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There are a lot of scary myths surrounding childbirth, which can cause women to become afraid. Fear triggers the “fight or flight” response and can shutdown the birthing process. Laura Shanley discusses the importance of overcoming fear and provides insightful tips for mothers who are preparing for birth.

Fear, Stress and the Birthing Process

Did you know that your face turns white when you’re afraid because the body thinks the blood and oxygen are needed in your arms and legs to fight a perceived danger? This is part of the “flight or flight” response. If we feel that we are in danger, blood is drained from the face and other internal organs; digestion shuts down. This is why you can have stomach problems if you’re in a constant state of stress and fear.

There’s a book called “Why Zebra’s Don’t Get Ulcers” – that really explains how well our bodies would function if we didn’t keep triggering fight-flight.  Because of fear and stress, we keep sending blood and oxygen away from our digestive organs, our sex organs, etc. If we were not on high alert all of the time, then our bodies could function at a much higher level. This is true every day of our lives, but is especially important during pregnancy and birth.

Our natural, physiologic response to stress and fear can actually make birth traumatic, causing a host of problems. This begins building long before a woman conceives. Our society focuses way too much on the different things that could go wrong in birth. We should spend more time focusing on how well our bodies really will function when we are in a relaxed state.

Overcoming Fear

For me, overcoming fear was a spiritual process.  I know there are women that have given birth to healthy babies without having spiritual beliefs, but I found strength and courage through the realization that there is a larger consciousness. I also believe that the human body was created intentionally; That we aren’t just a mass of chemicals that accidentally came together – that there is great intelligence to creation and we can somehow feel that within ourselves.

My advice to other moms?

1.    Ask for direction and inner help. Look within yourself for guidance and direction – trusting that it’s there.

2.    Simply believing that courage is available actually makes a big difference in your birth outcome.  Affirmations can be very powerful in this way.

3.    Pay close attention to how you’re feeling throughout the day.  For example if you start feeling anxious during the pregnancy ask yourself “what was I just thinking about?”

4.    Surround yourself with positive thinking people.  If you go see a friend or family member who is continually telling you about the danger and possible complications of birth, I would say that you have the right to not be around that person.  Often times, these people are trying to convince themselves and others around them of their decision, and their remarks have nothing to do with you or your birth experience.

5.    Research. Read positive birth stories. This will help to remind you that other women have stood in your shoes, and they’ve succeeded.

6.    Pay attention to your dreams. I had a dream about how I should give birth to my son standing up, which I had never thought of because I was on my hands and knees for my first birth.  He ended up being born breech (vaginally). This opened my eyes to the idea that dreams are just another resource.  Do not discount your dreams, intuition, impulses, emotions, etc.

LAURA KAPLAN SHANLEY is an author, freelance writer, speaker and childbirth consultant widely recognized as one of the leading voices in the natural-birth movement. Her expertise is frequently sought out by television and movie production companies, as well as media outlets around the globe. She has been featured in media outlets such as ABC News, “20/20,” “The Doctors,” BBC, Discovery Channel, Disney, The New York Times, Reuters, and The Washington Post, among many others. In addition, she works with women on a one-on-one basis, providing them with childbirth education and emotional support before and during pregnancy. She is a frequent speaker at childbirth conferences, providing her unique perspective and inspiring insight. Laura maintains a website dedicated to natural childbirth, www.unassistedchildbirth.com, and has published articles for an array of news outlets. During her free time, Laura enjoys hiking, writing poetry and spending time with her four adult children and one grandchild.  

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You have done everything possible to ensure a smooth, healthy pregnancy — but what about labor and birth? Mary Oscategui, baby planner, birthing options advocate and mother herself, joins us this week to share ways pregnant women can cope with the stresses of an approaching birth. She encourages mothers to acknowledge their fears — for the health and well-being of both themselves and their babies.

As a health practitioner, baby planner and single mom, I understand the challenges and stressors that can affect an expectant mom in preparation for birth — trust me, I’ve been there! Your baby is soon to arrive and the excitement is present, but along with that excitement can come many different emotions — some easy to cope with, and some not. You may be feeling anxious and stressed with a lot of questions and uncertainties weighing on your mind. Will I feel pain? How long will my labor last? Will my baby be OK? What if he/she is not breathing? What if the cord is wrapped around his/her neck? What if I have complications? Will I be able to handle motherhood?

As an expectant mom, your first reaction may be to hide these uncomfortable feelings — you may feel ashamed or embarrassed to share them. Giving birth is our natural birthright, however, that does not mean we also don’t have the freedom to experience some fears or doubts. Suppressing such feelings of anxiety and stress can not only take a toll on your body, but on your baby as well. It’s important to be aware of your fears, anxieties and stressors — and to address them. Doing so will only improve the health of you and your baby, and the outcome of your birth.

How do stress and anxiety affect a pregnant woman and her baby?

When an expectant mom feels anxious and stressed, her nervous system causes physiological changes in her body. Adrenaline and the stress hormone, cortisol, release into her bloodstream, causing her body to react in a fight-or-flight response. As a result, her digestive system slows down, which prevents essential nutrients from being absorbed into her body and passed on to her baby. Her muscles become very tense, making it difficult to think clearly and relax. These physiological changes can lead to premature labor, or even complications during labor.

Babies exposed to a variety of stress hormones, toxins and malnutrition inside the womb may develop a host of problems during their fetal growth and after they are born. Their bodies have to undergo certain biological changes in order to cope with a high-stress environment. In October of 2009, The UK Times reported new research that shows exactly how stress can harm a baby’s development, and how that stress can lead to long-term problems.

According to research by Vivette Glover, a professor of perinatal psychobiology, maternal anxiety affects the placenta by reducing the activity of the main barrier enzyme that hinders the hormone cortisol from reaching the fetus. The babies of women who were stressed during pregnancy had lower birth weights, lower IQs, slower cognitive development, and more anxiety than those born to the other women in the study.

How can women cope, and prevent stress and anxiety?

When I was pregnant, I found a few things essential to my (and my baby’s) well-being.

Acceptance

I had to accept and feel comfortable with my feelings, and not to try to resist them. It is perfectly normal to have some doubts or fears surrounding labor, especially if you are a first-time parent. Once you allow and invite your feelings to be present, you will be able to take the steps you need to take care of yourself and your baby, while reducing — if not eliminating — stress all together.

Support

I sought support. This could be through an expectant mom’s group, a childbirth education class, or a qualified professional — such as a birth doula. By working with a birth doula, or attending a birth education class or expectant mom’s group, you can prevent or reduce stress levels dramatically. Birth doulas are trained to provide expectant moms emotional and physical support in preparation for labor, and are also present during labor for support. Childbirth education classes are designed to inform expectant mothers of their options for labor and birth, and prepare them for the journey. An expectant mom’s group can also be another great resource, as you will be able to relate to and share all the uncertainties and fears you are going through with other women who are going through the same process.

Sleep and Relaxation

I made it a priority to rest. It is so important to make sure you are getting as much sleep as your body needs, as well as taking some down time throughout the day. Your body repairs itself during sleep, and also works to restore any imbalances that are occurring. When you compromise sleep, you become more susceptible to stress, as your immune system has to work harder to maintain proper levels of functioning throughout the day. Also consider taking some down time through a yoga or meditation class, a brisk walk, bubble bath, or even by lightening your workload.

Nutrition

I found that nutrition played a very powerful role in both coping with and the prevention of stress while I was pregnant. Caffeine, sugar and processed foods can trigger stress, so it is best to avoid them. Eat whole, fresh organic foods: fruits, vegetables, protein, and healthy fats that are easy to digest, and contain bio-available nutrients that are especially high in B vitamins and minerals. Exposure to sunshine for a few minutes of day will help your body absorb these nutrients. Of course, be sure to consult your midwife, doctor or nutritionist for your specific dietary needs.

Should you seek medical help?

If you have tried everything and find yourself helpless or depressed, it’s always best to seek medical attention. There are many professionals who are dedicated and committed to supporting you through your journey, and can provide you and your little one on board with the necessary help.

Mary Oscategui, CBP [IABPP], CPT, is the founder and CEO of The International Academy of Baby Planner Professionals (IABPP). She is an international business consultant and educator specializing in maternal health, fitness and going green. She is also the founder of TheBabyPlanner.com, EcoFit Mom and Physical Awakening. Mary is a writer, speaker, coach, author and birthing options advocate. She enjoys empowering, educating and supporting expectant and new parents to know all their options, so they may confidently make the best decisions for themselves and their baby in the most objective, healthy, safe way. Through IABPP, Mary introduced a new approach to the baby planning industry by focusing on the needs of her clients through parental education and emotional support.

How did you cope with the stresses of anticipating labor? Did you utilize a support group or birth professional? What tips do you have for other expectant moms?

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Fear. We fear pain, we fear the unknown — fear is a completely normal emotion — but why do we fear childbirth? In movies, on TV, and even in our own circle of friends, childbirth often has a shadow of fear cast upon it. Like sponges, we absorb the fear and often loose the light, the beauty — the reward of childbirth. Today’s guest blogger, Denise Spatafora, author and creator of the Bornclear birthing method, addresses the fear surrounding childbirth and invites women to wring out the sponge and embrace their births!

There is so much fear around us, and we may absorb it in many ways — through our own thoughts and from what we read, what we see, and what we hear. We may not even realize how much fear we’ve absorbed. If we are not clear about the direction we want to take, it’s easy to imagine how the fear around us can be overwhelming, even upsetting.

But just as you can squeeze water out of a sponge, you can release your fears. Once you actually start to dismantle them, everything gets lighter, and you return to your true self. You may have specific fears about childbirth. You might be concerned about pain, your past experiences with childbirth, images from TV or the Internet, cultural expectations, thoughts about your body, the health of the baby, a change in your lifestyle once the baby arrives, or something more personal to you.

It’s completely normal to be fearful about childbirth. In fact, the fear of childbirth is almost universal in our culture. Although women inherently know that our bodies are designed to give birth, at the same time it’s almost impossible to envision how it happens. This is especially true since birthing has become “medicalized,” and has been taken out of the world of women’s wisdom.  Many of the doctors I interviewed for my book have never witnessed a birth where there was no medical intervention. This is partially because a birth without complications was never presented as part of their medical education. It is also due to the fact that for many doctors, the fear of childbirth without intervention has become “the norm.” Without the knowledge of how unassisted childbirth is supposed to occur, the predominant emotion that is left for most people is fear.

Yet outside of the Western world, there are hundreds of cultures where women continue to birth their children naturally, supported only by other women in their communities. Some of these communities have reclaimed childbirth practices that were being lost in the haste to adopt Western practices. In Bali and the tsunami-ravaged Aceh region of Sumatra, Indonesia, Robin Lim, a renowned midwife, has created the Yayasan Bumi Sehat (Healthy Mother Earth) Foundation. The project trains local midwives to serve their clients by reinforcing the ancient wisdom of childbirth with the safe, culturally sensitive, gentle, appropriate application of modern techniques.

If we can recreate a knowledgeable community of women as Robin Lim has, we will be able to release the collective fears and anxieties that surround birth. It will be a new era of childbirth where parents are enlightened, and our current cultural paradigm will shift.

I find that fear is often the result of confronting the unknown. Your fears may stem from the fact that you don’t have a frame of reference for this experience. For women of childbearing age, it’s quite common that their mothers gave birth at a time when women were put to sleep to deliver their babies. Even your grandmother’s experience may have been similar. So, you are left with fear because there is no one to share her experiences with you. Even your friends might not be comfortable enough to talk frankly about their childbirths.

Or, if you have delivered before, it might not have gone the way you wanted. Without examples or information, you continue to fill your sponge with fear. Many fears about childbirth are foisted on us from the outside. “Advice” that we receive from people, even if it is given in good faith and with only the most loving intentions, can subconsciously create new fears. For example, we’ve all been told that labor will be a painful experience. The fear of pain is embedded in the minds of men and women, including members of the medical community. The universal conversation about childbirth goes something like this: “Hey, good luck. You know that it’s going to hurt, so I hope you make it, and don’t forget to order the epidural ASAP.” You don’t normally hear that birthing will be a beautiful, safe, fulfilling — and even exciting experience, all of which it can be!

During pregnancy, the best thing to do is to turn off the “birth channel” and stop having conversations with people about their childbirth experiences, unless these are positive and uplifting. I find that it’s best to create distance from others who try to impose their negative thoughts and images on us. This negativity could potentially create fear and, worse, cut off the possibility that childbirth will be a rewarding experience. You don’t want to build your objective reality around someone else’s story. You are then giving up the right to create your own baby’s birth, and instead are mirroring what the other person experienced or embellished.

No matter what your specific fear or concern is, recognize that any negative thoughts and beliefs will limit you in your childbirth — and also throughout life. By addressing these fears and negative thoughts, you will be able to remove this attitude of fear from your current context. Just as you can absorb fear, you can also wring it out.

Denise Spatafora, author of  “Better Birth, The Ultimate Guide to Childbirth from Home Births to Hospitals,” is the creator of Bornclear, a nationally recognized birthing method backed by renowned doctors, midwives and celebrities. Her revolutionary book, “Better Birth” is based on the mind-body connection preparing women and couples on all levels for conception and birth: emotionally, mentally, physically and spiritually — leaving them educated, empowered and trusting themselves and their choices. There are also many opportunities throughout the book to bring greater self-awareness and personal growth to birthing themselves as mothers and parents. Spatafora has appeared on a number of television and radio programs. She is also a contributing expert and editor for several publications and sites, such as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Elle, New York Magazine and Allure. Find “Better Birth” on Facebook.

To celebrate letting go of your fears, Get Upright and Follow the Urges to Push.

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