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 email@example.com).
I am a mother of three living in Lyttelton, NZ.