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Natural Birth 101

You’ve read all the birthing books, drilled your mommy friends, and talked with your doctor (or midwife). Now you’re ready to have the natural birth of your dreams. But what does that actually mean? And what do you do if things don’t go as planned? We’ve got expert tips to get you through.

Photo: Shutterstock

What is it?

It sounds straightforward enough, right? But the term natural birth actually has two accepted meanings, which can definitely be confusing. “A natural delivery means that you delivered vaginally,” says Shelly Holmström, MD, associate professor at the University of South Florida College of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Tampa. “But it can also mean that you delivered drug-free.”

Traditionally, any non-surgical, vaginal delivery can be considered natural, of course. But these days, “a natural birth,” says Holmström, implies one that “doesn’t use any medical interventions to help speed up labor or delivery.” That distinction, she notes, is key when writing your birth plan. Make sure you’re clear about your desire to have a drug-free labor and delivery, and not just a “natural,” vaginal birth.

How to plan it?

Once you’ve decided on the type of labor you’d like to have, it’s important to figure out what you’ll need in order to make it successful -- and that starts with more education. “Hospitals can be a really great resource to learn about natural birth because they’re mainstream and affordable,” says Tiffany Albinger, a doula and co-owner of EmbracingLabor.com. Taking a class, “a mom-to-be is able to meet with other women learning about natural birth, which can make her feel supported.”

But one hospital class isn’t enough. Don’t be afraid to dive deeper, says Albinger, who suggests exploring options like hypnobirthing, Lamaze and the Bradley Method.

Once you’ve learned the ropes, it’s time to decide on where you want to deliver. “Part of the natural birth process depends on where the birth actually takes place,” says Linda Perry, a midwife in New York and New Jersey. “Whether she’s at home, at a birthing center or at the hospital, allowing mom the space to figure out what she needs to do to move through the labor process is really important.”

At home and in your own surroundings, you’ll feel more comfortable and relaxed, which Perry says can relieve some of the anxiety and stress that women feel in a hospital setting. But if you’re choosing to have a natural delivery in a hospital or birthing center, Perry adds, there’s usually a support staff of nurses and doctors on hand who will be accommodating of your delivery wishes.

Getting Through It: Techniques That Will Help

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: labor is painful (sorry!). But that doesn’t mean your body can’t handle it. “People run marathons without epidurals!” says midwife Linda Perry. “It’s really empowering for women to feel that intensity and work through it, and then look back and realize how amazing she is.” It won’t be easy, but the light at the end of the tunnel is your baby, mama.

Perry reminds moms that it’s okay to feel pain, because the pain makes sense. Still, there are ways to make the process easier. It’s not always about following one specific breathing or movement pattern, Albinger adds. “You need a whole toolbox of methods during labor to figure out what works best for mom.”

Water can be very helpful for women in labor. “If you’re planning a home birth, it’s easier to get in and out of the tub,” says Albinger. “But even at a hospital, if you bring your own birthing ball, you can go sit on your ball in the shower.”

As a doula, Albinger suggests stimulating all the senses to help you focus through the pain. Keep scented lotions or candles handy, cozy up in your favorite blanket, put on some mood music. “Things that feel good to the touch can help,” she says. “Try massage. And change positions frequently to keep labor moving. Using gravity it can help keep your pelvis open.” She also recommends finding a focal point in the room -- a picture on the wall, or maybe baby’s first teddy bear --to center on.

And, of course, Albinger adds, you’ll need plenty of positive reinforcement from your support group. “Everyone involved in the birth -- from your partner to your doctor (or midwife), your family and your doula -- should come together to help you achieve your goal of a natural delivery.”

How to Deal If Labor Doesn’t Go Your Way

The best advice when going into labor? Expect the unexpected. “Women have birth plans where they request not to have medication or epidurals at any point,” says Holmström. “But as an OB, one of the first things I ask during labor is what they want to do for pain relief.” Why? Because when the pain hits, mama, you definitely have the right to change your mind!

And sometimes, whether you want it or not, medical intervention will be necessary. Prepping ahead of time can help you address your labor concerns. “When I talk to clients prenatally, we talk about how we can plan for the big beautiful thing to happen,” Albinger says. “But we also talk about how we can be ready if something doesn’t go according to the plan. Even during labor, it’s important to talk things through. I teach my clients the acronym BRAIN -- Benefits, Risks, Alternatives, Intuition, Now -- so that they’re really informed before making decisions.”

Although you may be hoping to go as holistic as possible, “you need to be open-minded,” says Albinger. When a doctor or midwife suggests introducing drugs, she explains, that’s usually because they’re looking out for the safety of both mom and baby.

You might just need that extra support to help baby arrive. And that’s ok! “Every baby is born exactly the way that they need to be born,” Perry says, “and it’s not always exactly how the mom plans. Having those medical interventions doesn’t mean that you failed or that you did a bad job. That was the way that baby needed to be born and as a mom, you used all the tools that were available to you to make that successful.”

In the end, “we know that we made the best decision for this pregnancy and this labor,” Albinger says. “It’s okay to be sad and to mourn the loss of the birth that you were planning on having. But I still highlight the power of making those really great and well-informed decisions.”

Plus, More from The Bump:

Epidural Vs. Natural Birth

Natural Birth Stories You Won't Believe

Tool: Create Your Birth Plan

-- Kylie McConville

See More: 3rd Trimester , Labor and Delivery

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