Here's how to get in shape--physically and mentally--for the day your baby arrives.
It’s one thing to do prenatal exercises to help you through nine months of pregnancy; it’s another to exercise for the day you’ll deliver.
“Prenatal exercise helps you while you carry the baby and strengthens the muscles that will be stressed during delivery,” says Bonnie Rote, R.N., director of women’s exercise programs at Pascack Valley Hospital in Westwood, New Jersey. “Labor preparation exercises get your mind and muscles ready to actually give birth.”
Rote designed the following program to target the parts of the body that work hardest during labor. It uses some familiar moves, but offers them in unique combinations that mimic the actual birth experience. For example, during the pushing phase of labor, you’ll need to contract your abdominal muscles while resisting your instinct to contract the pelvic floor muscles. The regular Kegel exercise tightens your pelvic floor muscles—essential for your postpartum tone—but Rote’s Kegel also teaches you to relax them. She then combines the relaxation aspect of the Kegel with an abdominal curl.
Another technique Rote uses is neuromuscular dissociation. In workshops she teaches, Rote asks women to practice this by clenching a fist while relaxing all their other muscles. “The point,” says Rote, “is that in labor you have to make the rest of your body relax while your uterus is working.” There’s good reason for this: Extreme muscle tension actually reduces your body’s tolerance for pain.
You can begin Rote’s exercise program in your fifth month, doing the exercises three or four times a week. Along with your body work, she recommends giving your mind a workout as well. Just as athletes practice visualization, focus and breathing techniques to prepare for competition, so should you to get ready for your labor event. Each physical exercise is accompanied by a specific focusing tip—which you may be able to use when you’re about to give birth. Some women, she says, “are better rolling with the actual feelings of labor, while others need to concentrate on external focuses to keep their minds off what’s happening inside their bodies.”
Annette Lang, director of the Equinox Fitness Training Institute in New York City, asks clients to do each labor preparation exercise twice—once focusing on the working muscles, once on an object outside themselves. This helps them determine which focus provides the greatest sense of calm and confidence. Try it yourself as you do these exercises. Once you get in focus, you may find yourself feeling more ready than ever to labor and deliver.
1. Abdominal breathing with inward contraction The benefit This exercise helps improve the endurance of your abs, which will be a boon while you’re pushing with them during delivery.
The move Sit on the floor with your ankles crossed, back straight (separate your ankles if that’s more comfortable). You can also lean against a wall for back support. Place your hands on your abdomen, fingers toward each other about two inches on either side of your navel. First inhale and press your abdomen outward, expanding your abs against your hands [A]. Then exhale, pulling your abs in toward your spine until you have expired all the air [B]. Hold a tight contraction for 4 or 5 seconds. Now relax your shoulders and neck and breathe normally as you release your abs. During the exercise, breathe slowly and gently; don’t hyperventilate. Work your way up to 15 reps.
The focus While you press your abdomen out, think about giving your baby extra room to stretch. As you pull in, envision your abdominal muscles encircling your baby and giving her a hug.
2. Beyond traditional Kegels
The benefit This exercise will help you gain control over the pelvic floor muscles so you will know what it feels like both when they’re contracted and when they’re relaxed.
The move (Not shown) Sit on the floor as you did in exercise 1. Contract the pelvic floor, slowly pulling in the vaginal muscles (you may also imagine you’re stopping the flow of urine). Make three stops as you increase the contraction, holding the muscles for 5 seconds at each stop. Release the muscles slowly, then gently push out until you feel a slight bulge in your perineum (the area between the vagina and anus). Now it’s relaxed. Hold for 5 to 10 seconds. Do 5 to 8 repetitions.
The focus Imagine pulling your muscles up into your body as if they’re an elevator car, and notice as they pass through each “floor.” Then, have them descend as carefully as an elevator would, until they push through to the “basement.”
3. Three in one
The benefit By putting together three moves that are usually done separately—Kegel, pelvic tilt and abdominal contraction—you’ll get as close as possible to the experience of pushing. (Don’t worry, you won’t accidentally push your baby out!)
The move Sit upright with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, hip-width apart and feet flat. Place hands on backs of thighs [A]. Now tilt back onto tailbone, rounding spine, shoulders and back. As you tilt back, your pelvic floor muscles will instinctively tighten. Inhale and let your belly expand [B]. Exhale and contract your abdominals toward spine, as in exercise 1. As you hold your abs tight, relax the pelvic floor [C]. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Build up to 8 to 10 repetitions.
The focus Imagine the abs pushing the baby down and the pelvis relaxing to let the baby out.
4. On all fours
The benefit This is a three-in-one exercise done on all fours—a position you might very likely find yourself in during labor (many women find this the most comfortable labor position, as it takes pressure off the back).
The move Get down on floor on all fours, knees under hips and hands under shoulders. Balance your body weight [A]. Now, exhale and tilt pelvis under (your back will naturally round slightly toward the ceiling). You’ll feel a stretch in your lower back or throughout your back, depending on your flexibility [B]. Then, keeping back rounded, inhale, expanding belly toward floor. Exhale again as you pull the belly up in toward your spine. Holding abdominals tight, relax your pelvic floor muscles as you did in exercise 3.
The focus In addition to the focus suggested above, imagine that your abdominals are hugging your baby as you pull your back up toward the ceiling.
The benefit Squatting develops suppleness in your legs, which is needed to increase flexibility for delivery in any position.
The move Stand arm’s length from a bedpost, sturdy chair or table and hold on. Place feet hip-width apart, knees slightly bent and toes turned out [A]. Slowly bend your knees, bringing buttocks as close to heels as you can [B]. Keep your weight toward buttocks, knees over heels. Don’t let your ankles roll in. If you are not very flexible, your heels will come off the floor when you descend; as your flexibility increases, you’ll be able to keep them down. Hold this position for 15 seconds. Try to add 10 to 15 seconds each week until you can do at least two minutes of squatting. To come out of the move, turn to the side and place one knee and foot on the ground. Use that foot to push up to a stand, holding on to the chair or table for support. March in place for a minute to avoid dizziness.
The focus Practice different kinds of focus to determine which works best for you. First, try an inward focus, picturing the babymoving down through your wide pelvis. Second, try an outward focus, using a thought that automatically relaxes you. Or conjure up your favorite painting or landscape. It doesn’t have to be just an image in your mind, either: One friend of mine actually brought a beloved painting to the hospital. 3. Three in one The benefit By putting together three moves that are usually done separately—Kegel, pelvic tilt and abdominal contraction—you’ll get as close as possible to the experience of pushing. (Don’t worry, you won’t accidentally push your baby out!) The move Sit upright with your knees bent at a 90-degree angle, hip-width apart and feet flat. Place hands on backs of thighs [A]. Now tilt back onto tailbone, rounding spine, shoulders and back. As you tilt back, your pelvic floor muscles will instinctively tighten. Inhale and let your belly expand [B]. Exhale and contract your abdominals toward spine, as in exercise 1. As you hold your abs tight, relax the pelvic floor [C]. Hold this position for 5 to 10 seconds. Build up to 8 to 10 repetitions. The focus Imagine the abs pushing the baby down and the pelvis relaxing to let the baby out.