Ask moms-to-be their biggest worry and invariably they say labor and delivery. For anyone who has never experienced childbirth, labor is a big unknown. American health care providers often focus on pain management, forgetting to tell women that labor can be empowering, even addictive (why do you think so many mamas go on to have more kids?). So we looked abroad and asked moms and health care practitioners from across the globe to share their best pain management tips with us … naturally.
It took love to get the baby in there in the first place and some birth professionals in Sweden—one of the safest places in the world to have a baby—suggest using love to get the baby out. Saija Stenman, a certified doula and yoga instructor in Stockholm, encourages kissing during contractions. Saija says it distracts a woman from the pain of contractions and helps her relax. Eva-Maria Wassberg, a Swedish midwife, points out that the name in Swedish for the cervix is modermun, which means “mother mouth.” Relax your mouth and your cervix will also relax. “Kissing, touching, caressing, even holding have been found to increase love hormones,” Eva-Maria says. Plus, it’s hilarious and absurd to kiss during contractions and laughter during labor is a balm for the soul.
When a low-risk woman in a Norwegian hospital feels like she’s having trouble overcoming labor pains, the hospital midwives suggest acupuncture, a technique used during childbirth throughout Scandinavia, Japan, and New Zealand. Originating in China thousands of years ago, acupuncture involves the insertion of very thin needles at specific points on the body. One Swedish study of over 600 women found that women who received acupuncture had babies with significantly higher APGAR scores than women given drugs.
Women in Japan give birth in freestanding birth centers, small private clinics and in hospital maternity wards. But even Japanese women who give birth in more clinical settings eschew epidurals and other painkillers because these interventions are thought to complicate delivery and doctors actively discourage them. They are encouraged to eat and drink as much as they want and use movement, breathing, massage, acupuncture and even aromatherapy. When the pain feels unbearable and a woman is in transition, midwives pop a piece of chewy candy in the mom’s mouth. The sweetness and unexpectedness of this treat distracts the laboring woman and gives her some extra energy she’ll need for pushing. "It really helped give me energy at the end!" remembers an American mom who gave birth at a Japanese hospital and has had a particular fondness for peach chews ever since.
Shimmying, undulating, rolling your hips … most of us don’t associate Middle Eastern dancing with pregnancy and childbirth but some birth professionals in Britain say belly dancing is a fabulous way for pregnant women to strengthen the muscles of the abdomen and pelvis, build confidence and alleviate pain during childbirth. Fiona Willis, a mum who lives in Somerset, started shimmying during her labor. “I was rewarded almost instantly with strong, effective, and regular contractions,” says Fiona, whose two home births were attended by midwives from Britain’s National Health Services, and who now teaches belly dancing to other pregnant women.
Holland’s maternal and fetal outcomes are much better than America’s, and nearly a third of births take place at home! Though fear of labor can hinder dilation, Dutch birth professionals believe pain is a natural part of the process, encouraging a laboring woman to shift positions, which can help the baby. Using hydrotherapy during labor—a fancy way to explain laboring in a freestanding rented birth tub, bathtub, or shower—is one way that Dutch midwives help women cope with contractions. “Warm water induces a state of relaxation and stimulates the production of endorphins (nature's own pain killers) …” explains a birth pool rental service in Amsterdam. “The laboring mother can adopt comfortable positions easily because of the buoyancy of the water.”
The nurse midwives at Landspitali, the largest hospital in Iceland, use a cloth called a rebozo when a laboring woman needs some extra help. They wrap the cloth around a woman’s hips and buttocks and wiggle it back and forth during contractions. The movement often relaxes the mother and helps reposition the baby in the birth canal. Rebozos have been used in childbirth in Mexico for centuries. “It helps support the mother while connecting her to the person holding it,” says American childbirth educator Gena Kirby, who teaches rebozos workshops around the world. “It can provide comfort and strength in labor. It’s an ancient technology and extension of our love for the laboring woman.”
In 1911, psychologist William James wrote “…action and feeling go together, and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not.” In other words, if you act the way you want to feel you can actually make yourself feel better. This is particularly true during childbirth, say Canadian birth professionals. Women who practice meditation and other relaxation techniques and who expect to have an empowered, pain-free labor report having labors that are more enjoyable and less painful. Caralyn Tate, a schoolteacher in Manitoba, started practicing meditation for an hour a day when she was 25-weeks pregnant. Though Caralyn admits meditating during labor and visualizing a positive birth didn’t actually make the pain less intense, she says they kept her from panicking and gave her a way to accept the pain. HypoBirthing, a practice of guided self-hypnosis that has been used by celebrities Kate Middleton and Kim Kardashian, is also becoming popular in Canada.
American midwives (and doulas) also have some tricks of their own: Tennis balls to provide counter pressure in the small of the back during back labor, spending time during prenatal visits to establish an intimate connection so that during labor a woman feels supported by someone who knows her well, applying warm compresses during contractions. Have these techniques been “scientifically” proven to work? Perhaps not in double-blind studies, but judging by the testimony of women who have had natural childbirths, they make all the difference in the world.