10 Tips to Help You Prepare for Childbirth and Labor

Reduce your pain and stress during delivery with these tips from the pros.

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It often feels like life is moving faster and faster all the time, but in the delivery room, things are actually slowing down. A National Institutes of Health study found that childbirth for first-time moms now takes 2.6 hours longer than it did 50 years ago. To make that extra time in the delivery room less painful and more joyful, it helps to know how to make the hard work of having a baby more manageable. Starting today, here are 10 things you can do to make your birth experience that much easier.

1. Join the head of the class

Take a childbirth course and enroll as early as possible: Not only do classes fill up fast, but some, such as The Bradley Method courses, run 12 weeks, which means you need to start them in your second trimester.

Also, find out what your doctor's philosophy is on Cesarean sections and epidurals versus drug-free ways of managing pain. Ask tough questions—and "stupid" ones, too— to learn about the different stages of labor so you know what to expect. "The better prepared you are, the more choices you have during labor," says nurse practitioner Lynette Miya, M.N., R.N.P., of Torrance, Calif. "You don't want to arrive at the hospital without any idea of what's going to happen." Once labor starts, no surprise is a good surprise.

2. Find strength and focus

"The most important thing women learn through yoga is how to focus," says Carmela Cattuti, L.P.N., a Boston-based Kripalu certified instructor specializing in prenatal yoga certification training. "It also strengthens the entire body, increases flexibility and gives you stamina. But what is possibly even more helpful is that it helps your mind relax." This, in turn, leaves your body free to go about the business of birthing.

3. Nix negativity

Some childbirth educators believe graphic images, catastrophic tales and words of discouragement ("You'll never be able to get that monster out without a C-section!") can affect your subconscious and create a mental block during labor.

At best, negative thoughts make labor stressful; at worst, they'll actually intensify pain. Change the channel on the TV, tune out or walk away when the subject matter makes you uncomfortable; also, shield yourself from scary labor Facebook threads by logging off.

Bonus: Learning to do this now will help you avoid being affected by all the unwanted advice you'll get after the baby is born.

4. Study up

When you're in the grip of labor, it's too late to crack open that self-hypnosis book or locate a birthing ball. Preparation counts.

Case in point: Squatting increases the size of the pelvic opening by about 28 percent. But if you wait until you're in labor to try it for the first time, your squatting stamina won't add up to, well, squat.

5. Secure support

Doulas are nonmedical professionals trained to provide emotional and physical support as well as information to women during pregnancy and labor. Studies have found that with a trained doula's continuous support, labor times are shorter and the need for epidurals, C-sections, oxytocin for induction and forceps were decreased by about half. Another study concluded that women who received support through a hospital- based doula program were more likely to attempt breastfeeding. Check out DONA International (dona.org) to help you locate a certified doula in your area.

6. Have a trick up your sleeve

Learn several effective techniques to manage pain during childbirth, such as self-hypnosis, position changes, heat pack application and different breathing methods. "If you don't know what your options are, you don't have any," says Tracy Hartley, a certified doula and owner of B*E*S*T Doula Service in Los Angeles.

7. Get on up

Upright positions, such as standing, walking, kneeling, slow dancing, sitting and squatting, allow gravity to help move the baby down and out. "Sometimes, getting the baby into the pelvis is like fitting a key into a lock," Hartley says. "You need to do a little jiggling. Rocking back and forth on your hands and knees may help to get the baby into position."

Check out more labor positions.

8. Set the scene

For most women, a dark and quiet environment is ideal during labor, so ask your nurse or partner to dim the lights and minimize noise. Little touches make a difference: a favorite pillow, pair of socks or soothing scent. "Aromatherapy, especially the scent of lavender, is very calming in labor," says Miya.

9. Be a water baby

The warmth and weightlessness of a bath can be soothing throughout your labor, so if you have access to a warm tub, take the plunge. (Be sure to get your doctor or midwife's green light before doing so; there's a risk of infection if your water has broken.)

If a soak isn't possible, try taking a shower.

10. Stay true to yourself

Labor transforms you, but it won't make you suddenly love lime Jell-O, New Age music or the sight of your in-laws as you breathe through a contraction. People may push all kinds of suggestions on you during labor; listen but don't feel you have to go along with them.

It's your body, your baby and your labor, so stick to your guns. Consider it practice for when your baby is a teenager.

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