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Mindfulness and the Birth Process

by Jalisa Bonville-Griffin, New Beginnings student

Mindful Birthing

Before having to research mindful birthing, I was also studying how I can use it in my practice as an aspiring social worker, as well as in my personal life. The physical and mental advantages offered from avidly practicing mindfulness can be experienced by individuals across various walks of life. Pregnant women and their partners are just one of the subgroups shown to benefit from introducing it into their birth experience and beyond. Deploying mindfulness helps to decrease sensations of pain for laboring mothers and also alleviates impending mental wear (Raguso, 2008).

There are a plethora of ways a blossoming parent can physically and emotionally prepare for the journey into parenthood with the expectation being that more knowledge will be gained that will spurn more comprehensive parents in the long run (Raguso, 2008). Pilot programs and ongoing research studies have been conducted, demonstrating the positive benefits that can come from practicing mindfulness for even a few minutes a day (Duncan & Bardacke, 2010). Mindfulness is essentially the art of becoming more conscious of one’s thoughts, perceptions, sensations, and experiences, and any psychophysiological reactions that occur as a result (Duncan & Bardacke, 2010; Raguso, 2008). By becoming more aware of the body’s natural responses, we become more self-aware and self-actualized. If the identified trait is not desirable, then energy can then be expended on changing it. The term mindfulness in itself implies that the individual becomes more self-intrinsic and self-analytical, with undesirable traits or characteristics being gleaned away from the personality (Duncan & Bardacke, 2010).

In order to practice mindfulness successfully, a person develops his/her ability to be aware of his/her reactions to the changing environment. While we cannot change what goes on in our environment, we can monitor our reactions to the events around us, and if those reactions are harmful or displeasing, it is within our power to change how we respond. The key comes through accepting the circumstances as they are and not trying to control what we cannot change (Raguso, 2008). As a result, the parent feels more empowered about being a parent and less likely to give in to feelings of anxiety, stress, or inadequacy (Raguso, 2008; Zastrow & Kirst-Ashman, 2016). Whenever any unpleasant emotions arise, it becomes very important to not ignore or avoid them, but to instead acknowledge and let the feelings flow naturally. To give in to the fear and stress only causes unnecessary biological reactions such as tension headaches and nausea, which ultimately leads to perinatal anxiety and depression. If the stress transfers to the baby, there can be complications such as low birth weight or poor newborn health – down the line, behavioral problems. (Raguso, 2008).

To combat the occurrence of negative perceptions, alternative remedies can be sought out such as yoga, meditation, deep breathing, or listening to music, which are employed until the body reaches a relaxed state again. Identified coping methods are then applied going forward throughout pregnancy and beyond.

Currently, there exist models for mindfulness training. One is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program created by Jon Kabat-Zinn in the 1970s (Raguso, 2008). Kabat-Zinn studied Buddhist meditation, debunking its principles into a self-awareness-based program that is now recognized and widely used. From Kabat-Zinn, we learn to practice constantly being aware of both our internal and external states.

Another model is the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting program (MBCP), which was mainstreamed by Nancy Bardacke and teaches budding parents how to cope with the transition to parenthood in a supportive group setting (Duncan & Bardacke, 2010). What makes MBCP unique is its practice of taking experienced negative sensations and replacing them with more positive ones. For laboring women, an example of this is easing the pain of contractions by assuming different birthing positions; for their anxious partners, fear can be replaced with positive affirmations (Raguso, 2008). Parents work on maintaining a stress-free disposition and actively practicing empathy toward their partners. Partners learn how to apply healing touch during birth as well as other tools that help fight stress more appropriately (Duncan & Bardacke, 2010).

Having a potential parent take a long purposeful soul-search is not a farfetched concept considering the gravity and responsibility that comes along with parenting. As parents transition from a mindset where they come to realize that their actions no longer solely affect their lives, it forces them to shed habits that will not benefit them as caregivers. With studies showing that maternal stress can transfer across the womb to the fetus, it is especially important for a pregnant mother to have a stronghold on her mental state, so as not to cause harm to the baby (Raguso, 2008; Urech, Fink, Hoesli, Wilhelm, Bitzer, & Alder, 2010). This does not, however, discount the partner, because he/she has just as much responsibility and may have to also make some personal adjustments. Another result that some couples experience is a closer bond and families are able to break the cycle of mezzo-level conflicts (Duncan & Bardacke, 2010).

In a society and climate that seems to be dominated by Western medicine and the rush toward pharmaceutical companies, mindfulness offers a holistic, “noninvasive” approach to managing emotions (Beattie, Hall, Biro, Lau, & East, 2014). Another important facet is that while  a student learns and practices the skill, a level of control over one’s own body is achieved. There is still room for future research on how beneficial mindfulness is during pregnancy, yet there is evidence corroborating the fact that relaxation and less stress during pregnancy is great for both mommy and baby (O’Reilly, 2014). This is especially true for mommies struggling with depression and anxiety. Even if the parent does not have any serious psychiatric conditions, it cannot hurt to know how to occasionally do a mental scan and to be able to teach this skill to others. Furthermore, if more studies can show how families have benefitted from mindfulness courses, more funding and programs can be implemented at the state and federal levels (Duncan & Bardacke, 2010). The need for pharmaceutical drugs would decrease as parents opt for more holistic routes. Likewise, as exposure to supplemental options grows, mothers and partners may become more likely to participate in alternative methods which means a lasting effect on babies in the future.

Going forward, I am very excited to continue in my studies as a doula. Since I have not completed my Masters program for Social Work, I am considering how I can blend my doula practice in with social work practice. Ultimately, I am on a quest to be a servant of the community, to educate and empower those around me. Of one thing I am certain: I must stay committed to researching the most up-to-date and innovative practices that best aide my mothers/clients/population of choice, to ensure that I remain a competent, proficient worker.

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Beattie, J., Hall, H., Biro, M.A., Lau, R. & East, C. (2014). Does mindfulness training reduce the stress of pregnancy? Women’s Health, (22) 39.

Duncan, L.G., Bardacke, N. (2010). Mindfulness-Based childbirth and parenting education: Promoting family mindfulness during the perinatal period. Journal of Child Family Studies, (19) 190-202.

O’Reilly, J. R. (2014). Effects of maternal stress and obesity on human feto-placental glucocorticoid exposure.

Raguso, E. (2008). The mindful birth. Greater Good, 31-33.

Urech, C., Fink, N.S., Hoesli, I., Wilhelm, F.H., Bitzer, J., & Alder, J. (2010). Effects of relaxation on psychobiological wellbeing during pregnancy: A randomized controlled trial. Psychoeuroendocrinology, (35) 1348-1355.

Zastrow, C. H., & Kirst-Ashman, K. K. (2016). Understanding human behavior and the social environment (10th ed.). Boston, MA:  Cengage Learning.

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Rachel has worked as a register nurse (BSN from University of Utah) since 2004 with a work history in Labor and Delivery, NICU and Postpartum Care. She is also the founder of New Beginnings Doula Training which she organized in 2011. When she's not busy being a mother and grandmother, she can be found reading research papers related to some aspect of childbirth.

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