Most pregnant women are afraid of the pain of childbirth. They’ve heard enough stories or seen enough births depicted in the movies to associate the experience with agony and suffering, often accompanied by screaming and cursing.
Some pregnant women are so afraid of childbirth pain that they decide to get an epidural as soon as they are admitted to a hospital, or arrange for a pre-planned cesarean section, even though this may prolong post childbirth recovery. Others choose to grin and bear it, but find themselves overwhelmed by the intense sensations that accompany childbirth or by restrictive protocols imposed by a busy hospital maternity ward.
In her new book Mindful Birthing: Training the Mind, Body, and Heart for Childbirth and Beyond, midwife Nancy Bardacke has news for pregnant women: there’s another way to approach childbirth—mindfully. Through years of teaching childbirth prep courses at the University of California San Francisco’s Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, she has developed a program that teaches couples how to use mindfulness—the experience of paying attention to your present experience with acceptance and wisdom—to cope with the stress and pain associated with pregnancy and childbirth. Mindful Birthing closely follows her workshop format.
In the book, Bardacke demystifies the pain of childbirth, by explaining the physiology of labor and delivery and how the mind-body connection contributes to the experience in both positive and negative ways. She encourages mothers-to-be to accept what’s happening with their bodies during childbirth rather than trying to make it all come out a certain way, arguing that giving birth is neither predictable nor under our direct control. This unpredictability is why mindfulness can be so effective, she argues, since mindfulness teaches one to relax into the present and accept the changing nature of experience.
To help couples cope, Bardacke introduces several mindfulness practices, starting with basic breathing meditation (where one is taught how to pay close attention to the breath, thereby training one’s mind to stay focused and calm). Later, she teaches mindful eating, body scans, yoga poses, sound meditations, and many other practices that those familiar with mindfulness will recognize, explaining how couples can use them during pregnancy and beyond.
The chapters on working with pain are particularly enlightening. Bardacke has her students plunge their hands into ice water and teaches them how to work with the intense sensations mindfully to minimize their suffering, much like they would need to work with painful contractions during childbirth. According to Bardacke, a mindfulness practice will not eliminate pain in childbirth; but it can help women accept it, work with it, and get through it with less suffering.
“Mindfulness practice offers us another way of approaching our childbirth experience and, for that matter, any challenging experience in life,” she writes. “Through mindfulness practice we can learn to hold whatever we are experiencing in the present moment in a space of open acceptance to things as they are, even if those things are unpleasant—and, yes, even painful.”
After reading this book, I wished I’d had Bardacke’s class before giving birth myself. I’m sure I would have benefitted from her mindfulness training, not only because of childbirth, but later on too, after my children were born, and the true test of resiliency begins.
But even from my way post-partum vantage point, I can see the usefulness of learning Bardacke’s mindfulness techniques—if not to handle childbirth, then to handle life’s other painful or difficult passages. Her book, with its clarity and compassionate tone, is well worth the read.