There are some people who don't seem to prepare themselves for labour at all, and who have easy births, and there are others who attend every class going and yet still things still don't work out the way they had hoped. Preparing for birth does not guarantee that your labour will go smoothly, but it can certainly tip the odds in your favour.
This page describes things some mothers find helpful in pregnancy. They should be equally relevant, whether you are planning home or hospital birth. Some of them are obvious, others perhaps not so. They are:
You will find more suggestions for things to organise before your labour starts, under Practical Preparation for Home Birth, Equipment and 'props' in 'shopping list' format on the Home Birth Equipment page, and ideas for a birthplan under Home Birth Plans.
If your baby is in the 'occiput anterior' position when you go into labour, he is facing your back, with his head flexed so that his chin is near his chest. The position is usually described as 'Left Occiput Anterior' or LOA, or Right Occiput Anterior or ROA. The anterior position is ideal for birth - it means that the baby is aligned so as to fit through your pelvis as easily as possible. Most babies are in this position.
The next most common position is the 'posterior' position. This means the baby is facing your tummy. Mothers of babies in the 'posterior' position are more likely to have long and painful labours as the baby usually has to turn all the way round to facing the back in order to be born. Many mothers whose babies are in the posterior position will transfer to hospital so that they can have an epidural, and also because labour can take a long time.
You can increase your chances of having a good birth at home, by making sure your baby is in a good position. This can often be achieved by paying attention to your posture and movements in late pregnancy. There are also 'tricks' for turning posterior babies, if yours seems stubborn. See the page on optimum foetal positioning for more information.
If your baby is in the breech position then you might have trouble arranging a home birth, or you might not wish to have a home birth in case emergency intervention is needed. There is a large amount of information on turning breech babies in the US Midwife Archives. You can also search the site for suggestions on turning transverse babies.
The object of Active Birth classes is to help you use movement and gravity to labour in a natural and effective way. Movement in labour can ease pain and also help labour progress. The classes include yoga movements which are specifically for pregnancy, and suitable for people who have never done yoga before, and relaxation techniques.
In the UK, Active Birth teachers practise in most areas and normally they hold weekly classes. You might do some stretches to increase flexibility, and then practise movements for use in labour. For example, you might stand upright and sway your hips, or kneel on all fours and move your hips in larger or smaller circles to relieve imaginary contractions. You will pay attention your breathing during all movements and stretches - nothing complicated, you simply focus on breathing out in a slow and controlled fashion.
When you have practised these movements so often that they become second nature, you may well find yourself automatically using them in labour. Because the movements and breathing patterns are simple, and you have practised them often, they can be very effective tools to help you manage labour. It is important to note that you will have practised these movements and breathing techniques often and regularly - this is much more effective than simply attending one class or workshop on breathing techniques and then hoping that you can remember them when you are in labour.
The Active Birth Centre can tell you if there is a teacher in your area in the UK, or may be able to refer you on to a suitable organisation elsewhere. You can also attend one-off workshops on birth preparation, breastfeeding, and other relevant topics. They also sell an audio cassette tape of antenatal yoga exercises, with a booklet for illustrations.
In other countries, your midwife may be able to suggest yoga classes for pregnancy. Alternatively, ordinary yoga classes will still help with flexibility and relaxation, but let the teacher know that you are pregnant as some positions will be unsuitable.
Antenatal classes help you to know what to expect in labour and birth, and should describe many of your options. Some of them will also include sessions on pain management through breathing or movement.
Studies on pain perception in labour have found that women who have attended childbirth preparation classes rate labour on average as less painful than women who have not. The reference for this has been temporarily mislaid, but I will add it when it turns up!
Your local hospital or doctor's surgery may run its own classes, but these will usually (and understandably) be biased towards the beliefs of the health professionals in charge of them. They may simply explain what "will" be done in certain circumstances, rather than discussing your choices. Your local classes may be excellent, but you won't know if you've nothing to compare them to. It is certainly a good idea to take an independent class in addition to, or instead of, these.
The UK's National Childbirth Trust offers excellent ante-natal classes in small groups; I cannot recommend them highly enough. They include a session devoted to breastfeeding, presented by a specialist breastfeeding counsellor.
Would you enter a marathon - or even a half-marathon - run without any training? Labour frequently requires many hours of exertion, so the fitter you are, the better your body will be able to cope with it. Keeping active during pregnancy will also help you to recover after the birth, and most importantly - it will relax you. If you feel tired, you may well find that forcing yourself to exercise a little actually gives you more energy.
Swimming is a wonderful exercise in pregnancy. You can take aqua-natal classes especially for pregnant women, or simply swim on your own. Contact your local pool to ask about aqua-natal classes.
There are low-impact aerobics or stretching classes designed specifically for pregnancy - ask at your local leisure centre for details. You can also buy pregnancy exercise videos, eg from the YMCA.
For a discussion of safe exercise in pregnancy, and some ideas, see www.fitfor2.com
Home Birth Reference Page