Anyone who has kids can tell you that childbirth is no walk in the park. Whether you deliver naturally or by cesarean, the process—from the first contraction to your new baby’s first cries—can take a toll on any new mom. But just because it’s difficult, that doesn’t mean it has to be miserable. There are certain techniques that can help moms-to-be manage their labor pains. An epidural may be the first thing that comes to mind for moms in labor, but there are additional ways for women to ease the discomfort of childbirth. Gearing your body up for the main event starts as soon as you find out you’re pregnant. From a healthy diet to getting the right amount of exercise, we’ve provided several strategies—straight from the experts—to help make sure your childbirth experience is memorable for all the right reasons.
Preparing Your Body
Moments after my son was born, one of the nurses turned to me and said, “Tomorrow, you are going to feel like you ran a marathon.” In all of my excitement, I brushed her comment off. I could tell my body was tired, and later that day her words rang truer than ever. After two hours of pushing, I felt like I couldn’t move a muscle. [pullquote align=”center”]“Labor requires your whole body to be in sync and maintain control. If you aren’t able to push well—if you aren’t controlled—you won’t push effectively.” —Christine Greves, MD, OB-GYN[/pullquote] “As you know, it is a big ordeal to have a baby,” says Christine Greves, MD, an OB-GYN at Orlando Health Winnie Palmer Hospital for Women and Babies in Orlando, FL. Greves says one of the best ways you can equip your body for the main event is to exercise. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that pregnant women get 30 minutes of exercise each day.
This is barring any complications, according to Greves. Expectant mothers should avoid strenuous physical activity if they have an incompetent cervix, high blood pressure, heart disease, preterm labor, or other complications that have been diagnosed by a medical professional. Greves, a mom herself, recommends yoga for improving maternal strength and flexibility, as well as posture. “Labor requires your whole body to be in sync and maintain control,” says Greves. “If you aren’t able to push well—if you aren’t controlled—you won’t push effectively.” Katherine Martinelli, mom to a 4-year-old and a 16-month-old, loosely practiced yoga for 10 years before becoming pregnant and giving birth. Familiar with the benefits of the meditative exercise, Martinelli became much more committed to taking yoga classes throughout the duration of her two pregnancies. “With my first pregnancy, I started going to prenatal yoga almost immediately,” says Martinelli. “I remember the yoga teacher was the first person I told I was pregnant besides my husband.” A study published in the Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice found that women who participate in prenatal yoga may experience a reduced amount of pain during labor as opposed to those who don’t. Swimming is another activity that can help ease labor pains, according to Bianca Weaver, an advanced practice registered nurse and certified nurse-midwife at Norton Women’s and Children’s Hospital in Louisville, Kentucky. “Swimming can lengthen and tone your muscles,” says Weaver. “This one tends to get overlooked, but it can feel good on your body—especially when pregnant—because you are weightless in the water.” Exercise during pregnancy can decrease the risk of gestational weight gain, according to a study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity.
“If you gain a lot of weight in the pregnancy, it can put you at an increased [risk] of having a c-section,” says Greves. “Talk to your OB-GYN to develop an exercise plan that works for you.”
Choosing The Right Foods
A healthy diet is also an important component of the labor process. “A lot of times when women are pregnant, they have an increased appetite once the nausea goes away,” says Greves. “It’s easy to think that you should be eating for two when that is not the case.”
According to the American Pregnancy Association, women only need an extra 300 calories a day during the second and third trimesters. Eating a healthy diet can help keep the extra pounds off. How much weight a woman should gain during pregnancy depends on a couple of factors, including her pre-pregnancy weight and body mass index, as well as the number of children she is having. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, underweight women will need to gain more weight than women who are considered overweight or obese.
There are certain circumstances—such as being underweight or pregnant with multiples—that indicate a mom should plan to ingest additional calories. Regardless of how many additional calories you should eat daily, or the amount of weight you should aim to gain, the organization recommends eating a mix of fruits, vegetables, breads, grains, protein, and dairy for a healthy pregnancy diet.
Mind Over Matter
A study published in the journal BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth found that practicing mindfulness techniques can help decrease chronic and acute pain during labor, therefore resulting in an easier childbirth for women.
“Yoga can also help teach you how to breathe and relax your mind—both techniques that can help you have an easier labor,” says Greves. “People tend to have a big fear and are terrified of the delivery process. Well, we know it’s going to hurt because it’s not a comfortable process. Instead of focusing on the unknown, find the place in your mind that brings you happiness.” Music can be a useful tool in the delivery room. Greves suggests that her patients develop a playlist of songs to help put them at ease during the birthing process. Music has been found to provide a bit of solace and peace of mind to women during childbirth; researchers at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada found that listening to music was a key factor in managing pain and stress during the labor and birth process. “If music doesn’t work for you, think of what you do when you are happy,” says Greves. “What do you need to calm down? Sometimes that means you may need your mom there, or it might be something else. This one is more of an individual answer, but a lot of people like [music] because it’s something they can control.”
Prepping Before You Get Pregnant
The keys to an easier labor can start before you get pregnant, according to Weaver. She recommends that women of childbearing age make healthy choices when it comes to what they eat and drink. She also cautions against smoking, drinking, and use of illicit substances while trying to conceive. “Preconception care is very important. About 50 percent of pregnancies are unintended, so this can be a hard one for women to get under control,” says Weaver. “Making healthy choices before you are pregnant is important, otherwise you may expose your baby to all sorts of things before you even realize you are pregnant.” Taking prenatal vitamins that contain folic acid—a supplement that helps the fetus grow—can help prevent congenital heart defects in newborns as well as preterm birth, according to a study published in Reviews in Obstetrics and Gynecology. Taking folic acid before conception can also help prevent neural tube defects in babies, according to the American Pregnancy Association.
Samantha Huggins, a certified intuitive birth doula at Carriage House Birth in New York, stresses the importance of educating yourself on your birthing options as well as familiarizing yourself with your body and how it works. These two things are key to an easier labor, says Huggins. “The mindset I like to help my patients get in is that you deliver your baby—nobody else,” says Huggins. “It starts with understanding what your body is capable of and connecting with the idea that your body is talking to you all the time. It’s not a mystery machine. When you are in labor, your body is talking to you.” As humans, it’s natural for us to want to control our birth experience, but Huggins says you have to come at it from a different approach.
“Birth does not want to be controlled, and we try so hard to control it. That’s where we end up making mistakes when we plan on this one way of doing things,” says Weaver. “Education and exploration are a huge part of getting more comfortable with your body, and can, therefore, help you have an easier labor whether you have a planned c-section or have an unmedicated vaginal home birth.”
Keep an open mind.
Martinelli emphasizes the importance of a flexible mindset when it comes to childbirth—and to not let perfectionism or a fantasy steer you in the wrong direction. “When things don’t go as planned, it can lead to such disappointment and hurt,” says Martinelli, in reference to the picture-perfect childbirth experience. “There’s just no planning for everything, and it’s best to be prepared for a variety of outcomes.” Whether you have a medicated or unmedicated childbirth, the most important thing is that you have a safe delivery and healthy baby and not let “mom shaming” get the best of you, says Weaver. “Mom shaming is so real. It’s really hard when you are planning on a natural route and you change your mind. People feel this overwhelming sense of guilt because they got an epidural,” says Weaver. “It doesn’t make a difference to me what my patients want—I just want to support them, so it’s hard when they feel like they let themselves down.” Weaver advises her patients to go into pregnancy and labor with an open mind. “It’s good to have a plan, but just remember that plan isn’t set in stone—it is very variable,” says Weaver. “Give yourself wiggle room to change your plans, and don’t be hard on yourself, because at the end of the day you grew a human, and that’s pretty amazing.”