Labour of love
Mothers-to-be may often find scary stories about having a baby alarming. Arlene Harris talks to mums about their positive birth experiences
Anyone who has ever given birth or is just about to will have undoubtedly been regaled with blow-by-blow accounts of other women's labour stories - some will tell of relaxed, joyful experiences, but you can guarantee that there will be at least one who seems to take great pleasure in recounting a horror story of the trauma they endured bringing their child into the world.
Midwife Tracy Donegan says this is very unhelpful to would-be mums and while those who have had a negative experience obviously need to share their thoughts, they should keep them away from someone who is preparing for her own due date.
"Many women share scary birth stories in an attempt to prepare the uninitiated (first-time mum) to the 'realities' of labour and birth - and even TV shows tend to focus on overly dramatic birth images," she says. "But one woman's reality is unlikely to be everyone's.
"Of course, mothers need to feel heard and want their experience validated but sharing those experiences with a first-time mum who is excited to meet her baby is unlikely to resolve the feelings associated with that experience and just frightens mothers and partners unnecessarily.
"So if you're that woman - consider counselling where you can heal from a difficult experience and get ongoing support. As a midwife I would ask you to consider generously sharing positive uplifting tips for expectant parents as they prepare for the biggest day in their lives - join them in their joy instead of inviting them to share in your upset."
Carolyn White can relate to that as before she gave birth to her son last year, she was bombarded with tales of woe from other women who had negative experiences during their labour.
"I was so excited about being pregnant with my first child - Joshua (now one) - and although I was a little daunted about the prospect of giving birth, I wasn't afraid as I assured myself that women have been doing it since the dawn of time, so I would be fine," she says. "But there were a few women who seemed to revel in telling me their 'warts and all' stories about how awful it was and smirking at each other as if to confirm that I had no idea what was ahead of me."
But the Wicklow woman ignored their comments and instead listened to the advice of her own mother who told her, in no uncertain terms, that she would be fine - and she was.
"My mum was really positive and said these women were being unnecessarily mean," says Carolyn. "So I closed my ears to them and concentrated on the wonderful joy my new baby would bring. Of course, I prepared myself for pain, but you know what, it was absolutely fantastic.
"I had a wonderful midwife, who chatted to my husband and I throughout. She had music on the radio and in between gas and air, I got up and wandered about and before I knew it, the baby was ready to be born. I've heard women say that they went 'inside themselves' and that is just how I would describe it - I kind of rose above the pain and concentrated on the job and before I knew it, our gorgeous little boy had arrived. It truly was a wonderful experience."
Eimear South agrees. The mother-of-three to Ava (6), Ben (4) and Joseph (18 months) prepared for the arrival of her last two children and said both deliveries were calm and rewarding due to mindfulness techniques and daily 'affirmations' which kept her in a relaxed state - so much so that her youngest son was born minutes after she arrived on the delivery ward.
"The night before Joseph was born, I listened to mindfulness recordings before sleeping and my waters broke in the morning," she says. "After breakfast (she was having surges throughout), Bryan and I left for the hospital and although I knew birth was imminent, I was very relaxed and acknowledged the well-wishers giving me the thumbs up.
"Everything was wonderful and I was holding my baby boy 10 minutes after I arrived (at the hospital). It was such a peaceful, uninterrupted, natural experience. I fully trusted my baby and my body and as a result, my midwife allowed me to do my thing. I know it might sound silly but I smiled the whole way through."
Being able to smile at all during labour may seem incomprehensible to some women, but Tracy Donegan, founder of gentlebirth.com, says expectant mums who experience high levels of fear in labour are "more likely to experience longer, more difficult births with more intervention as adrenaline blocks labour hormones".
"Women who practise 'brain training' techniques such as mindfulness are more likely to have a positive birth experience no matter how their baby is born as it builds confidence and emotional resilience," she says. "My motto is to control things that are controllable - we can't control birth - but we can always control how we respond to what's happening."
Mother-of-three Ashley McGee had this message in mind when her little girl arrived into the world last year. After a very difficult labour with her first child (Harry) five years ago, she vowed she wouldn't go through a similar experience again. So when she had her two other children - Jack (3) and Molly (8 months) - Ashley made sure that things were different and she was better prepared both mentally and physically.
"After Harry's birth I suffered from post-traumatic stress but after counselling, a year later, I made the difficult decision to have another baby - even though the fear was overwhelming," she says. "But I discovered the Gentlebirth app and realised that I could take ownership of decisions surrounding my care. After Harry, I felt my body had failed me, but this method made me realise my body was perfect, it knows exactly how to birth a baby.
"Jack's birth was thankfully a much better experience. It wasn't perfect but was a lifetime away from what I went through with Harry. Then at my first antenatal appointment with Molly, I was offered a C-section due to my history, but I had belief in myself and bravely declined. My husband, Ian, and I attended workshops and I got stuck into to affirmations and mindfulness, wrote out my birth preferences and made sure I was listened to.
"Then on August 27 last year I had the birth I had always dreamed of and Molly was born with just Ian and one midwife in the room. I didn't need any assistance and the experience was magical - the best moment of my life. Now I know that it's not about giving birth without pain relief; it's about owning your body, owning your experience and making it the best it can possibly be."
Nadia Hutton also took control of her body when she gave birth to her daughter Lola (3). She had experienced a difficult birth with her son Noah (5), so when she became pregnant again, the personal trainer was prepared, confident and excited at the prospect of going in to labour again.
"When I had Noah, I was originally pregnant with twins and lost one," says Nadia, who is married to Anthony. "This was never addressed, which led to other issues, so when Lola was on the way, I refused to go through it all again - and this mind-set made all the difference.
"The whole thing was amazing. I was confident going into labour and had a beautiful natural birth - it was everything I wanted - I felt empowered and gained this amazing respect for my body which I previously had felt let down by. It was such a positive experience, I was confident in my own abilities and Anthony was confident in navigating a very tricky maternity system. So I would advise any would-be mothers to ignore 'horror stories' as labour can take many different paths."
Tracy Donegan agrees and says giving birth can be one of the most positive experiences in a woman's life and there are many ways to ensure the best possible outcome for both mother and baby.
"There are so many influences which can negatively affect a woman's perception of birth and cause anxiety levels to rise as a result - Hollywood has a lot to answer for," she says. "People tell you things like 'don't focus on the birth' or 'it's only one day', which makes it sound like something you must endure in order to meet your baby. Society, as well as the medicalised culture we live in, has caused us to lose trust in the capabilities of our own bodies. But by practising affirmations and other techniques you can build that trust and reduce anxiety.
"Also being educated on the process is empowerment, as it allows us to draw on whatever tools necessary during labour and birth. People love to tell you horror stories so I would advise expectant mothers to build a filter for negativity and to seek empowerment and confidence from evidence-based information and techniques to re-affirm your trust in your body and your baby."