Physical Preparation for Birth

A recent research article on birth positioning [1] and a policy paper on reducing interventions in labor [2] reinforced my thinking that how we prepare women for labor and birth needs updating. As we learn more and more about the physiology of labor and birth [3], we are learning which practices are productive for a healthy birth and which practices work against birth.

Augmenting our knowledge and skills, as well as encouraging exercise components that improve outcomes truly prepare women for the intense challenges of giving birth. So here are some up and coming tips:

Hands and knees is mechanically efficient for mom’s body to “cradle” the fetus.

Why is this pregnant woman on her hands and knees?

Hands & knees can help low back pain in pregnancy & labor. It also reduces risk of injury to the pelvic floor during birth [1].

This position innervates transverse abdominal support of the abdomen. It opens SI joint via knee press effect. Practicing breathing, pelvic tilts, and modified planks in this position improves hands and knees endurance.

Why are these pregnant women squatting with partner support?

The most common reason given for practicing squats is that this action “opens the pelvic outlet.” This is true. But knowing how valuable kinesthesia is in executing challenging actions, I find that I must first teach women (and their partners) to sense where the target outlet is – between the sitsbones! This helps them learn to release the pelvic floor muscles and know where to focus their pushing efforts.

Also, having the support partner understand what is happening, as well as learning to support this action, is equally valuable to mom. It creates an important bonding and trusting activity. Explaining, illustrating with charts, and then teaching the ability to release, then bulge or distend the pelvic floor in the target area turns out to be one of the activities for which both partners are most grateful.

Why is this woman taking big strides and really moving out?

Aerobic fitness helps provide endurance in labor

Moving is a complicated neurological phenomenon and requires large afferent fiber pathways. The gate-control theory of pain states that movement deters other sensations that must travel up smaller pathways to reach our attention. Example: When you hit your elbow funny bone, you are likely to move around and rub the area, NOT sit and focus on the discomfort.

Labor is an endurance event, so if a mom is going to use movement (and gravity – another big helper) for 10 or 12 hours in labor, endurance fitness is a key preparation. Whether she jogs, swims, spins or dances, cardiovascular activity is possibly the most valuable exercise component she can acquire.

Some Quick Tips, based on recent research:

  • Encourage moms in early labor to stay out of the hospital as long as they can, unless they are given a significant medical reason to go in by their care provider. Once in the hospital, try to minimize the procedures that she must undergo [2]. The hospital or birthing center where she gives birth can, itself, be a factor in how she births [4].
  • If this is a healthy pregnancy, encourage her to eat in early labor and maintain her fluid intake throughout labor [5]. Endurance drinks can be useful to help maintain electrolyte balance during this long event.
  • Let her know she can ask to have hands-on support of her pelvic floor as the baby descends in pushing. Have her discuss this ahead of time with her care provider. This is another method that has been shown to reduce injury [6].
  • She can also ask to “labor down” rather than push for a few contractions after she is fully dilated, if she feels she needs to regroup once the head is through the cervix [7].
  • A good resource for positioning for birth and for recovery exercise is a Physical Therapist who has a PT certification in women’s health. For more information, go to PTPN.com or their Physiquality Blog.

REFERENCES

These references are worthy reading on our changing concepts of pregnancy, labor and birth practice. All of us who work with pregnant women are important influences in helping them gain skills and confidence to cope with this intensely physical, challenging experience.

  1. Zhang H et al. A randomised controlled trial in comparing maternal and neonatal outcomes between hands-and-knees delivery position and supine position in China. Midwifery July 2017 50:117-124. http://www.midwiferyjournal.com/article/S0266-6138(17)30236-X/abstract
  2. ACOG. Approaches to Limit Intervention During Labor and Birth. Committee Opinion Number 687, February 2017. http://www.acog.org/Resources-And-Publications/Committee-Opinions/Committee-on-Obstetric-Practice/Approaches-to-Limit-Intervention-During-Labor-and-Birth
  3. Buckley SJ. Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and implications for Women, Babies, and Maternity Care. Childbirth Connection, 2015. PDF: http://www.nationalpartnership.org/research-library/maternal-health/hormonal-physiology-of-childbearing.pdf
  4. Shah NT. System Complexity and the Challenge of Too Much Medicine, Annual Meeting ACOG 2017. http://annualmeeting.acog.org/growing-c-section-rates-can-be-mitigated-by-counteracting-hospital-complexities/#.WRCbmxRaHFK
  5. ASA Press Release. Most healthy women would benefit from light meal during labor. Nov. 6, 2015. http://www.asahq.org/about-asa/newsroom/news-releases/2015/10/eating-a-light-meal-during-labor
  6. Leenskjold S, Hoi L, Pirhonen J. Manual protection of the perineum reduces the risk of obstetric anal sphincter ruptures. Dan Med J May 2015; 62(5). pii: A5075. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Leenskjold+S%2C+Hoi+L%2C+Pirhonen+J.+Manual+protection+of+the+perineum
  7. Brancato (Ozovek) RM, Church S, Stone PW. A Meta-analysis of passive descent versus immediate pushing in nulliparous women with epidural analgesia in the second stage of labor, JOGNN 2008; 37(1):4-12. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/?term=Brancato+RM+A+Meta-analysis+of+passive+descent

Pregnancy Pathway, Pregnancy – Behavior, part 1: Exercise continued!

MORE?!! You didn’t think that was it? Only a few comments on evidence as to WHY moving around, burning calories, being strong and learning to relax while pregnant is beneficial? No, of course not. You know there is more to it, like WHAT movement is safe and effective during pregnancy?

So, what is safe? Well, first, unless you have a very few conditions that your health care provider considers unsafe, every woman – fit, currently sedentary, young or a little older – can exercise safely in pregnancy. How much of what kind depends on your fitness level and exercise history. Get medical screening first.

If you are fit, you can do vigorous exercise

If you are fit, you can do vigorous exercise

If you are fit, you just need to learn how to modify some movements to accommodate your biomechanics. As your body changes, stress on the joints and tissues means a little less jumping or ballistic motion will be more comfortable and safer. If you are fit, you can continue with vigorous exercise and it will be of benefit to you and your baby.

If you are not so fit or are sedentary, find a certified pre/postnatal instructor and join a group where you will have fun, get some guidance and be monitored for safety. How do you find such a person? Try our Find A Class or Trainer page.

What is effective? Don’t spend your time on things that may be nice to do but don’t help you focus and prepare for birth, relieve discomforts or have the stamina for birth and parenting. There is substantial scientific evidence and information from large surveys that these things are helpful.

Cardiovascular or aerobic activity is the most important activity you can do. Already fit? Keep working out; join a class if you want support or new friends. If you are sedentary or somewhat active, you can improve your fitness by doing at least 20 – 30 minutes of aerobic activity 3 times a week. Work at a moderate pace – somewhat hard to hard – so that you can talk, but not sing an aria! If you are more than 26 weeks and have not been doing cardio, you can walk at a comfortable pace. Aerobics is key because it gives you endurance to tolerate labor and promotes recovery.

Strength and flexibility exercises that do not hurt and are done correctly are also safe. There are some special pregnancy exercises that actually help you prepare for birth. Essential exercises that aid your comfort, alignment and birth preparation include:

Kegels (squeezing and relaxing pelvic floor muscles) – squeezing strengthens them and thus supports the contents of the abdomen, and learning to release these muscles is necessary for pushing and birth.

Abdominal hiss/compress and C-Curve® – contracting the transverse abdominal muscles reduces low back discomfort and strengthens the muscle used to push and later to recover abdominal integrity after birth.

Squatting

Squatting

Squatting – getting into this position strengthens the entire leg in a deeply flexed position; start seated and use arms for support, stability and safety. Leg strength improves mobility and comfort in pregnancy and postpartum; plus, deep flexion is a component of pushing in almost all positions.

Strengthening for biomechanical safety – strengthening some parts of the body helps prevent injury to bone surfaces, nerves and blood vessels within joints re-aligned in pregnancy. This can be done using resistance repetitions (weights, bands, calisthentics or pilates) or isometrics (yoga or ballet). A responsible class will focus on upper back (rowing), push-ups, abdominals, gluteals, hamstrings, and muscles of the lower leg.

Stretching of areas that tend to get tight – relieving some discomforts through flexibility helps you maintain a full range of motion. Static stretches, used in combination with strength exercises or following aerobics, is most effective. Stretching prior to exercise tends to produce more injuries than not stretching. Areas needing stretching include the chest, low back, hamstrings and hip flexors (psoas).

Mind/Body skills are very important. There are two activities that exercisers constantly tell us are a big help in pregnancy, birth and parenting.

• Centering employs a balanced or neutral posture, deep breathing and mindfulness to help you work in a relaxed way. Athletes and dancers call this “the zone.” Starting your workout in association with your body establishes economy of motion, something very useful in birth and parenting, and reduces risk of injury.

• Relaxation is another key activity; it relieves stress, promotes labor in the early stages and helps you enter the zone!

Remember: Birth is a Motor Skill™