The original version of the article appeared on Happy Mom Musings in December 2012.
One thing everyone knows about labor is that it is intense. Some people don’t like to use the word pain – Ina May Gaskin uses the word “rush” since she did not experience it as pain. But for most women it is at least uncomfortable and I experienced it as pain, so I am just going to call it pain here. Of course, in this situation the pain has a purpose – it is opening the cervix and moving the baby out of the woman’s body – but that does not make it hurt less! Here are a few drug free techniques to help you cope with, or even ease the pain.
Breathing (and Visualization)
The key to working with the body during labor is to relax with the contractions instead of tightening up. I find breathing to be really helpful in helping me to relax – with each inhalation and exhalation I picture either part or my entire body relaxing or even melting. Deep breathing has the additional benefit of getting more oxygen to your muscles, including the uterus, and your baby so that the contractions can work more efficiently. This was the tool I used the most during labor.
Visualizations work well with breathing. A common visualization recommended for birth is to visualize yourself opening up and your baby moving down. This helps your body do exactly that and also keeps you focused on the end-goal – the beautiful baby – instead of the pain of the contractions.
In general, moving during labor helps the woman progress faster, and by changing positions and moving you can react to the signals your body is giving you and help move baby into an optimal position and down. For example, doing pelvic tilts on hands and knees can help a baby who is “sunny side up” move so that his back is to the front – this is much more comfortable for the mother and is a much better position for him to come out. Just walking can also be very beneficial in progressing labor. Another great movement tool is to use the “birth ball” (an exercise ball you can sit on). You can bounce or rock on it or you can lean forward onto it and rock. When I was laboring at home – before I got stuck in bed at the hospital – I spent a lot of time sitting on my ball making circles.
This is a little more unusual as a pain coping tool – at least in the modern western world – but it is something I found out about early in pregnancy and am really excited about using. As I noted above, moving is really helpful during labor. Belly dance is especially great because many of the movements help the baby move into the best position and down. Hip circles are particularly useful for this. Traditionally, many tribes in Africa and the Middle East used to use belly dance as part of the labor and birth process. A laboring woman would be surrounded by the other women from her village and they would all dance through the labor – with the mother able to take breaks as needed.
Kissing (and cuddling, etc)
Labor involves the hormone oxytocin – this hormone both triggers contractions and is a “feel-good” hormone. It is the hormone released during an orgasm. Therefore some of the same things that made baby in the first place help get baby out! Kissing and cuddling helps make the woman feel safe and relaxed and promotes the release of oxytocin – which will help the labor progress and will help cope with the pain. Below is a video of the amazing midwife Ina May Gaskin talking about the benefits of kissing during labor.
Water (warm shower, tub)
I love water – taking a bath or swimming always feels good and relaxes me. Apparently, this is true of many women! When pregnant I found that doing the cat-cow yoga pose while taking a warm shower felt really good when my lower back was tight or sore. I also took a long shower with the water running over my back during early labor and it felt so good. Although I did not have the opportunity to labor in a birth tub, many women find that it helps take some pressure off of the body and can make contractions less intense.
Vocalizing – Humming, Singing, Moaning
Whenever you vocalize, it is a release. This helps your body relax – exactly what we want to do during labor! A woman moaning during labor is often disturbing to people (especially those who have never seen a natural birth) and I can definitely see how it can be disconcerting; however, it actually means that the woman is coping with her contractions. Singing or moaning with an open mouth is better than humming since “loose lips means loose hips”! I vocalized during the most difficult part of my contractions for most of my labor and found it the most useful thing to help me through, especially when I was stuck on the bed while laboring at the hospital.
Having music on that you find relaxing or empowering can make a huge difference in your mindset during labor. I made a calming mix which I listened to while relaxing during pregnancy, and played it over and over again for hours while laboring at the hospital.
Of course, you will only know what works for you in the moment– and that may change moment to moment. Next time, I plan to try all of these techniques again to have a natural childbirth.