"Oh, you must be so exhausted."

This is one of the more detrimental things I've heard said to a laboring person. Labor is a very open, receptive state. Laboring people are very susceptible to the suggestions presented to them. I've seen a person, coping well, start to falter and waiver when this idea was planted. It can bring on doubts like, “Am I not doing well?” “Is this not normal?” “Can I do this?”

"You've been doing this for such a long time!"

This may be said with good intentions--to recognize the hard work the birthing person has already done and the challenge they are meeting. Yet, what train of thought does this set off? Typically, it is, "I am exhausted...I'm not at my best...I don't know if I can do this."

The thing is, the amount of sleep you have does not predict how well you will cope. It can be a factor, absolutely. But what matters more is the frame you have around your experience, the label you give it. So let's contextualize sleep as it relates to labor.

Let's start by comparing to daily life. For most of us, our day-to-day is highly dependent on our cognitive function. Planning, analyzing, task-mastering--all of these rely heavily on our frontal brain to get the job done.

Labor, however, doesn't rely on the frontal brain to get the job done. In fact, it relies on the frontal brain to take a back seat in order to get the job done. It's the subconscious, "animal brain", "reptilian brain", "instinctive brain"--whatever you want to call it. It's the deep part of you that knows what to do. You don't have to think about it. In fact, you can't.

You can't think out a baby any more than you can think out a poop.

Trying walking yourself through that process, step by step, next time you’re in the bathroom. You’ll soon discover that the muscles controlling that daily activity do not respond like your arm does when you tell those muscles to pick up the recycling. Ina May Gaskin outlines how the cervix operates via the same autonomic functionality. It’s not muscle we get to consciously control.

So if you need to do your taxes, rest up. Get that frontal brain in top form. If you need to birth, use all available means to get your instinctive brain to run the show. Use sleep deprivation to your advantage.

Most often, labor starts at night. Physiologically, this makes sense because we are used to relaxing at night. Relaxation is a labor-promoting state. Being tired also naturally nudges your thinking brain (your frontal lobe, your "high commander") to chill out. Many creatives cite this as a reason they do most of their work at night.

Still, in labor, finding ways to rest is advantageous. Contractions are punctuated by breaks, designed to help you recoup a bit. Sure, it’s no full nights’ sleep. But here are a few pointers to help you add to your reserves:

  1. Use pillows. Early on, there typically comes a point when it’s more comfortable to be up and active, but contractions are still somewhat far apart. This creates opportunities for short rest periods--don’t underestimate the power of these breaks. Use all the pillows you can find to prop yourself into a hands-and-knees position that doesn’t require you to use your arms or shoulders to support you. Adding pillows between your bum and calves can also support you to lean back towards your heels.

  2. Try a bath. Similarly, finding a supported position in the tub, potentially side-lying, can allow you both rest and mobility.

  3. Cue yourself to “turn off” after a contraction. A cleansing exhale, an audible sigh, or a phrase such as “that one is done” or “I’m one closer” can help delineate the contraction from the break time.

  4. Let go. Thinking about the last contraction, or the next contraction, or the next three hours’ contractions means you are trying to cope with the past, present, and future all at once. That’s a mountainous task! If you can keep from getting caught up in what’s behind or what’s ahead, it’s easier to maintain your energy and find rejuvenation.

  5. Support people: Remember that the space between contractions is not designed for analysis. “That one was 7 minutes apart!” “Are they getting stronger?”...prompting a birthing person to calculate or evaluate can make that “High Commander” part of the brain think it’s time to take charge. Before labor, spend some time talking about what phrases or actions might help your loved one release into the calm “in between” space of labor.

The frame changes the picture.

If you find yourself in labor with less sleep under your belt than you'd like, try focusing on the upside to that. You are more easily able to access the part of your brain that does the birthing. What you tell yourself about your experience--and what others tell you about it--shapes how you feel and how you move forward.

So...what might someone say instead? How about, "You're doing a really impressive job." Or, "I'm blown away by your strength and stamina." Or, "You have everything you need to make it to the end." Phrases like these press play on an internal tape of confidence and capability. Now that's a great way to support someone in labor!

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