Involving Your Senses in Childbirth

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In the last blog post I talked about epidurals.  What are other options if you don’t want to get an epidural?  One of the potential options is to use natural (non-medicated) forms of pain medication, for example getting all of your senses involved.  Many of the suggestions involving your senses have to do with dulling or focusing your senses on certain things.  It’s important to note that sometimes removing one sense makes the other senses heightened so you might have to incorporate several of these rather than relying solely on one.

1.  Sight

One of the most intense experiences of pain that I've experienced thus far is a migraine headache.  When I get a migraine I often have to be in a very dark space where I block a lot of sounds out.  This is very similar to what a lot of individuals like in the birthing process.  Many people in labor are extremely sensitive to bright lights and will do a lot to avoid them. Some people bring a string of holiday lights with them to give a more home-like atmosphere to the room while having the advantage of rather dim lights.  Some prefer to block all lights out with a heavy / thick sleep mask over their eyes.  Sometimes the heaviness is soothing for these individuals.  Some prefer not to block light out but instead have an image that they can focus on: a nice photo that reminds them of something they love, flowers, or a collage made by friends prenatally, for example.

2.  Sound

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Again for some it’s really important to block all sounds out.  For these individuals its much more preferable to bring earplugs or headphones into the birthing room.  Music can also be used as a focal point that helps people drown out other noises.  You can create a specific playlist for your birth (or postpartum) or there are many different birth audios that people love such as Rachel Yellin’s Audio Program or Hypnobirthing.  Many of these tracks are very comforting and can also help you fall asleep prenatally.  

There’s a strong connection between the jaw and the pelvis so the more open the jaw the better.  One thing people can focus on is breathing in certain ways that may make different sounds (buzzing like a bee, moaning, groaning, singing, etc). A lot of these sounds help you open your jaw (and your pelvis).  As a test, try tightening your jaw and loosening your vagina, then try it with a loose jaw.  Which is easier?

The last thing that often makes a big difference for certain people in terms of sounds is language.  Often we don’t need to communicate with verbal language.  In general we humans tend to express a lot of things nonverbally.  We especially express things nonverbally when something intense is going on, for example if we’re having sex we don’t often talk too much (though there are those that prefer to).  Similarly while in labor it’s generally preferable not to talk too much to the birthing individual, you don’t want to break their train of thought or focus.  When you do communicate with them it’s important to use the language that they appreciate. If you speak Spanish and no one in the room speaks it this can be a barrier to advocating for your birth.  It can also make labor very difficult for you.  For trans pregnant men, for example, being misgendered in a vulnerable time can make them close up and not have the support to deal with pain of labor.  And finally, some individuals simply prefer some terminology to others.  Preferring terms like “surge” or “wave” to “contraction.”  Or preferring not to mention pain medication at all.

3.  Taste

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Giving birth is often compared to running a marathon.  It’s a lot of work!  In order to do a lot of work your body needs the most energy it can possibly get.  Imagine trying to run a marathon without water, electrolytes and that big carbohydrate meal beforehand.  It’s really hard to do and you’re more likely to give up.  Throughout labor if you can the more healthy foods you can eat the better.  At a certain point you may no longer be able to stand solids though so having some sort of good electrolyte drink (or juice, honey, popsicles, ice cream) is usually ideal.  Yes, you may throw up at some point during labor.  You should still eat.  You’re not throwing everything up and the probability that you will throw up regardless of what you eat is relatively high so this shouldn’t factor in to what you eat or drink (unless it’s something you can’t stand the taste of and then that’s different).

4.  Touch

The best way to know what kind of touch you like is two-fold.  One think about the most wonderful sex you’ve ever had.  What did your partner do to make it so good?  What positions were you in?  You can often simulate these positions in labor, even if you aren’t having sex, just the connection with your partner often makes you think about them, which takes away from some of the pain.  Do you like your back stroked?  Or hair?  Do you like your hair pulled?  Do you like foot massages?  Soft gentle touch?  What gets you in the mood?  Whatever it is that’s more than likely what your partner should be doing to get you to focus on them, which will in the end help you open up in the ways you need to to give birth.  Sometimes a little bit of pain is what helps you focus on something else.  An easy ways to do this are to activate your acupressure points.  Hold a comb in your hand and grip that for a little, have someone push on your “third eye” or pinch the space between your thumb and forefinger.  All of these are possibilities during labor.  I just went to an amazing partner prenatal yoga class this weekend that talked all about how to get these things involved in birth.  Check out Britt Fohrman’s partner prenatal yoga class.  There might be similar ones in your area.

Another way to think about it is what normally works when you’re in pain?  If you’ve ever twisted your foot or done something else to hurt yourself what do you like to do?  Normally people suggest putting ice / heat on the affected area because that makes it feel better.  Ice or hot packs, ice chips, socks filled with rice that you can heat up like a heating pack, warm socks on your feet, wearing layers, these are all different ways to bring hot and cold to that area.  I know I’ve definitely used these to help when I have fairly intense period cramps.  What do you do in this situation?

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Another thing that makes it feel much better, and often takes the pressure off of you is getting into water.  Waterbirth doesn’t have to be a super crunchy thing that’s only for those giving birth at home, the effects of water are helpful no matter where you end up giving birth.  Sometimes if the pain is extremely intense you need electric shock to help you focus on something else.  My father has an extremely poor back and uses a TENS unit transcutaneous electric nerve stimulation) to send electric currents to his back so that it will help his brain focus less on the pain.  These same TENS units can be purchased or rented from a variety of local pregnancy centers.

5.  Smell

The last of the five senses that you can activate in birth is your sense of smell.  Again we want something to focus on that’s a bit different.  If you have a favorite smell, and if you have a diffuser to put this around your house.  Feel free to bring these things to the birth room.  My personal go-to for scents is usually lavender (unless I’m trying to get rid of a bad smell and then I have peppermint).  If you’re interested in getting more information about essential oils I would look into one of the amazing resources we have in the Bay area: Scarlet Sage or some individuals specialize in these oils.

At the end of the day everyone is different so everyone will gravitate towards what works for them.  Which of these has worked best for you when dealing with pain (and pleasure) in the past?  Whatever makes you the most comfortable is the thing you should try.