NOTE: The views contained in this post are purely the opinions of the author, who is not a medical professional or a trained birth consultant. Most of what is written here should fall into the "common sense" category of knowledge, but it is up to you, the reader, to think critically about the statements made here and to pursue additional research to refute or support these claims.
If giving birth is like running a marathon, then how does one achieve the best possible birth experience? I believe that the nature of a woman’s pregnancy and birth is determined primarily by three factors, all of which began long before she was carrying a baby:
Some % Genetic Heritage.
How a woman’s sisters, mother, aunts, and maternal grandmother experienced their pregnancies and births is certainly no guarantee, but it can give her some indication of how her own experience may go. Additional genetic considerations include personal health such as allergies, food sensitivities, general and reproductive health, and any other physical ailments that you may be dealing with prior to pregnancy. None of us begins from "ground zero"; our family and personal health history factor in to any new stage of our physical bodies, especially one as major as pregnancy.
My mother carried five children through healthy pregnancies to our due dates (or beyond); she delivered all of us vaginally, with minimal interventions, and very quickly (eight hours was her longest labor). And she gave birth to her last child at age 40! Both she and I have exceedingly healthy immune systems, no allergies, and regular menstrual cycles. Thus far, my own pregnancies and labor have been very similar to my mother’s, so I have to believe that it’s not all because of my own choices. However, I do believe that I have -
Some % Personal Responsibility.
The way that a woman cares for her body – long before she conceives – and during her pregnancy have a significant effect on the health and happiness of her pregnancy, as well as the ease of her labor. If you have a history of eating processed and fast food, drinking caffeinated or sugary beverages, smoking or drinking alcohol to excess, and minimal or no exercise, then your body, long before it carried a baby, was already in a less-than-ideal state. You may not have perceived any negative affects from these choices, but your body, over time, was running on cheap fuel.
Again, consider the marathon training analogy. No marathon runner would consider McDonalds, Coke, and extra helpings of ice cream to be an appropriate diet in preparation for running 26.2 miles. Yet, when a woman is pregnant, we often only think of the affects such food and drink would have on our babies, without considering the cost on our own bodies. If we want to be prepared for a lengthy, exhausting labor, then we should be fueling our bodies with strengthening, healthy food.
Doctors generally agree that whatever level of exercise was present prior to pregnancy can be carried into pregnancy as long as the woman is comfortable. I know runners, dancers, and other active women who continued these demanding physical activities well into their seventh or even eighth month of pregnancy. I believe that exercise not only prepares our bodies for labor but it also makes us more aware of ourselves and in tune with the sensations of pushing through our physical limitations. Even if you have not had a regular exercise routine prior to pregnancy, you can train your body during those 9 months, just as non-runners train for marathons every year.
In the end, however, I believe the largest contributing factor to the pregnancy and birth experience is
100% Mental and Emotional Preparedness
The majority of women in the U.S. "know" about birth through completely false means - via an actress, who is portrayed in excruciating pain, usually angry at her partner, and surrounded by nurses and doctors who swoop in at the slightest sign of worry.
Contrast this to most of human history, and current experiences in other parts of the world, in which birth was a normal, communal, feminine event. When a woman had a baby, she was surrounded by her sisters, daughters, cousins, mother, grandmother, and 'midwives' - the women of her tribe, so to speak. Most girls grew up seeing and experiencing birth long before it happened to them, and they knew what to expect based on personal, firsthand knowledge.
I am convinced that the #1 reason so many women have less-than-ideal birth experiences in this country is because they approach pregnancy and birth with limited understanding and quite a dose of unaddressed fear. As a result, they make choices based on cultural norms instead of personal confidence and trust someone else to tell them what to do and how to experience their own bodies. They spend little or no time preparing their minds and hearts to handle birth.
Studies have long demonstrated the incredible connection between what the mind believes and what the body experiences. One recent study on runners actually "demonstrated that the brain can be trained to allow the body to physically handle more." Researchers examined how mental fatigue affected the perception of physical fatigue during exercise and noted that "overall, it seems that exercise performance is ultimately limited by perception of effort rather than [other factors]. Therefore, the brain gave up and subsequently sent signals to the body to also cease, even though the body showed no physical signs of complete exhaustion" (emphasis mine).
Any marathon runner knows that, in addition to the physical training, she must train her mind as well, or she will not cross that finish line. The state of her mind and emotions will allow her to keep going and finish strong or convince her to collapse in defeat. Yet, not nearly enough women approach birth in this way. In subsequent posts, I will discuss in more detail how to prepare your mind and heart for pregnancy and birth, but let me encourage you with these words:
"If you are going to win any battle you have to do one thing. You have to make the mind run the body. Never let the body tell the mind what to do. The body will always give up. It is always tired morning, noon, and night. But the body is never tired if the mind is not tired. When you were younger the mind could make you dance all night, and the body was never tired...You've always got to make the mind take over and keep going."
~ General George S. Patton, 1912 Olympian