Words by Beverley Turner
I am a birth junkie; shamelessly addicted to birth stories. If I spot you on the street with your bump or new baby, run. I will devour all your stories vampirically and you’ll miss your train.
I wasn’t always such a weirdo. Despite my mum’s best efforts to make it sound OK, I grew up like most girls: fearing birth. I recall a horrible secondary-school video of a woman with a huge amount of pubic hair giving birth on her back, and hearing playground chatter about ‘tearing’, which burned into my mind.
The timing of my first pregnancy wasn’t great, but I now know that there isn’t a perfect time. If your own timing isn’t ideal, fear not. Regardless of job or relationship issues, it will be the perfect baby. You will love them just as much.
Pregnancy, birth and the early weeks of being a parent are highly likely to blow your mind. It’s the start of a life-changing journey best begun feeling joyful and empowered. I feel passionately that all mothers deserve a happy birth to set them onto the path of parenthood with a spring in their step and confidence in their heart. With the right preparation, such an event is entirely possible.
And yet it has never been harder to get the birth that you want; there has never been such fear surrounding labour or such high rates of unnecessary medical tinkering with female bodies. Reports of traumatic births are at an all-time high, postnatal depression continues to rise, and the UK has the lowest breastfeeding rate in the whole world. Women who endure a tough time emerge from hospital silenced by the phrase: “You have a healthy baby and that’s what matters.” But, surely, a healthy baby should be the very least of your expectations in the modern world? If blokes gave birth, that would be their baseline request. (Then they’d expect a midwife who they knew, a private bathroom and a 70in flat-screen TV.)
There has never been more conflicting advice about pregnancy, labour and parenting. This can leave your head spinning and your conscience troubled. Women have never felt more judged for their choices. Internet chat rooms inevitably become a refuge for worried mums-to-be. Sometimes, the advice found there will be supportive and factually correct – but it’s a lottery. I know many mums who have listened to the advice of a well-meaning stranger online to the detriment of their baby, themselves or their sanity.
Every woman should get the birth that she wants: be it a planned Caesarean, a home birth or using the birth pool in a busy hospital. I’m driven by a desire to see all women look forward to their labours, equipped to face difficult conversations but also to trust the medical professionals, and to draw on their own inner strength if twists and turns occur. I have no agenda other than helping you towards a type of happiness that only arises from becoming a mum.
A is for Assertiveness
Being able to articulate how you feel and others communicating well with you in labour can make a difference. The charity Birthrights say women who feel negatively about their births do not complain of the pain; they talk about “not being listened to”, feeling “helpless” and “dehumanised”. Assertiveness is vital when we must ‘defend our space’, such as not wishing to receive a vaginal examination, or placating your mother-in-law, who is suggesting you let your baby sleep in the wrong position. Breathe deeply. Be equipped with facts or questions. Then voice your opinion: it’s your body, your birth, your baby.
B is for Breathing
Just like giving birth, your body knows how to breathe. Every time you doubt your inherent amazingness and the wisdom of your physiology, take a deep breath and consider how many times a day you do that without knowing. Slow, deep breathing is your best friend when it comes to surfing the waves of contractions.
Take 10 minutes each day to lie down, close your eyes and breathe in for a count of 10 and out for 10, taking the air all the way down to your belly. Picture the air coming in through your feet and out through the top of your head. Mentally scan your body for any knots of tension and feel them melt away. It’s a great way to get used to the long, slow, conscious breathing that will be a handy tool in labour – and also when you’re dealing with a furious two-year-old in the future.
C is for Champagne
There are few situations that are not improved by a glass of bubbles. Stick a tiny bottle of champers in your hospital bag – it’s a visual reminder that you’re not on your way to war, you’re heading towards the celebration of a new life! Toast each other and the innate wonderfulness after giving birth. I could tell you about women so stressed in early labour that they were prescribed a couple of sips to calm them down. But that would be inappropriate, so I’d never do that.
D is for Doula
You may not have heard of such a thing, but doulas can be every pregnant woman’s best friend. Doulas are not clinically trained as such, but offer the all-important role of giving you a trusted companion before, during and after birth, to keep you calm and get that oxytocin flowing. A good doula will make you feel great about yourself, which can be a part of creating warm, proud memories of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood.
E is for Epidural
There are two ways to completely stop labour pains:
1 GETTING THE BABY OUT
2 AN EPIDURAL
Epidurals can slow labour down – hence extending the length of time it takes to get the baby out. But some women find giving birth so painful, or are in such need of some relief after a long, early labour that an epidural becomes their best option. There’s no medal for women who don’t use an epidural. This is your personal choice, which you can make based on all the pros and cons. You shouldn’t be cajoled into an epidural by busy maternity staff. Similarly, if you request an epidural, you should get one.
F is for Fear
If you go into birth feeling and being frightened, your system will respond accordingly. This fear will lead to increased adrenalin in your body, leading to increased tension in your muscles and your cervix. Less contraction hormones will be produced so that your uterus is having to work much harder to flex and tighten. This subsequently makes contractions far more painful, in the same way that if you tense up when you are in pain, the pain becomes far greater.
G is for Gas and air
If I had my way, every home would have a handy little canister of this magic gas attached to the wall for times when Mummy is feeling stressed. It is breathed in via a mouthpiece attached to a pipe. One of the best aspects of this drug is that you choose when to inhale. It can be used at any stage during labour and is very effective.
H is for Hypnobirthing/Hypnotherapy/Hypnosis
Harnessing the power of your mind is absolutely critical to having a happy birth. It isn’t a magic pill that will guarantee you the labour you want – that involves many other contributory factors, not least the position of your baby and the cooperation of your medics. But it is the best side-effect free pain relief technique that can keep you smiling before, during and after birth. It applies to all births, in all settings. Hypnobirthing will teach you so much about your innate capabilities that you will take it with you throughout life. Once there was only the trademarked American brand ‘Hypnobirthing’, but now there are hundreds of approaches from thousands of practitioners for your delectation.
I is for Independent midwife
One thing pregnant women want is a midwife whom they know. This is now the aim of some NHS hospitals, so ask around. If it isn’t possible, you could hire a private, or independent, midwife. For over six months of care and 24/7 availability, they cost between £3,000 and £5,000. There are other private midwives working in small businesses or social enterprises, such as London’s Neighbourhood Midwives, who are the first to secure a contract to work via the NHS.
K is for vitamin K
Vitamin K is offered to all new babies in order to prevent something called haemorrhagic disease in the newborn. Haemorrhagic disease can occur at any time in the first 12 weeks, and vitamin K completely protects babies against it.
L is for Labour
It’s no coincidence that birth is termed ‘labour’, because it is often hard work – especially first labours. It might be useful to think of it as two types of effort: one that happens naturally, internally, without you having to even think about it, as your uterus is so clever. And the type that involves real physical and mental endeavour – pushing, breathing, squatting, believing in yourself and, possibly, mooing like a cow. Every labour is different: there isn’t one linear route that all births follow. The duration, the intensity and the effort required will be different for everyone.
M is for Microbiome
This refers to the bacteria that live on and in our bodies. Scientists are certain that it is ‘seeded’, or switched on, during birth. When babies are born vaginally, they absorb vital bacteria that live in the birth canal. There is speculation that this is why babies born via C-section are five times more likely to have allergies and asthma. But don’t despair; a second, crucial phase of seeding your baby’s microbiome occurs when they are placed on the breast after birth.
N is for Nucal translucency scan
For the last 10 years, doctors have been using the results of the nuchal translucency scan to advise on your risk of having a baby with Down’s syndrome or other abnormalities. The scan looks at the skin fold on the back of the baby’s neck when you’re 12 weeks pregnant. This has been refined by looking at the nasal cartilage of the baby using a blood test to identify two pregnancy hormones. This has achieved a predictive value of about 82 per cent.
O is for Oxytocin
This is the most important hormone you will need during labour (and sex). It flows with abandon when you feel safe, happy, warm, cosy and emotionally liberated. If you are a finely tuned Formula One car about to glide magnificently towards the chequered flag of motherhood, oxytocin is the grade-A fuel to power your engine. Hospitals offer a synthetic version of it in a drip for inductions or to speed up labour, but the natural version is way more effective.
P is for Partner
Discuss your hopes, fears and expectations with your partner. Contrary to the romanticised idea of pregnancy, it’s common for couples to have their most blazing rows during these 40 tense weeks. Don’t feel bad if you’ve considered walking out and never coming back. There’s so much pressure on you as individuals and as a couple. The responsibility of a baby’s arrival can feel overwhelming – not to mention the hurdle of labour to get over. But there is lots you can do to ease the stress.
Q is for Questions
There is no need to assume that your doctors are wrong, but you must be prepared to question them. The trouble is, being faced with white coats and name badges is incredibly intimidating; it’s easy to become forgetful and submissive. I recommend this clever little acronym: BRAINS. Ask yourself or your medical practitioner:
B what are the benefits of this to me/my baby?
R what are the risks to me/my baby?
A what are my alternatives?
I what is my instinct telling me? And ask the doctor what their instinct is telling them.
N what will happen if we do nothing? (For example, in labour, if you feel rushed by hospital protocol, requesting half an hour to see what happens is sometimes all you need).
S ask all these questions with a smile!
R is for Reiki
Reiki may sound quite woo-woo, but it is a great treatment for pregnancy because it is non-invasive, very safe and can be received even in early pregnancy when it can help fatigue and nausea. It can also support fertility. Another reason it can be helpful during pregnancy is because it addresses your emotions as well as what is going on in your body. Pregnancy is often a time that brings up buried emotions or memories, and reiki is a gentle way of helping to release stress, fear, worry or doubts.
S is for Swollen feet
This is one of those ‘comedy’ pregnancy ailments that is funny for everyone except the sufferer. We retain fluid in pregnancy, our veins are sluggish due to the hormone relaxin, and some swelling around the feet or ankles is pretty common. For most women it is largely harmless and can be eased by making sure you drink plenty of water, elevate your legs when sitting or lying, drink nettle tea, do some light exercise and avoid spending longs periods of time standing up.
T is for Tens machine
A TENS machine is a small, battery-operated device that connects to your lower back in labour through sticky pads containing electrodes. The impulses can reduce the pain signals going to the spinal cord and brain, helping to take the edge off any discomfort. The impulses also stimulate endorphins – your natural painkillers. A TENS is a way of communicating with your care provider without having to speak. They will see you press a button to activate the impulses at the sign of each contraction.
V is for Vernix
This is the white, creamy substance that covers your baby when it emerges into the world. It is odourless and contains nothing but goodness for their skin. It will seep in fairly quickly and shouldn’t be washed off within the first two weeks.
W is for Water birth
Water supports your whole body, which can be lovely when you feel like a sea cow unable to get comfortable on dry land. There is a freedom of movement that comes in a pool, and this allows you to sway, kneel, lean and do whatever sea cows do to feel relaxed. A birthing pool also provides privacy. Women often say they don’t want their partners to be at the ‘business end’. In a pool, you can position yourself in a way you feel comfortable with. Dads often sit by the pool, forehead-to-forehead with mum, who kneels on all-fours with her arms over the edge. Nobody can fiddle with you when you’re in a pool; they have to ask you to move, which gives the labouring woman control over her environment.
Y is for You
You are pretty used to knowing the answer to most things. There will be the odd times when you don’t, but, let’s face it, they are rarely life or death. Or at least they were. Now, you feel as if you don’t know anything, and on top of that, what worked yesterday doesn’t today. You are not alone. Every mum has felt this way. Accept that you can’t know everything and that no one is expecting you to. There is no right way to do things and you will get through. The less energy you waste wondering if you’re doing a good job, the more energy you’ll have to actually do it.
Z is for ZZZZ…sleep
Sleep is every new parent’s favourite topic of conversation. It’s a revelation when you realise how many people are waking, driving and working completely sleep-deprived. Grab naps whenever you can and try to go to bed early – both of which are easier said than done.
Extracts taken from The Happy Birth Book by Beverley Turner and midwife Pam Wild (£14.99, Piatkus)