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Could pregnancy relaxation be the key to an easier birth?

Midwives say that giving birth is 50% body and 50% mind.

Pregnancy relaxation is what got me in to doing all that I do now. When I did antenatal classes in my first pregnancy I knew I wanted to avoid epidural or pethidine, but also that I’d need more than just gas and air. In my psychology degree I had learnt about relaxation works, and how powerful visualisation could be, so I applied that to my birth prep. I ended up giving birth without even gas and air it worked so well. By the time baby number three had come along and I had shared my knowledge and these skills with friends and family they told me to share this with the world. I set up a pregnancy relaxation course. This was before hypnobirthing, which is based on the same premise.

Of all the things I do it is this that gives me the most satisfaction because it makes the most difference.

You don't need to learn how to give birth. It is something your body just does, even though occasionally it might need a bit of help. Antenatal classes and pregnancy books and mags are great for letting you know what might happen and for helping you make choices, which all help you feel more in control. They can also help you ‘unlearn’ the misinformation you’ve picked up from watching birth on the telly. But they don't actually help you give birth.

Giving birth is an involuntary bodily function.

Relaxing makes birth quicker. You know when you are stressed and you can’t eat. Or when you are away and can’t seem to do a poo, yet within half an hour of being home from holiday everyone has been to the loo.

The primitive part of our body works like this. If there is worry, stress, tension it is primed for fight or flight, and non essential processes are slowed or stopped, like going to the loo or giving birth. When you relax it switches back to normal function. We’ve all heard stories of friends who were labouring well at home but when they got to hospital it all slowed down. It usually gets going again when they’ve had a chance to settle into their room but the excitement released adrenaline, which acts like a break on contractions.

Relaxing might mean listening to a visualisation or it might mean singing, dancing, laughing, or focusing on your out breath. Just as long as you are switching off your thinking brain, releasing tension, and tuning in to your primitive self. If you can relax easily, and stay relaxed when there are interruptions etc, then you will help keep the birth hormones flowing and therefore birth will be quicker. But it takes practise to do this, which is where pregnancy relaxation comes in. The more you practise the better your body is at responding to your body's command to 'relax'. So get chilling out!

Relaxing makes birth less painful. Did you know that gas and air (Entenox) and pethidine work because they contain muscle relaxants? They work by getting your muscles to relax. Gas and air is half oxygen, which helps the uterus work better and not be tense and painful, and half nitrous oxide, which is a muscle relaxant. Pethidine is part muscle relaxant, and part hallucinogenic drug, which alters your perception of the pain. Labour is muscle action. The pregnant uterus is the largest human muscle. Muscles contract better when they are relaxed and getting oxygen. If they are tense and not getting oxygen then it causes pain.

Being able to stay relaxed will help gas and air be more effective. It works by relaxing you, so being tense while sucking in the gas is counterproductive. The more you relax, the greater the relief from the gas.

Relaxing is really useful if birth needs help. If it birth doesn’t go to plan and needs help it can be a worrying time, which can cause you to tense up and release stress hormones, both will slow labour down and make it more painful. If you’ve practised relaxing you will find it easier to stay calm. This will also help your baby cope with labour as you will keep the oxygen flowing to your baby and also not send stress hormones to the baby.

Relaxing makes birth easier. If relaxing makes birth quicker and less painful, then it makes birth easier. Not easy, but easier. Easier for you. Easier for your baby. Easier for your partner too. Sharing your relaxation plans and techniques with your partner gives them tools to help you. During labour they can support you by keeping the atmosphere calm, reminding you to relax your shoulders/jaw, or talking through a visualisation.

Don’t just take my word for it. Here are some famous birth people who say the same thing.

The UK’s most famous midwife, Mary Cronk, suggests women

‘go saggy into the contraction’.

Michel Odent, obstetrician and pioneer of water births suggests that

‘Pregnant women should not read books about pregnancy and birth. Their time is too precious. They should, rather, gaze at the moon and sing to their baby in the womb.’

Antenatal teacher and the first doula trainer, Penny Simkin, says,

‘In my experience, women who cope well with contractions do the three Rs: relaxation, rhythm, ritual.’

They relax. They do something rhythmical whether sway, breathe, tap, rock, march or… And they have ritually do this for each contraction.

I also see ritual in women's approach to each contraction/surge/wave of power, which could be a phrase they say at the beginning and end of each one, or simply they get into position as it approaches and then get up and shake at the end. Often these are done instinctively, but it’s good to know it is okay to do these things. One client I had greeted each one: ‘Hello surge, I welcome you. Thank you for coming to bring my baby down and out.’ And then dismissed it, saying ‘Goodbye surge, thank you for coming to bring my baby down and out. Now F off.’ Others have sniffed a cloth with lavender or breathed out with a welcome breath. You will find your own way.

Practise makes relaxation easier. It’s a great idea to practise doing some relaxation in pregnancy. The more you do the easier it gets. So by the time you’re in labour your body has got good at responding to your mental prompts to relax. It’s good for you and baby anyway, and will help you sleep. Going to a pregnancy relaxation class or retreat, yoga group, or doing hypno birthing course are all brilliant. You can also download hypno birthing tracks, and there are lots of guided relaxations and visualisations on YouTube.

So you really can prepare for birth while daydreaming!

Cathy is a doula and antenatal teacher based in Bedfordshire.

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