my best tips for an unmedicated birth {during labor}

*This is part two of a two-part series. You can read the first part on my advice before you reach labor here. Again, this is not meant to be a pros/cons list, rather a list of some of the things I found most helpful during labor. Please read the first two paragraphs of my first post to hear my heart on this sensitive issue.

Hey you made it! It’s go time! Hopefully, it’s the real deal. But if not, don’t worry. You’re not alone. Here’s a list of what I found most helpful to know/practice during labor. Hope it helps!

1. Stay at home as long as you [safely] can. My first OB, when I told her I wanted to labor without drugs, told me to stay home as long as I could handle it. She told me to come in when I “couldn’t take it anymore.” There are of course instances when this is not a good idea, and you need to be on the same page as your healthcare provider, but if everything looks good and there aren’t any reasons to be at the hospital right away, then by all means, labor at home. More often than not, you’ll get to the hospital earlier in your labor than you think. Once you’re in the hospital, you will be hooked up to monitors, IV drips, and the clock. Some hospitals give you plenty of time to labor, but if you’re not in one of those hospitals, you might be pressured to progress your labor faster than necessary. During my first labor I agreed to breaking my water and doubling the pitocin drip within the same half hour. OH MY DEAR GOODNESS do I regret that decision. There was no medical reason to either of those procedures (everything was going smoothly and it was only two hours into my induction), but in my naivety of it being the first time, I agreed. Here’s my advice: If you are experiencing a normal and healthy pregnancy/labor, go to the hospital when you really have to work through contractions and the rest of the world has ceased to exist.

2. Move it. I wanted to kill  the triage nurse when she prescribed two hours (turned to three) of walking before they would admit me. But it really is the best thing you can do to get all those centimeters accounted for. If you are experiencing back labor (I’m sorry), wiggle those hips like a hula dancer. You’ll feel completely weird (or I did at least), but it does wonders for getting that baby in the proper position. When walking gets hard and you have to stop every few steps for a contraction, take a breather for a contraction or two and then get moving again. I have a friend who did dance moves during her less than five hour labor. Movement really works!!

3. Relax as if your life depends on it. Read that sentence again. This is the line from the book Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way that is literally the best advice I’ve heard. When I first felt a true contraction, I cringed through the entire thing. It was my natural reaction, but it’s the last thing our body needs during labor. Fighting the pain will only make the pain worse and labor longer. In order to relax fully, you and your partner will want to find relaxation exercises that work for you. I found it best to mentally search my body and release any tension I was carrying (often in my shoulders and toes). Make your body go limp while that faithful uterus does its thing.
My favorite relaxing techniques:

Music. I found worship music to be incredibly helpful during labor. I focused on the lyrics and not the pain while I endured minute + long contractions. It was also helpful to know that the contraction wouldn’t last as long as the song. Our bodies give incredible rest during labor. Use music to look forward to that rest.

jacuzzi tub. A nurse once described the hot tub as “nature’s epidural.” And to that I say Amen. It can be tricky though, because our bodies are super sensitive during labor. I wasn’t able to use the tub with El, and labor slowed down when I used it with Claire, but with Melia? Magic. I was only in there for about 20 minutes before completely dilating. Give it a try, but it’s not your only option.

birthing ball. AKA medicine ball. Something about sitting on a giant rubber ball… If I wasn’t in the tub, I wanted to be sitting on that ball, leaned over with my hands around JD’s neck.

standing up in a ‘slow dance’ pose. With all three labors, labor sped up when I was standing, so it was helpful to stand up with my head in JD’s chest, arms wrapped around his neck. During contractions I literally melted into him while we swayed to get baby in better position.

4. Know the emotional signposts of labor. We learned in our birthing classes (and has been confirmed by nurses) that our emotions can be a better indicator of where we are in labor than actual dilation. For instance, I was emotionally very serious and concentrated when we went to the hospital with Melia. I was only 3 cms. dilated and 60% effaced at the time, but less than five hours later, she was out. The Bradley method focuses a ton of attention on the emotional signposts of labor as a guide for the birthing coach. I recommend their handbook for more accurate descriptions. In a nutshell, here they are:

Early first stage labor: “putsy putsy” You’re excited! Yay! Baby’s on the way, FINALLY! (this stage sometimes gets repeated, depending on just how many false alarms your body accomplishes before that baby is actually on the way). Toward the end of this stage, you’ll start working through contractions while steam cleaning the carpet… three times.

Late first stage labor: You’re now working through contractions and feeling serious about labor. This is it, it’s hard work, and you’re determined to get it done. You may or may not snap at somebody. This is when the Bradley method recommends getting to the hospital.

–  Transition: Your contractions are coming strong and steady and close together. This is where self doubt usually kicks in and you feel completely done. Many women ask for drugs when they’re in transition (myself included), but try to hold off if you can, because chances are, you’re only twenty to thirty minutes away from pushing out a baby. And in labor time – that’s nothing. My advice during transition: take it one contraction at a time and remember that your next contraction could be your last. It will soon be over. Relax and let your body do its thing for just a short while longer! Transition is tough but it’s also short.

Second stage: This is when you push a kid out. And it’s pretty awesome. Depending on how long you push, you might experience the above emotions all over again in the same order, just before your baby comes. My pushing advice: get ‘er done. When baby’s head is crowning (you’ll know by the ring of fire), pause briefly and then complete the transaction. I finally figured this out by the third one.  Realistically though, pushing can take anywhere from 5 minutes to 3 hours.

5. Find your zone. There came a point in all three of my labors where I was completely closed off to the rest of the world and focused on what my body was doing. In each case, I had a picture, word, or phrase that I concentrated on in my mind during contractions. I didn’t plan ahead what they might be, they just came to me in labor. Images of floating on a wave, sitting on a rocking chair, counting to 8 over and over again (no clue why I did that), or repeating words were all coping mechanisms when I was in the hardest part of labor. I think your zone comes only when you are super relaxed. And that, my friends, is hard work.

6. Go to sleep. If you’re having a hard time relaxing, then just go to sleep. Cozy up on the birthing ball, lie in a comfortable position on the bed, sit in a chair – whatever feels the most comfortable to you – and close those eyes. By this point in labor, you might be exhausted. Take advantage of those nice breaks between contractions and sleep in between. Your body will be much more relaxed through the tough stuff if you are able to sleep during rests. I know this sounds crazy, but there came a point in each of my labors where I JUST wanted to sleep. So I did! Those precious moments of sleep gave me lots of centimeters toward completion.

7. Keep an open mind. Labor is unpredictable. Don’t be married to your birth plan. Labor and Delivery nurses joke that the woman who comes in with a birthing ball and extensive birth plan is destined for an emergency C. In two of my three births I had to surrender parts of my birth plan and it was fine. I still had a natural birth. Don’t let issues like fetal monitoring and an IV make or break your experience. If you’re really against those things, you’ll need to find a hospital that will accommodate your wishes or give birth at home.

8. Know your options. This comes with research done before labor begins, but even when you’re in labor, think carefully about your options when they’re given to you. Is there a medical reason to break your water or increase your pitocin? Sometimes there really is and those things are necessary. Sometimes, not. The more you are able to birth without intervention, the easier it will be to birth without medication.

9. Use a birth coach. Whether this is your husband, a friend, a certified doula , or all three- it is incredibly helpful necessary to have help and support during labor. Others can see things you can’t, and it’s always good to have an advocate in your corner.

A Word on Induction and Back Labor

I come to you having experienced a pitocin induction as well as back labor. Both situations make having an unmedicated birth hard, but not impossible. I joke that if I ever have to be induced again, I’ll ask for an epidural with my pitocin. Although, quite honestly, I probably wouldn’t have an induction like I did with my firstborn, simply knowing what I know now about labor. Here are my thoughts and advice in each situation:

Induction: Ask first if they will induce you by breaking your water and then giving you time for contractions to start. In situations where you need to get that baby out fast, this might not work, but if you have time on your hands – do it. If you are having a pitocin induction, ask for it to start out with a low dose. The less you have to deal with that stuff, the better. Some women only need a little kickstart to get their labor going and a low dose of pitocin will do the trick. Unless there is a medical reason for doing so, it is preferable not to have your pitocin doubled within the same time period as having your water broken. This happened with my first baby and I went from small cramping to late stage hard labor in minutes. The only way I was able to avoid the epidural was because my L & D nurse relaxed me while we were waiting for the anesthesiologist and when he came to the door, I sent him away. Here’s a hint: if your nurse knows you really want to give birth without drugs and you ask for her help, chances are she’ll be your champion.

Back Labor: First – I’m sorry. Second – MOVE girl. Wiggle those hips, get on all fours (or child’s pose in the tub – I swear by it), make the birthing ball your best friend. Do everything you can to spin that baby around. If your hospital has a rebozo, use it (you can reference my third birth story here – lots of fun back labor)!! Third – get that hott man of yours (or a doula, nurse, your mom – whoever!) to use counter pressure on your lower back. Back labor feels like knives sticking in your back and the counter pressure feels great. Finally – wait as long as possible before getting drugs. It will be tempting – I promise. But if you are able to get that baby turned around during labor, pushing will be much easier (and most likely hours shorter). Once you have an epidural, you can’t move… that being said, much much sympathy to you if you’ve tried all those things and that sweet baby is still posterior. A nice cocktail of drugs might be just what you need (yes, I said it.).


Final thoughts

While this list is long, it’s certainly not complete.  There are many ways women respond to pain in labor, and something that worked for me might not work for you. Every birth is different. In fact, what worked for me during one labor didn’t always work during another. There’s no way to tell what your labor will look like – just like there’s no way to tell when labor will start. One of my dear friends just went into labor because she was throwing up with the stomach flu! Guaranteed she didn’t have the labor she expected (love you Karyn). What it ultimately boils down to: you get a baby in your arms soon, regardless how he/she comes out. Focus on the end result, trust your body, work with what you have, and enjoy what you can. And know this: your identity and strength as a women is not measured in how your baby is born. Got it? Good. Now I have to post this immediately before my nephew is born any second.


38 Replies to “my best tips for an unmedicated birth {during labor}”

  1. Annie, thanks so much for these posts! I’m enjoying your recommended reading and Bradley classes start soon (with a highly recommend instructor in our area) . Wish us luck!

  2. This is such a refreshing post on natural birth! I’m tired of reading posts that tout it as THE only way to give birth, making you feel you’re an inferior mother if the plan doesn’t go that route. I had to be induced with my first for health concerns (no water), and went as long as possible with no epi. I did end up getting one (at around 8cm) and am still content in my decisions.

    With this second one due in a couple months, I plan to do the same thing – go as long as possible, ideally all the way. As I mentioned, it’s nice to hear someone offer great advice without sounding like it’s way is the only way to do it “right”. Thank you!! This post reads like a friend giving support. I will definitely reread a couple times and keep your thoughts in mind as I embark on #2.

    PS – SO true about the bath – I spent 2 hours in there during hard, stacked (no break) contractions and I really was able to relax.

    1. Thanks Elizabeth, I really appreciate your kind words! I get bummed when birth becomes divisive. Shouldn’t be that way! Hope your second birth was awesome!

  3. annie, this was by far the most helpful non-medicated blog ive read so far. im 39 weeks today and hoping to go in soon for the real deal but i’ve had two falsies with immense back pain, so your tips will surely come in handy for Luca’s grand arrival. planning on taking Bradley classes for #2, whenever that will be 🙂 thanks again!

  4. Just a quick fyi: a medicine ball is a small, hard, dense ball that is used in body training and sports. A birth ball is not a medicine ball. It is, however, the same thing as a pilates ball, a balance ball or a stability ball.

    Fantastic article! Thanks!

  5. Really awesome post – thank you so much. I’m gathering my arsenal of information in preparation for a January home birth, and this was by far the most informative post I’ve come across. Thank you!!

  6. Just came across this on Pinterest. Thanks for posting these! I had an awful induction/emergency C experience with my first and was DETERMINED to have a natural VBAC with my second. I got to the hospital at 9cm, but couldn’t relax myself enough to get that last centimeter and wasn’t progressing so I got an epidural. I don’t regret it but wish that I could have figured out how to relax better! I’m hoping some of these tips will help once #3 comes along!

    1. Jenna, so sorry to hear about your first birth – unfortunately it’s a familiar story. Very cool to make it to 9 cm! Good luck on #3!

    1. Awesome! So glad to hear it :). I occasionally doula and photograph births – and I absolutely love L & D nurses!

  7. Love, Love, LOVE this post! As a Bradley instructor, it is reinforcing almost everything I teach! Thank you! With your permission, I would like to print this for my students.

  8. LOVED this post! It took so many fears and stress away! I’ve been waiting to read something like this! It gives me so much hope that I can totally do this naturally! Thank you!!

  9. As an expectant mother, I am so glad I found this! With my first I had to have a c-section even though I progressed fast to 3cm dilated, 80% effaced and at a +2 by 37 weeks simply because of her being breech with her bottom stuck in the birth canal. Thus it stalled labor. I felt as if I had failed because no one in my family had a c-section on either side. I was the first other than distant cousins. Luckily, I have a supportive OBGYN who feels I have an 85% chance of a natural without any “help” other than the choice of getting an epidural. So here’s to praying and doing “exercises” to help baby #2 down the right path!

  10. You can definitely see your expertise within
    the article you write. The arena hopes for more passionate writers
    such as you who are not afraid to mention how they
    believe. All the time go after your heart.

  11. Great post! I love the music idea, that really would have helped. I remember towards the end, all I wanted to do was squat and stay there! I will definitely be passing this along.

  12. I’m due in October, and we did hypnobirthing classes (as opposed to Bradley). Hypnobirthing is centered around learning to relax and let go enough to accomplish and even enjoy a natural birth. Everything you list here was mentioned and discuss at my hypnobirthing classes. I like your list though because it summarizes some of the bigger points I took away, and will likely print it out before the time comes to remind myself how to help myself work through labor!

  13. Annie, Just wanted to say how much I appreciate this article! You have a great balance between promoting natural childbirth, but not being too ‘stubborn’ about it. I, in hindsight, was one of the ‘too stubborn’ people prior to my first delivery. I was set on an all-natural birth, which I did achieve, but after 8 straight hours of EXCRUCIATING back labor, and then more than three hours of pushing (my baby was not descending bc she was in the posterior position), I was literally delirious and half-conscious from the pain and exhaustion by the time she arrived. As much as I believe in natural childbirth (and had a much better natural delivery with my second), I think I would choose differently if I were to go back to that first labor experience. All that to say- I appreciate and respect your balanced approach. I’m 39+ weeks right now with my third and anticipating another beautiful natural birth! 🙂

    1. Angie that’s awesome! I’m so thankful for your comment 🙂 Yes – I’d never do a pitocin induced labor naturally again. No thank you!!

  14. great post! I am due in a couple weeks and my husband hasn’t started reading (or discussing) the Bradley Method Book I read 3x already so he will greatly appreciate this shortened version with the main points! Your post is motivating and I will reread it a few times before labor hopefully.

  15. Your statements make me relive those moments but at the same time, it makes me want to have a baby again haha. The pain of childbirth is only temporary but once you’ve gone through it all, all worth it I tell you. All you need to do after is to gaze at the beautiful life you are holding in your hands. Great blog. Lovet!

  16. Thank you for this! I am due in November 2015 with my second and am planning a natural hospital birth. I have been on the fence about it because I had a wonderful experience with my first at the hospital WITH an epidural. It was nothing like the horror stories I had read. I felt respected, cared for AND empowered. I guess I am just curious what it would be like to have one naturally and would like to experience it.

  17. Hi there, I see that this post is from a few years back. My sister just sent a Pin of this blog to me. I noticed you live on Oahu! I am here in Honolulu. I would love to get more information regarding specific recommendations if you have any that you could share! My husband and I would love to look into the Bradley method classes! I am going to buy the books that you recommend on your first post. Hope to hear from you!

    : )

  18. An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who had
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