What are the best ways to prepare for labor? If you’re pregnant and have an obstetrician providing your prenatal care, you’re probably spending more time in the waiting room than you are with your doctor.
It’s a sad fact of the modern American medical system that the average prenatal appointment—with an M.D. anyway—lasts about 20 minutes or even less. Some doctors who work in hospitals limit patient visits to just 11 minutes. Certified Nurse Midwives who work with doctors in a hospital setting may be able to spend more time with you during prenatal visits. But, depending on the practice and how many patients they are scheduled to see, it’s likely that they, too, will be rushing out the door to get to the next appointment.
Prepare for labor with a childbirth class?
Since your doctors have so little time to talk, they may suggest you take a childbirth class.
(If you’re lucky enough to live in a state that’s open, these classes will take place in person. If you’re still in lockdown because of concerns over COVID-19, childbirth classes are on-line.)
A childbirth class can be an informative and empowering experience. But these classes often come with a catch.
If you take a class run by the hospital, you need to know that the instructor is actually a paid spokesperson for the hospital. She is probably not educating you about the best practices for birth and delivery. Instead, she’s telling you about hospital policy disguised as best practices. These are usually—if not always—the policies and practices that most benefit the hospital’s bottom line.
To prepare best for labor and delivery, it’s important to find a completely independent childbirth education instructor whose classes are not sponsored by a hospital or doctor’s office.
A bad childbirth class experience
The childbirth education class my husband and I took when we were pregnant with our firstborn was really hospital-sponsored advertising. But neither of us realized it at the time.
The instructor followed a script. There were things she was allowed to say and things she was not allowed to say. You could tell by her hesitation and carefully chosen words that she wasn’t always honest when answering questions. She shared her unhappy hospital birth experience in a pained voice. During one of her births she was told to rub her nipples on and off for 7 minutes in order to “speed up” her contractions. She demonstrated this for us by waving her hands in front of her chest in the air: rub, rub, rub, wait, rub, rub, rub, wait.
Our childbirth teacher made birth seem exhausting and unpleasant, if not downright awful. Playing us a tape of a baby crying for 20 minutes, she asked if we’d be able to stand it. If my husband and I hadn’t already been pregnant, we would’ve dropped out of the class then and there.
As well-meaning as she was, she also spent an inordinate amount of time talking about the different pain medications the hospital offered, even though we wanted a non-medicated birth, as did several other couples. When the hospital bill came in the mail a few weeks after my daughter was born, I was dismayed to see that every single medication—even Tylenol—constituted a separate (and exorbitant) charge.
One rushed appointment a month isn’t enough
Every doctor or nurse will tell you something different about how to prepare for labor, based on the beliefs they acquired during medical training, their own experiences with pregnancy and childbirth, and their own prejudices.
Some will pretend to support vaginal birth during your prenatal visits only to pull a bait and switch and insist you need a cesarean section at the end of your pregnancy.
Whether you have a doctor who supports natural birth or one who wants to surgically remove the baby, a 15-minute appointment once a month is not enough time to talk to a pregnant first-time mama about what she needs to know to best prepare for labor.
But even if your doctor had more time with you, it’s possible that she would not give you useful advice. Most American doctors, even obstetricians, have inadequate training in human birth.
They honestly don’t understand the normal birth process and they feel they must intervene. These doctors believe a woman’s body is inadequate to birth her baby without intervention.
There are times when a doctor’s intervention during labor is absolutely necessary and even lifesaving. But highly trained obstetricians want to intervene—that is what they have been trained to do—and the majority of the time these interventions are not necessary. Most women can have safe labors without medical intervention.
Scientists have found that two of the factors that affect human stress levels the most are control and predictability.
We feel the most stressed—and our bodies release the highest amounts of stress hormones—when things are out of control and unpredictable.
Lack of predictability causes stress: Imagine you’re at the dentist having a tooth drilled. You ask the dentist “How much longer?” She answers, “This will take five more minutes and we’ll be done.”
Now imagine you’re at the dentist having a tooth drilled. When you ask how much longer this time she says, “I really don’t know.”
Knowing you have X minutes of pain and discomfort produces much less anxiety than an unspecified amount of pain and discomfort.
Lack of control causes stress: This is why so many people feel afraid to fly. Even though flying is exponentially safer than driving, we feel safer behind the wheel of a car because we’re in control.
First-time moms and their partners often feel nervous and worried about having a baby because being in labor is unpredictable. You don’t know when it will start or how long it will last. And it also feels out of control. You really have to surrender your mind to your body and let your body do its thing.
What you don’t need to do to prepare for labor:
✓ Don’t: Pack your hospital bag
Stay home for labor and also for delivery. Give birth with a competent well trained homebirth midwife or doctor at home instead of at the hospital. Think of one of your beloved pets: Would you disturb your mama cat during labor? You wouldn’t bring her to a germ-infested place with bright florescent lights, dozens of strangers, and beeping noises. You know instinctively that it’s better for your cat to give birth in a safe space in a darkened room surrounded by familiar things and people.
✓ Don’t: Listen to other mamas’ labor horror stories
Don’t let other women (or their partners or your health care providers) tell you the horrible things that happened to them during pregnancy. They may be eager to explain how they almost died during childbirth. You don’t need to soak up anyone else’s fears or disapproval. Stay away from toxic news stories and “helpful” friends who are scared of birth and want to scare you too.
✓ Don’t: Believe anything you read in What to Expect When You’re Expecting
This popular book is full of inaccurate information and unfortunate advice. It has made several generations of American women eager to have medicated births, without understanding the negative side effects of pharmaceutical birth for themselves, as well as for their babies.
So what do you really need to do to prepare for labor?
✓ Do: Read the best books
Read as much as you feel motivated to read as you prepare for labor. You will have a better, gentler, more empowering experience if you read the right books. I recommend Active Birth by Janet Balaskas; Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth; and Your Baby, Your Way by Jennifer Margulis (that’s me). Other empowering books to read while you’re pregnant include Simply Give Birth by Heather Cushman-Dowdee; Belly Button Bliss: A Small Collection of Happy Birth Stories by Jennifer Derryberry Mann; and Orgasmic Birth: Your Guide to a Safe, Satisfying, and Pleasurable Childbirth Experience by Elizabeth Davis and Debra Pascali-Bonaro.
✓ Do: Watch the best movies
✓ Do: Learn how to physically and mentally relax
You can do this through visualization, meditation, prenatal yoga, guided hypnosis, or some other practice.
Learning to relax will help labor feel more successful and more manageable. For some women labor is not painful—all consuming? Yes. Intense? Yes. Painful? No. But for others it honestly hurts like the dickens. Having a way to relax your body and your mind as the pain washes over makes a huge difference when the time comes.
✓ Do: Practice your squats
Getting those thigh muscles in shape for standing and squatting during labor is tremendously beneficial. You should be exercising as much as you can, preferably outside. Labor’s a little bit like climbing Mount Everest. It really helps to be in shape.
✓ Do: Have sex
With your partner or with yourself, if you feel like it. Sex with your partner promotes intimacy and gives you a natural high from endorphins. If you’re feeling antsy to have the baby, the prostaglandins in your partner’s semen may also help soften your cervix. And orgasms while you’re pregnant have a beneficial effect. Having orgasms won’t catapult you into labor if you’re body’s not ready but they will help you relax and stimulate your uterus to practice contractions!
✓ Do: Surround yourself with positive, supportive people
You want a support team of people who believe in you and who will help you stay focused and happy. Some women have good luck hiring a doula (a paid and experienced birth attendant). Others are blessed with supportive family members. If you have friends or family members who have good energy, understand how to help you when you’re having trouble, and have themselves had positive birth experiences, ask them to be part of your team. While it’s in vogue to have the baby daddy attend your birth, be aware that he might not be helpful, especially if it’s his first time witnessing a birth. If your husband or partner is bringing a lot of fear into the room, he needs someone there to reassure him (or to send him out of the room on made-up errands).
✓ Do: Allow yourself to nest, rest, relax, and take it easy
You may find yourself scrubbing the top of the refrigerator, polishing the andirons, or frantically scrapbooking. You may not realize it while you’re in the thick of it but nesting is a natural instinct. You nest as your body prepares for labor. Enjoy it. And also let yourself relax and do nothing.
✓ Do: Prepare for after the baby arrives.
Ask a friend or family member to set up a meal train for after the baby comes. Let friends who offer to help you know that bringing your family an organic dinner would be the best way. Stock your freezer with lots of healthy homemade meals as early as a month before the baby’s born. Some babies come early. It’s also good to line up help with housecleaning, toilet-scrubbing, gardening, and other tasks for the first three months after the baby’s born. That way you concentrate on what matters most: time with your new baby.