Helping labour to happen

Someone clever once said…..If you want to know how to do something, watch and copy those who’ve done it already. With this in mind, please use the women on this website as a resource. Good fortune may have played some part in their good births, but also many other things besides – stuff they understood, faith they developed, ways they prepared. You can learn about these things by reading on, or going to the Comfort and Coping page. But best of all by making contact with us, and getting a birth buddy. By listening, first-hand, to a good birth story yourself.

Photo of woman getting back rubbed in birth pool

Trusting our bodies

For labour to go well, one thing is key – being able to delegate the job to your body.  But handing over and letting our bodies take charge isn’t easy. Not when we’ve spent our lives to the point of pregnancy focussing on thinking intelligently, valuing control and having a plan. How on earth do we take our hands off the wheel?

It takes time – and certainly some preparation. A regular pregnancy yoga or active birth class is one good way of shifting the focus away from what you’re thinking, onto what you’re feeling – of getting body and mind more in synch. Just the act of stopping and breathing, feeling what it feels like to be pregnant for a couple of hours a week, results in a kind of re-sensitising. Women get what is often a fresh but curiously familiar glimpse of how good it feels just to feel – to let go. It starts to dawn that if your body has grown a baby without thought or conscious effort on your part, chances are it has a reasonably reliable plan for getting the baby out.

The shy hormone

Central to that plan is a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is quite literally the petrol in the engine, labour’s driver and without it, contractions can’t happen. When your body’s oxytocin flow is inhibited, contractions will be weak, and/or ineffective, or even stop, and this leads to slow progress, low morale, and tiredness. It’s then that interventions start getting suggested – for example being induced, or having an epidural. These speed up or slow down labour in a way that makes it more difficult for you and your baby to cope and often lead to further interventions.

When women fail to progress, they are sometimes made to feel it’s their bodies that are at fault. But almost always it’s because hormone flow is being stemmed. So it’s crucial that oxytocin flows undisturbed. It is THE key to helping labour to happen.

How can you encourage it?

It’s helpful to think of oxytocin as a shy hormone – privacy and safety are the most important things for getting it flowing. It is released by the deep, primitive part of your brain responsible for automatic functioning, like digestion, sleep, sex and going to the loo. This part cannot get active to order, and certainly not while your rational brain is on duty, when you are having to think clearly, be self-aware, engage in conversation or make decisions. Think how hard it is to get to sleep when you’re trying to. As with all automatic behaviour, your brain has to switch down and step back.

The most important conditions for creating good oxytocin flow are privacy and safety. If women don’t feel safe – or aren’t given the chance to withdraw and feel unobserved, they’ll remain mentally alert and labour will slow and stall. Below is more general guide for what can help and hinder it.

Oxytocin friends

  • quiet, no questions, lowered voices
  • dim or soft lights, even dark
  • being warm and cosy
  • feeling confident, safe and reassured
  • privacy when you want it, contact when you don’t
  • a low-profile midwife who reassures with her eyes, manner or touch
  • having no vaginal exam, or if you do, not knowing progress scores which create pressure and wake you up
  • hand to hold when you need it
  • unobtrusive, loving and empowering support – a partner who knows, a doula, a student midwife in case the midwife is busy
  • continuity of comfort eg being on all fours in back seat of car with pile of pillows

But be careful! Lots of people make the mistake of setting up a good birth environment prematurely. It’s a bit like getting into bed and turning off the lights to go to sleep, even when you aren’t tired. So don’t force the issue. When talking feels uncomfortable, you will know it. When privacy feels good, you will seek it.

Many of these oxytocin-friends can be much easier to come by at home than in an unfamiliar, brightly lit hospital a car ride away. Go in too early and all the new and strange elements, like meeting your midwife, or having to wait for a room, or the sudden awareness of time and deadlines,  can wake you up and throw your body off its stride. Whereas once in established labour, everything often accelerates away. You get a ‘system’, hit your stride, natural endorphins soften your edges, and the strong physical sense that all these contractions are taking you somewhere, keeps you focussed and on top. At this stage, if you do choose to go into hospital, the disruptions and distractions there are then less likely to slow things down.

Understanding what real labour is, and what it isn’t

Understanding what established labour feels and looks like, is therefore key to an easy birth. Many antenatal classes and most birth books will tell you that when contractions start coming every three minutes, and are lasting a minute, head for hospital. But for the vast majority, this will not be labour and you will likely be only 2 or 3 cm dilated.

Ask a midwife if you should go into hospital when contractions first start coming every 3 minutes and she will say no. Wait two or three hours more. Have a bath. Get a rhythm, and wait until:

  • contractions are coming every two to three minutes, lasting a minute, and have been for two-three hours
  • people chatting or asking you questions feels annoying and uncomfortable
  • privacy feels good and you find yourself wanting to be alone in the bathroom or bedroom
  • you are breathing loudly/feel an urge to make low-moaning noises
  • you feel a slight heavy feeling in your bottom, like when you’re starting to feel the need for a poo
  • you are feeling hot, and all the better for stripping off

It’s important to note that the build-up to this can be anything from a couple of hours to a few days. And that’s hard. But be patient, wait until the signals above are in evidence, and you really do stand a very good chance of having your baby arrive without complication.

Exceptions are rare, but if you do turn out to be someone who’s in established labour when contractions are still very spaced, you will very likely be feeling other urgent sensations: a sense of dropping, or your pelvis is filling up; pressure in your bottom. These sensations will be guide enough for you to know when to go into hospital or call a midwife if you are having a homebirth. Also note, that the pointers below are a guide for first-time mums. Though subsequent labours have the same signals, you’re likely to feel it all much more quickly and suddenly.