It wasn't until my third and final birth that I was able to use natural coping techniques to deal with the discomfort and intensity of contractions. The difference, thanks to hindsight, was better preparation during pregnancy and a strong motivation to do things differently after two healthy but disappointing birth experiences with my first two births.
What helped the most for that birth -- and for everything painful I've had to endure since that birth, including a couple of root canals -- was my ability to "go within" using a combination of steady breathing and meditative thought and focus. At the time of my third birth, I had practiced visualization, meditation, and hypnosis techniques leading up to my labor.
Meditation is defined as a practice in which a person focuses their mind on a particular thought, object, or activity (usually breathing) to remain clear and calm. Hypnosis is defined similarly, with the difference being that during the altered state of calm focus, you have an increased ability to respond to suggestion (during birth, you are more open to the suggestion from your partner or doula that contractions feel like pressure "waves," for example). Visualization uses guided imagery (either memorized, recorded, or spoken to you) to access your subconscious and help you reach your desired goals.
When you use any or a combination of the calming techniques above during labor, you create for yourself an altered state of mind in which you shut out distractions and activity around you by shutting off (or lowering) your conscious brain -- the one that registers and processes conversation, people, environment, feelings, pain, etc. Using meditation, breathing, hypnosis, or visualization will not completely shut you down/off -- you can hear and respond if needed -- but it will allow your primary focus to remain inward in order to cope with the intensity of childbirth.
If you are pregnant, it's almost never too late to learn these techniques. Of the three, meditation and guided visualization are the most simple to begin to practice and learn. Meditation often involves a focus on the breath, which is invaluable preparation for labor and birth.
To meditate for the first time, find a moment in which you have some time to yourself, then follow these steps.
- Find a comfortable place to sit (it can be on the floor or on a chair).
- Set a timer on your phone for 5 minutes and choose a gentle alarm tone. You can gradually increase your meditation time as you continue to practice.
- Once you are comfortably seated with your hands resting in your lap or on your belly, gently close your eyelids.
- Breathe normally. Focus your mind on your breath. With your mind, follow your breath inward. If it helps, you can silently say "in" as you breathe in. Then, focus your mind on your out breath. You can silently say "out." Continue this throughout your meditation time. Notice how your breath moves in, down and up, out. Focus only on your breath and saying the words "in" and "out."
- If your mind wanders -- and it most definitely will -- recognize that your mind has wondered and return it to your breath. Do this each time your mind goes off track.
- Alternatively, you can focus on your breath and use a mantra during meditation. Choose something that's short, personal, and calming.
Repeat your meditation practice daily, adding more time as you see fit. Work up to a 20 minute meditation.
If you want to try guided visualization/imagery, you will use the same techniques for meditation, but instead of an internal, self-guided focus, you will focus on a guided recording/script to carry you to relaxation. You can find guided imagery tracks by searching Google for "guided visualizaton for birth," "guided meditation for birth," or "guided imagery for birth."
Hypnosis also uses a specific, guided focus, but incorporates suggestions to change beliefs and behavior. For birth, this involves suggestions that aim to replace fear with calm and confidence, and pain with comfort. Hypnosis for birth can be learned on your own or through a hypnosis-specific childbirth class.
A good, full length childbirth class will always cover a variety of pain relief coping techniques, including different calming breathing options and the use of guided imagery.
The benefits of these pain-relieving, calming techniques are that they are risk free, can be practiced without buying anything special, and will serve you throughout your lifetime, far beyond labor and childbirth. No matter what you plan on using as your pain relieving methods during birth, prepare and practice one of these techniques to assist you -- you won't regret it!