Relaxation is essential for effective labor. It helps you conserve energy and keeps your mind clear. Effective relaxation during labor will help you stay in tune with your body and adjust to the stages as they come, changing your position or the way you breathe. When you know what to expect during your child’s birth and understand its stages, you’ll be empowered to overcome fear and anxiety. Research has shown that fear actually increases the pain of labor, and can make delivery take longer. Active relaxation – the art of letting go and allowing your muscles to relax when you “tell” them to – gives you control over the birth process. You’ll be more confident, need less medication, and maximize your chances of allowing yourself and your child a “speedy delivery” without complications.
Why its Important to Stay Relaxed During Labor
The reasons for this lie in the mechanics of childbirth and the body’s chemical reaction to stress and fear. Your uterus is a powerful muscle with three layers. During labor, the outer muscles contract to pushyour baby down, through and ultimately out of the uterus. At the same time, the middle layer of muscles contracts, squeezing blood out of the uterine walls and then releasing to allow a fresh infusion.
During labor, these two layers of muscles are working positively to move your baby out of the uterus and into the birth canal. But in some cases, and especially if you are fearful or anxious, their efforts are frustrated by the third layer of muscles – the circular muscles of the inner layer. Before you became pregnant, the strong inner muscles of your uterus were in a permanent state of contraction. They kept your uterus small and closed, in a tight pear-like shape. During pregnancy, these muscles were forced to expand to allow your baby to grow, but they are still strong. During labor contractions, these muscles must do something they almost never do – relax and give way to stronger forces that are working against them. When the inner circular muscles contract they close the outlet, maintaining the uterus in its unemptied shape. Thus, these inner circular muscles must be loose and relaxed when the long muscles contract, to open the womb and push the baby out.
If a woman is frightened during labor, then the muscles of the uterus and the muscles that hold it closed are working against each other. Fear also causes stress hormones, called adrenals, to be released.
These hormones also make your muscles tighten, so your contractions are less effective at pushing the baby downward. Stress hormones also tell your body to send blood away from the uterus and out to your arms and legs (a “fight or flight” reaction). So how do you relax when you’re being hit by wave after wave of labor pains? If you wait to learn until labor begins, you may find this difficult if not impossible. During the months and weeks leading up to your due date, take some time to master these relaxation methods.
Progressive Relaxation Exercises
This technique will give you the power to bring all the muscles in your body into a relaxed state. Sounds simple, right? Just relax! Well it’s not as simple as it sounds. You may feel relaxed, yet still have significant tension in an area of your body that you are unaware of. Lie in a comfortable position in a quiet, well-ventilated place. You should neither be too hot or too cold. Take at least ten minutes to perform this exercise. Don’t rush. Focus your consciousness on the area you are relaxing. Breathe slowly and deeply, visualizing your breath reaching and soothing the area you are focused on.
Begin by tensing the muscles of your forehead. Scrunch your eyebrow muscles together and hold them that way for about ten seconds. Then release the tension, letting it go completely. Next, tense the rest of the muscles in your face, including your ears, for ten seconds and release. After you release tension in any area, pause briefly and breathe before moving to the next muscle group. Next, tighten the rest of the muscles of your head and neck. Hold this for ten seconds or more if you can, then release. Gradually move in the same way to your shoulders, upper back, and chest. Tense and release the muscles of your upper arms, lower arms, hands and fingers. Then going back to your torso, tighten and release your abdominal muscles, your buttocks, and your pelvic floor muscles. Take your time as you progress, and focus on as small a group of muscles as you can identify.
Finally, tighten and release the muscles of your upper thighs, knees, calves, ankles, feet and toes. As you finish, visualize tension being fully discharged from your body, and enjoy your fully relaxed state for a few minutes. Do a brief “tension scan” to identify lingering tension in any area. Progressive relaxation is useful in early labor, when you’ll have a longer “rest” between contractions. This method is incorporated into many natural childbirth programs. It’s a great way to get to know the muscle groups in your body and find out where you hold your stress.
Abdominal Breathing Exercises
Deep breathing from your diaphragm, the muscle just below your lungs, is more efficient than shallow breathing, because one deep breath completely fills your lungs. If you pay attention to your normal breathing for a minute or two, you’ll realize that most of your default breathing is very shallow, allowing air only into your chest. Slow abdominal breathing actually requires fewer muscles than shallow breathing. During labor, this means precious energy will be conserved while tension and pain are being discharged.
To practice deep abdominal breathing, lie on your side or sit in a slightly reclined position. Place one hand on your abdomen. This will help you feel your breathing. Inhale slowly, allowing your breath to fill your abdomen. Notice whether you can breathe in a little more at the end of the breath. If you can, you will notice your diaphragm dropping to allow more air in. Do not hold your breath. Begin breathing out slowly, then rest for a few seconds before taking another cleansing breath.
The more you practice slow, deep breathing before your labor begins, the more automatic it will be for you when you are in labor. Your husband or another labor coach should learn to breathe with you, so that the two of you can maintain controlled deep breathing during labor. For many moms, deep breathing is the single most useful technique for an easy labor and delivery.