The act of bringing your mind into the present moment—meditation, mindfulness, centering, or whatever term you use to describe it—is a tool we all have at our disposal to help manage stress and anxiety. But the term “meditation” can be intimidating to many, as it congers up an image of a robed Buddhist Monk or a silent yogini sitting still for hours. The reality is that mindfulness can be as simple as taking 10 seconds to watch your breath. The goal is simply to notice what the mind is focusing on (usually the past or the future) and bring awareness to the present moment instead. Even if only for a few moments, this focus on the present can calm the body and mind.
Mindfulness is more important now than ever. In 2017, the American Psychological Association documented the largest jump in stress levels since 2007, due in part to our current divisive political climate. In addition, stress levels are exacerbated by our technologically-assisted society where social media and 24-hour news coverage floods us with constant information.
This fast-paced, technology-driven world often clashes with our job of supporting new families through their childbearing year. Our clients, by nature of their upbringing, are planners who are used to being in control. Most are “Millennials,” between the ages of 18-36. Millennials have grown up with technology, don’t remember a world without smart phones, and are accustomed to finding answers immediately by “Googling” it. This way of life often comes to a screeching halt as they await and meet their baby. During pregnancy and early parenting, these families are faced with a reality that is often confusing for them, where there is no “right” or easy answer to questions like “when will my bag of water break?” or “how long should my baby nurse per breast?”
As a childbirth educator, birth doula and prenatal yoga instructor, I have seen a dramatic increase in the level of fear of my students and clients as well as their unease with the unpredictability of labor and newborn schedules. For example, when I teach that due dates are just an estimate and their baby will come somewhere within a 4-5 week “window,” they are often puzzled. I’ve started to get questions like, “but how will I know when my baby will arrive?” or “my care provider will tell me when my baby will come, right?” Even more drastic has been the shift I’ve seen in parents’ expectations and need for a predictable sleep and nursing schedule. The idea that their baby’s sleep and breastfeeding quantity and duration cannot be anticipated exactly and will likely change from hour-to-hour and day-to-day is not only perplexing to them, it causes immense anxiety.
Which brings us back to the practice of mindfulness. How can we help our clients stay in the “here and now” rather than trying to predict—and control—the unpredictable journey of birth and early parenthood? What do we say to women who want to know how many more contractions they have to face? Or how much more intense their contraction will get?
In my childbirth classes, I have begun to paraphrase my own yoga teacher, saying “the focus of your attention will determine the quality of your birth.” In other words, if women learn to focus on the resting time their bodies give them between contractions (the present), rather than how much harder and longer their contractions are going to get (the future), their birth experience can be very positive and, dare I say, enjoyable! The same rule applies for babies’ night wakings or fussy moments—parents can learn to focus on helping their baby through the present moment and learn to resist the urge to focus on how many more sleepless nights they will have to endure. But, how do we help them learn to notice when their minds are “reeling” and teach them strategies to come back into the present moment?
I try to give my students lots of different mindfulness practices so they can choose the ones that best fit their needs. I reinforce the message that there is no one “right” way to be present and that practicing mindfulness is essential so that at times of stress they will have the tools they need. Adding mindfulness to your classes and services can be quite simple, unintimidating, and time-efficient. Yet it can make a huge impact on your clients, who more and more, need skills to stay in the “here and now.”
Here are some techniques to introduce mindfulness to your clients:
Exhale: Extend the length of your exhale, making it longer and more exaggerated than your inhale. Longer exhales calm the mind and body.
Listen: Play or sing a lullaby or other music. Pay attention to the words or notes to focus the mind.
Touch: Focus on your breath while your partner uses downward massage strokes to help bring your awareness to the breath. This technique can be especially helpful during contractions.
Taste: Focus on the flavor and texture of a bite of food, bringing your mind to the present moment. Perfect for a snack break—during class or during labor!
Breathe: Take a moment to focus on your chest rising and falling with each breath. Observing just a quick breath or two can bring anxiety levels down.
Count: Count your breath (or heart beats or sheep!). Notice how this focus settles the mind even during the intensity of labor.
Scan: Slowly scan down your body from head to toe, relaxing each body part in turn. This can be great between contractions to make use of the resting period.
Finally, it is important to recognize that we perinatal workers are not immune to stress ourselves. If anything, we are more susceptible to it due to the unpredictability many of us face awaiting the birth. As professionals, we need to be able to stay present in order to meet the needs of our students and clients. Consider introducing a mindfulness practice into your own daily routine. When you start experiencing the benefits yourself, you’ll be more likely to share the tools you use with others in order to find Here and Now.
- Stress in America: The State of Our Nation. American Psychological Association. November 2017.
CLD, CAPPA Faculty
Megan has had the pleasure of supporting expectant families through the joys and challenges of labor, delivery, and early parenting for more than a decade. She first entered the birth world by becoming a certified birth doula in 2001. She soon expanded her training and services to include prenatal yoga and, after the birth of her first child in 2003, she became a certified childbirth educator through CAPPA. In addition to her doula work and classes, Megan also trains new labor doulas as a member of the CAPPA faculty. Megan lives in Santa Cruz with her husband and two kids.