When it comes to preparing for the birth of a new child, we are keen to organise the nursery and prepare meals to freeze before the big day. Yet it seems strange that preparation for the actual event, which is more monumental than any other in the life of a woman, is often forgotten.
Let’s face it, when the word childbirth is mentioned, most expectant mothers are filled with fear. As she draws closer to her due date, her anxiety starts mounting when she considers the “ordeal” she is about to face. Instead of trying to both mentally and physically prepare herself for labour, she attempts to place it in the back of her mind. Comments such as “don’t worry, there are many methods of pain relief” or “it’s something we all have to go through” only accentuate this deep-rooted fear.
No doubt, labour is a marathon; it wasn’t given its name for no reason. Yet with sufficient preparation, it does not have to leave negative imprints on the mind of a mother for years to come. So how exactly can an expectant mother prepare?
It is vital that firstly, mental preparation is done for birth. The mind is a very powerful tool. If a woman’s mind is not prepared, she is not ready for labour, no matter how many physical exercises she has been doing. It is of prime importance that an expectant mother first understands the physical mechanism of labour. If she doesn’t, she will be unable to explain the sensations that she is feeling, which makes them much harder to cope with. Understanding how Allah (SWT) has designed the body of the woman to give birth, through learning about the birthing mechanism is the first step to a positive birth experience. By gaining assurance of her own body’s ability, it is then possible for a woman to replace fear by confidence. Reading positive birth stories, rather than listening to the horrors friends or relatives went through, personally aided me to truly overcome the culture of fear surrounding childbirth. I would also highly recommend the book “Childbirth Without Fear” by Grantly Dick-Read and Michel Odent, which left me feeling empowered and excited about giving birth.
If a woman educates herself in not only the physical mechanism of birth but also in other aspects of birth, such as the risks and benefits of pain medication and the common interventions used in hospitals, she will gain confidence and strength. As a result, she will also be in a much better position to have the birth that she desires. Furthermore, if there are unforeseen complications, she and her husband will be able to make appropriate decisions based upon knowledge, not upon emotions, hospital policy or any other factors.
When to go to hospital
By learning about the stages of labour and their signs, such as the changing emotional state a woman is likely to go through, she will be in a much better position to know when to go to the hospital. Due to educating myself beforehand and knowing when I really needed to leave, I was able to arrive at the hospital fully dilated and ready to push, much to the midwife’s surprise! Most women are unsure of this matter, often being sent back home since they have not “progressed enough”, which causes disturbance and unnecessary stress.
Prepare your husband!
Throughout this mental preparation, it goes without saying that the support of the husband is of paramount importance. If possible (and without too much nagging!), a woman can educate her husband on what she herself has learnt, asking him to aid her in her preparation. If the husband fears what his wife is going to go through and does not prepare himself for being her lifeline of support during her labour, he will most likely hinder her, not help her, when the big day comes.
Shaping up for labour
It is quite possible that if an expectant mother prepares well mentally, she will be able to give birth without medication, assuming that there are no major complications. Yet in order to have a successful natural birth, physical preparation is also vital. It goes without saying that eating healthily strengthens the body in preparation for labour. In terms of physical exercises, these should ideally be started as early on in the pregnancy as possible, in order to increase the stamina and suppleness of the woman in time for labour. There are a variety of specific exercises known to prepare the body for labour, such as kegel exercises and pelvic tilts. I personally found a pregnancy yoga video useful, as it helped me to learn and practise various exercises and deep breathing techniques during the latter stages of my pregnancy.
Techniques of coping with contractions really do have to be learnt and practised beforehand, if a woman is to truly reduce the level of discomfort she feels. From using a birthing pool to deep breathing techniques, there are a plethora of methods that can be used. When the time comes, you will know what methods are best for you; after all, birthing is a completely natural process.
From my own personal experience, breathing and deep relaxation are really the key to coping with the strong sensations. Why? Because the more relaxed a woman is during the contractions, the less she is working against her body and the quicker she will progress. If she tenses up, she is actually fighting the contractions (if you understand the fear-tension-pain cycle and what is happening inside the body, you will know why). Yet it is extremely difficult to just “relax” the other parts of the body when one’s muscles are contracting in such a powerful way to dilate the cervix. Try holding an ice cube tightly; you will notice that as soon as you start feeling the pain of the coldness, everything else in your body will tense up. Yet when you learn to relax each muscle set on cue, you are in a much better position to cope in the face of pain and let the sensation wash over you.
Learning to relax
In the weeks leading up to the birth of my daughter, I would spend time (around 10 to 15 minutes a day) lying down and learning to relax my body by first tensing each body part, then relaxing it. As I gained awareness of when my body was tense, I was able to then relax much easier, whether I was lying down or active. On top of this, I used an ice cube to practise dealing with the sensation of discomfort whilst learning to relax through it.
To the amusement of others, my own preparation went as far as “practice” contractions. I would try and simulate the “wave” of the contraction by using the ice cube or some other method (such as squatting against the wall and holding it for as long as possible), where the level of discomfort increased with time. I then asked my (very patient!) husband to “coach” me through the discomfort by asking me to relax each body part using physical touch to induce relaxation and giving me positive affirmations to instil confidence in me (such as how I was designed to give birth). I also listened to Qur’an and nature sounds to aid me in relaxation.
This preparation undoubtedly helped, since when I was in the final stages of dilation (some of which was in the car!), I was so enraptured in trying to control my breathing and relax my body that, although at times I thought I couldn’t cope any longer, it never really crossed my mind to ask for pain medication. Staying at home as long as possible also put this option more or less out of my mind; I knew I couldn’t get an epidural as long as I was at home!
Of course, each labour is different and unexpected complications do occur. Yet with effective preparation, regardless of what happens, birth can be an empowering event that truly exemplifies the magnificence of Allah’s (SWT) creation.
Ummu ‘Abdir-Rahmaan is a freelance writer based in the UK. She hopes to give inspiration and encouragement to her sisters in Islam through writing about her personal experiences.