“Remember this, for it is as true as true gets: Your body is not a lemon. You are not a machine. The Creator is not a careless mechanic. Human female bodies have the same potential to give birth well as aardvarks, lions, rhinoceri, elephants, moose, and water buffalo. Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.”
Ina May Gaskin, Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth
We birth with our bodies. I know that sounds pretty obvious. But stop and think for a minute – is anything else as physical as birth? Maybe sex, though I would say that in birth, our bodies drive the process more than our emotions.
Women’s bodies are astounding. We house a human – literally growing a person from a seed. Then those same bodies stretch and tighten and stretch some more to ease the human into the world.
I remember seeing my first birth. I was 23 and had brought food to a friend having her fourth baby. After her epidural was happily in place, she asked if I wanted to stay, presumably because it was her fourth baby, and the bigger the party, the better!
Umm, sure. Yeah. I couldn’t believe I was going to witness such a thing.
We hung out for a while, and then I will never forget seeing her legs start to shake – no, quake.
She’s in transition, someone said. I had no idea what they were talking about and could only think of a video I’d seen in high school anatomy class that showed a horse in labor, its body covered with sweat and shuddering uncontrollably.
I was in charge of the video camera, and as she saw my wide eyes, my birthing friend asked if I was sure I could keep the camera where she wanted it – shoulders and up. I nodded, and then stared open-mouthed as the baby slipped earthside. I cried quietly as he was lifted up to his mama and shouted his birth cry.
I’ll say it again – women’s bodies are astounding. And no matter how much we read or what we type into a birth plan, our body has to birth our baby. Here are some ideas for investing in your amazing body as you prepare for birth.
1. Start by thinking positively about your body.
I love what Ina May said above. We must realize that our bodies were made for this. We are mammals, not machines.
For many women – myself included – this is a tall order. I’ve been overweight most of my life, and my body has not necessarily always been a happy place for me. My mom has told me several times, sweetheart, our family has birthin hips. This was never a pleasant revelation for me. Birthin hips are really just fat hips.
But when we give birth, there is no way to escape those flabby bodies. So we must learn to love them. I know this applies for women who are in shape as well; most of us think negatively about our bodies.
Whatever grievances you have with your physique, lay them aside and focus on your strength, your fortitude, your anatomy. Your body was made for your baby.
2. Drink red raspberry leaf tea.
There isn’t a body of research to support drinking raspberry leaf tea. It’s a commonly promoted idea in natural birth circles but doesn’t have much science to back it up. I’m okay with that. There are deeply embedded practices in many cultures that aren’t scientifically proven, but I don’t think that means that they aren’t helpful.
Raspberry tea is made from the leaves of the raspberry plant, but unfortunately tastes nothing like raspberries. The tea is believed to tone the uterus and pelvic floor muscles and thereby make labor contractions stronger and more efficient.
Because it tastes pretty unpleasant, I like to drink it iced. I make a strong brew and add honey and fresh orange juice while it’s still hot. I cool it in the fridge for the next day. You can get it here or here.
It’s usually recommended to drink as many cups per day as trimesters – so 1 cup per day in your 1st trimester, 2 in your 2nd, 3 in the last. As with any herb, talk to your doctor or midwife if you plan on using it.
3. Practice Relaxation and Pain-coping
Lots of us live hurried lives. It’s rare to really relax and truly let go, but the ability to do this is essential for unmedicated labor.
There are many ways to practice relaxing. I like to start with focused tension release. Find a comfy position – sitting or laying down. Close your eyes and think through your body from your head to your toes. Think about your forehead and release any tension that you’re unknowingly holding there. Feel the whole forehead relax, and then take a second and scrunch it up, then release it again. Do this with as many body parts/muscle groups as you can think of – mouth, neck, shoulders, butt, calves, feet, toes, etc.
The Rainbow Relaxation cd from Hypnobirthing is a great resource for relaxation practice. Any time spent practicing slow, focused breathing will also be helpful.
The only problem with practicing relaxation is that it’s just not that hard to relax in a quiet house with your favorite music, candles, and a pain-free body. I suggest adding elements to turn relaxation practice into pain-coping. This idea comes from Pam England’s work in Birthing From Within, a favorite of mine.
England recommends using ice cubes to induce pain that’s harmless but difficult. You might try holding an ice cube tight in your hand for one minute and see how you deal with it. It’s not easy! The goal is to practice this often, and sometimes for several minute-sessions, with breaks in between. Please understand, this exercise is not about mimicking contractions. (If birth was like holding ice in your hand, I wouldn’t be writing this.) Instead, the hope is to create pain-coping strategies and practice mindful relaxing amidst actual pain.
4. Practice labor positions
A fundamental part of healthy, natural birth is laboring in lots of different positions. It works to move baby into a good position and also helps alleviate pain. During labor, I think it’s sometimes difficult for a woman to relax in a position she’s never experienced. Here are just a few ideas – find what other positions feel good to you and practice those too!
- Hands and knees – on your bed, the floor or a couch. Practice arching your back and rocking your hips.
- Slow dancing with your partner – Wrap your arms around his shoulders and let him support your weight. Sway back and forth.
- Sitting on a birth ball next to your bed – Place a birth ball/physio ball next to your bed and stack pillows on the edge of the bed so you can sit on the ball, legs spread, arms and head resting on the pillows.
- The Lunge – This is NOT a normal lunge! Side lunging can help turn a malpositioned baby and opens the pelvis. You can see pictures here.
5. Do Prenatal Yoga
Beyond helping you be more flexible and strong enough to do all those great positions, research tells us that prenatal yoga significantly reduces certain negative birth outcomes, including low birth weight and preterm labor. We also have a study showing that prenatal yoga done in the last 10-12 weeks of pregnancy decreases labor time and increases comfort.
Win, win, win. Blooma Yoga just came out with a great dvd that includes some birth videos and breathing practice.
I hope these are helpful, mamas and mamas-to-be! Add your own thoughts in the comments – I’d love to know what positions and practices have been helpful to you. And if you want to catch the other posts in this series, you can find them here and here.
Lindsey lives on and loves the west side of Chicago with her husband Mike and her kids – Caleb, 4 and Lily, 3. She works part time as a doula and childbirth educator and is fascinated by birth. In winter she likes to bake with sourdough, and in summer she likes everything. In all things, she is covered with God’s grace.