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Mindful Birthing: Using Mindfulness During Labour

I had thoroughly prepared for a positive birth experience, but not for one that went so far off plan. It took me a long time to be able to discuss the birth calmly, and even longer to forgive myself for decisions made in moments of panic.

I'm about to have a baby.

Last time I had a baby, it wasn't much fun.

I went into my first birth incredibly well-prepared. After 9 months of yoga, natural birth books and an excellent hypnobirthing course, I drew up my birth plan. I intended to breathe out the baby into an orb of white light, witnessed by unicorns, whilst angels offered me virgin mojitos from silver cloud trays. Rainbows would fall into the birthing pool as the sound of harp music flooded the room.

By the time they cranked up the induction drugs and brought out the forceps I was a little traumatised. And there were no cherubic cocktail waiters in sight.

I had thoroughly prepared for a positive birth experience, but not for one that went so far off plan. It took me a long time to be able to discuss the birth calmly, and even longer to forgive myself for decisions made in moments of panic.

Whilst I loved and advocate the hypnobirthing method, this time around I wondered if a more mindful approach would help me to overcome the apprehension I now felt about my second birth.

So, I spoke to Marie Vijendran who developed the online mindful birth course that I went on to follow. Marie is a former hypnobirthing practitioner who went on to teach mindfulness, and decided to create a birth preparation course that would focus on the principles of mindfulness rather than self-hypnosis.

Initially I wasn't quite sure how this would work. Surely there are some situations in which it's best not to be fully present: nappy changes, aeroplane meals and anything involving Simon Cowell all spring to mind. But I was particularly interested in learning how mindfulness might help me cope with labour pain, as well as decision making and unexpected outcomes.

Marie said:

'Our relationship with pain is mostly our personal mental interpretation. We have choices; the extent to which we choose to resist, or alternatively welcome the sensations.'

This made sense. I know that a large part of mindfulness involves accepting events as they unfold, without judging them or wishing they could be different.

Marie continued:

'Sometimes we are able to 'be with' the pain, exploring what it really truly feels like, not what we thought it would feel like. Other times we can choose to focus our attention exclusively on another part of the body, exploring for example the sensations in the toes of our left foot! We do this not to distract but as an active choice in the moment.'

So, by exploring and being open to the sensations of labour I would be better placed to deal with them. By contrast, putting up resistance was likely to increase tension, thereby worsening the experience.

Marie's course covers techniques for handling discomfort as well as ways of labelling and redefining 'pain'. Understanding exactly what the body is doing during the various stages of labour, and having different descriptors other than 'holy hell, this really hurts!' made me feel far less apprehensive about the whole thing.

Marie also emphasised the crucial role of the breath:

'It can be amazing how any practice of choosing to focus in the moment can be an extraordinary coping mechanism. In our busy lives we have just become so unused to maintaining our attention in the 'now'. In any moment the breath is available to us to anchor us into the present moment; we can always make an active choice to follow the breath and find calm.'

The metaphor of the breath as an anchor is one that I really like. I've been using mindful breathing a lot lately to ground myself and to shift my emotional state. It's a handy tool because it's always there, throughout every second of your life. I've managed to leave the house without wet wipes, money, nappies, house keys and any idea of where I'm going - but it remains impossible, even for me, to forget my lungs.

Marie's key message was to, 'follow the waves of the breath, anchor yourself to the 'now', greet the changes that come moment by moment'.

She concluded that, 'with practice this can help us ride the contractions and serves us well into the difficult challenges of parenthood. After all we can be just as challenged by the 'pain' of dealing with a screaming toddler on the aeroplane as a labour contraction!'

That is certainly true. I actually might choose labour over a long-haul daytime flight with a toddler.

The Oxford Mindfulness Centre offers a good example of a classic mindfulness breathing practice; the '3-minute breathing space' (it's at the bottom of the page) which I intend to use during labour. Marie's course includes a similar exercise, as well as many more. I love this quick little practice and use it all the time when I need to focus, regroup or calm down.

I would really recommend the Mindful Birth online course. It's excellent value and packed with info, resources and practical ideas to help you prepare for birth, in whatever form it takes, as well as for life with a newborn.

I now feel optimistic that when the time comes (hopefully soon, at 40.5 weeks and counting...) I will be better equipped to deal with events as they unfold. I hope also to feel more like an active participant rather than a bewildered onlooker.

That said, I would still like those virgin mojitos.

This post originally appeared on 52 pauses, a weekly blog about mindful living and positive parenting.

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