One of the most important things that friends and family of women giving birth must remember is that we are just mammals, says doula Theoni Papoutsis of consciousbirth.co.za. That means there’s really no difference between a mother in labour and a rabbit trying to give birth in a burrow. “Imagine if that rabbit suddenly saw a fox: adrenalin would kick in, shutting down endorphins and making sure that the labour doesn’t progress. The same happens to us if we encounter anything stressful.”
According to Theoni, the ideal environment is your own home, or a birthing centre, since you are more likely to feel relaxed in these environments. But, if this isn’t possible, your hospital room should at least be calm, quiet and dark. “Not only does light stimulate adrenalin production, but the uterus contains melatonin receptors that work best in the dark,” Theoni explains.
Theoni compares your child’s birth day to your wedding day – you know exactly what you’re going to wear, eat, and do on the day you get married, and you should be just as prepared for the day you go into labour.
This means planning not only for what you’re going to eat, how you’ll breathe and the positions you’ll try, but even how you would like your partner to interact with you. If you want him to hold you throughout, tell him so now; if you’d prefer to have your space, let him know ahead of time. “If you leave anything to chance, you’re giving away your power,” Theoni says.
“Figure out what will help you best, and let your entire team – including your gynae and doula – know ahead of time.” This is the best way to bypass the small faux pas that can become a big deal when you’re in labour: the dad who, with the best intentions, gets in the way, or the mom who is trying to help but ends up making you feel more stressed. It’s about establishing your boundaries early on so you don’t have to waste energy worrying about hurting people’s feelings when the time comes, and they know what they should – and shouldn’t – be doing to make this process easier for you.
What not to say
People tend to say the first things that pop into their heads during intense situations like labour. Chances are that your family, in an effort to soothe you, may ask if you’re in a lot of pain but, according to Theoni, this is one of the worst mistakes. “Labour isn’t painful; it’s powerful. By asking about pain, you’re encouraging the woman to focus on that aspect of birth. This implies that she needs to be rescued, and this will send her into victim mode.”
So, what should you be saying instead? “Concentrate on praising her and pointing out what a good job she’s doing,” answers Sister Connie Ngobeni, lead midwife of The Birthing Team. “As her support, you need to make her feel strong and empowered. Keep reminding her that she is a wonderful mother and that she has everything under control.”
It’s a good idea for the birthing partner to attend antenatal classes with the mom-to-be, so he or she has an idea of what is going to happen. This will also help your partner play a more active role in the process (if that’s what you want).
Connie says that things to avoid completely include saying, “I can’t bear to see you in so much pain”, or asking questions that require a full answer.
In her 16 years as journalist, Lisa Witepski’s work has appeared in most of South Africa’s leading publications, including the Mail & Guardian, Sunday Times, Entrepreneur and Financial Mail. She has written for a number of women’s magazines, including Living & Loving, Essentials and many others, across topics from lifestyle to travel, wellness, business and finance. She is a former acting Johannesburg Bureau Chief for Cosmopolitan, and former Features Editor at Travel News Weekly, but, above all, a besotted mom to Leya and Jessica. Lisa blogs at whydoialwayscravecake.blogspot.com and lisa.witepski.blogspot.com, and tweets at @LisaWitepski.