Learning to relax is not just a skill for labor, but for life. This tool will benefit both you and your partner, who also learns the techniques. Many tribal cultures believe that pregnant women should be protected in a calm environment to ensure the health of the baby and a good delivery. Modern medicine is just beginning to understand the effects of stress on the body, especially during pregnancy and birth. Studies have shown that women who have more stress producing factors in their lives during pregnancy develop a greater number of complications during pregnancy, labor, and birth.
Stress and anxiety cause the release of hormones and chemicals that produce the fight-or-flight reaction. These substances cause the body to be able to react quickly to a life-threatening event. Long-term stress keeps the body at constant readiness, but it can also lead to illness.
During pregnancy, stress can cause insomnia, fatigue, headache, nausea and vomiting, high blood pressure, and preterm labor. Long-term stress in pregnancy may result in a low-birth-weight baby, as the hormones constrict the woman’s blood vessels and reduce the amount of nutrients and oxygen that reach the fetus. In addition, the hormones cross the placenta and enter the baby’s circulation. This may predispose the infant to increased irritability, restlessness, crying, and digestive upsets.
During labor, the stress hormones can cause fatigue, a longer and more painful labor, and an increased need for interventions. The hormones can also reduce the blood flow to the uterus and placenta, and can cause the baby to have distress. Stress increases the risk of cesarean section, for either failure to progress or fetal distress.
- Attend childbirth classes with your partner.
- Learn relaxation as a stool for your own benefit.
- Practice relaxation with your partner.
- Learn and practice breathing and pushing techniques with your partner.
- Help your partner practice breathing and pushing in the different labor positions.
- Provide your partner with sufficient pillows for support and comfort.
- Offer your partner a massage.
After the birth, stress can interfere with the woman’s milk production and her ability to cope as a new parent. The body is less able to fight infection, as the stress hormones lower the white blood cells’ ability to recognize germs and to produce antibodies against them. Prolonged stress leads to high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke.
Learning how to relax your body is the single most important skill to develop as you prepare yourself for labor. Labor is hard work. The uterine muscle will contract intermittently over a period of hours to open the cervix and move the baby down the birth canal. This takes a great deal of energy. One source estimated that the same amount of energy is expended during labor as during a nonstop 12- to 18-mile hike. By relaxing all your muscles except the one that needs to contract—the uterus—you will keep more energy and oxygen available. You are less likely to become fatigued and may require less medical intervention.
When you hear the word relaxed, certain images come to mind—a rag doll, spaghetti, a drooping flower, a floppy hat. These are all images of extreme passiveness. A sleeping child is the picture of passive relaxation. What you will learn in the following pages is more active, conscious form of relaxation, in which the mind is alert while the body is relaxed. Active relaxation involved the awareness and intentional release of tension. For example, slowly contract the muscles of your right arm. Now let the arm flop. That is passive relaxation. Again slowly contract the muscles of your right arm. Now slowly, with contractions, relax the different parts of your right arm. Feel the biceps, lower arm, hand, and fingers gradually relax. That is active relaxation. As you prepare for lavor, you will learn to relax your body consciously. This process is technically called neuromuscular control (mind control of the muscles). You will learn a number of exercises designed to help you become skilled at relaxation.