How to relax in your birth environment
Midwife, Clinical Skills Facilitator, Midwifery Lecturer, London
BSc Midwifery, MSc Advanced Midwifery Practice
The birthing environment can play a pivotal role in supporting and enabling physiological birth. This is not to be confused with birth setting for example home, birth centre or labour ward but focuses more on what can be done within each setting to ensure a calming, oxytocin filled environment. Labour and birth can be a very overwhelming experience however small changes within your birthing environment can turn feelings of worry and anxiety to strength and positivity.
Evidence suggests that women who labour and birth in low-risk, midwifery-led settings such as at home or a birth centre will experience less intervention, require less pharmacological analgesia and report a greater satisfaction with their care1. One of the key differences that contributes to these findings is the birthing environment. The conventional design of a hospital labour ward room will see the bed as a focal point, other medical equipment in plain view and a single light switch will offer ‘on’ or ‘off’. Contrastingly, birth centres aim to create a ‘home from home’ environment which intends to promote feelings of control, calmness, strength and positivity.
So why does the birthing environment matter so much?
Your birthing environment has an important role in facilitating the production of a hormone called oxytocin, commonly referred to as the hormone of love. Oxytocin is naturally occurring and works alongside other hormones such as dopamine and serotonin and together they cause a surge of positive emotion. Oxytocin also plays an integral role in childbirth and motherhood. During labour, oxytocin is the stimulus to the powerful contractions that will help to thin and open the cervix and enable you to birth your baby and it doesn’t just stop there! Following birth, oxytocin also helps to return the uterus to its previous size, initiate milk production, encourage bonding between mother and baby and promote an optimal transition to motherhood2. Low levels of oxytocin during labour can cause contractions to stop or slow which may lead to the recommendation of interventions to counteract this. However, there are many ways in which you can promote your body’s production of natural oxytocin including adapting your birthing environment.
How? I hear you ask.
Your room may not have a thermostat and the ability to change the temperature however it is important that you are comfortable, not too hot and not too cold. Think about packing a handheld fan and your favourite blanket, something that comforts you and reminds you of being safe and warm will also help to boost your oxytocin levels and other positive hormones.
Space to walk / move / change position
This is really important not only in terms of boosting your oxytocin but also to help your body through the physiological processes of labour – Gravity, gravity & some more gravity! If the bed happens to be the focal point of your birthing room, ask the midwife to move it to one side, creating space for you to walk, move and dance through each contraction.
Most NHS hospitals and birth centres will supply one pillow per room and are not always able to provide extras. If this is something that you think would make you feel more comfortable, bring one from home. Not only does this enhance your comfort it will also provide a sense of familiarity as it will be covered in your scent and will remind you of home.
Low, adjustable lighting creates the most optimal birthing environment. This mood lighting helps to create a relaxing space, enabling the release of oxytocin. Bright light also acts as a stimulant to the neocortex, a part of your brain that controls all inhibitions during the birthing process3. By removing this stimulus, you are able to focus calmly on your instincts. If you are labouring during the day, close the curtains or blinds in your room, turn the lights off or down and make use of any side lights or lamps available. You may also wish to bring battery operated candles that can be placed around your room – think spa!
Whilst your midwife will work to the best of their ability to ensure your birthing room maintains your privacy and dignity at all times, other members of the team may occasionally knock at the door or enter to speak with yourself or your midwife. Creating a sign that can be placed on the door to politely remind the team to please knock gently and wait to be invited into the room can help to reduce unwanted disruptions to your space.
Snacks The midwife will provide you with a limited selection of food and drink throughout your labour as maintaining your energy levels and ensuring you are well hydrated are extremely important. However, you may not feel hungry and want to eat. By packing a selection of your favourite snacks, you may not only be more inclined to have them, but they also help to boost that sense of familiarity and happiness and in turn, your oxytocin levels.
For those who enjoy listening to music, being able to hear your favourite songs playing in the background of your labour can help to both ground you and also boost your mood, your endorphins and your oxytocin levels. Alternatively, you may prefer something softer, such as a hypnobirthing track or something similar to what you may hear in a spa’s relaxation room.
The birthing room is often compared to an environment that you would make love in. I encourage you to make it your own and personalise your experience as much as you can whether you are in a labour ward, birth centre or at home. Discuss with your birthing partner the different elements that are important to you, they may or may not include those that have been mentioned and that is ok! Speak to your midwife, as what is available in each birth setting will vary and they will be able to provide with the most accurate advice. Just remember, your labour and birth are exactly that, yours.
Links to resources
The Positive Birth Book – Milli HIll https://www.millihill.co.uk/books/the-positive-birth-book/
The Impact of the Physical Environment on Intrapartum Maternity Care: Identification of Eight Crucial Building Spaces – https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1937586719826058
The Positive Birth Movement – https://www.instagram.com/positivebirthmovement/
Birth-Ed – https://www.instagram.com/birth_ed/
- Hodnett ED, Downe S, Walsh D. Alternative versus conventional institutional settings for birth. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. 2012, Issue 8. Art. No.: CD000012. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD000012.pub4
- Ragusa, A. How to reduce synthetic oxytocin administration and stimulate the production of endogenous oxytocin in childbirth. Journal of Pediatric and Neonatal Individualized Medicine (JPNIM), 2015;4(2), e040228. https://doi.org/10.7363/040228
- Odent, M. Birth and breastfeeding: rediscovering the needs of women during pregnancy and childbirth. Clairview Books. 2012.