I am a huge homebirth advocate, all of my children were planned homebirths (only 2 of the 4 were actually born at home though – that’s a whole other blog post!), but the more I work in the birth field the more I am becoming convinced that it is not the actual *place* of birth that matters. It’s *what* and *who* is in the place that has the strongest influence. I have been at some homebirths that felt anything but relaxed and ‘homely’ and I have been at some hospital births that have been amazingly relaxed.
Whenever I work with a couple antenatally I always suggest they put a lot of time and effort into planning their birth environment as much as possible and most importantly they focus on a portable birth environment, no matter where they are planning to have their baby, because we all know what happens to the best laid plans……homebirth transfers, midwife shortages, birth centre closure….sadly none of these are uncommon. The following is a list of multi sensory tips that I discuss with expectant couples with the hopes that they can birth in the calmest environment possible, wherever the physical location may be.
1. Think about Lighting – Sight
Hardly any rooms (home or hospital) have truly oxytocin/melatonin friendly lighting. Bright light is a huge inhibitor of labour progress, hence why most women prefer a dimly lit environment to birth in, the light source too is nearly always natural: sunlight, moonlight, starlight, firelight, candlelight…How best then to replicate this ambience in a room with bright electric ceiling lights and nothing else? and often a room where you are unable to light candles (compressed gas!) or plug in lamps to the mains. I am a huge fan of battery operated fairy lights and LED candles. I have a huge selection of battery operated lights in my doula bag, the majority of them came from cheap pound shops, my favourite though are my colour changing tea lights, bought from Amazon about 5 years ago they’re still going strong after numerous births and no battery changes! dotted around the birthing room they create a beautiful relaxing vibe. To add a little more light I use a Wonderbulb on the floor in the corner of the room (underneath a chair to diffuse the light). The combination of the wonderbulb and tealights gives just enough light to a room at nighttime. I also have some waterproof colour changing spa lights which are great stuck onto the side of a birthing pool, gently lighting the water in rainbow colours.
For daytime births I always suggest mums pack a pair of big sunglasses, which have 2 uses 1) sheilding the mum from bright daylight if the room she is in has inadequate blinds/curtains and 2) giving the mum much needed privacy due to the lack of eye contact.
To me, lighting is the most important part of the birthing environment, it can have such a big impact on the mum’s oxytocin levels and is so easy to rectify!
2. Think about Scent – Smell
Our sense of smell is our sense most closely related to our memory. This can work either for or against us. The smell of medical equipment, the smell of antiseptic, the smell of hospitals, the smell of latex gloves……can all bring up unpleasant feelings for us, most often triggering the release of adrenaline (which in turn can slow labour and increase pain levels). Whereas the smell of nature – plants, flowers, the ocean, the smell of our home, the smell of chocolate, vanilla, baking cakes….can all encourage us to relax and feel good. I find the easiest way to scent a room during labour is to use aromatherapy oils. I always suggest mums to be ignore advice for ‘good oils to use during labour’ and instead go to a shop selling a large array of oils and find a smell that reasonates with them. For the mums I have worked with this has ranged from vanilla to orange oil and frankincense to lavender, it’s rare that mums pick the same scents, though lavender and clary sage do crop up lots (interestingly both on the ‘recommended for labour’ list!). The important thing then is to use that oil, build up a connection with it (check it’s safe to use during pregnancy!), use it whenever you relax: in the bath, when you go to sleep, during a massage….and really build up that conditioning. So many forget the importance of this, expecting a ‘labour oil blend’ to work magic on the day, the real magic though comes from the conditioning of the oil before labour!
The best way I have found of scenting a room during labour (bearing in mind you need to avoid naked flames in hospital!) is to use a battery operated aromatherapy diffuser such as this aromafan – which really is as good as using an oil burner, I have had my trusty fan for many years now and it has served me well at many births – with massive impact for little outlay. After birth it’s also great to use to help children fall to sleep at night and particularly when they have a cold or stuffy nose (with ravensara oil for little ones).
3. Think about Music – Sound
Lots of mums to be make a ‘labour playlist’ containing their favourite songs. It’s amazing how many of these songs however are fast paced. Ideally the perfect labour soundtrack will be composed of 60-70 beats per minute (BPM) – the same as a healthy resting pulse rate – which can help the brain enter into a relaxed state, also known as ‘alpha state’. It is possible to purchase special ‘alpha music’ – such as that by famous composer John Levine.
Again – just like the smell section above this music needs to be conditioned, spend some quiet time each day relaxing with your music, condition it to relaxation and slow breathing, if you have a massage, facial or reflexology take it along with you and ask the therapist to play it whilst you relax. On the day a well conditioned piece of alpha music can have strong relaxation results, even better if you pack some headphones to drown out external noise too!
4. Think about tactile objects – Touch
Not just touch from another person, here light stroking can often be more beneficial than a heavier massage, the sort of stroking we are so familiar with and is already deeply conditioned with relaxation and often heavily conditioned to calming from our own mother, but think about anything else that may be touching your skin. My whole family are like Linus from Snoopy with his favourite blanket – we love to curl up on the sofa with our soft throws and blankets. My youngest son and I each have a fake fur throw that instantly relax us, whereas my daughter loves her knitted baby blanket. Also – my own pillow means instant relaxation to me, taking my throw and my own pillow into hospital with me massively helped me to relax and has done for many of the mums I have supported during labour.
The last point I would like to add here is that of water. Much is written about waterbirth, but the other benefits of water are less so: showers aimed on the back of a labouring mum, a water feature gurgling away in the background, a deep bath (even better with some waterproof spa lights – see above!) – all of these can have powerful effects even if access to a birth pool is not available!
5. Think about Food and Drink – Taste
I always suggest couples pack a labour feast, not just to munch on during labour (if they feel like eating), but for afterwards too instead of the obligatory toast! I think it’s really important here to remember the birth partner, what is he or she going to eat and drink? and where is it going to come from? if it’s to be purchased on the day it means the mum is going to have to be left, or more often it means the partner goes without as they don’t want to leave the mum. I always suggest partners pack themselves lots of (not loud crunchy or smelly!) food and drink as well as packing snacks for the mum.
On this note it’s really important that the birth partner thinks about all of the above too, what will he or she do to stay comfortable? what will he or she do to stay relaxed? what will he or she do to not get bored? This last one is vital! I have seen too many bored dads pacing the floor and asking “how much longer?”!! So always suggest partners may like to pack newspapers/magazines and yes – even games consoles/laptops and IPhones to play games on!
I hope this list helps you to prepare for your birth, always remember you can control most environments and make them as birth friendly as possible, whatever and wherever your original plans – it is always possible to retain some control over your birth environment.
Do let me know any tips you have for creating a good portable birth environments! Happy BIRTHday!