9 healthy habits for pregnancy and childbirth

One of the most important decisions during pregnancy is where you plan to deliver. When I found out I was pregnant, I didn’t give much thought to it. I automatically assumed that I would give birth at the hospital where my OBGYN practiced. During the first couple of weeks of my second trimester, my husband and I made a cross-country move. In the time it took to pack up, move and unpack, I had completely changed my mind. It’s a long story, but suffice to say that I discovered the Free Birth Society podcast, and the birth experiences it shared really resonated with me. It nudged me to stop to consider my personality, my circumstances and what scenario felt most peaceful and supportive to me.  I’ve never loved clinical settings (despite the fact that my mom worked at a hospital for 30 years and my father still does). I’m soft spoken and not great at standing up for myself and was worried that my wishes would go unheard in a busy maternity ward. Plus, COVID-19 was a factor.

Ultimately, my partner and I decided to try for a home birth. I had the luxury of going part time at work for the last part of my pregnancy, so I was able to fully commit to studying and preparing for labor. At the time, I thought it was important to learn as much as possible because of the homebirth and the added responsibility you take on when you choose that path. In hindsight, I think it’s equally important for birthers who choose a hospital birth. It’s essential for your ability to advocate for yourself and for your baby and to make the best decisions for you.

The following is a summary of what I learned: ways the experts recommend that you take care of your body during pregnancy and in preparation for labor. This list is a combination of advice from my midwife, advice from the prenatal books I read (listed here) and what worked for me.

  1. Herbal teas. My midwife recommended NORA tea, named for its ingredients: Nettle Leaf, Oatstraw, Raspberry Leaf and Alfalfa Leaf. I purchased the individual herbs from Mountain Rose Herbs and brewed a quart every day beginning about halfway through my second trimester, although you can begin anytime after 16 weeks. The  tea can improve the strength of contractions, release of the placenta after birth, lactation and bleeding postpartum. My midwife prefers NORA tea to the more mainstream Red Raspberry Leaf tea, although I used that too in a pinch. NORA tea is a bit of an acquired taste; I added the herb Lemon Balm to add some variety of flavor towards the end of my pregnancy. This article provides an in-depth description of NORA tea’s benefits as well as the recipe I used.  
  2. Dates. A small study published in the Journal of Obstetrics & Gynecology suggests that eating six red dates per day from 36 weeks onward appears to result in shorter, easier labors. Noor dates are preferable; if you use Majool dates instead, then reduce the number to 3 per day.
  3. Squats. According to Ina May Gaskin, the most well-respected midwife of our time, squats are critical to a healthy pregnancy. In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, she says, “I suggest daily squatting as part of your morning routine. Start with ten on the first day and increase that number as the days pass. Three hundred a day would not be too many. I have noticed that first-time mothers over thirty tend to have shorter labors since I began sharing the virtues of squatting.”
  4. Yoga. Prenatal yoga was so beneficial to me, particularly in alleviating the late-pregnancy aches and pains. Yoga can help with the baby’s position in the womb, which is critical for a healthy delivery. In Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, she says: “Good posture and movement will make it less likely for your baby to settle into a more challenging position in the final weeks of pregnancy.” If you decide to do yoga during pregnancy, it is vital to find an instructor who understands the pregnant body so that he or she can guide you with appropriate modifications and prevent injuries. Regardless of your fitness level, there are certain poses (like twists) that are contraindicated for pregnancy. Your body also produces a hormone called relaxin that loosens your ligaments, giving you a false sense of flexibility, which can lead to strained muscles. Bottom line, find an expert to help you navigate these changes and strengthen your body in preparation for labor. (You might also consider YOGA Birth Method which includes yoga poses appropriate for each trimester and during labor as well as breathwork suggestions for each phase of labor.
  5. Perineal massage. Between 34 and 36 weeks, you can begin a daily massage of the tissues between the openings of the vagina and the anus. Prepping this area for labor can help reduce tearing, reduce the number of stitches and soften existing scar tissue. My physical therapist shared this animated how-to video with me, and I found it really helpful. I used sesame oil mixed with a couple drops of geranium oil.
  6. Walks. Make time for 30-minute walks outside every day. It’s good for the body and the soul.
  7. Nutrition. One of the most important ways to prevent complications and improve your health during pregnancy is to eat a nutritious diet. Drink water, limit preservatives and ensure that you’re eating enough fruits and vegetables, particularly dark, leafy greens and orange vegetables (carrots, sweet potatoes and yams) since they contain important vitamins that you need during pregnancy. You also should aim for 50-75 grams of protein per day. The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy & Childbirth is a great resource for meal planning because it explains what nutrition your baby needs each week based on its development. Ultimately, listen to your body. Your cravings are clues that tell you what your body needs more of.
  8. Stress. Chronic stress impacts every system of the body; a growing fetus is no exception. If you don’t already have a daily practice like yoga, breathwork, meditation, walking in nature, devotional or journaling, I highly recommend starting one now.
  9. Hollywood labor. In Western parts of the world, all we know of labor is what we’ve seen dramatized on tv and in movies; as a result, our associations with birth are fear and pain. Unlike our grandmothers and great-grandmothers who were accustomed to home births, we’ve likely never seen birth up close. In Birthing from Within, Pam England addresses the misconceptions and fear that first-time parents have of labor and childbirth. Midwives, including my own, stress the importance of reframing the pain of labor and instead, focusing on the intensity of the sensations and working with them, not against them, to birth your baby. I highly recommend that you watch videos or read accounts of actual births to reset your expectations. (The Free Birth Society Instagram account and Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth are both good resources.)

I cannot stress enough the value I’ve found in the midwifery model of care and how it contributed to my pregnancy, labor and childbirth. The advice is so logical, holistic and accessible, and it spans not just physical health but emotional health as well. If you have the option and the resources, I highly recommend hiring a midwife or doula to support you during your journey. The attentive, supportive care you receive helps you feel healthy, strong, confident, prepared and empowered every step of the way.

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