Preparing for Labour
It is said that labour can be one of the most tiring and energetic experiences of a woman's life. Some people even say it is like running a marathon.
Now no one would consider entering a marathon race without considerable preparation and training specifically for it. All areas of a runners life would be focused on preparation for this big event - diet, fluid, particularly water intake, the amount of sleep and rest you get, and also physical training and mental preparation.
All areas of an athlete's life need to be prepared. Now what would happen if we considered labour like this. From the time you know and are ready to believe that you are pregnant, you could be preparing for this big event. Many people do, exercising and taking care of their body, while some spend more time physically preparing the baby room than they do themselves.
So in preparation, if you're not doing it already, what is needed?
Good fuel for your body will make it function to its peak performance. Runners won't usually just think about what they eat the days before an event. For the months of training prior to a race they will choose good foods that they know will continue to refuel their body before and after every training session throughout the day. If they put bad fuel eg junk food into their body, they can feel the effects. A little bit may be OK, but on a regular basis if they consume the wrong fuel, they wouldn't expect their body to perform at its peak, both in training and during the actual event - the race they are planning to run.
Water is important to re-hydrate an athlete before, during and after training and an event. If we use other fluids continuously all the time, we don't get the full benefit of hydration to help our bodies work the best they can. For example, sugary drinks may taste nice and give us short-term energy, but aren't purely for re-hydration when needed. Too much sugar has actually been shown to cause dehydration (if the concentration is too high this can also lead to stomach cramps during an event).
Caffeine products/drinks will also contribute to dehydration, so water should be consumed in addition to caffeine products eg tea, coffee, cola drinks, as they will not supply the needs of re-hydrating your body. Being dehydrated can make you more tired and so you perform better when your body is hydrated well.
During pregnancy, in the time leading up to your labour it is important then to stay well hydrated. Clear urine can help to indicate this. If it is yellow, then you are not as well hydrated as you should be. During labour, if you are able, sips of water regularly can help you to replace the fluid your body is using due to the hard work of labour. You would never see a marathon runner complete a whole event without taking regular drinks throughout. You may have seen the effects of dehydration on athletes eg fatigue, lack of coordination and cramps. These things are not helpful during pregnancy or labour. Consider what and how much you drink to meet your own bodies needs.
The amount of sleep and rest needed.
Athletes are often tuned into their bodies, and can tell when they need more rest or sleep, because of a big training session, or the activities of their daily life. Listening to their body is important, as if they ignore the warning signs and push on regardless, they can often end up more fatigued or sick, tired and run down. Then they are unable to train or perform as needed and they are set back in their training schedule. Listening to your body on a daily basis and responding to its needs and demands can allow you better preparation. Your body knows when you need a rest or more sleep, and when you can function on less. Respect these messages and signs, and listen out for them. The more in tune you are with your body, the better and more prepared you will be for when you go into labour.
The amount of training a marathon runner does will affect his or her performance in a race. It will determine how quickly he or she will tire during the race, although the race conditions will also influence this. Fitness levels also determine how quickly a marathon runner will recover after the race - whether it will take weeks or months to recover from such a long event.
Labour can be considered to be more challenging than a marathon run for many women. It can last longer, although you do get a short break between contractions, At least in a marathon, runners know an estimated time of how long it is going to take to complete the event. During labour you are breaking new ground, never having run this particular track before and you start labour having no idea of how long it will take you to the completion of 'the event'.
Nevertheless, physical preparation will help you to endure and navigate the course ahead of you. That is, the fitter you are before and during pregnancy, the more energy you will have for labour. You are more likely to recover more easily if you are fitter too.
The other thing you often hear about is the 'runner's high'. This is where mentally and physically the runner benefits from a release of the hormone 'endorphins', which help to reduce the pain perception they have. All that work their body is doing can be seen as 'painful' and sometimes it would be easier to give up and stop the race than to push through until the end. Endorphins help them to push through and give a feeling of well being. The more trained an runner is, the higher the amount of endorphins released during exercise. This is the same for women during labour, who also release endorphins, which help reduce pain perception and give more of a feeling of wellbeing. Women who are fitter will release more endorphins during exercises in pregnancy and during labour.
Physical preparation is not always easy. Sometimes you have to 'make or discipline' yourself to go out and exercise, when it would be much easier to sit or lie down and rest. Although rest is important, as previously mentioned, there needs to be a balance between it and exercise. For more information on the types of exercise suitable for during pregnancy and how to exercise safely in pregnancy, visit the Exercise pregnancy section of this website.
Stretches - More Physical Preparation
If a marathon runner didn't stretch after training or an event, their muscles, particularly in their legs and upper body, would continue to tighten and become stiffer over time. Flexibility of muscles is important to allow them to work freely and normally.
Flexibility of your muscles before and during labour is important to allow you to move freely as needed, and to get into comfortable positions for labour. Hamstring, quadriceps, adductor and calf stretches are all important both for the runner and the pregnant woman. These are stretches of the back, front and inside thigh muscles, as well as the calf muscles. These can easily be done before exercising (after a warm up), after exercise, or at other times of the day. Sitting cross legged on the floor will help the inside thigh (adductor) muscles become more flexible, as will sitting on the floor with your legs apart and knees straight. This will also stretch your hamstrings. A further inside thigh stretch is to 'diamond sit', with your feet together, instead of crossed. The good thing about these stretches are that you will also be more supple for when your baby is born and you play and spend time with your baby on the floor. To stretch your quadriceps muscle lay on your side and take hold of your foot, pulling it gently towards your bottom. Pull your knee back also, until you feel a gentle stretch at the front of your thigh.
To stretch your calf muscles you will need to remember that there are two different calf muscles to stretch. The outside muscle is called gastrocnemius, and goes from behind your knee down to the achilles tendon behind your ankle. To stretch this muscle you should place one foot in front of the other at a comfortable distance apart. Keep the heel of your back leg on the floor and your knee straight, (front leg, knee bent), while you lunge forwards until you feel a gentle stretch at the back of your calf. The deeper calf muscle is called soleus and goes from just below the back of your knee down to the achilles tendon behind your ankle. To stretch this muscle, use the same position as described above, and keeping the heel of the back leg on the floor, bend the back knee until you feel a gentle stretch at the back of your calf. You may feel this stretch lower down in your calf muscle. This stretch can also be done with both legs at the same time. Stand in front of a wall, place your hands on it for support with your feet level but comfortably apart. Bend both knees until you feel a gentle stretch in your calf muscle.
Remember to stretch gently while you are pregnant, as you are more flexible than normal due to the hormone relaxin softening your ligaments. This means it is more possible to overstretch if you are not careful. You should feel the stretch comfortably with no pain, but do not push into a strong stretch.
You can hold each stretch for between 10 and 30 seconds, and you may want to do this more than once on each side, particularly if it is a stretch that ‘feels good’.
Stretching after an event does help to reduce the amount of stiffness and tightness felt in the muscles over the next few days. Although this may be the last thing from your mind when you get to meet your baby after labour has finished, these same stretches can be used for the few days after the birth if you do feel sore from some of the positions you used in labour.
Often a marathon runner needs to prepare mentally for the event. This can be as simple as setting goals and targets for training sessions, and ticking them off once achieved. For pregnancy this may mean deciding to exercise regularly, for example three times per week for 20-30 minutes per session and recording this in your diary or on your calendar.
Visualization of the event is another way marathon runners can prepare for an event. This may involve running through the course in their mind, imagining how they may feel and how they may overcome obstacles such as feeling tired in the race. Determining to push through when they know it is going to be hard work is part of preparation of the mental attitude. If no attention is paid to this before an event, we would not be surprised if that runner found it harder mentally than another who was mentally prepared.
Preparing mentally for labour is of course very different. Again the course is unknown: the intensity level of the contractions, how long labour will take, what the different stages will feel like and what coping and pain relief strategies will benefit.
Preparing, despite this, could mean 'rehearsing' or running through your mind how labour might be for you. Be aware though that this can cause disappointment if your labour is harder or longer than expected or rehearsed, so don't get your heart set on a particular time or expectations of labour.
Relaxation methods may help you to physically relax your body while allowing you the time to think about labour. Thinking about how you feel while doing this can help you deal with what might be to come. Allowing yourself to explore your feelings and responses to your thinking about labour can be as much a part of preparation as preparing the nursery. Making time for this is important, particularly as labour approaches and becomes more of a reality. Mental preparation may help you feel more ready, and hence be more relaxed and less anxious about taking on the challenges ahead. Remember every labour is different, so even if you've already had a baby, spending some time on this process may be useful.
So, you may not be a marathon runner, but you're going to be a mum (or expand the number of children you are a mother to). So take the time available to you to prepare for your labour. The added benefits may be a more enjoyable pregnancy and energy afterwards to enjoy motherhood.
Be prepared. Take up the challenge. Remember you were designed to have babies and there are many people to help you along the way.
Find about more about Preparing Your Pelvic Floor for Birth and Recovery here
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For more to help you to prepare for labour and birth - Katrina Zaslavsky's book A Modern Woman's Guide to a Natural Empowering Birth, has a collection of inspiring birth stories with expert tips and practical insights in this book which will help you to Embrace Your Pregnancy, Overcome Your Fears, Be Inspired, Go Natural and Empower Yourself.