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".
I am a mother of three living in Lyttelton, NZ.