39 Weeks Pregnant: Encouraging Labor Naturally

March 16 – March 22: 39 Weeks 0 Days – 39 Weeks 6 Days.

My mantra this week is: “My baby will be born in the perfect way at the perfect time.” If I need that as a mantra, you can guess that it’s not how I’m organically feeling. Other women have told me that by the end of pregnancy they were so uncomfortable that they were desperate for the baby to be born. Physically, I’m not that uncomfortable: I still have inner thigh spasms, achy knuckles, and no endurance, but that’s all manageable. It’s the mental discomfort that’s starting to get to me.

As I mentioned in my last post, I’ve cleared my to-do list and shifted into lazy vacation mode, which was great for a couple days. But reality is, I’m not a lazy vacationer. When Richard and I went to Hawaii for our honeymoon a couple years ago, in the space of ten days we swam with dolphins, marveled at molten lava from a helicopter, drove the whole perimeter of the big island to experience the variety of climate zones, snorkeled with colorful fish and sea turtles, explored shipwrecks in a submarine (with a bunch of old folks), enjoyed an Independence Day fireworks cruise, filled our bathing suits with sand during an afternoon boogie boarding, swam with the amazing manta rays, walked across the lava fields in Volcano National Park, and watched the sunset from the peak of Mauna Kea. To us, this was the best vacation ever.

One day last week, I didn’t leave the house and it was awful. By the end of the day, I didn’t feel calm, relaxed, and ready to get a good night’s sleep. I felt bored and restless. This week, I tried to get out of the house every day to do something stimulating, healthful, and social (while still leaving time for my requisite naps):

Monday: Prenatal Pilates and impromptu quickie prenatal massage.
Tuesday: Prenatal yoga in the A.M. and a mama’s circle with my doulas and their other clients in the P.M.
Wednesday: Appointment with my midwife and bringing lunch to an injured friend.
Thursday: Meditatively walking the labyrinth at Grace Cathedral with other pregnant. women as the noon bells tolled. And a longer prenatal massage with the same woman from Monday.
Friday: Morning prenatal yoga and evening date night with the husband (There was a brownie sundae with chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream involved)
Saturday: Replenishing Conscious Birth yoga workshop with Britt Fohrman
Sunday: The plan was to go swimming, but I was having a day of particularly high physical discomfort, so I curled up with a book instead. Relaxing all day was lovely, but I didn’t sleep well at night.

I nearly didn’t make the trek to Grace Cathedral, but I’m glad I did! Walking the labyrinth was such a nice birth preparation ritual. Jane Austin, one of the organizers, explained how the labyrinth is a metaphor for birth: It’s not a maze, you can’t get lost. If you just keep moving forward along the winding path eventually you’ll get to the end. The whole process took nearly an hour. We walked through the labyrinth into the center, where we paused for reflection. One women remarked that at the labyrinth had many switchbacks that made it feel like we were moving backward and away from the center, but in reality we were always moving forward and getting closer. Then we walked all the way back out.

One of the childbirth techniques I learned in Rachel Yellin’s class was to find power by visualizing all the women who have given birth before me. I got this feeling of community in the labyrinth: there were women in front of me and also women following me. At times, I’d be walking alongside another women on a parallel track or be surrounded by other women going in all different directions. During these times I relished in the solidarity and mutual support. At other times, I was in a completely different part of the labyrinth than anyone else, walking the path alone. During these times, I tapped into my own internal power and got connected to my breath.

Grace Cathedral Outdoor Labyrinth

It was a beautiful day to walk the outdoor labyrinth at Grace Cathedral. Many of us were close to forty weeks, so we must have been a sight to see! An older lady asked to take our picture after we were done our meditation.

Stir-craziness aside, another factor that’s got me anxious is that I’m starting to feel like I’m on the clock. Most hospitals medically induce labor at 42 weeks, and mine induces at 41.5 (probably because their focus is low-risk pregnancies). Along with other potential side effects, pitocin (a labor kickstarting drug) makes the experience of labor much more intense (which makes it harder to do without pain-management drugs), so I would love to avoid induction. As such, I’m starting to sense the tick-tock tick-tock tick-tock coming from my chart at the hospital.

Update: The morning of my due date Petco sent me an e-mail informing me it was my last chance to partake in their big sale with the subject line: “Tick, tock, tick, tock…” Thanks Petco.

My impatience is compounded by my body withholding any sign that it’s preparing for childbirth. A few weeks ago, it felt like the baby dropped, but she doesn’t seem committed to it. Some days there’s a lot of pressure in my hips, some days I feel like I’m back in my second trimester. Although there have been a variety of sensations and discomforts in my belly and pelvis, I’ve only experienced anything that felt like it might be a Braxton-Hicks contraction (practice contraction) once—it was on a day that I did almost every natural labor induction technique listed below. I’m not leaking any breast milk whatsoever. I haven’t seen any sign of my mucous plug (which seals the uterus until the baby is ready to be born). All of this is totally normal. Some women don’t experience Braxton-Hicks contractions, the baby may not drop and the mucous plug may not come out until labor starts, and some women don’t leak breast milk even when they’re actively breastfeeding. But still, it would be nice if my body could give me a sign!

I haven’t been doing much to encourage labor until this week, even though in the natural birth community, mamas are encouraged to be proactive (starting around 36 weeks). I want the baby to cook as long as she needs to. At 37 weeks the baby is considered (early) term, but it’s not until 39 weeks (which I hit on Monday) that the baby is full term—they’re a little bit heartier. Also, on Monday I had one final appointment with my neurologist to discuss the postpartum period and one last Prenatal Pilates class that I’d prepaid for, so before that it felt like I had unfinished business (although missing a Pilates class would not have been the end of the world). Now that I’ve past all the milestones and fulfilled all my commitments, I’m ready to communicate to the little that it’s safe for her to make her debut whenever she is ready.

Here’s what I’ve been doing to naturally encourage labor:

  1. Consuming pineapple, mostly in refreshing and delicious smoothie form. Apparently pineapple contains an enzyme that may soften the cervix. I’m not sure if doing this has made much of a difference. There is also evidence that eating six dates a day can encourage women’s bodies to go into labor naturally, but I don’t think I like dates enough to commit to this.
  2. Drinking Red Raspberry Leaf Tea. In traditional knowledge, this herbal tea tones the uterus, which may make contractions more effective. I’m a big tea drinker, so it’s worth a try! I’ve been sipping RRL tea every morning.
  3. Deep squats. These encourage the baby to drop down into the pelvis and engage with the cervix, which can encourage it to begin effacing and opening. Because of my hypermobility issues, I can’t go crazy deep on squats, but there is still a noticeable difference in the baby’s position after a juicy, mobilizing yoga class.
  4. Walking. I haven’t increased my amount of walking, I’ve just been trying not to decrease it too much. Walking jiggles the baby downward, which may stimulate labor in the same way as deep squats. On days when I do a ton of walking, I notice much more pressure in my lower belly and pelvis.
  5. Acupressure. The scientific evidence on whether acupuncture and acupressure encourage labor is equivocal, as far as I can tell, but I’ve heard tons of anecdotal evidence that they work. A prenatal massage with acupressure feels great, so I’m totally on board with trying this technique. My first massage with acupressure was energizing and I felt great afterwards (but no signs of labor). My second session was on a day I did several of the other techniques listed here, and by the end of the day I felt the closest to labor I’ve been so far (hard to say how much the massage itself contributed).
  6. Spicy food. The idea is that spicy food irritates the digestive system, causing it to release prostaglandins (a type of hormone), which ripen the cervix. (Castor oil induces labor in a similar way, but the digestive symptoms are so intense that it’s generally not recommended—it’s definitely not my idea of gentle birthing). According to my midwife, if you’re used to eating spicy food it wont make a difference, because your system is used to it. I usually avoid anything that makes me sweat under my eyes, so Richard and I dined of Thai food Friday night and Indian food on Saturday. It didn’t seem to make much of a difference.
  7. Sex and nipple stimulation. I try not to make my blog posts TMI, but I would be remiss not to mention these techniques as they so closely mimic medical induction (or, maybe I should say medical induction mimics them). Semen contains prostaglandins, which soften the cervix (If you’re medically induced at the hospital, often the first step is to apply prostaglandins to the cervix, so why not try a natural source first?) Nipple stimulation and orgasm trigger the release of the hormone oxytocin, which causes the uterus to contract (pitocin, the main labor-induction drug, is a synthetic version of oxytocin). Also, like walking and deep squats, certain positions may encourage the baby downward, and being on hands and knees (a sex position commonly recommended to pregnant women) helps turn the baby to face toward the mothers back—the optimal position for childbirth. All I’ll add in terms of personal experience is that back in my second trimester the advice, “If you go past your due date, just start having sex every day” sounded great, but now that I’m actually in my full, cumbersome, achy, exhausted glory as a forty-weeker, I have to say that’s going to be easier said than done.

On a completely unrelated note: I moved to the suburbs around the same time I got pregnant, which had me making long commutes throughout my pregnancy. In the car, I listen to the radio, and lately is seems that at least thirty percent of the songs I hear are by Taylor Swift. I’m a little worried this is going to be my baby:

Oh well, there are worse role models than Tay-Tay, and if all I have to do is play Blank Space, Shake It Off, and Style on repeat to soothe my baby I’ll consider myself lucky!

Sex-Related Benefits of Yoga

I was recently asked to teach a sex-themed yoga class during an educational “sex week” at the university I graduated from. I instantly started coming with ideas for how I could relate yoga to sex, but sadly I was not available to actually teach the class. However, it inspired me to compile a list of ways that yoga can improve your sex life. Enjoy!

Cardiorespiratory Benefits

Not all styles of yoga include components that challenge your cardiorespiratory system, but if you practice a style that incorporates flowing sequences (e.g. vinyasa, power, etc.), these benefits may apply to you.

♥ Sun Salutations (and many other flowing sequences) are cardiorespiratory, or endurance, exercise. You may have heard that cardiorespiratory exercise improves risk of heart disease by decreasing build-up of cholesterol in the blood vessels. This makes partial or full blockages less likely. Did you know cardiorespiratory exercise also decreases risk of impotence? Without proper diet and exercise, cholesterol doesn’t only build up in the blood vessels that supply the heart, it also builds up in the blood vessels that supply the penis. Since an erection occurs when the penis becomes engorged with blood, unobstructed blood flow to the penis is vital to, ahem, solid performance. Cardiorespiratory exercise, such as sun salutations, may help decrease cholesterol build-up in these blood vessels, making it easier to “get it up.”

Stamina can be an asset in bed—nobody wants to be too exhausted to continue. The more cardiorespiratory exercise you do, the better your endurance will become. One of the reasons endurance improves is because your heart becomes stronger and more efficient at pumping oxygen around the body. No matter what kind of cardiorespiratory training you do, it will increase your endurance in other aerobic activities, such as sex. Another reason endurance improves is because more blood vessels grow to the muscles to increase the delivery rate of oxygen. The muscle also adapts to be able to use more oxygen towards producing energy. These adaptations don’t happen for all the muscles in the body, only the ones you use during your cardiorespiratory exercise. This means that runners have the best endurance when running, cyclists when cycling, and yogis when doing yoga. The movements in sun salutations are more similar to movements you’d use in the bedroom than, say, running or cycling (think about upward facing dog to downward facing dog; just sayin’). This means that doing Sun Salutations may be a more targeted way of improving your stamina in bed. Of course, the best way to increase sex endurance is to have lots of sex.

Body Awareness Benefits

♥ You’ve probably heard that size isn’t that important, it’s how you use it that matters. Well, in order to make the most of your assets, it is important to have precise control of your pelvis. This doesn’t only apply to the men; ladies, the angle of your pelvis has a huge bearing on which of your hot spots are hit and missed. As a yoga teacher, I know that many people who first come into a yoga class have a hard time with pelvis alignment. Even if you understand what it means to “tilt your sit bones back/up” or “tuck your tail bone under,” it can be hard for the brain to actually track down the combination of muscle contractions that achieves these movements. But, after doing enough cat-cow, you master these motions. In a diverse yoga practice, you learn to align your hips into a variety of positions, in all sorts of different body orientations. This improvement in body control undoubtedly carries over into your sex life, allowing for more directed, controlled gyrations in whichever position you choose to explore.

Strength, Flexibility, and Balance Benefits

♥ Most yoga classes improve core strength. Your core is composed of your abdominal muscles, your low back muscles, and your pelvic floor. Under normal conditions, you keep constant contraction in these muscles to stabilize the rib cage and pelvis and maintain that good posture I know you all have. During sex you contract and relax these muscles to move your hips. If your core is weak, you will tire out quickly. The pelvic floor muscles are not only related to balance and posture, they are intimately linked to the quality of an orgasm, control of ejaculation, and compression of the vagina (which makes it seem tighter).  If you’re not sure how to contract  your pelvic floor muscles, cough, and they’ll contract automatically (now just think *cough* *hold*). Any balancing postures work the core, since these muscles are responsible for stabilizing the torso. Postures like warrior 3 challenge the low back muscles, and postures like boat challenge the abdominal muscles. Planks and side planks will also challenge the core. Many styles of yoga have also adopted a number of targeted core exercises that really make you “feel the burn.” Make sure you contract the pelvic floor whenever you’re doing core work. This is the finishing touch many people forget.

♥ If your parter suggests sex in the shower, is your response, “Uhm, aren’t you afraid we’ll fall or something?” or “Put one foot on the side of the tub, and give me your other leg.” I’m not saying that shower sex is for everyone, but having strength, flexibility, and balance gives you the option to find out if it’s for you without getting injured. And, it gives you the option to try out any other positions or variations you’re interested in. There are so many possibilities that it would be impossible to assign you a specific “yoga for sex” sequence of poses, but a balanced yoga practice will make you more likely to be prepared for whatever piques your curiosity. Anyone want to borrow my copy of the Kama Sutra?

Psychological Benefits

Insecurities can get in the way of sexual expression. Physical activity programs have been shown to improve self-esteem and promote a positive body image. Maybe it’s because exercise makes you look healthier and more fit, maybe it’s because exercise causes feel-good hormones to be released in your brain. Either way, the better you feel about yourself, the more comfortable you will be to explore!

♥ Unlike many other programs that incorporate physical activity, yoga has a central focus on mindfulness—on being focused on the present moment, here and now. Many of us have busy lifestyles, and we’re used to constantly trying to plan three steps ahead and repeatedly analyzing decisions we’ve already made. Go-go-go mode is important for our daily achievements! But it sure makes it hard to get in the mood. In practicing yoga and meditation, we to learn how to turn all that off, even if just for a little while, and tap into the present moment. Bringing mindfulness into the bedroom improves intimacy in a way that you can only achieved when you have one another’s complete, undivided attention. If you’re interested in fostering a mindful connection with your mate, look for partner yoga classes in your area.

No wonder “I’m a yoga teacher” is such a great pick-up line!