When Kavita Daswani, mom of two in Los Angeles, went into labor with her first child, she thought she was prepared for natural birth. She wanted a home birth, attended by a midwife, a doula and her acupuncturist. She had a water birth tub and a birth ball. But things didn’t go as planned.
When labor stalled at 7 centimeters, she reluctantly transferred to the hospital, where she had a caesarean section. “It wasn’t what I wanted,” she says. “It took a long time for the pain to heal.” When she got pregnant with her second child, Daswani searched for a plan that would give her the best chance at the birth she desired.
If you want a natural birth, you may be looking for the same thing. But before you can plan for one, you need to understand your motivation. “It’s important to know why you’re looking for a particular outcome,” says Pam England, MA, CNM, author of Birthing From Within. “What about this method appeals to you?” When you understand why you want a natural birth, you’re better able to prepare.
England is wary of any program that promises a certain result; she believes that when women do achieve a natural birth, it comes “as a gift.” But that doesn’t mean you should go into labor just hoping you’ll cope. The more techniques you have to draw from, the more likely you’ll be able to handle whatever twists and turns your labor takes. And going natural doesn’t mean you have to suffer. In fact, natural pain management can work even better than an epidural—at least according to these women who’ve experienced birth both ways.
Erin Young, mom of four in Grand Rapids, Michigan, had already had two natural births before her epidural birth. She was shocked by how different the drugged birth was. “I didn’t feel like a willing participant in my labor,” she says. “The epidural only worked on one side, so half my body was in pain. And I couldn’t do anything about it.”
She also hated how the epidural changed her experience. “It was so doctor-oriented,” she says. “They had to tell me what to do.”
But during her Bradley birth, Young says, “I felt amazed at what my body did.” Even though contractions were painful, she was able to relax. “I just embraced it all,” she recalls. “I was so free and open and willing.” When her son was born, “I had that high. Such a surge of joy.” She still feels the pride of that moment: “Look what I accomplished, look how strong I was.”
What it is: Known as “husband-coached labor,” the Bradley Method focuses on preparing both your partner and you for natural childbirth. It teaches you about the stages of labor and ways to cope with each stage, emphasizing the role of your partner as a birth coach.
What’s helpful: For Young, the most beneficial information was the emotional map of labor. “I used that to know where I was during labor,” she says. “I felt very in control.”
Erin Levier, mom of three in Dayton, Ohio, had an epidural for her first birth. “I was barely even conscious,” she says. “I was falling back to sleep between pushing. I wasn’t an active participant in the birth.”
For her second birth, Levier took a Hypnobabies class. This time, “I felt like I was the one actually doing the work. I felt more connected to the whole thing.” And although it wasn’t painless, her contractions were manageable. “Right before I delivered,” she says, “it felt like my hospital birth did at 3 centimeters. For the most part it wasn’t painful.”
What it is: Hypnobabies teaches self- hypnosis to help you relax during labor. More than just meditation, the Hypnobabies “eyes-open” hypnosis allows you to move around and talk while staying in a relaxed, hypnotic state.
What’s helpful: “I was really focusing on the breathing techniques,” says Levier. “My husband said the cue words to help me release tension. That helped me let my body do its work.”
Taya Linville, mom of three in Saginaw, Michigan, had an epidural for her second birth. When it was time to push, “I didn’t feel in control at all,” she says. “I was just a slab of meat lying on the table.”
She compares that to her first birth, when her doula coached her through contractions. “It didn’t get painful until 7 centimeters,” she says. “It was easier to push—I could feel him sliding down with every contraction. And it was so empowering. My body just took over.”
What it is: Central to the Lamaze method is the technique of “conscious breathing” —slow, deep breaths to help you relax. In active labor, Lamaze suggests gentle panting to increase oxygen flow.
What’s helpful: “The breathing really did help,” Linville says. “You concentrate on oxygen coming in and pain going out.” She also feels it’s important to have a Lamaze coach during labor.
Just say no
Daswani didn’t learn any new techniques for her second birth, but she prepared for it with new resolve. “With my first birth, I had reservations,” she says. “If you’re not truly open to the process, something gets in the way.”
But after experiencing surgical birth, Daswani’s reluctance disappeared. “I was determined not to have drugs,” she says. “I felt like I owed it to myself.”
Daswani did have a natural birth, which she credits to sheer willpower. And it’s true that your own mindset can be the most effective method of all. But England warns against fixating on one outcome. “Birth is unpredictable,” she says. “You can’t just prepare for a natural birth. You have to prepare for all birth.” She says to plan for your fears as well as your hopes. “Then,” she goes on, “if the worst happens, you know what to do.”
Because no matter how effective your method, “there are no promises,” warns England. “No matter how it turns out, you are still worthy. You don’t have to birth a certain way to be a good mother, to be strong.”
After all, whether you get the birth of your dreams or a labor that changes all your plans, you’ll be meeting your baby when it’s over. And that’s a natural high that every mother gets to share.
Five to try
Consider incorporating these tools into your pain management plan.
Sometimes referred to as a “wetpidural,” water is a powerful pain management technique during labor. Submerging your body in water provides counterpressure on your belly and back and can help prevent tearing.
A birth ball supports you in a squatting position—which is ideal if you want gravity to help—without straining your legs or back. It also makes it easy for you to sway and rock your hips, no dance lessons required.
A rebozo is a long piece of woven fabric, traditionally used in Mexico as a shawl or a baby carrier. In labor, your doula or midwife can use it to support your belly, help your baby get into a better position, and put pressure on your hips to open your pelvis.
Rice packs can do double duty. Heat one in the microwave for a warm pack on your back, or toss one in the freezer for a cold pack on swelling. You might want either or both during labor, so plan to have several on hand.
A birth stool is a stool with an opening in the seat so you can sit on it while the baby’s actually coming out. Like a birth ball, a stool supports you in a squatting position when you really need it.