People who are in labor, from early labor up to the point of pushing, often instinctively find ways to cope with contractions as a way to reduce pain. This is true for those who do not use pain medication as well as for those who do.
In labor, a person's natural coping techniques may start to follow a pattern and involve unique repetitive physical rituals that are used each time a contraction comes on and throughout its duration. Penny Simkin, PT, famously refers to this as "rhythm" -- an integral part of the 3 Rs (relaxation, rhythm, ritual) of labor -- and says that those who find it cope better with the pain and intensity of labor.
Known worldwide as an author, speaker, doula, educator, and authority on childbirth, Penny Simkin coined the 3 Rs after observing in many laboring people the use of three distinct coping techniques: full relaxation in between or even during contractions; use of rhythm in movement or sounds; and ritually repeated activities with each contraction. Often, these three pieces are collectively referred to as finding a "rhythm" during labor, included in which are repetitive rituals and relaxation.
Finding a rhythm in labor will look different for each person -- what works for one may not work for another. You may begin using one ritual, like slow breathing or swaying back and forth, in early labor and find that you need to change up your rhythm and rituals as labor progresses and becomes more challenging.
While some people will naturally gravitate to using a rhythm that they've found, others may need help. It's a good idea to take a good childbirth class early in your third trimester. A quality childbirth class will talk about Penny Simkin's 3Rs (whether or not they call it that), providing suggestions for and practicing different rituals to use, as well as how to effectively find relaxation in between and during contractions.
Another key piece of finding rhythm and ritual during labor is involving your birth partner and/or a doula. While some people may find it easy to come up naturally with their own rhythm and rituals during labor, others may need external guidance from another person. Or, some may find it easy to keep a rhythm in early labor but difficult later in labor, often during transition, at which point help from a partner and/or doula who knows how to help is beneficial.
To better understand rhythm and ritual during labor, let's take a look at some examples of what this could look like when a person creates it for themself:
- Breathing in a rhythmic way throughout a contraction
- At the start of each contraction, standing and/or leaning and swaying your hips from side to side until the contraction ends
- Moaning, humming, or even singing a note throughout a contraction
- Repeating a mantra, phrase, verse, or lyric during a contraction (like, "I can, I can, I can")
- Using any combination of rituals, like staring at a focal point while swaying back and forth and squeezing a tennis ball in your hand throughout a contraction
Similarly, a partner or doula can help with creating rhythm and ritual by providing external coping techniques for the laboring person, such as:
- Scratching their back
- Rubbing the low back or shoulders
- Slow dancing
- Using a handheld water sprayer over their back or stomach in the shower
- Maintaining eye contact/focus during a contraction
- Guiding breathing by mirroring a rhythmic breath during contractions
- Brushing hair during contractions
I encourage you to learn more about the use of rhythm and ritual during labor -- take a good childbirth class in your area, read Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn or The Birth Partner, co-authored and authored by Penny Simkin, PT, and research hiring a doula. The more you know in advance about how to find your rhythm in labor, the more likely you are to find one that helps increase your comfort and improve your labor and birth experience.