her low pitch roaring as extremely loud. For Katy, her body was still but her vocalisation fierce: "I definitely wasn't a silent birther, so when I found the contractions got so intense and constant I just used my voice to channel them into, and took big long deep breaths while using really deep sounds, kept my focus!"
Katy also describes becoming overwhelmed when fully dilated, with contractions coming with only a few seconds break in between. At this point, Katy's midwife suggested she try to reach down and feel her baby, and she could. "That gave me the most insane rush of emotions and power, and helped me through the last part of her birth. Definitely something I recommend to others to do if you need a boost to find that second wind!"
Despite not having a set list of instructions, each one of these women describe the satisfaction and rush of finding the inner focus to ride the waves of childbirth. How do you prepare for this hard work? First comes stillness and breath. Practice meditation/breathing exercises as described above and be mentally prepared for how difficult labour can be. If you can allow your rational/worrying mind to be put at ease by focusing instead on each moment as it comes, your body instincts will take over. Remember, "the contractions are strong darling, but so are you".
The birth of my first child was my first childbirth experience. I am not alone in this; most of the couples attending our childbirth workshops have had no firsthand experience of birth. When you have never seen a woman giving birth, the idea of childbearing becomes, at its best, mysterious and exciting, and at its worst, unknown and scary.
This blog is the result of years of research and story collecting about what it looks, feels and sounds like to give birth. In my discussions with mothers, fathers and midwives, I have discovered that there are myriad ways for women to cope with childbirth. Individual approaches can differ wildly, yet remain effective and within the realm of “normal”.
Our rights to birth as freely and naturally as possible are limited both by the medical prescription of “normal” but also our own cultural perceptions about how women should behave during childbirth. I admit to believing that my “natural homebirth” would see me calmly breathing my baby out through my blossoming petal of a vagina. My moaning, writhing, grunting, animalistic birthing body was a source of embarrassment for me, it was something abnormal.
The truth is that there is a large range of “normal” behaviour in childbirth. The way women move, sound and feel during labour serves different purposes at different times and changes according to your physical and emotional needs. These states are not often described to women before they experience birthing themselves, which is why I am sharing them in this blog.
If you and your birthing team prioritise a setting conducive to natural birth, here are some of the birthing states you may enter, or that your birthing team may observe and assist with:
Active relaxation: A focussed inner state of trying to let every muscle and joint in your body give in to the power of contractions. During this time, the mother sways, sighs and surrenders her body to the work of the uterus: “I have no doubt that keeping my eyes closed and focusing on my breathing helped me especially in my first birth in hospital as the room was full of people but I was very calm and relaxed” Lydia Garner.
Burrowing: Some labouring women gain great comfort and strength from pressure against their bodies, such as leaning and pushing into their partners or even furniture: “I laboured most of my time clutching into someone as they had their leg forward I would sit on it and concentrate. The closeness and strength from others really helped me through it. Let my body take over and tell me what I needed to do.” Meranie Oliver
Making space: During labour, the baby moves to adjust to the shape of the pelvis which also calls for the mother to respond with her own dance to make space: “I spent pretty much my whole labour on all fours, with my head resting on the couch. I would rise up to my knees for a contraction, and rock and sway and vocalise through that, and then back to almost a child's pose position in between” Amy Scott
Resting: Sometimes the body needs time to get everything in line for the baby’s descent. During this time, the mother is challenged to wait. She tries to find physical comfort in lying on her side. At times, she will doze into the stillness between contractions – almost passing out until the contraction calls her back to action: “My eyes were closed on the toilet and it felt like I was sleeping in between contractions, my mum wedged in next to me so I wouldn’t fall off” Alice Jackson
Closing in: Birthing can be a hugely physically and emotionally demanding experience. At times women need to dig deep from within to find courage and strength. During this state of closing in, women often want get away from any external stimuli: “I think the fact that I was stuck at 9cm for such a long time discouraged me quite a bit... Soon as I moved into the bedroom in pitch black and silence things progressed, 20mins later I had transitioned, half an hour after that baby was born.” Alice Jackson
Expulsive motion: A wide eyed and physical state when women are using their whole being to bear down. This is powerful, instinctive and at times loud: “I was surprised by the guttural noises I didn't know I could make when in transition/ waiting for the midwife to arrive!” Jen Pomeroy
These are just a few examples from a long and varied list of ways in which women labour. I will be expanding upon each of these “states” of birthing in future posts.
We live in a culture where birthing is private; we rarely have a chance to experience birth firsthand. Our ideas of birth are shaped by dramas portrayed in the media and we are not always encouraged to share our birth stories. My sincere hope is that women have access to the knowledge that allows them to own their birthing experiences.
If you have birth stories you would like to share with me - ways you moved, behaved and felt during labour, I would love to hear from you (email me at firstname.lastname@example.org).
I am a mother of three living in Lyttelton, NZ.