How to plan for a positive, empowering birth

A lot of mums to be have their heart set on a particular kind of birth, yet nature and circumstances can mean that their actual experience is pretty different to what they had hoped for.

Of course, in the short term every new mum is just glad to have their healthy baby in their arms but later on, once the initial oxytocin rush is over, having a birth experience that wasn’t the one you had dreamed of can weigh heavy on the mind.

The very first thing to say is that you did the best you knew how to at the time and given the circumstances. Ideas like, ‘I did something to make my birth hard’ or ‘I should said no’ are worth forgetting about almost immediately. Knowing what to do or say when under time pressure and in the heat of a moment as intense as having a baby, is not easy. Allow yourself some peace of mind.

After knowing and understanding that, I’d share these tips with any woman planning a birth.

Get informed and understand how birth works

This doesn’t mean watching gory birth videos or One Born Every Minute. It does mean learning about how your body and hormones are designed to work with your baby – about how birth is actually a normal, physiological process, not a medical emergency. For example, did you know that the mother’s body receives the message to start labour when the baby’s lungs are mature enough and begin to release a special kind of protein as a signal? Or that pushing with all your might may actually be counterproductive?

It can seem like daunting medical detail at first but you don’t need to be a scientific genius to do this. Keeping an eye on parenting and mothering blogs or Facebook groups is a great way to start. Taking the time to talk to your midwife or a local doula or hypnobirthing teacher would be even better. They are often very passionate about what they do and could talk for hours.

Be an active participant

From a really early age, we begin to receive the wisdom that doctors and caregivers know best. We know they have vast knowledge and experience and want to help them do their job. When you’re worried, uncertain or afraid, it can be comforting to know that there are people around who have seen and done this a million times before. However, this doesn’t mean they know you, your body or your baby. It also doesn’t mean that you should override your very powerful mother’s instinct easily.
By being passive when it comes to interactions with caregivers, you will give them no choice but to treat you as a standard patient. They will do what they know best and follow a well worn path. You will still need to consent to everything but they might then assume that you’re happy to go with their first suggestion and not present any alternatives. Being active and vocal, right from the start, will set the right tone – you value their experience and will take their advice but you want to make sure you feel that all the decisions taken were the right ones for you.

Express birth preferences clearly

Shifts change, caregivers work long hours, dads get tired and once in labour, you might not want to talk much. If you’re in a hospital and have a long labour, you might see a few different midwives as people come to the end of their working day.

It really pays to write down your birth preferences clearly and simply and have copies of them ready to share with whoever is looking after you. If you need to, ask your midwife if they have 2 minutes to go through them verbally with you. This is definitely a job for the dads – research shows that once labour begins, dads are much more likely to be listened to than mum. Take advantage of this and allow dad to express his natural instinct to protect his mate and child. This will give mum the chance to remain in her birth bubble, focused and unworried.

Ask questions

It’s your body, your baby and your birth. I’ve heard it said that we ask more questions about fixing a roof or fitting a kitchen than we do when a baby is being born. How can that be right? Birth is magical, awe inspiring and a little bit other worldly it’s true, but it’s also a normal process that has been researched and studied. Your caregivers are professionals who train for years to be able to do their jobs. When you’re feeling overwhelmed or don’t understand, use their knowledge. Talk with them. Satisfy yourself that every decision you make with them was the right thing to do. Don’t leave any room for doubt. It’s ok to ask for the risks and benefits of every option. It’s ok to ask for time to decide. It’s ok to decide to say no. But first, you must ask the questions.

Thank goodness for modern medicine

You may have had your heart set on a natural water birth at home and then your baby arrived via c-section. You might not have wanted any pain relief but on the day you decided differently. Isn’t modern medicine wonderful? You have these choices available to you and can make decisions in clean hospitals, with fully trained caregivers in support and your baby will arrive safely and healthily. It’s so easy to demonise more medicalised births and be disappointed if you don’t achieve a natural one but we are lucky women. So many women in the past and around the world now, don’t have the access to healthcare we have. The fact that we are able to pick and choose in itself is a luxury.

I often remind parents to be that positive and negative are relative terms and thoughts are fluid. There are physical ways to increase your chances of having a more comfortable, natural birth like hypnobirthing, keeping fit during pregnancy and eating well. Equally important is preparing yourself mentally for what is about to happen. If you take the time to get informed and make plans, whatever path your birth takes, you can look back on your birth experience knowing that everything that happened was right for you and your baby. And who can ask for a better start to family life than that?

This post was written for and first appeared on The Natural Parent Magazine.

tea lights

5 tips to make any birth a more chilled out experience

When I had my little girl, I planned to have her at home. I was lucky and my home birth went as planned and she was born in our downstairs bathroom – although that bit I’d not expected! Even though I was hoping for a home birth, I still had to allow for the situation where my labour didn’t progress as expected. I used these simple tips to make sure I could take my mellow, homelike setting with me to hospital.

1. Make a playlist

Now I look back, I actually have no idea what track my daughter was born to. I wish I’d noted it down but my mind was elsewhere… In the months leading up to her birth, my husband and I spent an hour or so each week creating a birth playlist. Some of the tracks were calming, some faded into the background and some were more upbeat.

Your energy during labour will ebb and flow so a mixture of styles you can pick and choose from will be just what you need. Familiar sounds which drown out the background noise in a more medicalised environment will help you focus and relax. You could even bring a wireless speaker with you

2. Keep the numbers down

I was adamant that I wanted no family apart from my husband with me. I didn’t tell anyone else that I was in labour until my baby had arrived. I didn’t want to feel obliged to provide updates or answer text messages or manage the presence of anyone else. I also asked that we have as few caregivers as possible. This meant saying no to student observers and asking the midwives to give me a little space. I’m not sure I even noticed when they left my house. Feeling unobserved in a private space is an important part of relaxing and allowing your body to do it’s work.

3. Use low lighting

This was simple when we were at home. I had one single candle burning through the night and I think the midwife may have used the light of her phone to make her notes. Oxytocin flows better and adrenaline is less likely to be produced if lighting is kept minimal. Ask your midwives if you can turn the lights down and consider investing in a dim light. Fake candles are great as are colour changing lamps.

4. Get comfy

I could write an essay on the optimum positions for birth but I’ll limit it here to saying there is absolutely no need to use the bed for labouring. Sit on it, keep your stuff on it, climb into it when you’re ready to sleep but when it comes to comfort in labour, I’d stay well clear.

I planned to bring pillows and a soft blanket so I could make use of the floor, supersoft but darkly coloured pyjamas, my favourite shampoo and shower gel, a big fluffy towel (hospital ones can be threadbear and a little bit scratchy), socks to keep my feet warm and an elegant cover up to help me look and feel a bit pulled together when receiving visitors after baby had arrived.

5. Work with essential oils

In the world of hypnobirthing, essential oils can be used as a trigger. If they are used frequently when you are relaxed (having them diffusing at night when you sleep is ideal), once labour starts, they will subconsciously remind you of your calm space at home.

They will also mask the smell of disinfectant and the right oils can help support a woman in labour. Good choices are rose, neroli and lavender. I had a rose candle for use at home but for hospital, I bought a small pump spray bottle and added a few drops of an essential oil blend to water. The perfect homemade pillow spray.

Making a hospital room or a birthing centre feel more homely can seem a bit daunting but this was one of the jobs I asked my husband to take on. In the end, we didn’t need these small touches but I was reassured and probably more relaxed knowing that I had them ready to use.

This post was written for and first appeared on The Natural Parent Magazine.

Exercising during pregnancy

Lots and lots of times during pregnancy, I was reminded to keep moving, to keep on exercising. Everyone told me that – mothers I knew, the midwives and that bible I grew to dislike quite a lot ‘What to Expect when You’re Expecting’.

What nobody told me was HOW and WHY it was so important. I did find out in the end – birth is a big physical deal. It takes stamina and strength. So all the advice I got was totally correct but given to me in the wrong way.

It wasn’t only because you need to keep your weight down (you do, still do that), it wasn’t just because it’s healthier for the baby (it is) and it wasn’t even because it will keep the aches and pains at bay in the final weeks (some days I could only walk if I’d done some gentle yoga or been for a swim early in the morning). It’s because to give birth with as few as interventions as possible, you need to be able to give it all you have.

It’s almost like planning a long distance run. You need to be fit, well fuelled but not too full and as well rested as possible.

I didn’t know it until I felt it, but once labour starts, every ounce of energy you have will be diverted to your uterus. And once it has grown to a height of 40cm, it’s a pretty big muscle. So if I’d have known that I needed to keep fit to improve my chances of a more straightforward birth, I would have applied myself with a bit more gusto.

The advice then: if you have an exercise routine, stick with it for as long as possible, even if in a gentler, modified form. If you don’t have one, take up pregnancy yoga, swim if you can or get walking. You’ll be so grateful you did.

Great reads for during pregnancy

During my pregnancy, I had loads of time on my hands. By about the 25 week, I was being woken a million times a night by little feral kicks from the inside (turns out that was a sign of things to come) and by about 35 weeks, it was 30C outside and my feet looked more like elephants’ feet so I had plenty of opportunity to allow my mind to wander/panic over my ability to parent.

I read a lot both before I was pregnant and during. These are my favourites.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth

The bible of normal birth. I found it so reassuring to read so many stories of birth taking place simply and straightforwardly, without medical interventions required. It gave me a lot of confidence. I wanted to be part of this gang of women! Buy

Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom

I read this before I was pregnant, when I was thinking about what it might be like to be a mum. It felt to me like our bodies carry so much innate power and wisdom, I could relax a little and trust in nature to allow me to carry and birth a healthy child then work out (even if through trial and error) how to be a mother. Buy

How Not to F**k Them Up

Again, another one I read before I had the confidence to start trying for a baby. I wanted to know all I could about what I was going to experience and this was recommended by another mother. It’s a straightforward, reassuring and honest assessment of mothering styles, how you come to be the kind of mother you are and how it affects your child. I’ve found myself thinking about it frequently – I suppose it’s made me a more conscious parent. Buy

Your Baby, Week by Week

A practical, week by week parenting manual covering things like: how much your baby should be eating, developmental milestones, how they should be sleeping and health issues to watch out for. A must have for a total newbie. I felt quite proud when I’d survived the 26 weeks is covers! Buy

The First Forty Days: the Art of Nourishing the New Mother

I make no secret of the fact that I’m big into nutrition and that I believe food to be a powerful medicine. I love the supportive tone of this book and that it gives permission for new mums to not bounce back immediately. The recipes it contains are perfectly light and nourishing, perfect for recovery. Buy

French Children Don’t Throw Food

This one is a little more light hearted but at the same time, still gives great insight into the parenting choices you can make. It follows the journey into motherhood of an American woman living in Paris, covering birth, weaning, breast vs formula feeding and parental attitudes. Buy