I come from a sporty family. My paternal grandma played Netball. My aunt was a basketball player and fitness instructor. My uncles would spend hours on the field playing soccer. My mother further encouraged my love for physical activity by keeping me occupied with badminton, basketball, swimming, cycling and roller skating sessions. If we didn’t have a conducive venue, she would improvise and install a hoop on our balcony, use a long piece of string for a badminton net and so on. It’s no wonder when I chose to graduate in teaching, I specialised in physical education and sports science.
Hence I’ve played at least one sport at each different phase of my life. Netball was my sport of choice but I’ve learned a few others along the way - namely tennis, basketball (which so went against every fibre in my being coz you can move with the ball), diving, canoeing, rock climbing, water skiing, touch rugby...you get it. Of course, as the years passed and I had a family and more commitments, going into a sport had to be shelved for a while. I’ve chosen to focus more on my strength and fitness until the little ones are older and we can pick something to do together. One valuable lesson that I’ve learned from my journey in this field which (I personally feel) relates to my birth work so much: the mind has so much to do with it. Any professional athlete will share with you that there’s some visualisation involved, some level of psychology, intrinsic motivation - a zone that you get into when you play a sport or just before you compete. Even practices require your mind to be engaged - you need to clear your head and focus; you need to picture where you want to throw the ball, where to place yourself so that you are an effective teammate or player and you are in an optimum position relative to your opponent (I am in no way likening birth to an opponent; your contractions come from you and they cannot therefore be stronger than you :)) I liken birth to sport because it is a whole body activity/experience.
Fun fact: Do you know that a mama who decided to don her FitBit when she was labouring reported that she had consumed 2000 calories birthing her baby? That is almost the equivalent of the average number of calories needed to run a full marathon!
In essence, the mind and body go hand in hand when it comes to anything which requires physical activity or movement.
Let’s not go so far as a sport - even when you accidentally touch something hot, the pain receptors in your hand send a signal to your brain which then, in turn, sends a signal for your muscles to contract and retract your hand to safety.
So my question is: what makes labour and birth any different?
There could possibly be some women out there right now going, “Are you kidding me? I couldn’t even think during labour!”
Okay, okay, I hear you. But just, dance with me a little...please?
Let’s begin with the fundamentals concerning hormones during birth. Oxytocin, endorphins, prolactin, they’re all released from the pituitary gland located in the hypothalamus. Together they work to ensure contractions of the uterus progress during labour, that mama has her own stress-relieving, natural, happy drug to counter those powerful surges and ensure that baby has milk from mama.
Picture source: www.mamasociety.com
An exploratory study concludes that:
“ Women’s state of mind during labour may set the stage for the cognitive and evaluative processes that construct and give meaning to their pain experience”
You can read more of this study here:
Here’s a segment that really hits the spot for me from www.pregnancyparenting.org.au:
“When researchers have measured electrical brain activity in labouring women using Electroencephalography (EEG), they have detected very low brain wave frequencies in the Delta region. These brain wave patterns are normally found in adults in deep sleep states or in young babies. These changes in the brain as the woman adapts to her labour, bring about an altered state of consciousness.”
“When the frontal cortex loosens its inhibitory control of the limbic system, women’s behaviour changes. A labouring woman might close her eyes and stop talking. She might begin to moan and sway rhythmically. In this altered state of consciousness, women have more similarities with other mammals; they behave instinctively without inhibition. This altered state of conscious protects the woman from consciously reflecting upon the intensity of her labour. It renders the labour neither easy nor hard, it simply IS.”
My point of this article is simply this: how your birth goes definitely has something to do with your state of mind. Preparing for the birth of your little one isn’t just about buying that beautiful cot you spotted or just the diapers (although they may both be essential). I would like to suggest that it should also be about practicing being in that frame of mind that is conducive for labour and birth for you.
Similar to how a football player ‘sees’ himself/herself scoring a goal and then playing it over and over, covering all the details like foot placement to which part of the foot should have contact with the ball, visualising how you want your body to react during labour, how you would cope with labour - this all adds up to the bigger picture of your own, unique birth.
Being able to calm the mind, to focus (some mothers do this through breathing, some through visualising their happy place or even just focusing on a spot on the wall - or even a combination of all three) and most importantly, relax and rest in between contractions before the next surge comes are handy skills which can be practiced prior to D-day. I would even go so far as to say that facing the fears, concerns and anxieties you have, whether they are related to a previous birth or just your own personal experiences, will directly help in your ability to engage your mind and body fully into your positive birth experience.
Envisioning how you see your birth and how you’d like it to go could even give you a really good start to writing your birth plan. When you're able to 'see' how you'd like everything to go, you can then begin charting where your boundaries are, ask the questions you need to make the informed and necessary decisions to help you prepare for what may be and what you desire for your birth.
Let's use visualisation as an example. If a mother loves being at the beach and it’s her go-to destination which brings and signifies total relaxation for her, being able to visualise contractions as powerful waves which a mama rides with each surge may reduce fear and tension. This, coupled with birth affirmations such as “I am the creator of these surges so they cannot be more powerful than me” or “Each surge brings me closer to my baby” may help mama experience labour differently as she understands her body is simply doing what it needs to do. Coupled with the affirmations which assure her that she is strong and more than capable, this may positively alter the birth experience for her.
Another example of visualisation could be where (and this is a common one) mama likens the ripening, effacement and dilation of the cervix to a rosebud which opens with every contraction. In this narrative, mama also welcomes the contractions like how a flower requires the warmth of the sun and she yields to those surges. She also opens herself to the support and love of those surrounding her which helps her to open and ‘bloom’.
I also need to place a caveat here that visualisation works best with relaxation strategies like breathing techniques to focus. Here’s a video that I like to recommend to clients regarding breathing as a coping strategy for labour:
So yes mamas, birth is a holistic experience - it involves all of you. Your mind, body and soul - I truly believe that. No, this is not some hocus-pocus that us doulas chant around a cauldron or bonfire. Your birth is made up of you and it needs all of you to bring your little one into this world.