Hiring a Doula is one of the best decisions an expectant mom or couple can make. (If I do say so myself). Doulas come with a host of “benefits” (see What is a Doula) and can be a huge help and comfort to mom, dad, and the rest of the birth team. A Doula, is not, however a replacement.
A Doula can never replace education.
Educating yourself before the birth of your child is very important. Whether you are planning a home birth, hospital birth, or a birth center birth, some of your labor is going to progress without your “support team” and some of your labor is going to be uncomfortable. Sometimes very uncomfortable. Yes, even if you are planning on getting an epidural. Many women falsely believe that hiring a Doula means they don’t need to learn about the process of labor and delivery. They also believe that if they are planning on pain medicine or an epidural during labor that they do not need to prepare themselves for the hard work of labor. These mothers are in for a very, very rude awakening. The kind of awakening that makes them all too often hate their birth experience, mistrust their bodies, and agree to a cascade of unnecessary interventions.
Labor is work. Labor is a huge event in a woman’s life. Huge. It is a full body, mind, and spirit experience. It should never be entered into lightly. Proper preparation is quite honestly the key to how a woman will or will not handle the momentous task of birthing a baby. As a Doula my role is support, encourage, assist, and offer suggestions. I have learned special techniques to augment the process of labor, to help make mom more comfortable, speed things up when they slow down, and better position baby. But none of my assistance or support can trump being prepared. A woman could have the best Doula in the world but if she is not prepared her Doula will only be able to do so much.
Labor is intense. In the middle of that intensity comes a moment when a woman has to make a decision. No one can make it for her. The decision is this: will she surrender to the awesome force that is compelling her to focus on what her body is doing to give birth? Or will she become frightened by this force, fight the discomfort and pain, and therefore fight her body?
Even the most experienced Doula cannot fully reach a woman when she is in this place. This place of choice between surrender and fear. This is when a woman who is properly prepared draws on what she has learned and what she has internalized about birth. A properly prepared woman will be able to recognize what she has to do and surrender to the force of labor and birth. Too often I have seen Mamas panic. Panic is what happens when a Mama isn’t prepared. A panicky laboring woman is a woman who, in my experience, ends up with many more interventions than she planned and who too often regrets her birth experience. Sometimes to the point of developing PTSD afterwards.
So how does a mother prepare for this huge occasion called birth?
There are several ways to prepare yourself. If you are unsure where to start, ask your Doula for resources! Another advantage of having a Doula is that she is a veritable walking library and resource room! She has research, information and resources at her fingertips. And if she doesn’t have a specific piece of information, she most likely knows where to find it! So ASK!
A childbirth education class is a great way for first time parents to learn the basics of birth. Some focus on a specific “method” of childbirth (ie: Bradley, Lamaze, or Hypnobirth) while others are more general focusing on the “mechanics” and mental processes. If you can’t take a class, start reading! There are many outstanding books that teach you how to prepare for labor – and your Doula can recommend them!
In addition to childbirth classes or educational reading, I suggest reading some additional materials. Once again, your Doula will be able to recommend which books you might find most beneficial. I would suggest shying away from “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” and focusing more on books that embrace the fact that every woman and every baby is unique and different and a rigid timeline for birth and prenatal development simply isn’t realistic.
Another important preparation method is practicing at home. This might sound funny because there really isn’t a way to fully “practice” labor until you’re in it, but there are still some ways you can train your mind and body to react, so when the time for real labor comes, you will be able to rely on “muscle memory” and an already prepared mind. Practice relaxing your whole body through discomfort and pain. You can do this by relaxing through Braxton Hicks “contractions,” having your husband or labor partner pinch you (not too hard! Or holding a piece of ice on your skin (for *only!* 5-10 seconds at a time) while you practice not tensing at the sensation of mild pain or discomfort, and by setting aside 15 – 30 minutes a day to position yourself in a way in which you think you would like to spend some time laboring and then consciously tensing and then relaxing one part of your body at a time until your whole body is completely relaxed. Stay like this as long as you can. Mentally go through a checklist making sure each part of your body remains relaxed, and if you discover a part that has tensed up, consciously relax it again. This is much more difficult and takes much more concentration than one may think! So the more your practice this, the easier it becomes.
Why is this exercise important? During labor your whole body will become involved. It is truly a full body experience. A woman who is not prepared will often interpret labor as being all about pain and discomfort. She will not be able to identify what is actually happening in her body as her fear and low pain threshold cause her to become more and more tense, which in turn, INCREASES her pain and discomfort and slows labor; a vicious, unproductive cycle begins. A woman who has trained herself to identify tense parts of her body and to consciously separate what body parts are experiencing discomfort will be able to keep herself relaxed. This allows her body to work more efficiently and effectively. She will also be able to identify the pain or discomfort she DOES feel and to recognize that it is not something to fear but rather, is necessary for the process of birth.
The last and most important way to prepare for labor is to internalize the Truth that Labor is natural and necessary. It is also something that cannot be planned and controlled. A woman in labor is very truly “along for the ride.” It comes down to working WITH her body or AGAINST it. Learning what working with her body means is a huge step in being prepared to give birth. Labor is very much about letting go. Realizing and accepting this is crucial. Letting go of expectations, of control, and of knowing exactly what the outcome will be. A woman who understands that labor and birth take on a trajectory of their own will be much more at peace if an unlikely complication arises. A woman who accepts that she is not in control of her body or of the baby but willingly surrenders to the forces at work in her body will have a much more positive opinion of her own birth story. Even though we have talked a lot about the more physical reality of giving birth, the fact is, much of birth is mental. The flow of the hormones that are required to fuel the birth process are either negatively or positively affected by the mother’s mental state. Knowing what to expect, accepting that birth requires a surrender, and relinquishing control are some of the THE most important things a woman can do to help her have a positive birth experience but the absolute best thing a woman can do is accept that it is the baby, her body, and God who ultimately author her birth story.
I have met too many women who believe they can plan out their birth and when their bodies or their babies don’t “follow the plan” they become very upset and disappointed. They feel let down and are not empowered by the fact that they just brought a human being earth-side! Birth is beautiful. It can and should be one of woman’s greatest triumphs! It CAN be if we simply get out of our own way!
Education is the difference between the woman who says, “Oh my goodness, what is happening to me, make it stop!” and the woman who says, “I know what is happening, and I will cooperate with my body in order to bring my baby into the world.”
You have it within you to be the latter! You CAN do this! Your body is capable, and so are you!