In my childbirth preparation classes, the most common fear women talk about is the fear of pain.
Until the time we give birth, we think of pain as a warning signal.
We think something is wrong in our bodies and we must fix it.
We also live in a culture where there’s a pill for just about everything.
Do you have a headache? Pop a pill. Is your back aching? There’s a pill you can take. Feeling restless and unable to sleep? There’s a pill for that too.
This isn’t to suggest modern medicine is all bad, or to say we should suffer through our aches and pains.
But society’s approach to pain explains why so many women fear any sort of pain or discomfort during childbirth.
Mindfulness For Birth – How Mindfulness Preparation Improves The Birth Experience
So often, class participants start the session thinking they have two choices: to suffer through unmedicated childbirth in order to reap its benefits, or to opt for the relief provided by medications and manage any potential side effects.
Much to their surprise, there are many options in between. With a little preparation and some comfort techniques, women needn’t suffer through birth; they can experience a positive, unmedicated birth. Be sure to read about unmedicated birth tips at the end of this article.
Even if a woman chooses, or requires, a medicated birth, she can still have a positive experience with less fear.
One of the techniques is to learn and use mindfulness for birth. Researchers from University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) School of Medicine conducted a study that found the use of mindfulness during labour improved a mother’s experience of birth.
What Is Mindfulness And How Is It Used For Birth?
Mindfulness techniques are a form of meditation. Mindfulness is a state of active awareness with an intentional focus on the present moment.
For this study, mindfulness was tailored specifically to address fear about birth and pain, and to help participants understand what to expect during a typical labour.
Researchers created a childbirth preparation class, Mind in Labor (MIL): Working with Pain in Childbirth to teach mindfulness skills for coping with labour and to address women’s fears.
One of the greatest fears is the fear of the unknown. Experiencing intense contractions, the strong urge to push, and not understanding what is and isn’t normal, can increase fear. Fear can lead to tension, which can increase pain, and leave mothers with negative feelings about their birth experience.
Birth is a very intense experience. Entering the experience with little knowledge and lots of fear can increase a mother’s negative perceptions of birth.
MIL was a 2.5 day childbirth preparation workshop.
It included topics found in typical birth preparation classes, but also had additional goals:
- Mothers and their partners were guided to reframe childbirth pain as unpleasant physical sensations which come and go, moment by moment.
- Participants were taught how to uncouple the physical sensory component of pain from its cognitive component, with the goal of decreasing fear and suffering related to the pain of childbirth.
- Participants were taught body awareness. They became aware of their fearful reactivity to pain by practising mindfulness during a pain-inducing activity like placing ice on skin.
- Partners developed personalised strategies to help them to cope and to support each other throughout the birth process.
Staying in the present moment during birth allows a birthing woman to be aware of how her contractions come and go, so she needn’t fear being in constant pain for hours. Without mindfulness or other coping techniques, fear can increase pain and suffering, even between contractions.
This isn’t to say practising mindfulness will lead to a completely pain-free birth. Mindfulness is a technique that can reduce the perception of pain, and the response to it, especially between contractions.
How Does Mindfulness Change A Woman’s Birth Experience?
Staying in the moment can help a woman remember that each sensation comes and goes; her birth won’t last forever, and she will soon have a moment of relief. It helps her remain aware her body is going through a normal physiological process.
Experiencing pain or intense sensations doesn’t have to equate to suffering. Pain is a very physical sensation; suffering is a mental and emotional state.
Even the most physically demanding, exhausting and painful birth doesn’t necessarily mean suffering. And on the other hand, a less intense birth with less physical pain doesn’t mean a positive birth free of suffering.
The study didn’t find a difference in perceived pain during labour, or in epidural use; however, it did find:
- A lower rate of opioid use during labour
- Increased rate of self-confidence during labour
- A lower rate of postpartum depression even through the follow-up period.
While there wasn’t a difference in reported perceptions of birth, in this small sample size, practising mindfulness during birth affected the rates of postpartum depression (PPD).
How Can Mindfulness During Birth Reduce Postpartum Depression?
Given the small sample size of this study (30 women), it’s not easy to draw conclusions as to why there was a lower rate of PPD.
But it’s possibly because women had a more positive birth, or the skills they learned through the mindfulness course helped them cope during early motherhood.
Many women who experience PPD also experience depression during pregnancy (and many might not even be aware of it). Learning mindfulness techniques for birth during pregnancy could help with antenatal depression, and therefore protect against PPD.
The study also included fathers and partners. Partners who have a greater understanding of the birth experience and provide active support during labour might also help to reduce the rate of depression, or support their partners through it.
Should I Practise Mindfulness During Birth?
The study didn’t find any reduction in epidural rates. However, many natural birth preparation classes include mindfulness as a coping technique.
Using mindfulness techniques, along with other coping methods, might be another tool in your toolbox, if you aim to have an unmedicated birth.
If unmedicated childbirth is something you hope for, you might also find the following tips helpful:
- Choose a maternity care provider, such as a midwife, who regularly supports unmedicated births
- Take a comprehensive, independent childbirth class
- Learn about normal physiological birth
- Consider a professional labour support person – also known as a doula.
Be sure to read Natural Birth – 10 Tips To Help You Achieve One to learn more.