no-sweat delivery

From doulas to yoga, 10 tips for an easier labor

Chances are, when you think about the prospect of labor, it’s not of a simple, pain-free experience. Nevertheless, you can take steps—both now and during labor—to make childbirth less stressful and more comfortable, less clinical and more joyful. And though the following tips won’t guarantee a pang-free birth, they can help make your labor and delivery more manageable.

1. Start preparing now> Once you’re firmly in the grip of labor, it’s a little late to crack open that self-hypnosis book, locate a birthing ball or get directions to the hospital. In other words, preparation counts. Case in point: Squatting during delivery increases the pelvic opening by approximately 28 percent. But if you wait until you’re in labor to try it, your squatting stamina won’t add up to … well, squat.

2. Get educated> Take a childbirth class (enroll as early as possible; not only do classes fill up fast, but some, such as Bradley courses, run 12 weeks, which means you need to start them in your second trimester). Read widely. Educate yourself about the different stages of labor so you know what to expect. Ask tough questions—and not-so-tough ones, too: Find out your doctor’s philosophy on epidurals vs. holistic ways of managing pain, as well as Cesarean sections. Ask whether you can labor in a T-shirt instead of a hospital gown; many women find that a comfortable top makes them feel less like a patient.

“The better prepared you are for childbirth, the more choices you have during labor,” says nurse practitioner Lynette Miya, M.N., R.N.P., co-owner of Bright Beginnings & Beyond, a childbirth and family resource center in Redondo Beach, 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.

3. Take a yoga class> “The most important thing women learn through yoga is how to focus,” says Carmela Cattuti, L.P.N., founder of Yoga for Pregnancy & Fitness in Boston. “It also strengthens the entire body, increases flexibility and gives you stamina. But, perhaps most important for labor, yoga helps your mind relax.” This, in turn, leaves your body free to go about the business of birthing.

4. Learn about pain management> During my first labor, breathing exercises gave me a massive sinus attack. Sniffling and coughing do not make labor fun—trust me on this. Worse, I was out of tricks: no backup plans for easing the pain, no weapon handy to beat my husband for getting me pregnant in the first place.

Don’t let this happen to you. Learn several pain-management techniques (self-hypnosis, position changes and heat packs, to name a few); bring a variety of music for relaxation; and ask friends, your childbirth instructor or a doula to act as lifelines if you need someone to lean on, either physically or psychologically.

As Tracy Hartley, a certified doula and the owner of BEST Doula Service in Alhambra, Calif., says, “If you don’t know what your options are, you don’t have any options.”

5. Hire a doula> Doulas are nonmedical professionals trained to provide emotional and physical support, as well as information, to women in labor. About seven months into her pregnancy, Helen Kerstein, 37, of La Cañada, Calif., decided she needed one. “I knew my husband wasn’t an expert in childbirth,” she says, “and I didn’t know what kind of nurse I was going to get. I was afraid I’d end up in labor alone.”

The Kersteins interviewed three doulas before choosing Hartley’s doula service. “Tracy knew just where to put the heat packs when I needed relief; she helped me use the birthing ball,” says Kerstein. “She kept me calm and focused.” In the end, Kerstein didn’t need an epidural.

There are other benefits as well. “Women who work with doulas generally have shorter, easier labors, ask for less pain medication, feel greater satisfaction with their birth experiences and are more satisfied with their partners’ participation,” Hartley says. (For more information, call Doulas of North America at 888-788-3662 or visit dona.org.)

6. See no evil, hear no evil> Learning to tune out negative thoughts and images of delivery may not seem like a critical aspect of childbirth preparation, but it can be. 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 subconsciousness and create a mental block during labor. Seem far-flung? Then ask yourself this: When you’re down to the last few pushes, do you really want that episiotomy video you saw in childbirth class flashing before your eyes?

At best, negative thoughts and images make labor more vivid and tense; at worst, they weigh you down with anxiety. Change the channel, cover your eyes, tune out or walk away when the subject matter becomes uncomfortable. Bonus: This is great practice for handling all the unwanted advice you’ll get after the baby is born.

7. Set the mood> For most women, a dark, quiet environment is ideal during labor, so ask your nurse, midwife or partner to dim the lights and minimize noise. Little touches can really make a difference: pillows from home, familiar music (which also helps drown out hospital noise), a comfortable pair of socks and soothing scents.

“Aromatherapy, especially the scent of lavender, is very calming in labor,” says nurse practitioner Miya, “and it makes the environment a little less hospital-like.”

8. Get moving> Don’t take your labor lying down. Upright positions—standing, walking, kneeling, sitting, squatting and slow dancing—use 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.”

Hartley’s solution: “Rocking back and forth on your hands and knees may get the baby into position.”

9. Get wet> Early in labor, a warm bath is a blessing. Later, the warmth and weightlessness are more of a miracle. If you have access to a tub during any portion of your labor, run—roll, if you have to—and take the plunge. (Be sure to get your doctor or midwife’s approval before doing so; because of the risk of infection, some doctors frown on bathing if a woman’s water has already broken.)

If a soak isn’t possible, take a warm shower instead. Just be careful; the combination of your balance already being off, contractions and a slippery surface could lead to a fall.

10. Be your own advocate> Labor undoubtedly transforms you, but it won’t make you love tapioca, New Age music or the sight of your in-laws as you breathe through a contraction. Friends and relatives may press these and other suggestions on you before or during labor, but don’t feel as if you have to go along with them. Sure, remain open-minded and receptive, but above all, honor yourself. You don’t know how your labor will unfold, but you do know your likes and dislikes, your preferences and tendencies, your hopes and principles. It’s your body, your baby and your labor. Stick to your guns.

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