Background on Birth
We know by now that our body is capable of pretty remarkable automatic processes. Think about it. When was the last time you had to remind your heart to pump? When did you have to physically think about breathing (aside from breathwork in yoga class?) Or you had to tell your intestines to digest your meal? It goes without saying, our bodies are remarkable little machines.
In simple terms, all functions within our bodies are controlled under two different and contrasting states of neural-hormonal control, the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system. These two states cannot function together. One turns off the other. There are different hormones that help our organs to function in each of these states. Adrenaline and cortisol are stress hormones released under sympathetic control while the feel good endorphins, like oxytocin, are part of the parasympathetic nervous system.
Birth is not meant to happen under stress
The sympathetic nervous system is oftentimes referred to as the “fight or flight” stress response. This is when we sense a threat. Like in primeval times, when our ancestors had to fight off a saber tooth tiger or run from it to survive. When the sympathetic nervous system is triggered, we get a rush of adrenaline. This hormone triggers our heart to race and lungs to fill with oxygen so that together those survival organs can pump essential oxygen rich blood to our muscles and brain – telling our body to either fight with all our might or run away. Oxygen and nutrients to non-vital organs, like the uterus are diverted. A birthing mother will stop her birth by instinct when in an uncomfortable, unfamiliar and stressful environment.
The parasympathetic nervous system on the other hand, works only when we are safe. It allows our body functions to slow down. You may have heard of it as the “rest and digest” state. During parasympathetic activation, blood can flow freely to digestive organs and birthing muscles. The release of hormones like oxytocin during this state sends messages to our brains that allow us to feel good, relax and even block pain.
What does all this have to do with having a positive birth?
We have learned to fear birth long before we even get pregnant, activating the fight or flight part of our body from the get go. Stories from family and friends, even strangers, about their painful and traumatic experience start flooding our minds before baby bumps start showing. Movies and media that falsely portray birth as a negative experience send the mother into that fight and flight state when she thinks of labor. It is no wonder so many births don’t go as planned.
Most births happening in the hospital are augmented with some form of intervention because it simply doesn’t work when you are stressed. The cesarean rate in the US is reaching nearly 30%. That means more than one-fourth of births require major abdominal surgery and then mom is sent home to care for a newborn while she recovers from major surgery. Birth as a natural instinctive process is about to be lost because we are not allowing it to happen in a safe way. We are scared of it and trying to complete it while in a fight or flight state which doesn’t allow it to work properly.
The uterus, along with the cervix only functions during parasympathetic nervous system activation when oxytocin, the love hormone, signals the uterus to contract. The work of the uterine contraction is what opens up the cervix and makes room for your baby’s descent. Since stress shuts off oxytocin, most hospital births are like a giant oxymoron. Birth stalls because the flow of oxytocin has stopped. They augment your labor to move it along, which leads to more fear, stress and pain.
So how do we change it?
First, change your mindset.
Realize that all the negative stories you hear are not yours, they belong to the person telling the stories. Surround yourself with people who only talk about positive birth experiences. Know that there are many women who have had positive births who look upon this journey into motherhood as the greatest day of their life. Find them, we exist. A Hypnobirthing class or Lamaze are two great methods of birthing education to help change your birth mindset into a more positive one.
Second, educate yourself on how birth works.
The uterus is a muscle made of 3 layers which are signaled to contract when oxytocin is naturally secreted in large amounts. The outer layer is a longitudinal layer of muscles running up and down while the inner layer is made up of circular fibers mostly condensed at the bottom towards the cervix. The middle layer is a mesh-like layer filled with blood vessels that provides its oxygen supply. During a uterine contraction, or more positively described as a uterine surge, the outer muscular layer pulls up. With this pulling up action, the circular muscle fibers at the base of the cervix pull outward, therefore thinning and opening your cervix.
If you keep this process in your mind while you are experiencing the hardest parts of labor during the most intense contractions, you will be more likely to relax and allow your body to open rather than tensing up through the discomfort. Tension and becoming tight during contractions will cut off the oxygen supply to your uterus which will contribute to discomfort.
Practicing relaxation throughout your pregnancy with guided imagery will help you achieve a level or relaxation during the birthing phase. Having lights dim, playing soothing music, listening to guided meditation, knowing how the birthing process works and being in company of trusted support systems are all ways to keep your parasympathetic nervous system secreting oxytocin. This can help you have a positive birth experience.
If you need more support on how to have a positive birth experience or if you have anxiety related to pregnancy please reach out to Kat Gallis at mindfulpregnancyandchildbirth.com. She has loads of information to help you relax and enjoy this journey.