How to prepare yourself for giving birth
Having a baby can throw up a lot of questions, but what do you really need to know? Anjana Gosai finds out
Discover your coping style
Knowing what comforts you in everyday life can give you a calmer labour experience, explains midwife Nicola Bradley, mentor at birth preparation course Birth Rocks. 'How do you deal with a headache – do you have a massage, use a cold pack or rest in a quiet room? How do you de-stress – do you go for a walk or listen to music? The same methods can apply in labour. One woman I looked after brought her teddy bear with her. If it helps, anything goes.' 'In between contractions, I watched Breaking Bad while eating Jelly Babies,' says Charlotte, mum to Ivy, 12 months. 'It took my mind off the pain I'd just been through, and the sweets kept me going.'
Arm yourself with labour tools
A birthing ball is brilliant – it can be used to ease contractions, help you rest, relieve pressure from the spine, and it helps get the baby in the right position for delivery,' says midwife Jane Mason, co-founder of The Natural Birthing Company. 'Heatable wheat bags can ease back pain and lavender essential oil is great for relaxation too.'
Deniz, mum to Kaiyan, aged three and Rohan, two months, agrees: 'Having a bath with lavender oil and tuning into Classic FM always relaxes me, and it helped in the early stages of both labours too.'
Pick the right partner
'Don't assume your husband or partner is the right birthing partner to support you,' says Nicola. 'If your partner's terrified of birth or blood, they won't create a helpful mood. Ensure the person with you has the right temperament to support and comfort you.'
'My husband was with me for our son's birth, but found it traumatic,' says Shoma, mum to Jason, ten and Maya, three. 'He felt helpless as there was nothing he could do to ease my pain. So then for my second pregnancy, we decided on my sister. Ben was fully involved in the pregnancy – the only thing he missed was the birth, but he was waiting right outside the room.'
Start labour at home
It's only natural to want to rush to hospital at the first signs of labour, but you're likely to have a less stressed experience if you spend time at home. 'You can relax, walk around, enjoy a warm bath, let your partner massage your back or start using a TENS machine to help with contractions,' says midwife Sharon Trotter of Tips Limited. 'But if your waters break, you start bleeding or your contractions are becoming hard to cope with, call your midwife.'
Consider a home birth
'It's your right to chose where you give birth,' Sharon says. 'If your previous pregnancies have been complication-free, you are less likely to require medical intervention and so delivering your baby at home is a wonderful and safe choice.'
Get your baby lined up for birth
The ideal position for your baby to be in to ease his passage through the pelvis is head down, his back against your abdomen wall. 'Some babies lie in the occiput posterior (OP) position – with their back against the mum's back,' explains Jane. In this position the baby's head doesn't fit down the birth canal so easily, which can result in back pain and a longer labour. 'Spend as much time as you can in forward-leaning positions – try sitting on a birth ball, leaning on something supportive, take regular walks and swim or float on your front,' Jane advises, as this will encourage your baby into the best position. 'Don't lie down for long periods or lounge on sofas, which can make the baby lie in the OP position.'
Massage yourself down there
Around 85 per cent of women tear in childbirth – an understandably alarming thought. Now this may sound unlikely, but according to Jane, 'Perineal massage, started four to six weeks before your due date, can make the area more elastic, and may reduce the risk of tearing or needing an episiotomy.' She advises massaging after a bath or shower, when the blood vessels are dilated, making the area more comfortable to touch. 'Prop yourself up in bed, lubricate your thumbs with a natural oil and put one or both in your vagina. Press down, then rhythmically sweep them side to side in a U-shape. Do this daily for five minutes.'Prepare to alter your birth plan
You may have your heart set on a water birth surrounded by scented candles, but your ideas can change as labour progresses. 'Your birth plan is a guideline to express your desires for things like pain relief, who you'd like to cut the cord, labour positions,' says community midwife Kate Rudd. 'But it's impossible to predict the path of each labour. I've seen women who wanted a water birth but needed a C-section, and others determined to go drug-free who went for an epidural. Each birth was still special. Just be flexible so you can adapt to what happens.'
You don't have to rely on drugs
If you're anxious about the birth, or want an alternative to the hospital's pain relief options, look into hypnobirthing. 'I've seen many women give birth with nothing but natural comfort techniques and hypnosis,' says Nicola. 'While it's not a "cure all" for birth pain, it is fantastic for getting you in the right frame of mind and relaxing you.' That said, if you do decide to use drugs, don't feel you've let yourself down. You take pain relief to treat a headache, so why go through labour pain without any help?
Eat like an athlete
'Labour is like a long-distance run – it takes a lot of strength and stamina,' says Kate. 'Eating little and often helps sustain energy levels. Pasta, honey on toast, cereal and nuts are great before labour. You may not feel like eating during labour, so try smoothies made with yogurt or banana.'
'In my experience women who are quiet by nature are more likely to be this way when giving birth,' says Nicola. 'And if they're extrovert they're often more vocal. The noises are all positive, so don't be shy to let it all out. Just try not to scream – it releases negative energy, which will simply exhaust you and can be traumatic for your baby.' You can't truly know what your reaction will be until you're going through it – and remember, whatever happens there's no need to be embarrassed; feel free to do what seems right in the moment.
Go skin to skin with your baby
'Bare skin contact with your newborn is fantastic for bonding – it stimulates the "love" hormone oxytocin, which can also help breastfeeding, and it calms the baby by regulating its heart rate and breathing,' says senior midwife Birte Harlev-Lam. 'It introduces him to your family's "friendly" bacteria too, which helps prevent allergies.' Get your partner to strip off his shirt too. 'If mum needs treatment, or simply a rest, skin contact with the father is just as beneficial,' adds Birte. Research has shown that babies who lay on their dad's chest cried less and settled to sleep more quickly than those left alone in a cot.
Discover water power
Experts advise bathing your baby with plain water for at least the first month, before slowly introducing baby products. 'Once you start to use products, just rinsing your baby's hair in the bath water is enough for the first year,' says Sharon. 'At birth, a baby's skin is thin and absorbent, making it more sensitive to damage from germs, chemicals and water loss. When you use shampoo, check it's free from perfumes and potentially irritating ingredients such as sulphates.' Weleda Baby Calendula Shampoo and Body Wash is a safe bet (£6.99).
You may still look large after birth
'Don't expect your tummy to look as it used to immediately after you give birth – it's more likely to be squishier and rounder than you expected,' warns Birte. It takes nine months to stretch and accommodate a full-term baby, so it will also take time to tighten up again. 'The womb takes four to six weeks to shrink to its pre-pregnancy size; cells that swelled will start to release fluids, plus you'll begin to shed excess weight if you're breastfeeding. Exercise will help tone the stomach muscles – if you've had a straightforward birth, you can start gentle exercise as soon as you're ready.'
Don't worry about sex
'You've just had a baby, so it's no surprise if sex isn't the first thing on your mind,' says Kate. 'You're probably exhausted and still a bit sore. It's best to wait until after your six-week postnatal check before resuming a physical relationship. This allows your body time to recover – the cervix will close, bleeding will ease and stitches can heal.'
Expect your vagina to change
It is perfectly normal for your vagina to be sore and dry after childbirth. 'In the early weeks after birth your oestrogen levels are lower and these can remain low if you are breastfeeding,' explains Kate. 'Once you stop breastfeeding and your periods return to normal, it will revert to pre-pregnancy levels. If dryness is an issue during sex, use a lubricant.' Try Sylk Natural Intimate Moisturiser (£9.99).
Don't watch birth programmes
You may think it's good preparation, but tuning into shows such as One Born Every Minute might not be the best idea. 'A normal, calm birth doesn't make it onto TV because it's not sensational,' says Jane. 'The screaming women and emergencies you see can put you off – but it doesn't have to be like that. In reality, labour starts slowly and the contractions and intensity of the situation increase gradually, giving you time to acclimatise. By the time you are giving birth, you won't feel the fear and repulsion you may have experienced watching these types of programmes.'
Don't fret about breastfeeding
'Yes, breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed your baby,' says Birte. 'But if you are finding it hard, or your circumstances mean you can't feed your baby, don't feel guilty. There's a range of options – from expressing and feeding from a bottle, to mixed feeding with formula too. Do what's right for you and your little one, because it's important that you're both happy and settled.' The Association of Breastfeeding can give support and advice.
Don't be a hero
'We have high expectations of ourselves – more so than the people around us,' says Birte. 'But you won't get a medal for not using pain relief, you haven't failed if you only breastfeed for a month, you're not abnormal if you haven't shifted your baby weight in a few weeks. Try to put things in perspective. Ultimately, what really matters is that you have a healthy child and a loving relationship with your baby.' And don't forget, from the moment your baby is born, he looks to you for everything from love to comfort to guidance. Even if you don't feel it, whatever you do, you will be a hero in your child's eyes.