When a baby’s head crowns during childbirth, the tissue around the vaginal opening can tear. Tears range from mere skin snicks that heal on their own after childbirth (these are called first-degree tears), to tears involving vaginal tissue and the perineal muscles, which will need a few stitches in the delivery room (second-degree tears).
You are unlikely to feel the tear during labour, since the skin is stretched taut, making it quite numb. Afterwards, however, pain will vary depending on the severity of the tear. As most tears are either first or second degree, in most cases moms report stinging rather than throbbing pain.
There is no guarantee that you won’t experience some degree of tearing during childbirth, but there are ways to minimise the risk:
1. Prepare your body
This sounds simple, but it is important to ensure that your body is prepared for the work of labour. Follow a healthy eating plan and, if your doctor gives you the go-ahead, include daily exercise in your routine during pregnancy. Exercise improves circulation, which in turn improves skin elasticity, while good nutrition and hydration support skin and muscle health.
2. Start squatting
Squats will help prepare your pelvic floor muscles for birth and strengthen your leg muscles during pregnancy. By performing a variety of squats you’ll have more endurance in your birthing positions. This will allow gravity to assist with making the pelvic opening wider, giving your baby a bit more room to push through.
3. Consider a water birth
Water births are considered much less painful, because the warm water acts as a natural pain reliever. It also helps to relax and calm the birthing mother during contractions. The jury’s still out, but some studies do suggest that lukewarm water may lower the chances of severe vaginal tearing and may also improve blood flow to the uterus, according to WebMD.
4. Choose the right birth position
The position you are in when pushing plays a big role in whether or not you are more likely to tear. Lying down or lying down with your legs held up, or semi-reclining positions, reduce the size of the pelvic floor and thus increase the likelihood that you will tear. The best position for birthing your baby is the one you feel most comfortable in. But some of the least stressful positions for the perineum include:
• On your hands and knees
• Leaning forward in a supported standing, kneeling or sitting position
• Lying on your side.
5. Perineal massage
Preparing the perineum during pregnancy has been shown to reduce the risk of tearing in moms having their first vaginal birth.