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Relax, you’re in labour!

Written by Amina Hatia RM
Medically reviewed by Marley Hall BA RM Diphe
This resource covers

Relax?  Are you kidding? The very notion of relaxing while you’re giving birth sounds crazy doesn’t it?! A little person emerging from your body, causing you pain and anxiety doesn’t seem like a relaxing situation at all!  However one of the most important things that you can do to help yourself in labour is to learn about relaxation and we’re going to look at just how and why relaxation could help you…

Why learning to relax is important

  • If you’re tense, labour contractions are likely to be more painful, which in turn makes you more tense (so contractions are more painful – and so on)
  • If you’re tense, your body may produce less of its own pain-relieving substances
  • Being tense uses up energy – so tension makes you tired
  • If you’re tense, your body may produce less of the hormones that are needed to make the contractions happen
  • Being tense reduces the supply of oxygen that your womb needs to work

Of course, knowing that relaxing is helpful isn’t the same as being able to do it, especially when you’re in pain, or in an unfamiliar place, with people you don’t know, as you may be if you’re having your baby in hospital. Below are various different relaxation exercises that you can try, which might help you to get yourself relaxed. Most of them will involve having a partner or companion to help you, at least at first.

Being relaxed isn’t of course just of benefit in labour – it helps in life too. It certainly helps in the early days of being a parent, when things can be rather chaotic, as well as in the later stages of pregnancy, when you may be feeling tired, weary and uncomfortable. It can help at work and in relationships too.

Below are four different types of relaxation exercises you might like to try:

Relaxing through deep breathing

This exercise is based on breathing deeply. When you’re very relaxed, you breathe deeply and slowly, and this exercise is designed to help you relax by adopting a pattern of relaxed breathing. You also breathe slowly and deeply when you’re asleep, so if you’re having trouble sleeping, try this exercise as a way of helping you get to sleep.

The best way to do the exercise at first may be to print it out and get someone to talk you through it. If you do this, ask them to read it to you softly and slowly. I’ve put in asterisks to mark places where it would be good to pause slightly. The exercise can take just a few minutes, or longer, depending on how long you want to stay in a deeply relaxed state. You’ll need to let the person who’s helping you know how long you want to do it for before you start. When you’ve done the exercise with someone talking you through it, you’ll probably be able to do it by yourself. You might like to have some relaxing music playing in the background.

Do the exercise lying down on your bed, or on a sofa or on the floor. If lying on your back makes you dizzy, lie on your side. If you lie on your back, make sure you roll over onto your side before you get up at the end. Hopefully, you’ll be very relaxed after you’ve done the exercise, so don’t get up too quickly and don’t start rushing around again straight away!

What to do/say:

Make sure that you’re comfortable and that all parts of your body are supported so that your muscles aren’t working at all. Close your eyes. Try and forget about your surroundings, and focus in on yourself and your body.

*** Focus particularly on your breathing. Don’t try and change it at all, just be aware of how you’re breathing.

*** In particular, notice your out-breath and concentrate on breathing out.

*** Now as you breathe, notice what part of your chest or abdomen is rising and rest your hands lightly on that part. Keep breathing and focusing on your out-breaths.

*** Now unless your hands are already towards the bottom of your abdomen, move them right down your abdomen and try and breathe a bit more deeply, into your hands, so that your abdomen rises under your hands. Breathe as deeply as you can, but don’t force it, just do what feels comfortable.

*** Keep breathing.

*** If you want to make your breathing even deeper, you can try and slow it down by making the gap between each out-breath slightly longer. It might help if you count each of your out-breaths, and try and make the gap between each count longer so that you’re counting more *** and more *** slowly *** all the time***. When you get to 10, start again at one.

*** Now just stay breathing like that, deeply and slowly, from your abdomen, and concentrating on your out-breaths
[allow as much time here as you want].

Now, very slowly, taking your own time, open your eyes, focus back on your surroundings and very slowly sit up. There’s no hurry. Take it slowly.

Relaxing each part of your body in turn

This relaxation exercise is based on consciously relaxing the different parts of your body in turn until your whole body is relaxed. If any part of your body is tense, its muscles are working and using energy and oxygen. In labour, you don’t want to be using up energy and oxygen unnecessarily, so it helps if you can keep your body relaxed. Also, because tension takes up energy, you tire more easily when you’re tense. So if you’re suffering from tiredness now, as many women do in the final stage of pregnancy, relaxing might help a bit with that.

Again, the first time you do this exercise, it might help to have someone talk you through it. The asterisks show where they should pause slightly. You’ll need to tell them in advance how long you want to do the exercise for, so that they know how long to leave you in your relaxed state.

Do the exercise lying down on your bed, or on a sofa or on the floor. Lie on your back, or if that makes you dizzy, on your side. If you lie on your side, you won’t be able to do everything in the exercise exactly as it says, but it doesn’t matter – just do what you can. If you lie on your back, remember to roll over onto your side before you get up at the end. And don’t get up too quickly.

What to do/say:

Make sure you’re comfortable and that all parts of your body are supported. Put your hands by your sides and have your feet slightly apart. Close your eyes. Try and forget your surroundings and focus in on yourself. Concentrate on your breathing, particularly on your out-breath. Part your lips as you breathe out and gently sigh the breath out. Breathe as slowly and as deeply as you can, right down into your abdomen.

*** Now with your next out-breath, allow your head to sink down into the bed [or wherever she’s lying]. Let it feel really heavy, almost as if it’s being pulled into the bed. Let your jaw drop and your lips soften. Keep your tongue loose in your mouth, not held against the roof of it. Think about the tension draining out of your cheeks and your forehead. Let your face relax.

***With the next out-breath, let your shoulders drop towards your feet and let your neck and shoulders relax. Feel them sinking down into the bed so that they feel heavy. *** Now become aware of your right arm. Roll it slightly away from your body and let it flop. Your upper arm. Your lower arm. Your hand. The whole of your right arm now feels heavy and warm and relaxed. Keep breathing slowly and deeply.

*** Now your left arm. Roll that away from your body too and let it flop. Your upper arm. Your lower arm. Your hand. The whole of your right arm now feels heavy and warm and relaxed too. *** With your next out-breath let your chest and abdomen sink down into the bed, so that your upper body feels heavy and
relaxed. *** Now roll both your legs slightly out to the side and let your pelvis and hips become loose and heavy and relaxed.

*** Let your right leg sink down into the bed. Your upper leg. Your lower leg. And let your foot flop. Your right leg is now feeling heavy and warm and relaxed.

*** Now your left leg. Let that sink into the bed. Your upper leg. Your lower leg. And your foot.

*** So now your whole body is completely relaxed. Let it stay feeling heavy and warm and keep breathing slowly and deeply. [Pause here for as long as she wants]

Now very slowly, in your own time, open your eyes and focus back on your surroundings. Stretch yourself out. Stretch your arms and legs, your fingers and toes. And sit back up again.

Relaxing ‘all in one’

This relaxation technique is a modification of the relaxing each part of your body in turn exercise that was included in last week’s class. That exercise is fine if you have time to do it, as you may have between contractions in the early part of labour (or now, or after your baby’s born), but when contractions are coming with only a minute or two between them, you won’t have time for it. This technique is therefore one for you to use when you need to relax quickly. Try and remember to use it at the beginning of each contraction when you’re in labour, and when you practise deep breathing now.

In the ‘relaxing each part of your body in turn’ exercise, you concentrated on, well, relaxing each part of your body in turn! In this technique, you do the same thing, but all in one go, letting all the parts of your body, from your head to your feet, relax in one smooth movement.

This is what you do:

Stand up, with your feet about hips’ width apart and your hands by your side. Breathe in, and as you breathe out, let your body flop, so that your head drops, your shoulders drop, your torso flops, your arms and hands flop, your hips drop and your knees bend. Try it a couple more times. (It might help if you think of yourself as a jelly that’s been turned out before it’s set properly!)

If you can’t manage to do the full technique at the beginning of a contraction, at the very least drop your shoulders. You might find it helpful if your labour companion puts their hands on your shoulders to remind you. You might also find it helpful if they say to you ‘flop’ or ‘let go’ – and keep saying it during the contraction.

Relaxing through touch

This relaxation exercise is based on touch, and you need to have a partner or companion to help you do it.

It’s very simple, it just involves your companion placing their hands gently on any area of your body and you relaxing into their touch. It isn’t massage, your companion just lays their hands on your body and rests them there for a few seconds.

We all tend to show tension in different ways. Some of us tense our shoulders, others grit our teeth, others clench their fists or curl their toes, some of us frown. Make sure that your labour companion knows which areas of your body you tense up in so that they can keep a particular eye out on those areas during labour and help you relax them.

The technique as described here involves working through all the different parts of your body in turn, one by one. When it comes to labour, though, rather than doing it in this step by step way, your companion will need to concentrate on your individual tension areas, and apply the technique to those areas in particular. The aim of working through all the different parts of your body as described here, is to practise the technique and learn how it works with each part. So, try the following:

Sit on the floor together, so that you’re sitting between your companion’s legs, facing away from them, with your back leaning against their chest. This might be more comfortable if they rest their back against something. (This isn’t a particularly good position for labour, but it’s good for practising the technique). What the exercise involves is your companion laying their hands on different parts of your body in turn, and you relaxing where you’re touched. Remember that a tense muscle is a working muscle, and in labour you don’t want muscles to be working unnecessarily.

You may want your companion to:

  • Lay their hands on the top of your head. Drop your head forward slightly
  • Gently stroke your brow. Relax into their touch, loosening your brow, letting any worry lines smooth out. Your companion should be able to feel your brow soften under their hands – and should tell you if they don’t (this applies to all the other steps too)
  • Slide their hands under your jaw and cup your face. Let your jaw go loose, let your mouth soften, part your lips. (We register a lot of tension in our faces)
  • Lay their hands on your shoulders. Let your shoulders drop, breathing out as you do so. It can be really helpful to have your labour companion do this during a contraction, especially at it starts
  • Put their hands on your upper arms. Let your arms go loose and heavy.
  • Lay their hands on your hands. Open out your fingers and let your hands flop. (You may clench your fists during a contraction – this is a way of helping you not to)
  • Rest their hands on your tummy, at the top of your bump. Relax into their touch. (During a first stage contraction, your womb will rise slightly. If your tummy muscles are tense, they’ll make it more difficult for your womb to rise, which may make the contraction more painful)
  • Rest their hands under your bump. Relax into their touch. (This can help in first stage as your cervix is dilating)
  • Place their hands on your thighs. Let your thighs loosen. (Some women find that their legs go all shaky in first stage, especially during transition)
  • (If they can reach from where they’re sitting!) rest their hands on your feet. Let your feet flop. (This can help during a contraction if you’re curling your toes.)

Remember – during labour, your companion should keep a weather eye open on your particular individual tension areas. And in general, it can help if they keep reminding you to relax by saying ‘flop’ or ‘let go’.

It’s also worth noting that while some women find it helpful to have their companion helping them to relax in this way, not all women actually like being touched when they’re in labour. It would perhaps be as well to warn your companion about this beforehand!