Editor’s note from Motherly and our Birth Editor, Diana Spalding CNM: We understand that there are medical conditions that arise during labor and birth that are unavoidable. This piece doesn't seek to diminish those challenges, but to empower women to understand the mind-body connection present in birth, even in the event of medical complications. All birth is beautiful and all mothers are warriors.
It might take you a long time to have your baby. Way, way longer than you think it should take.
It’s a once (maybe more) in a lifetime opportunity where you get to bring a brand, new human into being. Through your body. When I put it into those terms, does it start to make sense how it might take a little while?
We live in an age where our television is on-demand and our home goods can be delivered to us in two days, less if we splurge for overnight shipping. Information—all of it—is available at the touch of a button. We’ve become accustomed to life happening at the speed of now and we just don’t have much collective patience for the things that really count anymore.
Therein lies the problem. Not that birth might take a long time, but that we freak out when it does.
When we’re in freakout mode over something we cannot control (like birth, for instance) we take a process that’s physical in nature and exquisitely designed to work just about every single time, and move it out of our body and into our brain.
Don’t get me wrong—I love the brain! I love how it acts like it knows everything. I love how it interacts and reacts to outside stimuli. I love how it tries to tell our bodies a story that may or may not even be true. I love to watch how our bodies respond to that story. I really do love the complex interconnectedness of the brain and the body. But the brain needs to stay out of the whole process.
The uterus is made of smooth muscle tissue, the same kind of muscle tissue that is present in other pre-programmed organs like the esophagus and the stomach. These are two organs that don’t ever need to be told what to do.
When you eat a sandwich, you don’t have to tell your esophagus to begin to contract and break down the bites of food into smaller bits and then move them down into your stomach. Once there, you’re not required to tell your stomach to release acid and begin to further break down food into the nutrients that are kept for your body and the waste products that are to be expelled.
Your body just does it—because it already knows how.
The same is true for your uterus. It’s designed to hold your growing baby, up to a point. Then it’s designed to begin to contract and bring your baby down the birth canal and into this world. Without a whole lot of input from your brain, I might add.
When a mama is —meaning her brain has been lulled into a state where it's either pleasantly neutral or otherwise distracted and decidedly not in freakout mode—she creates the perfect environment for two called oxytocin and endorphins to work their magic during birth. Together, they are unstoppable.
Oxytocin fuels the contractions and keeps the contractions going, while the body’s natural pain-killers, endorphins, increase over time to help the birthing woman meet the challenges of her labor. They’re like two gorgeous dance partners, stepping in perfect unison with each other, anticipating each other’s next move.
When our birth doesn’t go according to plan (labor is too early or too late, too long or too short, too complicated, too painful)—basically, not what our brain expected it to be—our brain starts to tell our body a story. And it’s usually not a good one:
“Attention body! Listen up! This is not a drill! This is an emergency! Somebody needs to make it stop! And stop now! I’m scared! I’m not in complete control! And I don’t know what’s happening to me!”
Such a negative story. And, unfortunately, the body listens to every single word.
The body starts to buy into this story. It starts to believe what the brain is saying. And the body starts to react.
When our brain stages a birth coup, our body pays the price because everything we wish was moving faster can’t help but begin to slow down. When the brain is in freakout mode, there’s another hormone, called adrenaline, that starts to mess up the love fest going on between those two other hormones, oxytocin and endorphins.
When the body reacts to the negative story our brain is telling, Adrenaline gets released into our bloodstream. Adrenaline is like the obnoxious guy who jumps in between the close dancing partners, oxytocin and endorphins, and shouts: “Hey, can I dance with you guys, too? I’m really, really good!”
Oxytocin and endorphins want nothing to do with this guy, adrenaline. They run away in opposite directions, leaving the confused body to wonder, “What just happened?” That awesome blood flow and oxygen that had been pumping into the uterus to help it do its thing, seems to shut down almost completely—to the point of the uterus not functioning very well.
And then, what story does the brain try to tell the body?
“See what I told you? You can’t do this thing… Nobody can. It’s too hard, it’s too long, it’s too dangerous, it’s too whatever.” The body doesn’t want to believe, but…
It is possible to work with your brain to help it calm down.
Anytime you feel anxious, worried or frightened, check in with your body and try to gauge whether or not the situation sincerely calls for an adrenaline dump. Here’s a hint to figuring this out: If you’re not actively being chased down by a deadly predator, then the answer is most likely, “Not really in need of much adrenaline at this time. But thanks for the offer, brain. Catcha later.”
Then see if you can calm yourself through breathing. Close your eyes if you have to, and take in nice, deep belly breaths through your nose to a slow count of four “In - 2,3,4” and then exhale through your mouth, “Out - 2,3,4” and do this for a couple of minutes just to see what happens.
The body sometimes forgets its ability to reverse the effects of a brain takeover. Once the brain settles down and realizes that it's not actually in any real danger, the body can continue to go about its business without interruption.
Our brain is like a toddler in full tantrum when it’s in freakout mode. Logic very rarely works to calm a screaming toddler. In fact, sometimes it only makes the screaming louder! The same is true with your brain. But holding a calm, quiet space while breathing can really help. It settles the brain and cuts off that flood of adrenaline to just a slight trickle.
There’s good reason for adrenaline to be hanging around. When it spikes right before the actual birth of the baby, it’s ends up being really beneficial. It helps to heighten awareness and can assist in initial bonding between mamas and babies. adrenaline isn’t bad. In birth, it’s all about striking the right balance between these three hormones: oxytocin, endorphins and adrenaline.
It’s not necessarily an easy thing to do, but it sure is simple: Calm your brain and watch what your body can do.