The ABCs of Comfort in Labour: 26 great ideas to help you get through even the toughest parts of labour.
In my Lamaze classes, I often play this fun game with couples. It’s even more fun when the mums and dads work as separate teams, as the dads often come up with some hilarious ideas!
Here are 26 great ideas for comfort in labour!
A – is for AIR. It sounds so obvious as to be a bit ridiculous, but you’d be amazed at how many women hold their breath for long periods, especially when they are feeling tension in their body. It’s so important to breathe in labour. You don’t need to worry about learning a special technique, but DO remember to let your breath flow. If you’ve ever done yoga, you will be familiar with the concept of breathing in through your nose and out through your mouth. This will maximise the oxygen levels in your blood stream and help to lower blood pressure. Your muscles will relax and you will manage the intensity of labour so much more effectively!
B – is for BIRTH BALL. The birth ball is going to be one of your best friends in labour. You can sit on it, bounce on it, roll around on it, take it to the shower with you, lean over it… the options are endless. The birth ball is very comfortable to sit on as it helps to take the pressure off the pelvic floor, but it can also encourage steady cervical dilation. The ball is also great for helping baby to maintain an optimal position for their grand exit!
C – is for COLD. It’s normal for mamas to get really hot and sweaty at time during labour, so partners – make sure you have a gel pack that’s been in the fridge or freezer ready to go, or a washcloth that’s been run under cold water and squeezed out. Place the gel pack (but make sure it’s covered in a towel so that it’s not too cold on her skin) or the washcloth over mum’s head, décolletage or the back of her neck and shoulders. Cold can also be great for giving relief to acute pain.
D – is for DOULA. Hiring a doula (or birth attendant) is one of the best things you’ll ever do – guaranteed! Their whole job is to provide you with comfort in labour! She will support you the whole way through and keep you feeling supported and cared for throughout. Doulas are also there to help support the partner too. Their role is not to replace a woman’s partner, in fact far from it. Her physical support takes pressure off her partner and allows them to focus on providing mum with the all-important emotional connection and support that only a woman and her partner have together.
E – is for EAT. Labour can be hard work and it is very important that you keep up your strength! Eat according to what your body is telling you it needs. If you are having a hospital birth, be sure that you pack a range of good, nutritious snacks that you can easily eat, especially if you are moving around a lot. Things like dried fruit and nuts, fresh fruit (or smoothies), chopped fresh veggies, muesli or energy bars are all great choices. Partners – make sure you pack food for yourself too. You also need to keep your energy up!
F – is for FEAR. Fear causes your body to tense and tension causes you to feel pain more intensely. This is sometimes referred to as the Fear-Tension-Pain cycle. The fear causes the release of adrenaline, which triggers the “flight or fight” response. Her heart rate will increase, and there will be decreased blood flow to the uterus. This will result in a slower – even a stalled – labour. Once a woman finds herself in this cycle, it can be very hard to get out of it. A wonderful alternative is the Safety-Peace cycle. In this scenario, the mum starts from a place of safety, calm and confidence. Instead of adrenaline, her body will produce more oxytocin, which will result in decreased pain and a more efficient labour.
G – is for GUIDED MEDITATION. A wonderful gift that you can give yourself and your baby is to practice simple guided meditation or relaxation each day. Even just 20 minutes a day, where you switch off your devices, darken your room, put your feet up, play some relaxing music, or a guided meditation track can help you tremendously to switch off that active, thinking brain and to take you to that deeper, more intuitive part of your body. This is an invaluable skill to have in labour. Check out Mind the Bump, a wonderful app that features a series of free mindfulness-based meditation scripts.
H– is for HEAT. Applying heat with a gel pack, or having a shower or warm bath are all great ways to reduce pain and tension in the body. Apply heat to mum’s neck and shoulders and lower back, or wherever she feels pain and tension in her body. Be sure not to place the gel back directly on the skin. Wrap it in a cloth or towel first and don’t place on the belly as it could create too much heat for the baby.
I – is for INTUITION. Your intuition is a powerful instinct that you should trust and listen to. Remember that no one knows your body or your baby better than you.
J – is for JOKES. Partners, it’s okay to make her laugh during labour. In fact, it’s a fantastic thing to do! Laughter also promotes oxytocin release and let’s face it – we always feel better when we can have a good laugh about things!
K – is for KISS. Another wonderful way to get that oxytocin flowing (are you beginning to sense that oxytocin plays a BIG role in labour?). Insist on some privacy if you are having a hospital birth and get smooching! If you are at home – go crazy!
L – is for LUNGE. Standing and facing forward, place a chair beside you. Place one chair on the chair seat, with your knee and foot pointing to the side, while you remain facing forward. During a contraction, without leaning your upper body, slowly “lunge” sideways, toward the chair, so that you bend you raised knee. You should feel a stretch on the inside of one, or both thighs. Hold for a slow count of 5, then return to upright. Repeat during contractions for a total of 6 contractions. Try one contraction lunging to the left, and one to the right, and continue in the direction that feels most comfortable.
M – is for MASSAGE. Partners, you don’t have to be a professional masseuse in order to provide mum with some much-needed comfort in labour with a wonderful massage! In early labour, try effleurage, a beautiful and sensual soft massage that involves slow, light circular motions around her tummy using the soft pads of your finger-tips. For a more vigorous massage, try making kneading circles from the top of her spine to the base of her spine along each vertebra. Counter-pressure techniques like the double hip squeeze are wonderful when mum is feeling intense lower back pain.
N – is for NAP. You shouldn’t feel like labour is a marathon that you have to endure! If your body is telling you to rest, then you need to listen to it! If you can get even a little bit of sleep (especially in the early stages of labour), then try to close your eyes and grab some sleep. You’ll want to conserve your energy for later on, which is when you’ll really need it.
O – is for OPEN. Try to adopt positions that open your body up and help to keep your pelvis loose and open. Slow dancing, or drawing a figure 8 with your hips is wonderful. Adopt a hands and knees (all fours) position and gently rock your pelvis with a simple pelvic tilt. Or lean over a birth ball and sway from side to side.
P – is for PARTNER. Partners, you play such an incredibly important role. Your continuous support, encouragement, love and protection can make all the difference in the world to a labouring mum. What can you do? Attend a childbirth class with her. Learn about the process of normal birth, learn relaxation techniques, such as breathing, massage and counter-pressure. Write your birth preferences together so that you are on the same page. Don’t feel like you have to play the role of a “coach” though. Instead, see yourself as the ultimate protector of her space.
Q – is for QUIET. We know from a great deal of research that women (and in fact, ALL mammals) labour and give birth most effectively in quiet, dimly-lit conditions. Pretty much the opposite of modern hospital birth! It is thanks to the part of our brain called the neocortex that we can talk, count, be logical and rational (again – all the things ideally we want to switch off during labour). In fact, labouring women need to be protected against any sort of neocortical stimulation. Both rational language and bright lights both contribute to neocortical stimulation. The result of this is increased adrenaline in our bodies, which as we know, causes our muscles to harden, oxytocin release to be slowed which ultimately results in a slowed, or even stalled labour.
R – is for RELAX. Much of what causes a woman’s body to tense during labour is fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of the pain, fear of losing control… There are many ways that you can relax your mind and body in labour. Focus on deep breathing, focus on your baby (women often forget about the fact that there is a baby in there!), focus on releasing the tension in your muscles. Practice guided meditation or relaxation. Partners – watch for the tell-tale signs of tension and fear in her body. A tight jaw and facial muscles, hunched shoulders, erratic breathing and negative self-talk (“I can’t do this”). Help her to regain focus, give her a comforting massage, breathe with her.
S – is for SWAY. Yes, that’s right – dance your baby out mama! Dancing is fantastic as it’s fun, keeps you upright (gravity is your friend, remember!) and keeps your pelvis loose and open. If you slow dance with your partner, you have the added benefit of Oxytocin flowing through your body which keeps those contractions flowing efficiently! Check out this mama, and this one, and this one for some awesome examples of how to dance your baby out!
T – is for TENS MACHINE. Many women swear by TENS machines and feel that it significantly helped them get through labour. TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. TENS machines are small, hand-held battery operated units that the mother controls by adjusting the frequency and intensity of the pulsed electrical stimulus via pads to the skin. TENS stimulates the release of endorphins and uses the Gate Control Theory of Pain Relief, which diminishes the pain caused by the contractions (or other discomfort in the mother’s body, such as lower back pain) and instead the brain focuses on the sensation created by the TENS machine, which feels somewhat like a buzzy, pins and needles sensation. To learn more about TENS machines and how they work, click here.
U – is for URINATE. As odd as it might sound, many women forget to go to the toilet frequently in labour! It’s important to drink a lot of fluids throughout labour, and therefore it is important to empty your bladder frequently (partners – you can remind her!). A full bladder is not only uncomfortable, but that pressure can increase your perception of pain AND prevent your baby from descending as quickly as he or she would otherwise.
V – is for VISUALISE. Visualisations can be very powerful in labour. Try to imagine your body is opening up to bring new life. Some women like to imagine their bodies are like a flower that is opening up. Others like to use the actual word, “open” and repeat it aloud to themselves – or to write the word on a piece of paper and attach it to the wall to use as a focal point during contractions.
W – is for WATER. Water is an incredibly powerful comfort tool in labour. Whether you have access to a shower or a bath/birth pool, you should definitely take advantage of the wonderful relaxing and calming properties of water. Some people call it the “Aquadural” because it can be so effective in relieving pain in labour!
X – is for eXhale. Try to have an awareness of your breath during labour. When you exhale, consciously breathe out the tension in your body. Vocalise if your body tells you it needs to. Remember to try and breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth. Start and end each contraction with a cleansing breath, which is a wonderful way to help you to mentally prepare for a contraction, but equally important – to move on from one (especially if it felt more challenging to get through than others). Remember that each contraction is bringing you closer to meeting that precious beautiful baby of yours!
Y – is for YELL. I am woman – hear me roar! Yelling, swearing, roaring – all of these are wonderful ways to release tension from our bodies. In fact, by holding it in, because you feel self-conscious or worried about “what people will think” is only going to add to the tension and pain in your body.
Z – is for Zzzzzz’s. Labour often begins in the middle of the night. This is largely because our bodies are relaxed and free of tension. If you wake up and think that your labour might have started, but the contractions are still mild and widely spaced apart, then the best thing you could possibly do is try to get a few more hours of sleep. Conserve your energy for later when you’ll need it most!
What other things would you add to this list? What worked best for you in labour? Pass on your own birthing wisdom to other mums-to-be!
Tanya Strusberg is a Lamaze Certified Childbirth Educator (LCCE) and founder of birthwell birthright, an independent childbirth education practice based in Melbourne. In 2015, Tanya was inducted as an FACCE (Fellow of the Academy of Certified Childbirth Educators) in recognition of her significant contribution to childbirth education. Through her internationally accredited Lamaze Educator Training program, she is very excited to be training a new generation of Australian Lamaze educators.
Last, but absolutely not least, she is also the mum of two beautiful children, her son Liev and daughter Amalia.