Four Steps to a Positive Birth Experience

birth planning pregnancy Nov 04, 2021

I have been working with pregnant women for over 15 years and have heard HUNDREDS of birth stories that are on a continuum from Empowering to Traumatic and everything in between.

As a result, I have harnessed the ability to glean all sorts of information from my intake forms that are strategically created to help me help women have the most positive experiences possible.  

And there is always one sentiment that makes me cringe.  Not in the condescending “How could you?!” way but more like “I want to crawl under the covers and hide” way.  It’s this one sentence (which I’m pulling directly from multiple intake forms over the years) that gets me every time:

I will be having a natural birth at a birth center.

Now hold on a second, let me explain.  My own three births were medication-free and caught by midwives so let’s just clarify a few things.  I have nothing against natural births OR birth centers.  In fact, I fully support them both.  

But what sends me quivering under the covers is a statement so sure-footed, so absolute, so rigid about one of the only events in our life that requires a complete surrender and an acceptance of an absolute loss of control…..childbirth.

We also have to define “natural birth.”  Some people consider natural birth just having a vaginal delivery.  And some consider it a vaginal and intervention-free birth without the use of pain medications, fetal monitoring and the like.  

For the purposes of this conversation, I’ll use the latter definition.  But this is a good time to point out that in our current culture, an unmedicated vaginal birth is held on a pedestal while women who choose pain medication or have Cesarean sections are sometimes made to feel “less than.”  

And I couldn’t disagree more.  Women who had C-sections are some of the bravest women I know.  They are often prepped for surgery without the presence of a partner and silently need to make peace with the idea that this might be the best way for their child to be brought into the world even if it means surgery, scars, and letting go of a vision for birth that they may have been imagining for 9 months (or longer).

Here’s the follow-up question I always ask in response to the statement “I will be having a natural birth at a birth center” and you need to ask yourself the exact same thing:

“What is more important to you, having a natural birth or having a positive birth?”

Let this question sink in, and give it the time it deserves.  Because I have seen unmedicated vaginal births where the experience was extremely negative and unplanned C-sections where the experience was extremely positive.

I define a positive birth experience as one in which the laboring mom felt like an empowered part of the decision-making process that led to the birth of her baby.  

You see, some people think a traumatic birth only occurs when the mother or baby’s life was at risk.  I disagree.  

After treating thousands of postpartum women and hearing their birth stories, it appears that a traumatic birth experience is any experience where the mom did NOT feel empowered to contribute to decisions, or the actual birth deviated significantly from the story she had written in her head.

In this way, a positive birth experience is not tied to an outcome, but rather tied to your feelings about the way the birth unfolded.  Once again echoing the sentiment that it’s about the journey, not necessarily the destination.

So, what advice would I give to women preparing for birth to help them have the most positive experience possible?  Here are the 4 best pieces of advice I can offer.

Prepare mentally and physically for every possibility.  

I know most first-time moms aren’t preparing for a C-section, but 1 in 4 women give birth via Cesarean, so know the information and prepare for the possibility.  Spend a few minutes researching C-sections. Think about how you can turn something unplanned into a more positive experience, and how your recovery might look a little different.  

Write your birth story in pencil and keep an open mind.  

Rather than striving for an unmedicated vaginal birth, strive for an experience where you felt supported every step of the way.  Trust a professional (ahem!) to know what muscles need to be stretched and which need to be strengthened to prepare your body for the birth of your baby.  

Consider hiring a doula.

A good one!  How do you find a “good” doula? In my opinion, you should interview three.  Just like I try to get three bids before starting a home improvement project, this is no different.  

Try to arrange a face-to-face meeting (or at least a virtual meeting) with each one so you can get an idea about personalities and their overall energy.  Have your partner join if possible so they can also offer their feedback given the fact that the doula will also be supporting them on the big day.  

Ask good questions.  Some of my favorites are:

  • How many births have you attended?
  • Have you attended births at this location and with these providers before and what was your experience?
  • Do you have other clients with due dates near mine and how do you schedule clients?
  • Do you have a backup doula and how often does she cover clients for you?
  • How do you feel about epidurals and other pain meds?
  • What alternate strategies do you have for pain management that you can offer in labor?
  • Do you offer prenatal visits or postpartum visits or lactation support?

Here’s the thing.  Your partner knows you best.  Your doula knows birth best.  And together you will make a powerful team!

Make a birth wish list, not a birth plan.

Listen, I’m your standard Type A, loves-to-be-in-control type of gal.  I make lists every single day and get great joy from crossing things out.  I like plans. Scratch that, I LOVE plans and planning ahead, so for me to give the advice to “ditch the plan” is very out of character.  

I’m not saying to abandon the idea of thinking about your birth and how you’d like it to go.  Not at all.  But I think words matter in this situation and the idea of planning for something that might go one of 100 different ways is just setting yourself up for disappointment.  

But a wish list? That idea I can really get behind.  Consider this example: If I made a birthday gift PLAN of all the things I wanted to get it might include: a spa day package, an air fryer, a new outfit, and my favorite accessory which is really big earrings.  If I was expecting all these things and then didn’t get some of them, I would be pretty disappointed.  However, if I made a birthday wish list, and prepared a thoughtful collection of things I really wanted but was open to the possibility of not getting them, the result would be much more positive.  

Have a list of mental health specialists on stand-by.  

There are counselors and therapists and social workers that are trained in traumatic birth experiences and many are offering telehealth appointments.  Take a moment to research a few because the power of sharing your birth story and processing it with a professional is an invaluable gift.  It can shape your entire postpartum journey and allow you to enter motherhood with confidence and grace, unencumbered by feelings of confusion and regret.

My hope and prayer is that every woman who gives birth is able to look back on the events that brought her baby into the world and rest in the knowledge that her birth team rallied around her and allowed her to feel supported and empowered every step of the way, regardless of the outcome.


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