Updated: Apr 18, 2019
Birth can be scary. Whether you are a first time mum or you are having your 5th baby. The process of birth can be daunting. It’s the fear of the unknown. How long will it take? When will it happen? Will I be able to cope with the pain? Will I need a c-section? Will the baby be ok? There are so many questions we have and so many doubts that creep into our heads. And there is no way of predicting how it will go... or when it will happen… or how long it will take. The only predictable thing about birth is that it’s unpredictable.
It really doesn’t help that birth is usually portrayed as quick, fast and dramatic on the TV- only the cases that will get good ratings make the cut on ‘One Born Every Minute.’
When I had my first baby, Ava, I wasn’t exactly afraid. But I was certainly anxious that it would all go ok. In my head I had a vision of my perfect birth. Suffice to say- that did not happen. Quite the opposite. Now it wasn’t the ‘worst’ of births and I almost felt guilty to say I was slightly traumatised by it. Because I know of so many others with ‘worse’ stories. But the thing is, it was traumatising to me because I felt so out of control. So much of my power as a woman was taken away from me. So much of my choice was taken away from me. I received excellent care, but the Irish maternity system isn’t necessarily designed to empower women in their labour and delivery. The thing that upset me the most was the coached pushing on my back and the number of people in the room. It was the stereotypical, legs in stirrups situation. Induction, epidural, episiotomy. The works. At the time, it really didn’t feel right. But I didn’t know any better. I couldn't ask for anything else. And yes, the baby was ok. I was ok. But I was not ok with what had happened. It took a while before I could process that and understand that I wanted my next birth to go very differently.
This is where GentleBirth came in. I did my research before I got pregnant again and it seemed that GentleBirth would be an amazing programme for me to do in order to be equipped for the next birth. I wasn’t exactly sure what it was but it looked like a mixture of hypnobirthing and mindfulness.
‘GentleBirth is a programme, which endeavours to change women's thought processes in relation to pregnancy, labour and birth, through a mixture of hypnosis, mindfulness, cognitive behavioural therapy and sports psychology.’
The way I would describe Gentle Birth is mindful preparation for welcoming a new baby into the world- from conception to birth and beyond.
GentleBirth was founded by midwife Tracey Donegan in 2006. In her own words, "GentleBirth is brain-training for birth- birth can be a good experience and that's what we show women." She remains the driving force behind GentleBirth and their contribution to the global positive birth movement. She is also a published author and speaks at many birth conferences and events around the world.
There is a misconception that a programme like this is just for those wishing to have a drug free ‘natural’ birth. And this is absolutely not the case. It’s for anyone who wants to feel more empowered to make decisions around their care in pregnancy and labour.
Thousands of women and their partners have used GentleBirth all over the world and there are a vast amount of testimonials and birth stories.
GentleBirth comes as an app where you can listen to meditation, repeat affirmations and read other GentleBirth stories (never underestimate the power of listening to other birth stories to empower you!) There is also an online community on social media which is amazing for support throughout your pregnancy. The app is really well laid out with daily recommended training including mindfulness, breathing techniques and affirmations. You can save your favourite tracks and create a playlist which you can use throughout your pregnancy and in your labour. There are specialised tracks for breech babies, surrogacy, placental position and much more. And there are even tracks for fertility, parenting and body positivity. You really can incorporate GentleBirth into all areas of your life if you wish. This type of brain training is more effective the more you use it. And because it’s an app, it is very user friendly and easy to incorporate into your daily routine. Some of my favourite tracks were labour companion, learning how to push and sleep sanctuary. During the final weeks of pregnancy, when restful sleep was hard to come by, I listened to the sleep track quite a bit.
You are encouraged to attend a 1 (or 2) day workshop with your partner. This is an intensive day of training. This will cover brain training, physical comfort options/pain relief and birth preferences. The workshops are carried out by certified trainers who come from a variety of backgrounds- with skill sets such as lactation consultancy, midwifery and doula care. On their website they say:
GentleBirth Workshops provide expectant moms and partners easy to learn brain training techniques including Mindfulness, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Sports Psychology and Medical Hypnosis along with tools, information and techniques to prepare for the most positive birth possible.
We attended a day long workshop with Niamh Healy last December when I was 35 weeks pregnant. We were the only second time parents in the workshop, so I do think we were a bit more relaxed than the first timers:) Niamh was absolutely wonderful and such a wealth of knowledge. We took so much away from the day. I especially enjoyed the part of the day that focused on sports psychology. It resonated with me so much. Birth is not a sprint. It’s a marathon. It’s demanding in so many ways. We often just think of the physical side of things- but it’s also emotionally and mentally tough. Athletes need to have the resilience to withstand a similar struggle. It’s something you go through that is really difficult but the outcome is going to be amazing. It’s knowing that you have to go through physical pain to ‘win the race’ so to speak!
There were two little tricks that Niamh shared with us that ended up being a massive part of my labour. The first was using tennis balls for pressure on the lower back and hips to help with the pain of contractions. Audrey did this for the first few hours of my labour and the relief I got from it was incredible. Every time a contraction would start she would dig them hard into my back and hips and roll them around. When it would start to ease she would stop. I’d say she got a pretty good work out from doing this!
The other thing was called the ‘cocoon of calm’. Basically you use a light scarf, or other piece of material to cover your head during contractions or when you need to block out distractions and concentrate on your breathing and affirmations. I did this and it was just amazing. I covered my favourite scarf with some of my favourite essential oils. I kept the scarf around my neck and every time I felt the start of a contraction I popped the scarf over my head. It worked in two ways. Firstly it would signal to Audrey and anyone else in the room (the midwife or any doctors that had popped in) that I was having a contraction and to not speak to me. It would also signal to Audrey to start using the tennis balls! This kept talking to a minimum at a time when I needed to conserve as much energy as possible. Secondly it helped me to focus all my energy on my breath and riding out each contraction.
These two techniques made a huge difference in the length of time I went with no pain relief. When I decided it was time for an epidural, I was really happy to have gotten to that stage. I have nothing against pain relief, but going that long, in such an optimal position meant that I had progressed well and given the baby a chance to get into a good place and ready to be born. I think it made the rest of the labour go so much smoother.
The workshop concluded with a short meditation/mindfulness session. It was amazing. Both Audrey and myself drifted off and felt so refreshed afterwards.
Another thing I would say, is that we were the first same sex couple which Niamh had had in her workshops. She was extremely respectful of us and used gender neutral language throughout the day. We really appreciated that, as often birthing and parenting classes can be very heavily gendered with traditional mother and father roles
Niamh talked a lot about having a birth ‘tool kit’. This means that you have a variety of things which you may or may not use- but are available to you throughout your labour and delivery. They can be physical items such as the tennis balls and scarf, or could also be an iPod with your birth music playlist to help you keep calm and relaxed. It could also include using medical pain relief such as an epidural. This idea of this really appealed to me. I knew from experience that you may go into your labour thinking one thing- but then when you are in the situation you may totally change your mind. And it’s good to be prepared for this. I was totally sure I’d use my tens machine for the start of my second labour, as I’d used it with my first. But when it came to it, I didn’t even take it out of the box! I was so happy with how I was coping with using the tennis balls, the scarf and mindfulness so I didn’t feel the need to add anything else into the mix. But it’s great knowing that you have options and you can pick and choose what you use from your ‘birth tool kit’ depending on how you are feeling at the time.
One of the massive triggers for me around childbirth used to be the thought of induction. And the main stress I had going into my second pregnancy was knowing that induction for me was nearly 100% inevitable. As I am a type 1 diabetic, pregnancy is much more closely monitored and medicalised. And in Ireland there is a policy of not allowing you to go beyond 39 weeks. So unless I were to go into labour before that, I would be induced. It can be a really tough process on your body- as it means artificially inducing labour- and your body and your baby may not be ready to come.
That was definitely my biggest mindset hurdle to overcome. After completing our GentleBirth workshop and through using the app, I got to a place where I had totally made my peace with it. I decided that no matter what course my birth would take, that I would be calm and confident. That no matter how it progressed that I would be in control and be accepting of the situation. And that’s exactly what I did. So when I was booked for induction at 38 weeks and 5 days, I didn’t feel dread- I felt excitement! In the days leading up to the induction I listened to ‘positive induction of labour’ on the app.
Another really important thing I learned from GentleBirth was that even if you have an epidural- and the majority of women in Ireland do these days- that you do not have to lie flat on your back and be a spectator to your birth. You can utilise different positions to actively encourage your baby to descend through your pelvis. So as soon as I got the epidural I immediately (with the help of Audrey and our midwife) got onto my knees and leaned over the back of the bed and I stayed in that position until I was almost fully dilated. I couldn’t feel my legs but if you can get yourself into that position, it’s actually really comfortable and supportive. If I had stayed on my back (like I did on my first labour, it without a doubt would have been a much longer labour) From the time I got the epidural, it took just over an hour until I was fully dilated... and I 100% put this down to the great position I was in and how relaxed I was. When you are panicking or anxious your body slows the labour right down.
When it was time to start pushing, our midwife just let me do my own thing, which was what we had asked for in our birth preferences. I was able to feel enough that I knew when a contraction was coming and I was able to push as I felt I should. I didn’t do the whole holding my breath or ‘purple pushing’ as it’s known. And it worked so well. The room was calm and Audrey and I just worked together to get the baby out. I stayed on all fours until she was almost delivered and then I moved to my side with Audrey supporting my leg. When her head delivered I was able to see and feel her little face which was just the most incredible moment. Again, I had the confidence to do this and to see how amazing my body was in that moment. As soon as she was delivered, I reached down and pulled her up to my chest and she let out the loudest cry ever. I seriously felt like a super woman at that point!
We had delayed cord clamping, immediate and extended skin to skin and delayed checks. Our midwife was incredible, she kept the lights low and the noise in the room to a minimum. A few people tried to disturb us during that first hour but she made sure to tell them that it all could wait. I was able to give her the first breastfeed and Audrey got skin to skin too.
Having the confidence to do all of this and to trust myself was so empowering. It may not have been exactly what I pictured, but it was all on my terms, and that meant the world to me. GentleBirth gave me the confidence to birth the way I wanted to.
* The GentleBirth app is free for a 7-day trial. A monthly subscription is €12.99 and includes the 300-page guidebook and support from GentleBirth Instructors. Workshops vary from €325 to €375 (health insurance may provide reimbursement). Click on the link to Niamh's class here.