From start (when to conceive) to finish (how to deliver), pregnancy is full of personal choices. When it comes to welcoming your baby, if you don't envision giving birth in a hospital or you hope to have little to no drugs involved, a natural birth might be right for you. But what exactly does it mean, and are you a good candidate? Learn about the benefits and the risks of natural birth so you can make an informed decision about your labor and delivery plan.
What Is Natural Birth?
Natural childbirth is vaginal labor and delivery with limited to no medical intervention; it can involve a variety of choices, from the doctor you choose to the pain relief you use. Here are the most common options usually involved in a natural birth:
Because you’ll be using your own body and instincts instead of defaulting to medical intervention, natural birth methods may make you feel more empowered throughout the process of delivery. Here are a few other benefits to consider:
Baby will bond with your birthing partner. You’ll likely need the constant support of a partner, family member or close friend, which may strengthen the bond between that person and your baby.
You might have better success breastfeeding. Studies have shown that immediate skin-to-skin contact helps with early mom-baby bonding that can make breastfeeding easier as well as improve your baby's sleep, weight gain and brain development while reducing crying. If you're in the hospital, those benefits can even result in an earlier discharge.
You'll be able to move. Many women find comfort in the ability to move during labor as a way to cope with pain. Whether it's walking the halls, taking a hot shower or swaying on an exercise ball, you'll have the freedom to move about pretty much as you please with a natural birth — whereas with an epidural you're usually confined to bed.
Pushing may be more effective. Studies have shown that although epidurals offer effective and often necessary pain relief, on average they increase the duration of labor by an hour in first-time moms and 16 minutes among moms who have already given birth. Because you won't receive a pain-relieving drug, you won’t lose any sensation and will be able to move more easily.
You may be able to walk sooner. You’ll be able to get out of bed and walk around sooner post-birth, since you won’t be numb from the epidural or groggy from medication. In turn, walking will help speed recovery and can help avoid constipation (a common post-birth ailment).
You'll feel proud of your body. No matter how you deliver — unmedicated, with an epidural or via C-section — you should feel in awe of what you've accomplished. That said, many moms who go for a natural birth enjoy knowing exactly what their bodies are capable of without medication.
As with any health-related decision, natural birth carries some risks that should be part of your final decision. Here are a few worth considering:
You’ll feel everything. Some women find the pain is much more intense than they anticipated. However, know that you can always let your pracitioner know you're planning for a natural birth and ask for an epidural at any time during the process if the pain gets to be too much.
You may need general anesthesia. If an epidural isn't in place and your baby's heart rate drops, the cord prolapses or another unexpected emergency occurs, you may be put under general anesthesia (or receive medication to make you unconscious) for your safety, since C-section is likely necessary.
You may be at increased risk of complications. If you're planning for a home birth, know that there's a two- to three-times greater risk of neonatal death when compared with a hospital birth, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) — though the risk is still very low (0.9 versus 2 per 1,000 births). This is likely because if complications do arise and a mom doesn't live within close driving distance of a hospital, her baby may not get the life-saving treatments he needs quickly enough. However, many hospitals and especially birthing centers are open to natural-birth methods, and they offer access to essential medical interventions in the case that you do need them.
Is Natural Childbirth For You?
It’s essential to talk to your practitioner about your options and whether a natural birth is safe for you. You're likely a good candidate if you:
How To Prepare
The best way to prepare for a natural birth? Get as informed as possible. Here are a few steps you can take before you go into labor to increase your odds of going all-natural:
Talk to your practitioner. Make sure your care team is on board with your choice. If your OB-GYN is hesitant and doesn't offer a reason like those above that she thinks natural birth isn't safe for you, think about switching OB-GYNS or using a midwife instead.
Consider hiring a doula. While your OB-GYN’s job is to get your baby delivered in a healthy, safe manner, a doula is the cheerleader-in-chief for you, Mom — and you might want the extra support when the pushing gets more intense. During pregnancy your doula will talk to you about a birth plan, and when you're in labor she'll work hard with you to execute it.
Get educated. You wouldn’t take an exam without studying, so you shouldn’t try natural birth without reading up on it and talking to friends and family members who have gone through it. Take classes, too, to practice techniques that can be useful in the delivery room.
Learn about natural pain management techniques. Then practice, practice, practice. In the weeks leading up to your delivery, try a variety of drug-free pain management techniques with your birthing partner (e.g., massage therapy, reflexology, relaxation and breathing exercises and aromatherapy). By rehearsing the same techniques over and over, it becomes second nature when you need it most — plus it's a good way to see what has the best effect on you before the big day.
Tips For Your Natural Birth
Once you do hit the delivery room, a few steps can help increase the odds that you make it naturally all the way to the last push:
Take it one minute at a time. A wave of contractions lasts about one minute, and then you get relief. If you take things minute by minute — and try to keep your mind off of the journey ahead — you're more likely to make it through without pain medications.
Visualize a successful birth. Many Olympic winners rehearse the race in their heads before they compete. Do the same: Picture your baby coming out of your body easily. Visualize a successful outcome, have faith in it, and keep going back to that picture during the labor process. Believe in the power of positive intention, and know that you are strong and your body will get you through.
Limit the number of people in the delivery room. While it might seem encouraging to have all of your closest friends and family by your side, too many people can ultimately be more of a distraction than assistance. Research has shown that having more people in the birthing room actually slows down labor, which could make it harder to stay medication-free. There's a reason why dogs and cats instinctually hide somewhere to be alone when delivering their young — to focus on the task at hand.
Remember, if you want a “natural birth” you don’t have to go allnatural to get the benefits. And know that there's nothing wrong with asking for pain relief if you need it — don't get down on yourself if you do. Every labor is different, and everyone experiences pain differently. No matter how you deliver, very soon you will be holding your bundle of joy, so keep your mind set on the prize!
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