Posted by Christiane Williams on March 2, 2012
In the back of the pregnancy journal I kept for my first child is a check list for all the things I did daily to prepare my body for labor! Every day for the last 4 weeks I did: a 45 min walk, 200 Kegels, 240 pelvic rocks, 20 min tailor sitting, 30 min relaxation and a perineal massage!
Wow. That seems like a lot in retrospect, but I was also rewarded with a quick 7 hour labor, no tears and a smooth recovery! For the second pregnancy, I tampered it down a bit and now – this is No 3 – I simply don’t have time to do it all… However, I still want to prepare my body for laboring (after an 8 year gap) the best I can, so here is an overview of all the things that will hopefully help me achieve a natural birth with a smooth recovery again! (Disclaimer: I am not a medical professional, this is entirely my opinion formed by research and taking into account experiences of myself and friends).
Other than general fitness (achieved by daily walks), there are specific things you can do to strengthen you pelvic floor, which will help during labor as well as with recovery and avoiding incontinence after birth. Kegel exercises (simple pulses, longer holds and three-staged “elevator” holds), pelvic rocks / tilts (cat stretches on all fours, pulsing and holding) as well as squatting (increasingly longer periods if possible) and tailor sitting (bottom of feet together, stretching not bouncing, with a straight back) are all very beneficial and can be done while watching TV! In order for me not to forget the Kegels, I try to do some at every red light while driving and during my sons’ daily violin practice! A prenatal Yoga class often incorporates may of these beneficial moves as well as relaxation techniques.
I am convinced that the main reason I never tore giving birth was the diligence with which I prepared my perineum by stretching and massaging. This is not everybody’s cup of tea, but if you can muster the courage, use some non-scented organic oil (I always used Evening Primrose Oil for reasons stated below) and try to massage and stretch the vaginal opening every evening. If you can’t reach, you could ask your partner to do that, though that’s a whole new level of intimacy! My husband was willing to do it because he was convinced of the benefits, but it was still a bit awkward… But the increased elasticity of the pelvic floor tissue after just a week was proof of the effectiveness of this treatment!
Another area that some midwives and doctors recommend to prepare, if you plan on breast feeding, is your nipples. Some people recommend a rough scrubbing in the shower to toughen them up for the trauma of a suckling infant. I tried that in the first pregnancy, but breastfeeding still hurt in the beginning. So for No 2 I just left the breasts alone because I knew the baby would do all the conditioning necessary. Plus, you have to watch out that you don’t stimulate your nipples too much since that can cause contractions!
A common recommendation for toning your uterus is by drinking Raspberry Leaf Tea (or tincture) from 36 weeks on. It is said to make uterine muscles more effective during labor and some people drink the tea (or suck on tea ice cubes) after labor since it slows bleeding, helps expel the placenta and prevents swelling. Raspberry Leaves sometimes come in a combination with other beneficial herbs to prepare for labor, for example nettles and/or rose hip.
The other common labor supplement recommendation is Evening Primrose Oil. It contains prostaglandins that help to ripen and soften the cervix. I started taking it orally at 36 weeks and will use it vaginally from 38 weeks on, either with a perineal massage or simply inserted in the evening.
When I was 38 weeks pregnant with my first child, my midwife recommended a special tincture mix of blue and black cohosh, which are Native American herbs that encourage going into labor naturally. This time I am in a different country and don’t have access to these tinctures. So I ordered a herbal supplement called 5W by Nature’s Sunshine, which is a blend of black cohosh, squawvine, dong quai, butcher’s broom, red raspberry and designed for the last 5 weeks before the due date (hence the name 5W). A friend of mine took a similar product called Gentle Birth by Mountain Meadow Herbs. (Please check with your doctor before considering taking any of these powerful herbs!)
A final and new food I am trying to prepare for labor this time is a bit unusual: I am eating 6 dates every day! In Africa and the Middle East this is a common recommendation for pregnant women, dates are already mentioned in the Qumran as a labor aid! The claim is that eating dates strengthens the muscles of the uterus in the last months of pregnancy, helps with dilation and even eases the pain of childbirth. According to studies, the ripe fruit contains a substance that resembles oxytocin, which increases contractions and prevents post-natal bleeding. In addition it would be a perfect food for a marathon labor since dates are very rich in fiber, fat and protein as well as many vitamins and minerals. Their natural sugar will give you an energy boost while the protein will sustain you. I personally think the best side effect since I started eating dates is that I am not constipated anymore! J
There is really no predicting whether mental preparation will really help you in labor or whether all techniques will go out the window once the pain hits! Of course it is great if you can practice breathing, do daily meditations and/or listen to your hypnobirthing CDs! It will at the very least help you relax in the weeks before the birth – I regularly fell asleep during the meditation exercises that my husband read to me! However, when the contractions started coming thick and strong, I did not want to listen to anything we had practiced with. Everybody was told to shut up (in a very direct, hormonal way) and I retreated into myself to deal with the pain. I did a couple of visualizations (“opening flower/cervix”) in the beginning, but later all that helped was to completely empty my mind. So we didn’t even do any preparatory meditation exercises for the second birth, because I know I had the tools in me to deal with the pain rather than having them come from the outside. Everybody is different though and I can only recommend to try out and prepare as many methods of mental relaxation as you can, you never know what will work for you once labor starts!
For further information and other options to prepare for labor, please listen to the following PregTASTIC podcasts: