For most people, preparing for a GOOD birth is not an accident or a set of lucky circumstances. It is an intentional, empowered set of decisions that happen throughout pregnancy, which culminate in a birth experience that satisfies your goals and desires.
I have been lucky enough to experience three births myself (one of them a bit terrible, one of them OK, and one of them great!). Also, I’ve been able to serve as a support person for multiple women in their births, and I completed a doula training course and a birth worker course. I want to share what I believe are the components to prepare for a good birth.
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What is a “good” birth?
I think that answer is going to vary depending on who is giving it! But, there are some obvious answers: healthy baby, healthy mama, AND a non-traumatic experience. But beyond that, there are a LOT of different ways that people can answer that question.
My journey to defining what a GOOD birth is (for me) has been a long process. The process has included a lot of reflecting on my experiences, listening to HOURS of birth stories, reading books on birth, and identifying what my own hopes and goals are around my births. So for me, the components of a good birth include:
- An excellent support team
- A sense of control over myself and the circumstances
- Lots and lots of information
- Feeling respected, informed, and empowered throughout pregnancy, birth, and postpartum
- Physical health through pregnancy, during birth, and postpartum
- Emotional health through pregnancy, during birth, and postpartum
- Mental resilience to handle pregnancy, birth, and postpartum
What might a “bad” birth look like?
While for some, my list may seem like a long list. But it makes me sad when women settle for LESS than that robust of a list as their goals for experiencing a “good” birth.
Should women expect and settle for a mediocre or a unsupportive birth team? Or should they feel like they have to hand over autonomy and a sense of directing or controlling themselves during the birth experience? Should they need to be satisfied with minimal, cherry-picked information related to their pregnancy, baby’s development, and their choices in birth?
I could keep going, but I assume you get the idea!
Birth is a significant, transformative, and extremely personal experience. To me, it feels like a devastating tragedy if a woman has to experience any of the less-than-“good” scenarios listed above.
But, there are also circumstantially bad births – emergency situations, unexpected and serious complications, even frightening or tragic life-or-death type outcomes.
I am, in no way, seeking to minimize those agonizing experiences. They are terrible. But I would also present that going through a tragic or traumatic set of birth circumstances could, perhaps, feel less traumatic if the mother felt truly, well supported through the experience. If she felt like she had autonomy over her decisions. If she felt well informed, empowered to make the decision she believed was right, and fully respected for whatever those decisions were.
I can’t think of a scenario when that would be unhelpful.
Setting the Stage: What Happens BEFORE a Good Birth
In short, I believe almost everything about having a good birth happens BEFORE the first contraction hits. Birth is a significant physical undertaking, and I’m a big believer that we have to fuel and train our bodies well to get good results from them. It is also a significant mental undertaking, and it requires intentional mental preparation in several ways – for the birthing mother as well as in her support team. And birth is a hugely emotional experience, when a woman is usually extremely vulnerable and sensitive to the people and feelings around her. This requires intentional preparation and communication around what the birthing space and atmosphere is like. In short, if you prepare for a good birth, I think you’re far more likely to HAVE a good birth.
Developing a Team to Support Your Good Birth: Your Care Provider
Choosing your medical care provider may be the most important things to prepare to have a good birth. Mama Natural has an excellent list of questions to interview a midwife – they could, of course, be adapted to interview a GP or an OB-GYN too. A couple additional things you may want to consider are:
- Will they be able to support your birth at the location where you want to have the birth (ie: home, hospital, birth center, etc)?
- Where you given the chance to go through the interview questions and get answers? (Or did you feel rushed or like there wasn’t enough time for you?)
- Were you treated with respect throughout your interview? (Or did the medical care professional seem dismissive, patronizing, or annoyed by your questions)
- Did you feel safe, un-rushed, and prioritized during the interview? (Or were they checking the clock? Or letting you know you only had a few minutes left?)
- Did your spouse/partner/someone who went with you to the interview (if applicable) also feel respected and prioritized? (Or were they ignored, or not included in the conversation?)
Although you certainly want to establish the care of someone who is educated and experienced, you also definitely want to pay attention to how you are treated and how you feel during the initial (or subsequent follow up) meetings. I firmly believe that you must have a collaborative, respect-filled, and personalized working relationship with your care provider to prepare for a good birth. There’s a good chance that something, at some point in the process, will come up and not be exactly as you thought it would be or how you hoped or planned. You want to make sure you are working with a care provider that will be respectful, caring, and collaborative as you work through that process.
Preparing for a Good Birth by Developing an Emotional Support Team: Your Spouse
Besides your care provider (which, honestly, will most likely NOT be with you throughout the duration of your labor), you also will probably need some additional emotional support.
Your spouse or partner may be your first thought. They are important and should absolutely be there with you, as long as you want them there! Ideally, they should be informed, educated, and prepared for what labour is realistically going to be like with a robust “toolbox” of ideas for how to help you be comfortable and feel supported through your labor. It may be a good idea for you and your partner to go through a childbirth class together. There are many options – online and in person.
I also think it is a great idea for husbands to have done some intentional work to envision and communicate what THEY hope to experience during the birth, along with their own fears and concerns. The more you and your spouse, as a couple, can understand each other and prepare together, working toward your goals for your baby’s birth, I think the richer the experience of the birth journey and the more prepared you are for a good birth.
Preparing for a Good Birth by Developing an Emotional Support Team: A Third Person
I would strongly encourage you to think about adding a second emotional support person to your team, also. According to the Mayo Clinic website, first time labors may last from hours to days. If your labor is long, it may be helpful to ensure you are getting the best emotional support you can if your support team is able to spell each other and support each other as well. Supporting a woman in labor (even early labor) requires your emotional and physical attention and energy. And it’s exciting, which means adrenaline can kick in and then leave the support person dragging a little later if it becomes evident that this process is going to take awhile.
I highly recommend a doula, or another female that has experienced birth that you have a good relationship with and is supportive and respectful of your goals around birth. This person will help to hold the space for you to experience the process of birth, and they will hold the space and support your spouse through that process as well.
They can and should provide a bit of an emotional buffer – an emotional cushion for you throughout the birth journey. Your doula should be able to be a listening ear for you to verbally process your birth journey. They also should be physically able to offer touch and practical relief measures. And they should be able to verbally encourage you and your spouse, along with having a realistic sense of what birth is like. If they are able to help you critically think, asking clarifying questions along the way, that’s all the better. With such a person in your corner, I believe you will be optimally preparing for a good birth.
Birth Reality: What you can’t control…
An important thing to recognize is that birth DOES require surrendering quite a bit of control. You simply cannot plan everything about your birth.
For most women pursuing a “natural” childbirth, you can’t plan the day your body is going to go into labor (for most first time moms, it’s a bit after the due date, which can drive people mad!). You also can’t plan how your labor will go – slow and steady, fast and furious, or some combination. You can’t plan WHERE labor will start – in the grocery store? In your bed in the middle of the night? While you’re working? You can’t forsee if you will actually KNOW if your labor has started – is it just another Braxton Hick Contraction? Is this the real thing, or is this just more practicing? And you can’t plan potential complications, like your water breaking and contractions not starting for a long time. Or the taxing situation of experiencing prodromal labor, or stalled labor, or baby’s head being tilted slightly.
There’s a lot of things you simply cannot preplan and control. But there ARE things you CAN control (or at least have more chances of controlling), and that is where I encourage you to focus.
Establishing a Sense of Control Over Yourself and Circumstances
You can usually control your communication when you go into labor. This includes when you communicate with your care provider that labor has started, along with who to tell that you’ve gone into labor. Make sure you know what your care providers preferences are (but remember, it is still your choice!), and decide with your spouse whether you would prefer to to labor in obscurity or have some people aware of what is happening.
You can often control when you go to the birth location, if you are leaving your home. Communicate in advance with your medical provider when they recommend you arrive. Make sure you understand the pros and cons of arriving at the birth location too early or too late.
You can control what kind of comfort measures you and your support team are prepared to do. Even if you plan a hospital birth with an epidural, you may end up spending some hours at home with regular contractions. You can be prepared for that. Some things to consider:
- Spinning Babies recommendations for early labor
- Utilizing a shower or tub
- Keeping some tennis balls on hand for counter pressure
- Renting a TENS machine
- Expecting your support team to do some relaxing massage or coached breathing or visualization exercises
- Keeping a birth ball on hand for various positionings
- Stretches or positions to keep labor progressing and encourage baby into optimal positioning
- Being aware of how to rest smart to keep your pelvis open
There are so many things you can be prepared to do, and for the vast majority of women, you will have opportunity to do some of them. Having a sense of control over some of these things – in early labor as well as when labor’s intensity increases – helps you prepare to have a good birth.
Preparing for a Good Birth Requires Lots and Lots of Information
This goes along with the point above. I truly believe preparing for a good birth requires you to be informed. Ask questions! Read books and listen to podcasts. Some idea may include:
- pregnancy and the baby’s development
- the process of physiological birth
- birth support roles
- birth methods/strategies
- free birth
- coping with labor pain
- postpartum healing
- newborn development
- newborn sleep
It can be helpful to learn from a variety of different angles. A book about hospital birth may frame birth different than one about home birth, etc. The more information you are exposed to, the more well rounded your knowledge base. And along with that, the more you are able to connect with what really feels right and intuitive for you. And THAT is a powerful way to prepare for a good birth. Birth – and frankly, motherhood! – requires leaning into and working with your intuition.
In terms of working with your support team, it is also perfectly appropriate to ask questions. If you doctor suggests a routine procedure during pregnancy (blood work, glucose test, GB swab, etc), please do ask why! Ask what are the benefits and what are the risks (and it’s OK to ask for specific numbers – what percentage of women have gestational diabetes? What percentage of babies get sick from Mom’s positive Group B test? etc). Ask if there are alternatives. And ask what different things might happen if you decline to do the procedure.
And the same with your doula – if they are suggesting stretches or positions, ask why, ask what it is supposed to be doing.
The more you know and understand what your support team is trying to accomplish and why, the more empowered you will feel throughout your birthing process.
Feeling Respected, Informed, and Empowered Throughout the Pregnancy and Birth Process
This builds off of the point above – a good support team will answer your questions, make sure you understand the reasons why they are suggesting things, and ultimately, whole heartedly respect and support YOUR informed decision at every stage. It is important that you understand the potential consequences of different options. It is important that you understand why your doctor or midwife is recommending something. And it is also important that you feel completely free to say, “No, thanks,” to any of those recommendations – without risk of shaming, scolding, lowering the standard of care, being dismissed, being pressured to reconsider, or in any other way negatively impacting the medical care you receive.
If you are working with a medical professional who isn’t able to provide this kind of support, I would first suggest that you change medical professionals. ASAP. If that isn’t possible, then I encourage you all the more strongly to make sure the rest of your support team DOES support you. That they understand your reasons and can wholeheartedly respect you for the decision you are making. This does require you to be WELL informed, but it is worth it!
Nutrition and Activity: Expectations!
Prior to getting pregnant with our first baby, I would go for runs a few times a week or do HIIT workouts at home. I had maintained my weight within a few pounds for most of my 20s. And I was used to eating primarily a plant-based, whole-foods diet.
I planned to continue doing all those things into pregnancy, and I figured my body would just do it’s thing naturally – gaining what it needed to gain and doing what it needed to do to support the baby’s development while also maintaining my own good health.
I wasn’t wrong. But I also didn’t factor in exactly what pregnancy would BE like!
All-day nausea for the first 18 weeks, vomiting my dinner almost daily, and exhaustion like I have never experienced before. I didn’t feel like running. Or doing HIIT. I didn’t feel like eating ANYTHING, especially not salads and green smoothies. It was a rough mental adjustment. For awhile, I pushed through and continued to try to workout and run and eat fruits and veggies and lentil soup all day long. But eventually my determination was worn down and all I wanted to eat was soda crackers, and all I wanted to do was sleep on the couch. All the time!
Nutrition and Activity: Reality
Fortunately, for me, the 1st trimester doldrums didn’t last forever. But, I’d been relatively sedentary for about two months, and it was HARD to get active again. I drug myself through HIIT routines, tried to go for runs (and ended up walking most of the distance). The food was a little easier, but I also found I was SO hungry – and it felt like I wanted to eat bread and butter all day every day!
But despite my activity and trying to be very sensible with my eating, I did gain weight. About 25 pounds (11kg) in total, and I had NEVER seen the scale that high before. I was so concerned about my weight gain and if it would come off and how quickly. I feel like I carried a lot of unnecessary stress around my changing body because I just didn’t realize how I needed to mentally adjust my expectations of myself during pregnancy.
So, for the record, although there are extremes out there, if you are of a normal BMI, it is very normal and expected to gain some weight during pregnancy. I was actually right on target with 25 pounds for a single baby – 25-35 pounds is considered healthy, according to the Center For Disease Control.
And also for the record, it is normal to need to decrease your activity a bit if you are used to intense workouts. According to the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity each week is good during pregnancy (if you don’t have any concerning conditions). However, that means you should be able to carry on a conversation and break a light sweat. Not huff and puff and be drowning in sweat through a 30 minute HIIT workout!
My personal approach to Nutrition and Activity after 3 pregnancies:
I’m not a nutritionist or a medical doctor, so this is not medical advice.
I am trying to be sensible in my fourth pregnancy. Currently, I’m mostly just trying to keep food down and not be too miserable. I try to eat some nuts and dried apricots first thing in the morning. Sweet or starchy foods don’t settle well in the morning, so I’ve been doing a lot of eggs with veggies and cheese.
The rest of the day is really about what I can stomach from what I have available. Open face chicken sandwiches for lunch. Carrots or cucumber and hummus have worked for snacking. And I also snack on nuts or seeds, dried fruit, and chunks of cheese. For dinner, it is whatever we’re having as a family, but that’s been the most hit and miss for whether it stays down or not.
As I get past the first trimester and hopefully start feeling better, I’ll work to increase my protein intake to 80 grams per day. I will try to focus on whole grain carbohydrate sources like brown rice or whole grain sourdough bread to enhance my lunch and dinner, and fruit for sweet treats.
And right now, I’m trying to just move my body a little each day. Once I feel better, my goal is to get back into 30 minutes of walking 3 times per week, and 30 minutes of strength training with moderate (for me) weights 3 times per week. I also will begin to follow Spinning Babies recommendation for resting smart, maternal positioning, and daily activities for optimal positioning of the baby from about 30 weeks. Babies in optimal positions tend to be born more smoothly, which is definitely helpful to prepare for a good birth.
Emotional Health in Pregnancy to Prepare for a Good Birth
Part of preparing for a good birth, for me, includes tuning in to my emotions and being intentional about working through anything that comes up during pregnancy and labor, so an emotional block doesn’t cause a block in labor progressing.
With my first baby, I had a lot of fears going into the labor. Mostly I was afraid of “failing” somehow. I did, in fact, “fail” to have the birth I was envisioning with my first, and it went very differently than I had expected or desired. That was traumatic and caused some emotional scar tissue and baggage I needed to work through when I was going into my second pregnancy.
My second pregnancy was smoother on the emotional front, until the end because I was due about halfway through March 2020. Covid taking the world by storm caused a whole set of unexpected complications to my emotional perspective, and that birth was OK, but my birth was marked by feeling like I lost control over a lot of things I thought I’d be able to have control over. I believe those two birth experience contributed to some postpartum mood disorders I experienced after the birth of my second (or maybe that was just the Covid fall out!).
With my third pregnancy, I sought professional counseling at the beginning of my 3rd trimester to address some of the ongoing stresses and trigger points for my emotions getting tumultuous. I still had to have some real moments of raw, transparent honesty and surrender, even up to my birth. Additionally, I also read How We Love and began to develop my language for expressing my feelings. I believe that because I had done that work, by the time the contractions started with Lazlo’s birth, I was in a peaceful, surrendered state emotionally.
Mental Health and Resilience to Prepare for a Good Birth
I have heard that 90% of handling natural childbirth is mental – and I would agree with that. Obviously, not everyone is going to be planning an unmedicated birth, but I still think approaching birth takes some mental preparation.
One component of this is self-awareness. I think taking time throughout pregnancy to journal or go for walks and spend time identifying your hopes, your fears, even the narratives you have been told about birth helps that self-discovery and self-awareness process, which you can then communicate with your emotional support team.
Our brains are powerful – whatever we’ve internalized about labor is what your brain is going to be expecting going into labor. So it makes sense to be intentional about identifying your thoughts and then being intentional about what thoughts you plan to keep and what you want to replace in your mind.
Another component of mental health and resilience is your support community. It is so valuable to be able to share and communicate openly about your thoughts and feelings throughout the journey of pregnancy and approaching birth. Having people around you that can speak encouragement and truth when needed, support you spiritually through prayer, and generally feeling like you have a safe place to share the highs and lows will help you maintain a mental perspective to prepare for a good birth. (And with all the hormones in pregnancy, it can feel like you’re bouncing back and forth between highs and lows all the time!)
And third, developing some breathing habits, self-calming habits, and grounding practices will definitely help you manage birth. Since birth is unpredictable, being able to calm yourself even in the midst of unpredictable circumstances will be so valuable to prepare for a good birth.
Planning for Post Birth
Something I have become more passionate about as I’ve gone through this journey of pregnancy and birth a few times is preparing for postpartum. I put a lot of intentionality into this with my third birth, and I am so glad I did. Before my third birth, I created a post about what my plans were for postpartum. And then after I actually lived through the 3rd postpartum, I wrote a post reporting on how it all worked for me. As a component of maintaining some sense of control, I highly recommend developing a clear plan for how you will heal and recover from birth.
Have you given birth? What would you add to this list of ideas for how to have a good birth? If you are anticipating your first birth, what have you started doing so far to prepare for a good birth? Is there anything in addition to this list that you are finding helpful?
I’d love to hear in the comments below! Hit me up with all your ideas because… I’ve still got another birth to go through!