WHEN asked how a pregnant woman should go about preparing for labour and childbirth, there are lots of mothers who would give a simple reply - you can't! This is of course true to a certain degree as having a baby is an event that no female can ever completely control.
That said, as the big day approaches there are a number of ways to go about getting ready for what is going to happen, starting with learning a little about what is involved.
First-time mums, in particular, may be quite concerned and worried, which can often be more to do with a fear of the unknown. Indeed some research has suggested that the better informed the woman is about labour, the less pain she feels on giving birth.
But whether or not this is true, it is worth her while finding out as much as possible about the process so that when the time comes she is more confident and armed with a better understanding of what is going on.
Many women find that antenatal sessions are hugely helpful for preparing for labour and childbirth. Midwife and practising public health nurse Mary O'Connor from Becomingamum.ie facilitates antenatal classes for both natural and Caesarean births.
Antenatal classes can help women and their birth partners gain knowledge in how the body works during labour and birth, she explains, and they can also help with the mental preparation.
"If women are to acquire the skills that will help them cope with labour, it is necessary that facilitators intersperse mini lectures with active learning, relevant physical skills, discussions, reflections, and give time to explore parents' thoughts and questions. During antenatal classes it is important to encourage parents to voice, explore and discuss how there are feeling or how they may feel during the labour and birth."
Giving information is important and knowing how the body works in labour and birth is vital, she stresses, but that's not enough on its own.
" Teaching and practising physical skills in antenatal classes such as breath awareness, relaxation, massage and positions has several benefits. Physical contact such as massage may encourage women to feel safe, relaxed and supported, thus encouraging the release of the body's oxytocin and endorphins in labour."
Ideally, facilitators of antenatal classes will ask the mothers and birth partners their wishes, needs and concerns for the class, continues O'Connor.
"Most classes will cover changes in pregnancy and how that may affect a woman's body, along with the signs of labour – when to go to hospital or call your independent midwife (if a home birth) – and what a contraction is. How labour works and the hormones of labour will all be covered, as will the practice of different upright positions to help yourself in labour, breathing strategies and visualisation to aid relaxation in labour and the various coping strategies in labour."
Discussions are also held on women's options and choices in labour and birth, ie the birth plan; how birth partners can support women during labour, for example with massage, kind words, affirmations etc; and coping strategies for situations such as if labour has to be induced or if it's a Caesarean birth.
Yoga and pilates
Lots of expectant mums take up yoga or pilates in order to get in some gentle exercise during pregnancy as well as to prepare themselves mentally and physically for labour and childbirth.
Rachel Gaffey from Mywellbeing.ie recommends both yoga and pilates for pregnant women, although some prefer one over the other.
"Pilates for pregnancy works on strengthening the body and keeping your muscles very active and strong to support your growing baby and for postnatal recovery," she says.
" Yoga for pregnancy is fantastic for creating length and space in the body – as women move through their pregnancy, the growing baby takes up more and more space, so lengthening the muscles and finding space in the body at the same time as keeping very strong is one of the main benefits of doing it.
" Yoga for pregnancy not only works on the physical body, it works on strengthening the connection between mum and baby. Yoga spends more time on preparation for birth than pilates as yoga incorporates breathing techniques, visualisations and relaxation for mum and baby."
Gaffey says that a woman can take up either pilates or yoga in pregnancy, regardless of prior experience.
"Classes are always of mixed ability as some people come to class with lots of previous experience and others none. Pregnancy yoga and pilates classes are very different from regular classes. Also everyone in the class moves at their own pace – this works very well as all women are at different stages of their pregnancies, from 12 weeks right up to due date.
In her own classes, Gaffey finds that the first-time mums in general tend to join up when they are around 12–14 weeks pregnant, while the second, third or fourth-time mums tend to join in much later.
" The main reason for this is first-time mums are more anxious and more focused on their pregnancy," she explains. "First-time mums get lots of support, suggestions and tips and tricks from other mums in the class. They are also very interested in the breathing preparation and all discussions around the birth process.
"From my experience other mums tend to be so busy with their other children they join in later. Once they do join, they really make the most of their time away from the house and their weekly or bi-weekly classes really become their haven and a special opportunity to bond and connect with their babies in their bellies. Mums with other children use pregnancy yoga and pilates classes as time out for them and as a release rather than a birth and labour preparation class."
So for any soon-to-be mums out there who are concerned about labour, what's the one piece of advice they shouldn't be without?
"Practise breathing awareness and visualisation daily to increase your confidence in preparing for your baby's birth," replies O'Connor. " Trust in your body and your ability to birth your baby. And find yourself some good interactive antenatal sessions so that you and your partner can grow in confidence to trust in your body to birth your baby."
As Gaffey gave birth to her own daughter in May of this year, preparing for labour is fresh on her mind, as are her words of wisdom.
"I actually find it hard to limit it to one piece of advice," she admits. "Purely from the perspective of being a new mum my advice would be to sleep as much as possible in the week or two before your due date. This might be your last undisturbed sleep (apart from bathroom breaks and a kicking baby on the inside) for a few weeks.
"My other piece of advice would be to keep fit and active right up to the end. Keep your body strong, walk daily to keep your baby in a good position for birth, do your yoga stretches to keep your body free of stress or tension.
" Try to relax, breathe deeply and remember labour and birth are less than one day out of your life with the biggest reward at the end of it!