This topic is one that is near and dear to my heart. I’m at the age where it seems like everyone I know is getting pregnant and starting a family. I find that when I talk to pregnant women, they are usually so excited for the new baby but terrified of labor. The source of the fear is usually related to pain or medical complications. I’m usually not surprised by this fear! This is the message that we get in our country: “Birth is scary and unsafe!”. Everywhere you turn, there are messages about how dangerous and painful birth is. While there are some great people doing amazing work to change the narrative, fear is still the dominating factor in women’s birth stories.
I desperately want to get the message out there that birth does not have to be scary! I am so thankful to both my midwife and doula for immediately advising me to start searching for positive pregnancy and birth stories. Immersing myself in a positive birth world completely changed my perspective! Today, I’m sharing a few reasons why hearing encouraging stories are key to your own positive birth experience.
It Reduces Fear
Fear is one of the most primal emotions in our body. It has the potential to set up a cascade effect that triggers activity in most of our major organs. Fear (or stress) in excess can have devastating effects on our body in the short and long-term. It is so important to reduce fear during pregnancy and birth! Fear increases tension which causes the laboring woman to feel more pain. It makes sense when you think about what’s happening during labor. During a labor contraction, the uterus (a giant muscle) tightens and works to push the baby down and out through the vagina. It’s basically an involuntary muscle movement, like a muscle spasm. Have you ever had a stiff neck and tried to turn your head? The pain gets worse, doesn’t it?
The only (natural) way to reduce the pain during contractions is to try and relax through them. I know it sounds counterintuitive based on the way we typically respond to pain. You cannot relax if you are in a state of fear so in order to reduce pain, you must reduce your fear around the birth process. That’s where hearing positive birth stories comes into play. The more stories that you hear from and about women who went into their birth experiences without fear, the more likely you are to feel the same way.
In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, she talks about the fear-pain cycle as well as something called Sphincter Law. Sphincters are round muscle groups that are usually closed until something needs to pass through. We have several of them in our body. Your esophagus has sphincters that basically remain closed until you eat or drink. Your anus is also a sphincter, remaining closed until it’s time to poop. Where am I going with this? The cervix, or the opening to the uterus, is also a sphincter; remaining tightly shut until the moment labor begins. When labor starts, your cervix begins to dilate and open in order to allow the baby to move into and out of the vagina. When the doctor or midwife “checks” you, they are measuring the dilation of your cervix.
Sphincter Law is basically the premise that sphincters must relax and expand so that they can open comfortably and wide enough to allow the passage of whatever is moving through. Sphincters don’t function well under pressure. The more force applied, the less likely the sphincter is to open. I love how Ina May drove this point home. She talked about how hard it would be for all of us to poop or pee on command in front of a crowd. When we put women in unnatural and fearful environments, it is counterproductive to Sphincter Law. The more fear a woman has, the less likely she is to relax, and the less likely her cervix is to dilate naturally. This can lead to a host of issues including stalled labor and unnecessary medical interventions.
It Is Empowering
As mentioned earlier, our cultural norm is an uninformed, medicated hospital birth. There is a heavy reliance on the doctors for making all decisions relating to pregnancy. What you should eat, what you should drink, your daily habits. Everything is dictated by what someone else says is best for you. The medical world doesn't put emphasis on having patient-led birth. You are usually at a bigger disadvantage if you are a first-time mother. I've heard so many stories of first-time mothers being dismissed or gaslit while trying to advocate for themselves. There's constant messaging about the unruliness of birth that leads the newly pregnant woman to doubt her natural ability to give birth.
Hearing positive birth stories where the mother felt safe, supported and happy with her birth is encouragement for other pregnant women. The saying, “representation matters” rings true in this case. Society has a great representation of the screaming woman begging for an epidural on her way to the maternity ward. We are bombarded with images and stories of people whose births were totally chaotic and out of control. We need to shift the narrative to a more realistic and attainable view of birth. The more they hear positive stories, the more likely they will feel their story can be similar. It empowers them to believe in themselves and their body’s ability to do what it was made to do.
It normalizes birth
The more that you see and hear about birth, the more you realize how “boring” and automatic it really is. The baby cannot stay in there forever. Birth is inevitable. It will happen no matter what you do. The more births you see, the more natural the process becomes for you. This was definitely the case for me. My midwife recommended that I begin watching videos of birth to get familiar with the process. I found great videos from midwives and doulas on Instagram and Youtube. Because I planned to have an unmedicated birth, I directed my focus on those birth videos.
At first, I was uncomfortable watching from beginning to end. I would watch the pushing stage through wincing eyes. Over time, it became easier and easier to watch because I knew what to expect. By the time I got to the last trimester, I was scrolling through a timeline full of positive birth videos and I was excited to go to into labor. The fear had almost completely dissipated, and I felt comfortable handling whatever was going to take place.
The more I learned about birth, the more I understood the variations of normal that exist. I created a birth plan with the understanding that things could change at any time. I remained calm and level-headed as I began to experience signs of early labor. I remember having contractions at church and singing through the surges. Others around me were more worried than I was, and I was the one keeping everyone calm!
I won’t get into the details of the rest of my birth story, but I intended on giving birth in a birth center and ended up delivering at a hospital. There weren’t any complications, just a last-minute decision change. I’m so passionate about this topic because I experienced the shift first- hand when I let fear take over and stopped trusting my own instincts. Things immediately began to feel out of control and confusing. I hated feeling that way!
What I will say is that even when things took an unexpected turn, I was still aware of the normal processes of birth. This was extremely helpful while navigating a birth scenario I didn’t envision for myself. When I shifted to the hospital setting, we tried to maintain a safe and positive birth experience. Although it probably seemed like we kind of wandered in from the streets, (because we had not been working with any of the doctors at that hospital for prenatal care) we came in with an in-depth understanding of what to expect during and after birth. The nurses and staff made comments about it throughout our hospital visit which was a big boost to my confidence.
My exposure to positive birth stories throughout my pregnancy directly contributed to my birth experience. It reduced my fear, familiarized me with the birth process, and empowered me to believe in myself. If you are considering getting pregnant or are already expecting, I would highly recommend searching for positive birth stories. Be sure to check out my post on MUST READ books for pregnancy to get you started.