Preparing Your Body for Labour and Delivery
Labour and delivery are the culmination of nine months of anticipation and are part of one of the most intense, exciting moments in most women’s lives. However, while your body and your baby may be ready to go, you may not feel sufficiently prepared for the big day. Any great physical effort requires mental and physical training, whether you are running a marathon, climbing a mountain, or delivering a baby.
Attending childbirth classes will teach you what to expect during each phase of labour, as well as useful relaxation and breathing techniques. Most hospitals and birth centres offer classes for pregnant women and their birth partners; but there are also private classes, instructional videos and DVDs, and even on-line classes. Practising at home with your partner between classes will help you feel even more prepared. Begin by practising your relaxation technique, then have your partner time mock contractions and breathe through them, concentrating on ignoring any distractions and relaxing the rest of your body. The more time you spend preparing yourself, the more likely you will be able to face labour with (relative) confidence and minimal anxiety.
There are also exercises you can do at home that will simulate some of the work you’ll be doing during labour, and strengthen the muscle groups you’ll be using most. Starting in your first trimester, do the following exercises 2-3 times a week.
- Position yourself on your hands and knees, keeping your knees directly under your hips and your hands under your shoulders. Keep your back as straight as possible and align your head and spine. Contract your abdominal muscles while exhaling and imagine that you are pulling your baby towards your spine with your abdominal muscles. Relax while inhaling, but don’t let your back sag or arch. Rest for 30 seconds, then repeat. Do 2 sets of 8-10 repetitions. This exercise not only strengthens the abdominal muscles, it’s a great back pain reliever as well.
- Sit on the floor, position a stack of pillows behind your back for support, and bend your legs at a 90-degree angle so you are leaning back into a semi-reclined position. Your knees should be about shoulder-width apart. Place your hands on the backs of your thighs, with your elbows pointing out to the side. Keeping your head and spine aligned and your chin up, inhale while tilting your pelvis upward so your body curls into a C-shape. Pull your abdominal muscles in towards your spine while you relax your pelvic floor muscles. Hold this position for 5 seconds while you slowly exhale, then relax and inhale. Take two deep breaths in between each set. Repeat 2-3 times. This exercise strengthens your abdominal muscles and simulates the mechanics you’ll use during pushing.
- On a mat or carpeted floor, kneel on your left knee beside a chair. Make sure your knee is directly under your hip. Keep your right foot flat on the floor, with your knee directly over your heel. Hold onto the chair for support with your right hand and lean slightly forward from the hips. Tilt your pelvis upward to keep your spine neutral. In your left hand, pick up a 3-5 pound dumbbell weight, and let your arm hang toward the floor with your palm facing backward. Bend your left elbow up and back while pulling your shoulder blades together. Bring your elbow back far enough to feel a stretch in your chest muscles without rotating your torso, then return to the starting position. Do 8-10 reps on with the left arm, and then switch arms. Do 2 sets on each side. This exercise strengthens your upper-back and shoulder muscles, which will help you to keep your chest open during labour, making breathing easier.
- Kegel Exercises: Contract the muscles around your vagina as if you were stopping the flow of urine. Hold this for 3 seconds, then relax until it feels as if you are going to gently push out a little bit of urine. Repeat; holding for 5 seconds this time. Relax and repeat, but try to hold it for 10 seconds. Do 1 set of 6-10 repetitions (holding for 10 seconds), 3 times a day. This exercise strengthens the pelvic-floor muscles and teaches you how to relax them during the pushing phase of labour.
- Stand facing the back of a chair with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointed outward. Hold on to the back of the chair for support. Squat toward the floor as though you were going to sit down on a chair. Contract your abdominal muscles, lift your chest, and relax your shoulders. Most of your weight should be on your heels. Return to a standing position. Repeat 10 times. This exercise strengthens your thighs and helps open your pelvis.
- Sit on the floor straight against a wall with the soles of your feet touching each other. Pull your feet in towards you as much as you can. Gently press your knees down and away from each other – but don’t force them apart. Stretch as long as you’re comfortable. This exercise will help open up your pelvis and loosen your hip joints in preparation for birth, as well as improve your posture and ease tension in your lower back.
Perineal massage is another good way to prepare your body for labour and delivery. It conditions the perineum for the baby’s head and prevents tearing. Begin performing daily massages approximately five to six weeks before your due date. To perform the massage, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and hot water and make sure your fingernails are trimmed. Sit comfortably with your legs spread apart. Apply K-Y jelly or other lubricant to your thumbs and insert them in your vagina. Press downward toward your rectum, until you feel a gentle stretching. You may feel a slight burning or other discomfort; this is normal.
However, stop immediately if you feel any sharp pain. Hold this stretch until the tingling subsides and gently massage the lower part of the vaginal canal back and forth. Repeat the massage daily for about 8 to 10 minutes per session.
In addition to the specific exercises suggested here, general fitness increases your energy level and endurance, and maintains muscle tone and strength – all very important during labour and delivery. However, check with your doctor before starting any exercise regimen to be sure it is safe for you and your baby.