When you hear the words calm birth, do you picture a zen-like setting? Do you imagine experiencing as little labor pain as possible or having a birth that follows a scripted plan?
Ready for a surprise?
Studies show that your confidence in yourself and your ability to make your own decisions about your care has a much greater impact on your birth experience than even how much labor pain you experience. As birth doula Wendy Fowler, CD(DONA), says,
Feeling in control and [being] part of the decision making team is one of the highest indicators of satisfaction in birth.
Birth is unpredictable, and sometimes it takes unexpected turns. When you have to make adjustments, feeling empowered to make decisions for yourself and your baby is both crucial and calming. Even though you can’t script your birth experience, you can build a foundation for a calm birth – no matter what your birth journey brings – using these four simple steps.
This really is the key to all wisdom, birth and otherwise.
Childbirth is an emotionally and physically demanding experience. To feel calm during labor, you need to know how you handle stressful situations. How do you keep calm when you’re stuck in traffic? What takes the edge off your nerves in the dentist’s chair? How do you unwind after a rough day? Jot down everything that comes to mind. You now have a fantastic list of coping strategies that you know will work for you…because they already do.
Margie Wallis, a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator and Fellow of the American College of Childbirth Educators, always has students consider their daily stress management skills as they learn about labor coping strategies. She says,
Not only does [relaxation] work, but [mothers and partners] have experienced it working in their day-to-day life already. It’s not a magic wand, other-world experience. It’s normal compensating for normal discomforts, and it’s so instinctive they don’t even have to worry about it.
Knowing yourself can also help you make the best choice for where you’ll have your baby. If hospitals fill you with anxiety and you aren’t considered high risk, then perhaps a birth center or a home birth might be worth investigating. And if the thought of giving birth in a home or home-like setting makes your nerves stand on end, you should shop for a good hospital. This brings us to our second step.
Know Your Birth Environment
Hospitals, birth centers, and your own home each have unique advantages and disadvantages. Unless you must choose a hospital for medical reasons, do your homework and consider whether a different birthing environment might be ideal for you.
Birth centers and your own home give you the freedom to labor your own way without the stress of a medical environment. As a trade-off, you won’t have access to medications like epidurals, and if you need medical interventions, you’ll have to transfer to a hospital.
If you choose to birth in a hospital, make sure you familiarize yourself with their policies and amenities. Most hospitals offer free labor and delivery tours, so be sure to go at least once – and don’t be afraid to go two or three times if that will help you visualize yourself there.
Feeling calm in your birth environment is essential to the birth process itself. Stress hormones – that “fight or flight” response – contradict the hormones that direct labor progress. Amy Giles, CNM and Clinical Director of the Allen Birthing Center, notes,
When we feel uncomfortable or afraid, we can shut off labor completely.
So, considering your needs and then familiarizing yourself with your birth environment before the big day can make all the difference to your labor.
Know Your Care Provider
Having a calm birth also depends on your relationship with your care provider and the staff at your chosen birth location. Make sure you have a great rapport with your care provider. Is he or she sensitive to your concerns and needs? If your provider doesn’t care to discuss options with you at a prenatal visit, she likely won’t be willing to do so during labor, either.
Conflict with your care provider or feeling disregarded during childbirth could lead to feelings of fear and dissatisfaction. Giles believes that
[the relationship with your care provider] is one of the most important [parts to achieving a calm birth]. If you don’t have trust, you have that stress response. You can actually shut your labor off.
Open communication with your provider can be particularly crucial if there are unexpected hurdles during labor. Birth is not predictable, and in order to feel confident and in control of a difficult situation, it’s important for your provider to give your concerns and wishes due consideration.
Emily Glicksman and her husband had prepared for a natural birth, but her labor took some unexpected turns and she needed a number of unplanned interventions. Having open communication with her OB helped Emily to stay calm during the whole process:
I trusted him to have my best interest in mind. I felt really comfortable with him and was not afraid to ask questions and tell him what I thought. I [also] really loved how he gave me options during labor. He acknowledged that this was my experience. He was willing to work with me.
You do have the option of changing providers if your relationship with your doctor, midwife, or labor nurse isn’t optimal. Don’t be afraid to make changes if you aren’t able to communicate with your provider.
Know Your Options
Being informed about healthy birth practices and the risks and benefits of your options is crucial to a calm birth experience. After all, the old adage is very often true: we fear what we don’t understand.
Childbirth preparation classes are one of the best ways to learn about pregnancy, childbirth, coping strategies, and early parenting. There are many methods available, so you should consider your unique needs and preferences when choosing one. Just make sure that the class not only gives you coping tools but also teaches you about the birth process and your options so that you can make informed decisions about your care.
As you contemplate yourself and your needs and learn about your options, create a formal birth plan. At the Allen Birthing Center, birth plans are a matter of clinical practice. Giles says,
[A birth plan] gets the mom thinking about how she wants birth to go. She can ask herself, ‘What is important to me? What do I want my partner to do? What do I want my provider to do?’
It’s very comforting to know that everyone is aware of your preferences and that they’ve been discussed and approved before you go into labor. When everyone on your birth team is ready to help you achieve the experience you truly desire, then you can approach your birth with calm and confidence.
Adding a doula to your birth team is an option that is growing in popularity. Doulas are trained to provide the continuous support that mothers – and partners – need to feel calm during labor. A doula can help you process what your provider tells you and consider the options available to you so that you can make the best decisions about your care.
Glicksman, who had a doula attend her birth, says,
[Having a doula] was helpful for a lot of reasons. As new parents we didn’t know what to expect, and since things changed so quickly we really didn’t know what to expect. [It was so helpful] to have someone who was objective and could provide information.
So here’s the bottom line.
The more you can be in control of the decision-making process and the more your concerns and wishes are heard and respected, the more calm your birth experience will be.
Know yourself, know what you want, know how to communicate it to your birth team, and be prepared to be flexible: these are the foundation for a calm and satisfying birth journey.
About Shannon Valenzuela
S.K. doesn’t believe in straight paths to anywhere. Her many meanderings have taken her through a Ph.D. in English Literature and becoming a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator, and she is now the homeschooling mama of four rambunctious boys and two darling little girls. Currently, she teaches prepared childbirth and baby care classes at a major Dallas hospital and freelances about all things pregnancy, birth, and mothering. Her book, Mothering the Mother of Many, will be released later this year. S.K. also enjoys writing fiction, especially in the medium created by the happy collision of sci-fi, fantasy, and legend that produced her debut novel, Silesia: The Outworlder. The sequel, The Lords of Askalon, will be released this fall. You can find out more about her current and upcoming projects at skvalenzuela.com.