When I was pregnant with my first child, I wanted to go natural. No interventions for me! Women have birthed for eons without assistance—so I certainly didn’t need to pay attention in my labor class or hire a doula. My nutrition and exercise regimen? Digging organic cheese crackers out of my couch cushions. But as my labor dragged past the 22-hour, no-sleep, what’s-going-on mark, I actually begged my doctor for a C-section. We compromised on an epidural, and my daughter was born an hour later. In short, I was a typical first-time mom desiring a drug-free delivery without planning for one. Midwife Valerie Sasson, co-owner of Puget Sound Midwives & Birth Center, in Kirkland, WA, says that preparing to deliver naturally is similar to climbing a mountain: “You need a guide, physical well-being, mental determination, and really good weather.” And although you can’t control the “weather”—the term Sasson uses to refer to the baby’s position and any medical issues that might arise—here are six steps to scaling that cliff.
“First labors tend to be a lot longer than second labors,” says Penny Simkin, doula and author of The Birth Partner: A Complete Guide to Childbirth for Dads, Doulas, and All Other Labor Companions. Most first-time births average 12 hours, according to March of Dimes. Jen Sharp Woods of Floyd, VA, saw labor and delivery as “an endurance test, with a wonderful outcome at the end.” So in her third trimester, she walked several times per week, ate balanced meals, and sat on a birthing ball instead of a chair while at the computer. “I read about how it helped the hips align for birth, and by bouncing on it I got a really gentle ab workout.” Sharp Woods had her son Killian naturally, in a midwife-attended hospital birth.
Do your homework
Read books about delivering drug-free and watch films featuring no-med births, like The Business of Being Born, recently released on DVD. “Pain is inevitable in childbirth, but suffering is optional,” Sasson says. Fear makes pain more intense, she adds, and information counteracts fear. In Kansas City, MO, Raegan Buatte’s newfound knowledge led her down a new path. After taking Bradley birthing classes with her husband, Buatte realized that she and her care provider had different views of natural birth. Buatte also found her hospital’s high C-section rates unsettling. So, in her third trimester, Buatte switched to a physician-run birth center, where she felt “totally comfortable” and went on to have a rapid, drug-free delivery.
Doulas—or professional labor coaches—provide experienced advice for managing pain and pushing while you’re in the delivery room. They won’t “muscle out” your labor companion, Simkin says. “Sometimes partners need to rest.” A 2007 study from the Boston University School of Medicine showed that women working with doulas were less likely to end up delivering by C-section.
Practice, practice, practice
“Train your mind for success,” Sasson says, using prenatal yoga, prayer, or meditation to align body and mind. Try out your coping strategies before delivery, and have plenty of backup options. Sharp Woods suffered from agonizing lower leg cramps during her pregnancy: a perfect opportunity to try her Hypnobabies technique. “It removed all sensation of pain, so I knew it would work fine,” Sharp Woods says. The course focused on affirmations, guided imagery, and deep relaxation, along with a mom-to-be’s own empowerment—a popular theme in other courses, such as Bradley, Lamaze, and Birthing From Within. “Childbirth doesn’t have to be awful,” Sharp Woods says. “I have a great picture of myself at 7 centimeters, smiling.”
Stock your toolbox
Addressing your senses increases comfort, according to Sasson, so bring a pillow or robe from home, favorite music, and your own teas, if you’re allowed to drink liquids besides water. Ask questions when touring a hospital or birth center: Are birth balls offered? Are candles OK? Are there birthing tubs for your use? Hundreds of hospitals across North America offer water labor and birth, as do most birth centers. Due to water’s analgesic effects, many midwives call birthing tubs the “natural epidural.”
Make a to-do list
Pre-labor, Simkin suggests creating a checklist of easily completed tasks to divert your attention once contractions begin. “Overreaction is a normal response to early labor,” she says, and can result in a too soon run to the delivery room. Consider these contraction distractions for your list: Bake bread, clean out closets, take a walk, see a movie.
Your birth, your way
For my second climb up the mountain, I prepared by listening to a hypnosis CD, taking prenatal yoga, hiring a doula and a midwife, and caring for my body. On delivery day, the self-hypnosis I’d studied didn’t work for me, so I relieved pangs with a birthing tub and yogic breathing. Blessed with calm “weather,” I gave birth naturally, at home, to my 9-pound, 1-ounce son.
— Lora Shinn hopes that every woman has her desired birth— whether that means saying “No, thanks” to the epidural or “More, please.” Her work also appears in Parenting and KIWI.