Naturally Born: The Basics of Natural Pregnancy and Birth
Sep 27, 2013 07:06PM
By Beth Davis
Being pregnant and giving birth are natural life experiences—ones for which a woman’s body is well designed. Female bodies are innately prepared with the strength, stamina and ability to nourish a safe and natural pregnancy and childbirth, but women are often fearful of the unknown. It’s helpful to be prepared for—and aware of—the physical and emotional changes we may experience, and what we can do to promote a natural, stress-free pregnancy and delivery.
The key to a natural pregnancy is creating an internal and external environment of healthy, positive elements, such as proper nutrition, appropriate exercise, planning the ideal care and partnering with a supportive practitioner who can lead women through each step safely and confidently. Complementary therapies are also a growing trend with many women who are using them from preconception through birth.
Here, we break down a few of the essentials to a happy, healthy pregnancy, birth and baby—naturally.
Herbs, Vitamins and Nutrients
According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), although medicine has replaced most natural supplements with a synthetic substitute, many pregnant women still look to natural herbs and vitamins to provide essential nutrition, as well as aid in the relief of some common discomforts. Many herbalists believe that herbs are often better, cheaper and healthier than their medical counterparts. However, even though herbs are natural, not all are safe to take during pregnancy.
Dr. Aviva Romm, a Yale-trained physician specializing in integrative medicine for women and children, a midwife, herbalist and author of The Natural Pregnancy Book, among others, says the safest approach is to avoid using herbs during the first trimester of pregnancy unless necessary; to only use those herbs known to be safe in pregnancy; and to consult with an experienced midwife, herbalist or medical doctor on the safe use of herbs in pregnancy.
She says the following five herbs are known to be safe during pregnancy and can help with a variety of common discomforts and problems while helping prepare the body for a healthy birth.
Ginger for morning sickness.
Red raspberry leaf for an easier labor.
Echinacea for colds.
Cranberry for prevention of urinary tract infections.
Chamomile for better sleep.
On the flip side, the Natural Medicines Database (NaturalDatabase.com) lists the following herbs as likely unsafe or unsafe during pregnancy when used orally:
Black and blue cohosh
Pennyroyal, when used orally or topically
So, what’s a girl to do? Proceed with caution. Herbs can provide substantial relief for common complaints and concerns that arise during pregnancy and childbirth, but it’s important to be informed.
We all know a balanced diet is the best way to receive necessary nutrients, but vitamin supplements can also be beneficial. The Mayo Clinic recommends prenatal vitamins, which typically contain more folic acid and iron than do standard adult multivitamins. Some research even suggests that prenatal vitamins decrease the risk of low birth weight. Remember, though, that prenatal vitamins are a complement to a healthy diet, not a substitute for good nutrition.
Standard prenatal vitamins don’t include omega-3 fatty acids, which may help promote a baby’s brain development. For those unable to eat fish—or choose not to—a healthcare provider may recommend omega-3 supplements. Calcium and vitamin D are also important, especially during the third trimester when the baby’s bones are rapidly growing and strengthening. In addition to the prenatal vitamin, physicians suggest drinking vitamin D-fortified, low-fat milk or other calcium-rich foods containing vitamin D. Again, for those who don’t drink milk or eat calcium-rich foods, supplements may be an option.
Heating and cooking kills enzymes that are needed for proper nutrient absorption, so expectant moms are also encouraged to eat more raw foods that allow the body to fully use everything they consume.
When a woman discovers she is pregnant, digestion issues quickly become a concern. Increasing hormones, fatigue and stress disturb the healthy balance of good bacteria in the gut and cause a sluggish digestive system often leading to constipation, indigestion, nausea and vomiting. Dr. William Sears, a renowned physician and author of more than 30 parenting books, says probiotics can be extremely beneficial to an expectant mother. “The gut is home to billions of bacteria, good and bad,” he explains. “When harmful bacteria take over, they cause a variety of intestinal upsets. Probiotics colonize the intestines with good bacteria and keep the bad bacteria from multiplying.”
Probiotic benefits are also extended to the fetus and help promote a strong immune system at birth. Studies show that mothers who increase their probiotic intake during pregnancy reduce their child’s risk of allergies by as much as 50 percent, specifically in eczema, asthma and atopic dermatitis.
Sears says the most popular probiotic is lactobacillus acidophilus, found in yogurt and other cultured foods (look for the phrase “live and active cultures” on the label). Although food acquired probiotics are the most desirable, supplementation is often necessary. Probiotic supplements—typically in capsule or powder form—can be found in health and nutrition stores, pharmacies and vitamin shops.
Optimal Diet and Nutrition
A healthy pregnancy begins before conception. Having a strong nutritional foundation in place not only increases the odds of healthy conception, but will also help the body handle early pregnancy without the major discomfort.
We’ve all heard the foods we should avoid—excess caffeine, seafood high in mercury, soft cheeses and alcohol, to name a few—but what should we consume to ensure optimal nutrition?
Switching to a whole foods diet of natural, minimally processed foods is an easy way to make sure we’re getting more of the good stuff and avoiding things like artificial ingredients, excessive amounts of simple sugars and unhealthy fats. That leaves room for the basics, such as organic fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, dairy, nuts, legumes and lean animal protein (for non vegans and vegetarians).
Heating and cooking kills enzymes that are needed for proper nutrient absorption, so expectant moms are also encouraged to eat more raw foods that allow the body to fully use everything they consume. This includes fruits, veggies and even milk and yogurt.
Preparing for Birth
What else does the body require in order to give women the greatest chance of a pregnancy and birth that is as comfortable as it is memorable? Research suggests elements such as a fully functioning nervous system, movement and exercise and positive thoughts and emotions contribute to a smooth nine months and beyond.
Women are gravitating toward prenatal yoga classes now more than ever for its multitude of benefits. This multifaceted approach to exercise encourages stretching, mental centering and focused breathing. It helps keeps us limber, tones the muscles and improves balance and circulation—all of which are helpful during the demands of labor, birth and even motherhood. The Mayo Clinic notes that prenatal yoga can:
Reduce stress and anxiety.
Increase the strength, flexibility and endurance of muscles needed for childbirth.
Decrease lower back pain, nausea, carpal tunnel syndrome, headaches and shortness of breath.
Decrease the risk of preterm labor, pregnancy-induced hypertension and intrauterine growth restriction, a condition that slows a baby’s growth.
A prenatal yoga class can also help pregnant women bond and prepare for the trials and tribulations of being a new parent.
Many women are also seeking chiropractic care during pregnancy to relieve neck or back pain. However, chiropractic can be beneficial even for those who aren’t in pain. According to the APA, chiropractic care during pregnancy maintains, and can even improve balance and alignment in the spine and pelvis. This can help the baby assume his or her optimal birthing position. Regular chiropractic care can also provide a more comfortable, and natural, pregnancy and delivery for both mother and baby. It stimulates the nervous system to enable proper functioning of the reproductive organs, thus supporting the needs of the baby throughout pregnancy and during delivery.
Studies show that mothers who increase their probiotic intake during pregnancy reduce their child’s risk of allergies by as much as 50 percent, specifically in eczema, asthma and atopic dermatitis.
For those seeking relaxation with health benefits, prenatal massage is an ideal complementary therapy. A therapeutic bodywork that focuses on the special needs of the mother-to-be as her body goes through the dramatic changes of pregnancy, prenatal massage is a healthy way to reduce stress and promote overall wellness. It enhances the function of muscles and joints, improves circulation and general body tone and relieves mental and physical fatigue. Massage also provides a natural, safe, drug-free alternative choice for pain relief.
Prenatal yoga, a multifaceted approach to exercise, encourages stretching, mental centering and focused breathing.
Labor Without Drugs
Turns out, ditching the drugs has more advantages than one might think. Women who get an epidural have a greater incidence of risky interventions to get baby out, such as vacuum extraction and delivery by forceps, or even a c-section, according to a recent study in National Vital Statistics Reports. An epidural can also mean short-lived side effects for mom, including low blood pressure, headache and fever.
A number of different natural childbirth methods, philosophies and professions exist that can help women forgo the drugs and go au natural.
Certified nurse-midwives are certified by the American College of Nurse-Midwives and formally trained in both nursing and midwifery. They work with the mother during the pregnancy to provide counseling, education and prenatal care, but can also provide well-woman care year-round. Midwives emphasize pregnancy and birth as a natural process and aim to decrease unnecessary medical interventions in births. Their philosophy is that they are there to facilitate but not control.
A doula is a trained professional who supports mothers and mothers-to-be physically, emotionally and through education. A doula offers encouragement, answers questions about childbirth, provides guidance and administers comfort during the entire term of childbirth and postpartum care.
The Bradley Method teaches natural childbirth and views birth as a natural process. Classes last 12 weeks and emphasize excellent nutrition and exercise, relaxation techniques to manage pain and the effective involvement of the husband or partner as coach.
HypnoBirthing teaches women self-hypnosis, which puts them in a state of deep relaxation and acts as a natural anesthesia during birth. Through deep relaxation and self-hypnosis, HypnoBirthing teaches moms-to-be how to reach a peaceful state that helps keep pain to a minimum.
Many women use acupuncture leading up to their birth to help prepare their body for labor, and they also use it during birth to manage pain, sustain energy, lower blood pressure and decrease anxiety.
A water delivery is giving birth in a warm tub of water, which can help a woman relax and the buoyancy help alleviate discomfort and pressure. Some believe that the water helps the baby enter the world with less light, sound and dramatic change.
Most natural childbirth techniques are not invasive, so there’s little potential for harm or side effects for mothers or their babies.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months—although any amount of breastfeeding is beneficial. The good news is that not only is it best for baby, but scientific studies have shown that breastfeeding is good for momma’s health, too.
For infants, breast milk provides the ideal nutrition. It has the perfect mix of vitamins, protein, and fat—everything a baby needs to grow. Breast milk contains antibodies that help infants fight off viruses and bacteria, and breastfeeding reduces a baby’s risk of having asthma or allergies. Studies show that babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses and bouts of diarrhea. They also have fewer hospitalizations and trips to the doctor. The AAP says breastfeeding also plays a role in the prevention of sudden infant death syndrome.
Moms benefit because breastfeeding burns extra calories, helping women lose pregnancy weight faster. It releases the hormone oxytocin, which helps the uterus return to its pre-pregnancy size and may reduce uterine bleeding after birth. Breastfeeding also lowers the risk of breast and ovarian cancer, and might even lower the risk of osteoporosis.
By ensuring a safe and happy pregnancy and birth for mom and baby, we help guarantee that our children have a healthy foundation to grow.
Beth Davis is a regular contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines.
Mother-to-Mother Support for Breastfeeding
La Leche League of Space Coast Florida
SpaceCoastLLL.com • 321-610-3406
La Leche League of the Treasure Coast
LLLofTC.org • See website to contact a leader.
Support for Women Facing or Recovering from Cesareans
ICAN of Brevard
International Cesarean Awareness Network
321-345-3443 • Facebook.com/ICanBrevard