Colleen and Kristi have ten births between them including eight homebirths (6 UCs and two midwife-assisted), a (mostly) natural hospital birth, and a C-section. Here are the top 13 labor tips they would share with anyone preparing for their own birth. Also, the University of Minnesota has put together a really great basic article on the anatomy and stages of birth, and though its focus is on the woman planning to give birth in a hospital, the information is relevant for anyone.
1. Your body is made to give birth, yet no labor tips will truly prepare you for THIS birth.
During my first labor, I remember my nurse-midwife, Kat, offering me labor tips as she tried to prepare me for the possible pain of my impending labor. I brushed her aside — I’d taken Lamaze classes, I’d read a dozen books and even more blogs, I was twenty years old, and I believed in my body’s power to give birth.
I was right — and I was wrong. My body did, indeed, know just what to do, but I was unprepared for the truth that it did, in fact, hurt, and early in my labor, I began to panic. I didn’t know how to surrender my body to its own power, and so my birth was difficult.
When baby number two came, I felt better. I had planned an unassisted birth, read another dozen books, and knew what labor would be like now that I’d been through it. And yet, I was again unprepared for my labor, and I was sorely disappointed that I had not been graceful during the birth. My third birth was incredible; I read “Birthing from Within” and felt ready — but baby number 4’s intensity surprised me, and baby number 5 — boy. I was not ready for his leisurely and yet intense escape from the womb.
You will not know what your baby’s journey Earthside will bring you in terms of the thoughts, sensations, emotions, or
circumstances. And yet, you CAN prepare by making peace with the uncertainty ahead of time. Your body was made for this. Your very humanity has led you to this moment when you will bring your child forth into the world. If you can surrender your mind and its expectations to the power of your birthing body, your birth experience will be an important part of your connection to your child rather than simply a trial you must endure before meeting him.
“I was not prepared for my fifth birth to end in a c-section — but even though the birth was nothing like my first four homebirths; nothing like it was ‘supposed to be,’ I kept in touch with my body and my baby throughout the process and it was an important piece of our introduction to one another,” adds Colleen of her fifth birth.
(Related reading on the Wrapsody blog: Rewriting your birth story when birth hurts.)
2. Understand the fear-pain cycle
Grantly Dick-Read wrote in his book, Childbirth Without Fear, about his experience of seeing a woman’s uterus white during a C-section — presumably because during moments of fear, our bodies move our blood from our internal organs to our hands and feed in order to prepare for “fight or flight.” He postulated that our
fear during labor seriously impedes our bodies’ abilities to give birth — because our biologic reactions to fear cannot distinguish between, for instance, fear of an attacking tiger and fear of a birth procedure.
In 2012, a Norwegian study confirmed his suspicions. You can read more about the study in Science Daily.
Many books, articles, and even entire systems and classes (such as “Hypnobirthing” and “Birthing from Within”) have been developed to help women work through their fears to have more peaceful and empowered births, and you may wish to explore such a system. However, even understanding how fear affects your labor can help you let go of irrational thoughts and to create a psychologically safe environment in which to give birth.
The basics: The more afraid you feel, the more pain you will have during labor. The more pain you have, the more afraid you will feel. As you feel more afraid, your pain will increase, and so it goes. Read some great labor tips on this as well as to find some concrete advice on avoiding the cycle, you can read this article, “Reducing the Fear-Tension-Pain Cycle During Labor,” at Helping Hands Doula.
3. Feed your body before, during, after your labor.
Your labor may be brief or long, intense or serene, intermittent or all-at-once. My first four labors came and went for a couple of weeks as my body worked its way to about 3 or 4 centimeters dilation, then in a burst of a few hours I did the intense work before giving birth. My fifth labor took a week, much of it active, as fifth labors notoriously do.
When you feel that you might be having contractions, it is never a bad idea to have a high protein snack. If your labor lasts for a long time, it is important to find foods or protein shakes you can eat, even if your body is not feeling hungry. And, once your baby comes, be sure that someone takes care to feed you good, nourishing food — you have just done hard, hard work. Just as you would not spend a day in other hard labor without food, neither should you do the hard work of birthing without adequate nutrition.
“Don’t go into it hungry,” adds Colleen. “While it is safe to eat during labor, your body may not cooperate. I expected to feed myself often during my homebirth labor, and so I waited too long to eat and found myself throwing up when I tried.”
4. Be ready.
Be ready to wait, and be ready to give birth. By the time you reach 37 weeks, everyone around you, including perfect strangers, will be offering you labor tips and pushing you with advice. Babies are considered medically to be “full term” at 37 weeks, and US culture has begun to believe that this is the new “due date.”
Research consistently shows that babies born after 39 weeks have the best start, however, and the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology suggests that induction based on due date is not indicated until the mother/baby dyad has reached at least 41 weeks gestation.
Babies are remarkably unaware and unappreciative of our scheduling concerns. Your baby doesn’t much care when your doctor is taking a vacation, when your mother has scheduled her visit, or when your partner’s boss prefers (s)he take leave. So be prepared, and remind everyone around you to be ready: be ready to wait, or be ready to meet a baby.
It may be wise to ask those calling or bothering you each day: “Have you had that baby yet?” to leave you be. Assure them (especially your well-meaning family!) that you will not spirit your baby away silently after the birth, and assure them that you will, in fact, call. Remind them that should you be in labor when they call, they can impede your progress. Tell the mailman to leave you alone.
And be ready. Keep yourself busy those last weeks, but don’t schedule anything that can’t be abandoned mid-task. Your baby is coming, and like so many things in his/her life, (s)he means to make the exact date a surprise.
5. You can apologize tomorrow.
Meeting your own needs during your labor is also meeting your baby’s needs. Taking care of yourself during this important time should be your priority. If what you need or want during labor is different than what those around you want, so be it. You can apologize later to your mother, your husband, your aunt.
“While my mom was in labor with one of my sisters, my grandmother started brushing her hair,” Colleen says. “My mother always loved having her hair brushed, but during her labor every stroke grated on her and pulled her away from the work she was doing. Of course, when she finally told my grandmother to stop, my grandmother stopped immediately — she wanted to make my mom feel better, not worse. But she was so afraid to hurt my grandmother’s feelings that she didn’t want to say anything.”
Birth is not the time to worry about your mother-in-law’s desire to be with you in your hospital room, about your husband’s wish to play his guitar during your labor, or your best friend’s desire to paint your feet with henna. The job of those around you is to make a space in which you can do the hard work of bringing your baby Earthside. Set boundaries ahead of time (maybe consider offering “labor tips” for friends and family!), set them with confidence, and if your husband’s feelings are hurt when you tell him that the sound of the song he has written to welcome your baby into the world sounds like tin cans on a cat’s tail while you are in transition, you can apologize later.
(Truth be told, though, when my 6yo brought me a protein cookie during my transitional time with baby number 4, I *did* take a bite and manage to swallow it and thank him!)
6. Get everyone on the same page
My husband’s first baby was my fourth. As I planned my birth, I shared with him the music I’d chosen to play during labor. “Wait,” he said. “I don’t get ANY say in the labor music?!” That’s when I sat him down and explained that no, he didn’t. He couldn’t open my cervix for me; he couldn’t ease the pains of the surges; he couldn’t do the healing from birth injuries. He could only support me and help me create the most beautiful, relaxing, fear-free environment in which to bring our baby into the world.
Be sure that anyone with you understands ahead of time that birth is often loud, often messy, and usually beautiful in some way. Ensure your partner understands that should you grab his shoulders, look into his eyes during your transition, and say, “I’m going to die,” he does not need to immediately call for a surgeon. Be sure your sister understands that even though she loved her birthing ball and hot towels on her shoulders during labor and clary sage oil in her birth tub, that you are not asking her to recreate her birth experience for you. This birth is about YOU and YOUR BABY, and of course you will discuss your plans and seek the counsel of your partner, but this is a time for everyone to understand they are here for YOU.
7. Your birthing cave
During your birth, it is almost certain that you will find your way into a slightly altered state. Most women turn inward during labor, tuning out noises, lights, conversation, focused deeply and intently on the sensations they are experiencing, their connection with their baby, and the very hard work they are doing.
Some women love to bring ritual to this place, lighting candles, playing music, belly dancing, rocking, singing. For others, it is a place they slip into quietly (or loudly — let’s be honest) and dwell in without even realizing it. It’s a turning inward.
Many mothers have never heard of this altered state until they begin discussing their first birth with those around them. Knowing you are likely to find yourself in this state gives you a chance ahead of time to let your partner and any birth attendants know that they should allow you to linger in this “birthing cave,” not trying to distract you or pull you out of it. It is the place that the work of birthing happens.
Colleen reminded me that many partners feel nervous or out of place during labor, and they try to engage you by laughing with you, telling jokes, distracting you, telling stories. It is often difficult during contractions to communicate, so discuss ahead of time that you may require silence and darkness. I remember during one birth, my fourth, with my three beautiful children crowding around me and trying to talk with me, finally clapping as loudly as I could, as I was unable to speak. “She wants us to be quiet,” one of them said. It may be wise to establish a signal your partner can understand as a command to hush, to stop touching you, to rub your back or stop rubbing your back, or otherwise to communicate when you may be beyond words.
8. Practice pushing tension out
Reflect on a time when you felt sharp or intense pain. A time when you stubbed your toe, cracked your head, injured your knee. What was your response? Did you relax your bottom, relax your pelvic floor, relax your shoulders and open your hands, or did you squeeze your hands into fists, hold your breath, squinch your eyes, and tense your thighs?
During contractions, many women react the second way. I did during my first two labors. It wasn’t until my third child, while reading “Birthing from Within,” that I learned to practice the first reaction to pain. I practiced it when I stubbed a toe, I practiced during Braxton-Hicks contractions, I practiced whenever I could. And during labor, when I felt the great waves of intensity that opened my cervix, I breathed long and deep and with each breath, focused on relaxing my pelvic floor the same way I might relax it to pee if I’d been holding it a long time.
This reaction to contractions is a huge piece of breaking the fear-tension-pain cycle we discussed earlier. Perhaps you can work with your partner to find a quiet word or phrase (s)he can use to remind you to relax during the hard parts of your labor. This “pushing out” of your pain or tension is not the same as the “pushing out” of your baby from your womb, but rather working to let the work of labor flow through you rather than fighting against it by drawing your muscles inward.
9. Growl deep, loose lips, loose bottom
Take a moment. Moan, low and deep. Feel your voice in your diaphragm, feel your mouth open, let it be a bellow. Feel how your bottom, your PC muscles, and your rectum all naturally relax when you make this noise.
Now, shriek like the classic housewife who’s seen a mouse. Feel your throat tighten, feel your bottom tighten, feel how your PC muscles react almost as if they’re holding in pee.
During labor, you will likely want to vocalize. It is likely that as you push your baby out, you will also want to vocalize. Practice vocalizing deep and low, and ask your partner to practice with you so (s)he might help you remember if you begin to scream or yell high and tight during your labor.
10. Just this one (get off the hampster wheel)
As Colleen and I discussed what labor tips to include in this article, I recalled glancing at the clock during my second labor and thinking, “I can’t possibly do this for two more hours.” My son was born 15 minutes later. She, too, recalled,thinking, “I can’t do this for four hours.” She added, “You don’t have to do it for four hours, though. You only have to do it for this one contraction. When you let your mind race ahead to all the contractions that might come next, you’re stuck in this hampster wheel running round and round, experiencing not just this contraction but all the contractions to come after it, and you start to panic. You have to take yourself off the hampster wheel and be here, now, with just this one contraction, one at a time.”
Particularly during the time they call “transition,” the last bit of opening before your body gives birth (and let’s not get hung up on the numbers, here — your vagina is different than my vagina and it’s as unlikely that every woman’s body will open exactly ten centimeters as it is that every woman will give birth to a 7.5 pound baby) — particularly during this time, labor can begin to feel unbearable. It is often a very brief time, but it can feel as if it goes on forever. This is the part of labor that cartoons draw on, and it is the time you may most need your support team to remind you that you are doing well, that you are almost there, that it *is* as hard as it feels, and that you are powerful. It is almost time to meet your baby, but you may be exhausted or overwhelmed or frightened — and that is normal, but it is almost over. Try to let go of the panic, try to get off the hampster wheel. There may be only one more contraction, or two, but not likely four hours.
It can get dark inside your birthing cave, and during the time of laboring, it may help to find a visualization that works for you. What works for me may be different than what works during your labor, and certainly, even from one baby to the next, you may find you need different visualizations.
I’ll share here two examples of visualizations that have helped us. You will find your own, it is likely.
In my second, and most difficult, birth, with each contraction I pictured a tiny, bright, speck of light in the center of my belly growing brighter as the contraction squeezed my baby tighter, moving him down toward the world.
Colleen’s second birth was also a brief, intense birth, with a great deal of work happening in each contraction, and she found herself visualizing supernovas — stars exploding, because it was something huge, powerful, and intense, and yet a beautiful part of things working the way they should.
Your visualization might involve light, waves, water, unfurling flowers, or many other images. Seek the one that helps you focus.
12. The myth of pushing
If you have ever watched, read, or heard any depiction of a birthing mother, you are familiar with the idea of a team of people calling, “PUSH!” Mothers speak of how long they pushed, saying things like, “I pushed for two hours.” In my first birth, I “pushed” for 25 minutes. And I pushed HARD.
Then, reading labor tips from different authors and bloggers during my second pregnancy, I learned that many, many women never push. They wait; they do the work of labor; they allow their contractions to work and their bodies to move, and then at some point, their body does the pushing work for them. And so it was for me with my second, third, fourth, and fifth babies that I trusted my body to push when the time was right. One baby came all at once in a great rush of four heaving pushes; two came gently and slowly; the other was a mix between the two.
A really powerful analogy, yucky though it is, is to liken it to pooping. You can sit on the toilet and bear down, and bear down, and bear down. Bear down long enough and hard enough and you’ll poop — and likely, you’ll have some hemorrhoids to show for it. Usually, however, you wait until your body gives the signal. You move to the toilet and either you move your poop out with no special effort, or you follow your body’s cues and bear down and let things fall where they may.
Pushing without your body’s signal is like pooping when you don’t feel the need to poop or working to sneeze when you don’t need to sneeze. You can move your baby out, but it will take much more work — and possibly create more birth injury — than if you waited til your baby and your body were ready. Unless you have received medications or an epidural during your labor, your body will tell you when to bear down a little and when to bear down harder. Follow its cues and your baby will soon be wriggling in your arms.
13. Birthing is HARD WORK
Regardless, your body has just done an amazing, powerful job and needs to rest and recover. You need good food, pampering, support from those who will help you breastfeed or learn to soothe a fussy baby, someone to soothe your baby while you take a warm shower, someone to tell you how amazing you are if you and your baby have a rough day.
You may feel weepy; you may feel elated; you may feel fit as a fiddle and want to get up and conquer the world with your baby on your hip. These first days are fleeting, though. Care for yourself, watch how your baby’s face changes each moment, and when people come to visit, tell them how much you look forward to seeing them — and ask them to please stop for some milk or bring you a salad (or ice cream, or a Guinness).
Have a list on the refrigerator of the things that must be done, and when they ask, “Is there anything I can do?” you can tell them that if they want to help, your partner’s to-do list is on the refrigerator. While you might not want to ask your cousin to scrub your toilet, she may see it on your list and decide to take the five minutes to clean it for you.
Ask for help often, and kiss your baby once for me and once for Colleen, as our newborns aren’t very new anymore.
Any labor tips you’d add that we missed? Leave it in the comments below! And if you like our blog post, then share it with your social networks or subscribe to our newsletter.