Active Birth – 8 Big Benefits For Mother and Baby

During an active birth, the mother-to-be is encouraged to move around freely and choose positions that feel comfortable to her.

Though it may be a relatively common sight in a hospital birth ward, mothers having active births are unlikely to lie on their backs to birth their babies.

Throughout history and across the world, women have been giving birth in upright positions.

However, it’s believed to be King Louis XIV who made a massive impact on future generations of childbirth.

He apparently insisted that his wives should lie down on a table, so he could get a better view of the birth.

So, birthing on your back was born. That was until women eventually fought back from this painful, physiologically dysfunctional way of giving birth, which can result in the pelvis losing up to 30% of it’s capacity to open up for birth.

The active birth movement started off as a way of giving women their power back. In a world where labour was controlled by medical professionals, the active birth movement encouraged women to take control of their births. Instead of being told what to do, women are encouraged to do whatever feels the most comfortable.

The term ‘active birth’ was coined by Janet Balaskas in the 1980s. As an antenatal teacher, Janet taught women relaxation techniques and breathing exercises to use during labour. Through research, Janet discovered that women in other cultures didn’t lie on their backs to give birth. In fact they squatted, knelt and stood, surrounded by supportive women.

In Western society, most women still give birth on their backs. That said, the active birth movement is gaining in popularity, and many healthcare professionals are now aware of the benefits of giving birth in upright positions. For this reason, many birth centres now have a number of props in the rooms to allow women to move around and change position during labour. From birthing stools, balls and cushions to allow for comfortable sitting and kneeling positions, to ropes to assist with a squatting position. Many birth centres have water pools which allow women to labour and give birth in water. The water provides support and buoyancy which allows the women to change position easily in the pool.

8 Benefits Of An Active Birth

There are a number of significant, research backed reasons to choose active birth, including:

#1: Reduced Risk of Medical Interventions

In 2012, a study found that upright positions during the second stage of labour was associated with a significant decrease in the use of interventions. The study also found that the pelvis opens up when the woman is in a squatting or hands and knee position, allowing more room for the baby to travel through.

#2: Shorter Labour Time

In 2009, a research review found that giving birth in an upright position was associated with a shorter first stage of labour. The study found that women who gave birth in an upright position had first stages that were approximately one hour shorter. The use of doulas have also been proven to result in a shorter labour. This is likely partly due to the fact that they support women to have active labours.

#3: Less Painful Labour

Women who give birth lying down are more likely to have epidurals, but those labouring in an upright position are more likely to cope with the pain. A 2009 study found that labouring in an upright position was associated with lower levels of pain during labour. Labouring on your back has been shown to result in a more painful labour.

#4: A More Satisfying Labour

A study in 2009 found that women who laboured in an upright position felt more satisfied with their birth experience overall. Again, this finding is similar to those who use doulas.

#5: Better Oxygen Flow To The Baby

Being in an upright position allows for a better flow of blood to the baby. Lying down on your back can lead to a reduced flow of blood to the baby. Compressed blood and oxygen supply can cause fetal distress, resulting in further interventions.

#6: Makes The Most Of Gravity

It makes sense to utilise gravity during labour. Pushing in an upright position allows gravity to do its job and help the baby travel down through the birth canal. Whereas, in a lying down position, you have gravity working against you.

#7: A Woman’s Partner Will Feel More Involved

During an active labour, a birth partner feels like he or she is actively participating in supporting the mother-to-be. This creates a rewarding, bonding experience — teamwork — which can then sets the scene and filters through into parenthood.

#8: May Result In Less Trauma To The Baby

Because an active birth can result in fewer interventions, less likelihood of stress to the baby or a longer than necessary labour, your baby stands to experience a more trauma free birth. Of course, there are no guarantees, but active birth certainly helps to keep birth normal for both mother and baby.

Setting The Scene For An Active Birth

Active birth isn’t about rules, it’s about doing what feels right at the time. You should move into positions that feel comfortable and try to stay active throughout labour. But the most important aspect is that you are comfortable and relaxed.

In order to move freely and feel comfortable in your surroundings, you need to be in an environment that makes you feel safe. Bright lights and a lack of privacy are not conducive to an active birth. Turn the lights down and surround yourself with supportive people to help you relax.

Feeling relaxed and comfortable during labour allows your body to do its job properly. Your body needs to produce lots of oxytocin and endorphins during labour and will only be able to do so if you feel safe and relaxed. These hormones will help you to manage the pain, focus on the birth and feel even more relaxed.

How To Have An Active Birth

So, how can you achieve an active birth? Here are 5 tips:

#1: Choose A Supportive Healthcare Provider

Speak to your healthcare provider early on about your desire to have an active birth. Ask questions about their experience in this area, and what steps they would take to help you realise this dream. If they seem unsupportive, look into other healthcare providers who may be better able to get on board with your vision. Here are 11 questions to ask an ob gyn before hiring them.

#2: Decide Where You Want To Give Birth

If you are having a low risk pregnancy, you should be able to choose where you give birth. You could give birth at your local hospital, at a nearby birth centre or in the comfort of your own home. Have a look at all of your options (even if you’re unsure about some), and ask the staff to show you the birth facilities. Many birth centres now have birthing stools, balls, ropes and pools as well as other props to encourage women to stay active during labour. Your local hospital may also have some of these props, so be sure to ask questions when you take a look round. If you choose to give birth at home, your household furniture will become your birthing props! You may also like to hire or buy a birthing pool for your home birth.

#3: Attend Prenatal Classes

Prenatal classes often focus on active birth and discuss upright and active positions for labour and birth. Your prenatal classes are tailored to those in attendance, so make sure you speak up about your desire to have an active birth. There are also active birth classes you can attend to try out different positions and learn more about how to have an active birth. Read about why BellyBelly encourages women and their partners to attend non-hospital based birth classes here.

#4: Stay Active During Pregnancy

Labour is a marathon, and without any training it’s little wonder that some women end up lying on their backs in bed. Regular exercise throughout pregnancy can help to improve your stamina and general fitness so that you’ll be better able to cope during the birth.

#5: Get Your Partner On Board

Your partner has an active role to play in helping you to achieve your vision of what the birth should look like. In an active birth, your partner can help you to move position, and support your weight in certain positions. By holding you up and letting you rest on him, he can help to make the birth a little bit easier. Ask your partner to read up about positions in advance so that he can support you on the day.

New Active Birth – Get The Book To Learn Even More!

Janet Balaskas’ MUST read book for all pregnant women and their partners is New Active Birth. This is one of a few essential recommended reads BellyBelly suggests to all pregnant women. You’ll be so glad you read it – it goes way beyond most pregnancy and birth books on the market.

Last Updated: October 15, 2015


Fiona Peacock is a writer, researcher and lover of all things to do with pregnancy, birth and motherhood (apart from the lack of sleep). She is a home birth advocate, passionate about gentle parenting and is also really tired.


  1. I hate to be a downer, but, I feel I was aware of all this advice when I had my first child, and none of it helped. After 13 hours of laboring at home – walking around, and eventually, when the pain was so bad I could hardly move, just propping myself on my knees against the couch – my pediatrician sister decided, by the timing of my contractions, I surely was about to deliver. We got to the hospital, and I was not dilated AT ALL. This was not an induced labor – this was at 40 weeks 4 days, spontaneous. With a doula, with family, with the whole works. They wouldn’t even admit me to the hospital and told me to “walk around” which is LAUGHABLE when you are in that level of pain; I would walk a foot and collapse screaming on the floor. No water or massage or anything would have helped at that point; I felt bad for my doula, as I just wound up snapping at her not to touch me or talk to me. The thing that did help? A shot of morphine. In LESS THAN AN HOUR I was dilated to 3cm – this after 13 fruitless hours of torture. Terrified of the pain – which is NOT something you can just suppress with breathing or massage, but akin to someone stabbing with you in the abdomen with a knife every 10 seconds – I begged for a c-section, and guess what, the evil-for-profit-doctors wouldn’t give it to me; they said I had specified a natural birth in my birth plan, and we should still aim for that. They did give me an epidural. I cannot describe the feeling of the epidural; I went from threatening to throw myself out the window to a state of total calm. Maybe that makes me a coward? Maybe I did the wrong thing for my child? But there was NOTHING empowering about the God-awful pain I had been in. Unfortunately, 15 hours later, after dilating to 10 cm, it still wound up being an emergency c-section because the baby would not descend, and his heart rate was falling. They also claimed after popping my bag of waters that I undilated to 8 cm. So yes, it was terrible having a C-section, my baby was born with an Apgar of 1 AND couldn’t sustain his temperature for 3 days, but, I will still say, looking back, I see precious little I could do differently this time around. I’m thinking I will just go with numorphine for as long as I can and walk around but – honestly, I’m still not ready for the level of pain, which I find articles like these DOWNPLAY SO MUCH. Now, my son’s head is 2 standard of deviations above normal, but at birth he was just at 76% after coming out (his head had been squished down in my canal, despite the C-section). This one is at 81% already at 36 weeks. So. Not sure what hope there is for me but, I find I start to resent articles like this. By the logic in this article, I should have been able to go to the tub after 13 hours and just quickly have my son there. But as I found out, pain does not equal progress. Natural does not mean effective. And it’s conceited to think one is strong enough to handle all levels of pain, and all circumstances. I for, one, am forgiving myself for accepting medication. Morphine, to me, is still the kiss of God.

  2. Totally agree with you. So why are the establishment so slow to respond? Please write to the TV Companies and tell them to stop promoting birth in the stranded beetle position on the soap operas. Women copy what they see on T.V. I knelt for my second birth and it was an absolute doddle. she came out in 20 mins. Felt stretching rather than pain. I went home 15 hours later after a good nights sleep. Best experience yet; lovely memory. No drug or Doctor intervention needed.

  3. Really useful information. I have no idea how I’m going to do it but this advice seems logical. If hospitals didn’t exist and I was on my own without help,I guess I’d squat or get on my knees. Diane, you mentioned your second baby but how did your first birth go?

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