5 amazing things our body does during pregnancy

Sometimes it feels like trust in birth is at an all time low here in the UK. Every week there seems to be a news item that gives parents to be new guidance, and none of it is good. There might be an article covering research that shows that labour should be induced at 39 weeks or another TV report that tells us that staffing levels are at an all time low.

The overall message for a nervous mum to be? You should be worried about what you’re about to experience. You’ll need all the help you can get.

This makes me so sad. Honestly it does. It’s like setting ourselves up for a massive fall. If you start your birth from a place of fear, that can only get worse as labour progresses. And why start there? What purpose does fear serve? For any of us?

So instead, to balance this less productive mindset, let’s consider 5 amazing facts about our wonderful bodies that show just how incredible they really are.

1. Super woman levels of oestrogen

A pregnant woman makes more oestrogen during her pregnancy than she does in the rest of her life. Oestrogen is the growth hormone. During the first trimester it helps grow the placenta, improves the transfer of nutrients through the umbilical cord and fuels the very rapid development of the tiny foetus. Later in pregnancy, you’ll see it’s wonderful effect in your strong nails, glowing skin and lush hair. It literally makes everything renew and flourish.

2. If you have a girl, you’re carrying two generations

You may not have thought of this incredible fact before. Are you over thirty? Perhaps you might have heard the slightly depressing fact that women are born with only a certain number of eggs then. You have all you will ever have when you’re born. Flip this around though, as I do now, and consider instead that if you have a little girl, you have also just been responsible for growing your grandchildren. Of course, she will have to decide to have them, but they are there all the same! Tiny eggs in her tiny ovaries, waiting to grow and ripen.

3. Your brain becomes more like a mother’s

As any mother can attest, your brain really does rearrange itself to adapt to its new role. Somehow, from somewhere, you find some superpowers which give you the ability to remember all the doctors appointments, pack baby bags each day and still manage to eat/wash/talk to non parents. The other incredible thing? Your brain prunes away the clutter it doesn’t need to allow you to become more empathetic, a change which will never reverse. Baby brain doesn’t sound so bad after all.

4. Your baby will let you know when it’s ready to meet you

As babies are growing in the womb, their lungs are full of amniotic fluid and they breathe through the placenta and umbilical cord. As they have this support system in place, they can prioritise developing all the other bits of their body before they need to be able to breathe air by themselves. Around about 32 weeks, as their lungs are completing their growth, they begin produce a chemical called a surfactant – essentially what we all have in our lungs that stops them collapsing as we breathe. Scientists found out that this surfactant chemical is what provides the signal to the mother that the baby is ready. When it accumulates to a high enough volume, it acts as a signal that labour can start, usually from 36 weeks onwards.

5. Boys and girls receive different compositions of breast milk

True fact! Milk for girls is higher volume with more glucose and calcium. Milk for boys is lower in volume with more fat and protein. Researchers also think that hormone levels differ too which would make a lot of sense. Right from the beginning boys receive more cortisol and growth hormone, fuelling their larger physical frames.

And finally: Dads’ hormones change too

Just before a new baby arrives Dad’s testosterone levels drop and prolactin (a natural bonding hormone as well as the one that produces milk) is increased. One theory is that it prevents men looking for a new partner and instead prompts them to look after their current one and new family – plus cope better with the potential short term lack of sex… not bad hey?

Looking at this list, I find it really hard to believe that anyone could think that nature doesn’t have our back and that our bodies haven’t been designed to be anything other than amazing. Of course, it’s brilliant that we can access full medical care when we need it but, women, we can really afford to be proud ourselves too.

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This post was written for and first appeared on The Natural Parent Magazine.

Don’t leave your birth plans to chance

Lately in the UK (or in the group of parents to be and parents that I know anyway), there has been a shift away from planning your birth experience. A lot of mums-to-be especially have said to me that there’s “No point planning for what you can’t control” or that “If I don’t make a plan, I can’t be disappointed”. I should mention a deeper interest here: I teach parents to be about birth for a living – but I’m also a parent and even before I had learnt more about care during labour, I still felt strongly that being engaged in the process would lead to a better outcome.

I would urge any expectant parents to plan for their birth as carefully as possible. After all, many parents spend a lot of time choosing items for their baby’s nursery or their pushchair. I would argue that birth plans are just as good a use of that time.

Whatever you choose to call this plan, it’s worth it

When I teach, I have to be realistic. Not every mother is the same, not every baby will behave as expected, not every birth will follow a particular path. We’re all individuals with different medical backgrounds, different hopes and different bodies. That’s fine. Wonderful even. Conformity is not the point.

I try very much to help parents reach a point where they understand that the birth experience they have, as long as they feel like they understand what happened and why certain choices were made, will absolutely be the right one for them. I would argue that engaging with your caregivers and the information they are giving you so that you can make decisions from a position of focus and knowledge is much more likely to help you feel happy with your birth.

It’s absolutely correct to not be overly attached to your original wishes. They can add an extra layer of stress and tension to what can already feel like a fairly pressurised situation. This shouldn’t stop us from trying for what we hoped for though so use the words that feel right. Birth plan, birth preferences, birth proposal – what really matters is that you’re expressing your wishes.

Making plans together is critical

One of the major benefits of couples taking antenatal classes together and then reflecting on the information afterwards, is that they do it together. This might sound obvious but it’s often not that straightforward. For a birth partner to defer to his partner’s wishes might sound like the ideal but actually, this birth partner might need to be able to explain these choices, to advocate for them and to protect the mum’s birth space. To do this well, it’s essential that both of the couple are as equally well informed and know how the other feels about the choices made.

Mum might want to make sure that not too many people are in the room; the birth partner might not want to cut the umbilical cord. To get a chance to know this about each other, they will need to talk about making a plan and potentially consider the options available. Again, this sounds obvious but it’s a weight off mum’s shoulders to know that the choices are understood then can be protected by someone else and hopefully the birth partner will feel empowered to take a more active role in the birth.

Your caregivers will know what you want

This sounds so simple when I say it but it’s true. If you don’t make a plan and let people know what you’d like to happen, how will they know?

Birth professionals like midwives and obstetrics doctors meet a lot of parents and deliver a lot of babies. Although it would be great if they remembered all of us individually, it’s not likely even if you were definitely going to see the same carers the whole way through. By not making your plans clear, you’re leaving a lot to chance. And why would you want to do that?

Step off the standard pathway

All medical institutions have what are known as standard pathways of care. They are planned out by the heads of the obstetrics and midwifery departments and they follow the principles of defensive medicine. Defensive medicine is exactly what you imagine it to be – assuming the worst case scenario and planning to mitigate that. While there is merit in this approach when something is actually going wrong, if you’re a mum who isn’t likely to need any medical interventions or assistance, the care you are offered can contradict your own plans.

If you don’t express your wishes, you’ll receive standard care and a much more negative approach. In fact, put the bits that matter most to you at the top of your plan, especially if they deviate from the norm.

Consider that you might need a back up plan

Having said all I have, as much as I believe in positivity and an open minded approach to care, I also believe in being informed.

Despite the fact that I was hoping for a home birth in a pool using hypnobirthing, my little girl was running late. She was also in a fairly unusual position for a baby who was looking like they wanted to make a break for it in the near future. By the time I was 9 days over, we were talking about c-sections – probably my very worst nightmare (although as Amy Poehler says “Good for her! Not for me!”) – and I was updating my birth plan to include my preference for a gentle c-section.

As much as I hoped for and visualised my ideal scenario, I found it easier to put aside my fear knowing that I’d covered all eventualities. It calmed me.

Our bodies are amazing and the power of our minds over them can have a profound effect. If you can take the time to plan, be true to your heart and set your worrying 4am mind at ease, you can write the kind of birth plan that any caregiver will be delighted to receive. After all, they’re in their job to support parents at this most incredible time. Make the most of your chance to have things your way – it literally is your moment of magic.

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This post was written for and first appeared on The Natural Parent Magazine.

Sue

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Photo credit: Tim Wright

Sue and I spent 7 years talking. I was allocated to her randomly, but as I’ve always believed, life has a way of bringing you the people you need.

We spoke by arrangement, every week at least, in a room that was cosy and dim in the winter, sticky and dim in the summer.

At first, I didn’t lie on the couch. I could only sit on the chair, avoiding eye contact as much as possible, trying to not let my foot jiggle, trying to to not flick my hair, touch my face constantly.

Together we unpicked the knots I held on to and found the dark spaces I hid in. Sometimes we said almost nothing. Other weeks conversation flowed freely. Over time she came to know my habits, remember the names of my sisters, notice the things I omitted. I noticed when she’d had her hair cut or was wearing a new pair of shoes but never said anything. It wasn’t really like that.

Patiently and lovingly, she sat with me, came to find me when I needed her to and pointed out the flaws in my thinking.

She had tears in her eyes the first time I visited the room after getting out of hospital. Things had been looking up. We’d thought the work was almost done. Instead, it just got more intense.

I told her when we began to try for a baby and I think we both knew it was the beginning of the end for our arrangement. She was wise enough to say it; I was too afraid to admit it. She laughed a kind of ironic laugh just three weeks later when I told her I was pregnant. Typically, it happened the first month we tried.

Our sessions finished by mutual agreement when I was 36 weeks pregnant and my feet were too swollen for me to travel anymore. I tried not to cry all the way home, wondering if I really could think for myself, in the way she had taught me, when there was no straightforward answer.

We had set just one goal for me, for once I became a mother. It’s simple to say, much harder to do. Most of all, I hoped to be able to hold on to reality. To be able to see and know what was true and what wasn’t.