You deserve a medal after giving birth. And just like a pro athlete, the better shape you're in on the big day, the more ready you'll be to face it. Most women spend 12 to 14 hours in established labour the first time they give birth. "The stronger you are, the more likely you'll be able to cope," says antenatal fitness expert, Jane Wake.
While you are pregnant, hormones loosen your joints and ligaments so your pelvis can open. But you can help yourself too, so here's your own labour workout plan...
Just as athletes have to watch what they're eating in the run up to an event, so do pregnant women. "You need to prepare your body for the big 'race' ahead by eating food that balances your energy levels," says Susannah Lawson, co-author of Optimum Nutrition Before, During And After Pregnancy. "Focus on eating regularly and include complex carbs - things like wholemeal bread, vegetables and beans - and protein. Try new potatoes with fish and broccoli, porridge oats with seeds or a wholemeal cheese sandwich with salad. In the last two weeks especially, concentrate on stocking up on these complex carbs."
You may want to consider popping just one pill in the run up to your labour, GLA (aka omega-6). "It can help you to produce prostaglandins, which prepare your cervix for birth," Susannah explains. "You can get it by taking 500mg of evening primrose oil or starflower oil a day in the last two weeks."
Flex your muscles
Your pelvic floor muscles come under pressure from as early as 12 weeks into pregnancy. Not only can exercising the area save you suffering from stress incontinence after the birth, but a study has shown that keeping the pelvic floor 'trim' can shorten the second stage of labour. "Pretend you have to go to the toilet (number one and two) and stop yourself," explains pilates expert Caron Bosler. "Those are your pelvic floor muscles. Pull them in and up, then squeeze and relax in short pulses as many times as you can." But don't stop yourself when you really do have to go!
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It is well worth taking up pilates, as the exercises will improve your core stability, helping to take stress off your back and pelvis in the run-up to your delivery. Try it at home with Lindsay Jackson's Pilates in Pregnancy DVD.
All athletes slow down their exercise regime before a big race, but stopping completely can leave you with too much time for worrying. So keep gently active to boost your body and mind. "Women who exercise are far more confident about their bodies and the whole birthing process," says Jane Wake. "Research shows that women who exercise little and often - say 30 minutes five times a week - tend to have easier births, shorter labours and quicker recovery times." It doesn't have to be a gym session - swimming and brisk walking are especially good. Try sidestroke in the pool, it's a good position for your back and your bump. Keep yourself cool and drink lots of water. "However," adds Jane, "if you've had pregnancy complications, always speak to your doctor before doing any exercise."
Check you're not overdoing the exercise by trying the 'talk test' while you're working out. "You should be able to talk comfortably throughout your exercise," explains Jane.
Paula Radcliffe likes to get into a bath of freezing water as part of her cool down after a run - but the only baths you should be getting into now you're pregnant are warm, bubbly ones. Relaxation is very important for your muscles as you prepare for labour.
"During a contraction, your initial instinct is to tense up. Tension, particularly in the jaw area, can affect the pelvis and slow cervical dilation," says birth educator Suzanne Yates. "You need to let your body go and not resist the contraction."
Practise Suzanne's breathing exercise throughout your pregnancy - you want it to be second nature for labour.
1 Take a deep breath, from the bottom of your tummy. As you breathe in, feel the connection with your baby.
2 Then, as you slowly breathe out, notice if you're holding any tension in your body and relax it.
3 If your shoulders are tense shake them out. Make an 'aah' sound to relax your jaw. In labour, start as soon as you feel a contraction, so you're relaxed by the climax.
Focus your mind
Finishing a race is as much in the mind as the body and it can help to focus on achieving the 'goal' of childbirth, like a runner would visualise the finish line. "As you relax, your body releases endorphins, nature's own painkillers," explains cognitive hypnotherapist Jane Hodgkin.
Practise this visualisation technique at home, ideally for 15 minutes a day:
1 Close your eyes, let your breathing deepen and your body loosen. Recall a time/place when you felt safe and relaxed and go there in your mind.
2 Hear the sounds, feel the sensations and notice how good it feels to be there. When you're confident with this, start to think about the birth going smoothly and perfectly and your body opening up.
3 In labour, you can go to your safe place between or with each contraction. Use an aromatherapy oil or music while you do your visualisation. "Using these during labour can help trigger this relaxed state," explains Jane.
Ever seen a runner eating an energy bar? Well, you're entitled to refuel, too! "Labour's such an exhausting process, you can easily run out of steam," says Susannah Lawson. But don't be at the mercy of the hospital vending machine. Bring relevant fuel for the journey. "Take a snack pack full of healthy things that you like - such as carrot sticks, yogurts, smoothies and bananas," says Susannah.
"Even if you don't feel like eating, sip diluted grape juice - it's a quick and healthy source of fruit sugar, which will keep you hydrated and your energy levels up," says Susannah.
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