Giving birth is a lot like running a race: it takes preparation of mind and body. By eating right, exercising, and getting enough sleep, you can tone and prep yourself for the childbirth experience.
My husband was a long-distance runner in high school. He spent his teen years training, eating and sleeping well, and teaching himself how to prepare his body and mind for competition. When I first discovered I was pregnant I found myself thinking about his racing techniques. I, too, wanted to get my mind and body ready for the big event: giving birth to my first child. And from the moment I knew that life was growing inside me, I started to think like a runner. I watched what I ate, I quizzed my doctor for exercise suggestions, and for the first time in my life I went to bed early and took naps whenever I could.
Many women approach the months leading up to childbirth with a mixture of apprehension and excitement—and often a twinge of fear. These seven tips will help you overcome your anxieties and prepare for one of the hardest but most rewarding “races” you’ll ever run.
Balance Your Diet
Just as a marathon runner seeks out high-energy foods, a pregnant woman should make nutrition a priority. “Prior to pregnancy, attaining and maintaining a healthy weight through a well-balanced diet and regular exercise is the number one thing a woman should do to prepare her body for labor,” says Sherry S. Rumsey, a certified childbirth educator and doula in Los Angeles. In addition, Rumsey extols the virtues of “good” fat. “Get enough good fat in your diet from sources like flaxseed oil and avocados,” she advises. “Good fat helps to ensure that your tissues are strong and pliable, making them less likely to tear.”
Ximena Rossato-Bennett, a doula and childbirth educator based in New York City suggests the following simple rules for a better diet and healthy, strong body before and during pregnancy:
- When you put together a meal, choose whole foods whenever possible. The closer food is to its natural state, the healthier it is for your body. Eat raw (well-washed) rather than cooked vegetables, for example.
- If you eat meat, try to buy free-range poultry and meats with no additives or antibiotics added. Even regular grocery store brands are making an effort to offer a selection of natural meats, so it’s not always the more expensive option.
- Be a smart shopper and read labels. Choose the product with the least amount of artificial colors and additives.
- Opt for brown rice instead of white rice.
- When eating out, choose a salad with grilled chicken. Avoid soda and fries. Choose whole-wheat bread rather than white.
- If you can afford to spend a little more money on groceries, buy organic, antibiotic-free dairy products.
- Choose decaffeinated coffee if cutting out coffee altogether isn’t an option. Better yet, drink decaffeinated tea!
- Use whole milk rather than half-and-half in your tea.
- Drink water. Drink water. And then go ahead and drink some more water!
Attend a Class
Fitness is key to good health during pregnancy. If you have time for exercise classes, Rossato-Bennett recommends prenatal yoga. “After witnessing many births I can see the difference in women who have taken yoga classes during pregnancy,” she reports. One reason yoga is recommended for optimal prenatal health is that it is based on breathing.
When it comes to labor and delivery, breathing is paramount. “Being aware of your breath and using your breathing to conquer pain and stretch your body’s limits are essential skills during labor,” adds Rossato-Bennett.
Get Active Daily
Some women, pregnant or not, can’t seem to find time in their busy schedules for exercise. Rossato-Bennett suggests several things women can incorporate into their day-do-day routines to help prepare their bodies for the trials of labor.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator whenever you can.
- Take a 10-minute walk once a day.
- If you sit at a desk for work, make sure to get up and walk around the office once an hour. If you stand at work, make sure to sit down once an hour.
- Always sit up straight. “Do not slouch!” Rossato-Bennett advises. “Being aware of your posture will help prevent a poorly positioned fetus when labor starts.”
Keep up with Kegels
In addition, several simple but important exercises can be done just about anywhere. Doctors, doulas, and midwives alike recommend one in particular: Kegel exercises. “Pelvic floors lifts, (Keigels, or bondas in yoga) are extremely important for a pregnant woman,” says Carmela Cattuti, LPN, and certified yoga instructor with a private practice in Boston. “They strengthen and open the pelvic floor for delivery. They also assist the woman in getting back into shape quicker.”
Rossato-Bennett concurs. “Twenty-five or 45 Kegels, three times a day will make a huge difference in your recovery post-partum. Pelvic floor muscle tone is also beneficial in the last weeks of pregnancy when some women experience incontinence,” she adds.
Squat, Sit, and Tilt
Consider adding squatting, tailor sitting, and pelvic tilts to your Kegel routine.
Practice squatting by standing against a doorframe or wall with your feet shoulder-width apart, about six to 12 inches from the wall. Slowly slide down to a seated position. Hold for five to 10 seconds and repeat.
To tailor sit, position yourself on the floor with your back straight in the “butterfly position” (put the bottoms of your feet together and let your knees drop comfortably). Gently press both knees to the floor with your elbows. You’ll notice a stretch in your inner thighs. Keep steady pressure and don’t bounce your knees up and down. If you find it difficult at first to keep your back straight, use a wall to support your back. Hold the position for 10 or 15 seconds and repeat the stretch 5 or 10 times.
Do pelvic tilts (the cat stretch) by starting with your hands and knees on the floor. Find a comfortable posture and keep your head in line with your back. Pull in your abdominals and arch your back upward. Hold this position for several seconds. Then relax your stomach and back. Keep your spine flat and don’t let your stomach sag. Repeat three to five times. Slowly work your way up to 10 repetitions.
Get Your Beauty Rest
“During the last few weeks of pregnancy, make sure to sleep as much as you can,” Rossato-Bennett recommends. “Being well rested will make a difference in your stamina during labor.” Early in your pregnancy, try to adopt the habit of sleeping on your left side. It may help alleviate discomforts later in the pregnancy, allowing you to fall asleep faster.
Relax Your Body and Mind
Cutting out caffeine, avoiding strenuous exercise close to bedtime, performing yoga or meditation, taking a warm bath, and practicing breathing techniques are all helpful if you are having difficulties falling asleep. If fear and anxiety are keeping you awake, look for a childbirth or parenting class in your area. Acquiring more knowledge and enjoying the company of other pregnant women may help you to dispel fears that may be preventing sleep.
During pregnancy, learn to listen to your body’s cues and strive to take a preventative approach to caring for yourself. Follow this old runner’s adage: “Eat before you’re hungry, sleep before you’re tired, cool down before you’re hot, warm-up before you’re cold.” And be sure to pace yourself: this race is nine months long.