By Keely C Helmick, LPC, Doula
Mindfulness has been incorporated into most aspects of life, including birth preparation. But what is mindfulness as it relates to birth? In this blog I will be giving an overview of mindfulness and how it relates to birth preparation and the labor process. In following blogs, I will discuss elements of mindfulness practice and how specific techniques can be used in formal and informal practice during pregnancy and labor.
There are multiple definitions for mindfulness. One simple definition by Jon-Kabat Zinn is:
“Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; On purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”
So what does being in the present moment have to do with birth? Birth is an intimate, physical experience that demands a woman’s full attention. For first time mothers in labor there is a flood of new, often intense sensations, thoughts, and emotions. The release of chemicals and hormones in the body that help bring forth the baby also influence the mother’s experience. As with many things in life, there are parts of labor a woman can control, but much of the process is influenced by birth. By “paying attention in a particular way” the mother can have influence on HOW she experiences and reacts to the process. When contractions begin HOW does she experience the sensations? When thoughts arise, HOW does she express them? As a variety of emotions arise, HOW does she react to them? During pregnancy a formal and informal practice can hone this skill.
Developing mindfulness prepares the mother to influence how she experiences these and other parts of labor. First, being present allows the laboring mom to recognize when certain thoughts arise, identify the thoughts and then choose to express them to her partner or doula. Similar to formal practice, one notices as thoughts arise and then allows them to pass through, so as not to get stuck on a specific thought. In birth this can be phrases like “I can’t do this anymore” or ” I am scared”. Confronting thoughts of fear and inability can help one move past the inhibiting thoughts and continue progressing through labor.
The last part of this definition of non-judgmental is as the laboring mom goes through the labor process she is aware of the shifts, is practicing coping skills, and is not beating herself up for “not being perfect”. Even the most prepared woman will experience unexpected aspects of birth. Having an attitude of non-judgment and acceptance can aid in moving through challenges. Non-judgment does not mean being passive or complacent-rather it is a frame of mind in which we understand that there are many influences and decisions. One notes sensations with curiosity and an open-mind as things unfold.
Other ways that mindfulness practice helps
Self-awareness– As one practices mindfulness and develops self-awareness, one can more easily tune into specific needs during the labor process. A connection to the body provides cues around which coping technique to try and getting into a rhythm.
Breath awareness-Many women tense up during labor and unintentionally hold their breath. Being aware of the breath and how to regulate breathing can help you move through tense moments and continue providing oxygen so the body can birth.
Emotional regulation-As stated above, labor (as well as pregnancy and parenting) is an emotional event. A mindfulness practice can help you develop skills to regulate your emotions and handle surprises.
Work through anxiety and fear– The breath can be an anchor to ground yourself as anxiety, fear, and other emotions arise.
Dealing with the Unknown-So much is unknown during the labor process. Each birth is a new experience with both amazement and challenge. Mindfulness can help you to stay with the moment and accept the experiences with a curiosity and openness.
Mindfulness is a lifelong process that is not only useful in labor, but also parenting and all other aspects of life. Formal practice in the forms of meditation, yoga, and tai chi will help develop these skills. The informal practice throughout the day will be informed by the formal practice and will deepen life experiences, both joyful and challenging.
What is your experience with mindfulness? If you practiced during pregnancy and labor how did it help you?