Creating the perfect birth environment
We know from research that your labour and birth environment can impact your birth and influence your feelings about how it went. Whether you're labouring in a hospital, birth centre or at home, there are a few things you can do to create a safe, calming space that will encourage your love hormone, Oxytocin, to flow, which is the hormone responsible for contractions.
Mamas who have risk factors or are planning a c-section should contact their Doctor or Midwife as soon as they think they're in labour, and they may be invited into hospital straight away. But for mamas who are low risk, generally, the best place for them to labour during the early stages is at home. That's because we naturally feel most comfortable in our own homes and are generally surrounded and supported by the people we love the most. There is also a huge amount of privacy when labouring at home, minimal interventions occur during early labour, and a mama can get into any comfortable position; all benefits of staying at home during early labour. In fact, as a midwife, we often find that mamas labour so well at home, but once they arrive at the hospital, their labour tends to slow.
There are many potential reasons for this, such as :
- Their natural progression of labour has been disturbed.
- The hospital environment feels very medicalised.
- They are feeling anxious or scared in an unfamiliar birthing environment.
- The relationship between a mama and her Midwife or Doctor isn't based on trust, mutual respect, or a partnership; all things crucial to a positive and empowering birthing relationship between mamas and their care providers.
From experience, many mamas labour most effectively when their birthing environment feels warm, dark, quiet, safe and private. While I know it's not always practical for these to be achieved during labour and birth [such as during a c-section], do what you can to make your environment feel safe for you to bring your bub earthside. But regardless of if you're trying to de-medicalise the feel of the hospital room or operating theatre, or create a calm and safe birthing environment in the birth centre or at home, we've come up with some things you can try.
Playing music during labour can be a welcome distraction. While it won't take away your pain, it can help take your mind off the pain by giving you something else to think about or focus on. For some mamas, music has the power to soothe them, keep them calm, help them relax, give them a rhythm to match their breathing to, give them energy, boost their motivation and provide a source of comfort and distraction.
Music is really effective when used on its own or in addition to other pain management strategies such as self-hypnosis and breathing, water immersion, heat packs, dimming the lights, massage and visualisation.
The Tiny Hearts Midwife has actually created two birthing playlists [one for labour + one for pushing], with some additional song suggestions from the Tiny Hearts community. It's also been tried and tested by The Tiny Hearts office team to make sure it's up to standard. Check it out, and let us know what you think! If you're not a music person, you could always download podcasts, verbal affirmations, prayers, quotes or positive words and play them instead. Music can also be played during a c-section, but have a chat with your doctor to try and organise it beforehand.
Our Labour Playlist
Our Birth + Pushing Playlist
Dimming the lights
Have you heard the tale that more mamas birth at night? Some sources argue that it's related to a dark environment because Melatonin [the hormone released when it's dark and time to sleep] is said to interact with Oxytocin and help bring on contractions. Interestingly, some sources also say that part of the reason a mama's labour may stop or slow down upon arriving at the hospital is that hospitals are typically full of bright lights, which impacts upon Melatonin release. More than that, dimming lights can give a mama a sense of privacy, which is one of those five vital components for a positive birth environment.
Candles or fairy lights
Labouring in a pitch-black room might sound appealing to some mamas, but in most reality, it may not be possible or safe, such as when a mama is getting in and out of the bath. Having fairy lights or candles can create a happy medium in that the overall room feels dark whilst having a source of light. This mood lighting can also help create a relaxing and welcoming vibe in the room. Hint: if you choose to take candles, make sure you take fake ones as real candles aren't allowed in most birthing suites and birth centres due to being a fire risk.
Hanging things on the walls is an option for many mamas. It could be things like:
- Ultrasounds photos of bub [to remind you of why you're doing this, and who you're about to meet]
- Photos of and drawings from older siblings [to give you a boost of Oxytocin by looking at your babies]
- Birth affirmations or quotes [to distract yourself by reading them, keep a positive mindset and remind yourself that you can do this]
- Pictures of labouring mamas [some mamas find it comforting to be reminded that they are not alone on this journey; all over the world, others are labouring with them to bring their bubs into the world]
- Images of landscapes or visual representations of the cervix opening [to assist with things such as visualisation techniques]
Hint: the hospital or birth centre is an unlikely place for blue-tac to live, so bring your own to hang these items on the wall!
Alternatively, you could bring other visual cues and place them around your room to help refocus yourself during labour and make the room feel more familiar and homely, such as:
- Bub's soon-to-be comforter
- An outfit for bub
- Pictures of you during pregnancy
- Your own comfort items [e.g. I looked after a lady once who had an angel statue that was said to 'keep her safe'. She brought it with her and placed it on the rim of the labour pool because it gave her comfort that she was being watched over and was safe].
- Flowers. I've also cared for several mamas who bring flowers into their birth suite that signify 'new life'.
- Your own pillows, blankets and cuddly items [familiarity is key to feeling safe and secure. Plus, there's nothing like your own pillow].
- Any other item that will help you feel safe, remain calm and bring your bub into the world.
Aromatherapy is when essential oils are diffused throughout the room using a diffuser. Some of the most common scents that are diffused during labour are clary sage, frankincense, lavender, mandarin and peppermint. There are various other scents available, but do your research and double-check with your doctor or midwife first because some scents are not recommended to be used during certain points of pregnancy.
Aromatherapy is similar to music in that it won't take away the pain from contractions, but it may help a mama to relax and keep calm and contribute to a positive and inviting, supportive birth environment. However, the evidence for using scents and aromatherapy is divided, with some suggesting certain scents are safe and others suggesting the research is too limited. One study also suggests that aromatherapy makes no difference on a mama's perception of pain during labour, while some Doctors and Midwives swear by it. If you choose to use aromatherapy, do your own research and make the best decision for you.
Important reminder: essential oils aren't recommended for use in birth pools when birthing in the water due to the small risk of bub breathing in water during a water birth.
Remove or Hide Medical Equipment
Like I said above, many mamas' labour slows down on arrival to the hospital. One strategy to attempt to combat that happening is this. Medical equipment has its place in hospitals and birth centres; there's no doubt about that. However, if it's not currently [or about to be] in use, and is not necessary to be in the room or birthing space at that time, it's ok to ask for it to be removed or hidden. Hopefully, this will help the birthing environment feel less cluttered, less medical and more like a home environment, particularly if you place some comfort items of your own around.
Avoiding Unnecessary Observers
This one comes down to your birth plan. If you're keen on having students and observers in the room for your labour and birth, great! But if you're not, make it well known from the start. Some mamas prefer having extra support people, while some mamas feel 'watched' when more people than necessary come into the room without a role or specific job. Having strangers in the room watching a mama labour can also slow down labour if a mama feels threatened, lacking privacy or unsafe.
While having multiple people in the room may not always be avoidable, such as in the case of an emergency, if things are going well, it can be an option. Additionally, at the start of labour or as a part of your birth plan, let your Midwife know who you would like in the room. That way, if friends or family turn up unexpectedly, they know who to let in and who to direct to the waiting room.
If you're feeling fearful, it can actually slow down or stop your labour completely, which is why it's so important that you create a space where you feel at ease and have trust in your co-pilot, Doctor and Midwife. Try these things to set up your birth environment, and let me know what else you did on the initial post to create a safe space for you to bring your bub into the world. Good luck, mama! Don't forget to let us know how you went!