How Movement Effects Labor
Movement during labor is innate- women want to move! And, more importantly, it serves a purpose.
When we move, and this is something that you can learn more about in Your Best Birth Class, we activate something called mechanoreceptors. By walking, squatting, swaying, or even squeezing someone’s hand, we send our brain stimulation that is interpreted as pleasurable. Those pleasurable sensations reach the brain faster than the painful sensations of the contractions we are experiencing and sort of act to dial down, if you will, the intensity of each contraction. This is called the Gate Control Theory and it is something that, if left undisturbed, most women will utilize on their own without any prompting.
Another way that movement helps during labor is that it aids in baby’s decent. Labor is about more than just dilation- our cervix must ripen, thin, dilate and then baby must move down into our pelvis. By getting up and walking (or swaying, bending, doing lunges, climbing stairs, etc.), we are helping and encouraging the baby to navigate into and through our pelvis. Certain positions may even help to open in the inlet to the pelvis, making the decent easier for the baby. This can be especially helpful for the women who have chosen to receive an epidural. While they may not be able to get up and out of bed to walk or squat, we can certainly help them to stay “active” and keep their pelvis open (think peanut ball, tray table to prop up a leg- get creative)!
Furthermore, getting upright and moving helps to put pressure on a woman’s cervix. Why does this matter? Well, during labor, the pressure of the baby’s head against the cervix and later against the tissues of the pelvic floor, help to stimulate our bodies’ production of oxytocin. And, if you remember, oxytocin is known as the love and squeeze hormone- it’s a player in producing contractions during labor. So, getting upright means increased pressure on a laboring woman’s cervix, which means an increase in oxytocin production which can help product stronger, more frequent contractions.
Finally, movement aids women in coping with those contractions. We talked up above about mechanoreceptors and how movement of our joints helps to activate and utilize the Gate Control Theory but it also serves another purpose. During labor, women who are able to practice the 3 Rs- Relaxation, Rhythm and Ritual- are better able to cope with and manage the pain of labor. We know that women want to move in labor- it’s instinctual. So, by encouraging women to turn that instinctual movement into something rhythmic and then helping them turn that into a natural ritual- we’re aiding women in managing the pain of labor.
Movement can help us to progress in labor (both in terms of intensity and frequency of contractions), it helps baby to descend into the pelvis and navigate its way through and it also helps women to cope with the sensations of labor. I won’t go so far as to say it is absolutely necessary but I can say that in all of my experience with laboring women, I’ve yet to see a woman not instinctively gravitate toward some type of movement- rocking, swaying, walking, something!