If you've spent time in a hospital prior to giving birth, you've likely realized that the hospital atmosphere can be cold, sterile, and bright. This is not always ideal for allowing our bodies to feel secure and comfortable enough to birth! In fact, the ideal birthing atmosphere is someplace warm, safe, private, dark, and quiet — not exactly what comes to mind when you think of a hospital, right?
Intentionally setting your birth atmosphere, wherever you are, is so important. A recent study found that melatonin synthesizes with oxytocin to create contractions in smooth muscle cells like those in the uterus. What does this mean for labor? It means that feeling safe and relaxed (promoting oxytocin) in a cozy, dark place (promoting melatonin) can help labor get going and stay going.
Here are a few ways that you can intentionally create your birth atmosphere to engage your mind and your senses so that your body knows it's safe to bring your baby earthside.
Hospitals beep and whirrrr and buzz and slam, which is not exactly comforting. These sounds encourage you to lay in bed and watch the machines or wonder what is happening in the room next door instead of moving around and focusing on your body.
This is where sound can make a difference! The internet is bursting with playlists curated for labor and pushing. You might enjoy something upbeat, like this one from The Dahlia Scene; something soothing, like this one from babble; something designed to follow the stages of labor, like this one from Spotify; or even something that traverses the whole of our reproductive journeys, like this one from Rewire (tbh, if you don't include Salt-N-Pepa on your labor playlist, then you're really missing out). If you make your own, you should choose between 5-10 hours of music and stick to genres you already know and love. (This is not the time for experimenting, per the "comfort and safety" theme!) You could also consider having a unique "womb song" using your words and wishes for your baby written just for you by Beth at Heart Tones Music Therapy & Birth Services.
While laboring at home, you'll probably find a spot that feels right to you — a secure little nest or nook where you can work through contractions. It might be your bed, the toilet, or a dark corner of the living room. But when the time comes to move to the hospital, that all changes.
In your hospital room, you can draw the curtains, turn off all or most of the glaring overhead lights, and create some good birthing ambience by scattering tiny electric candles (always in my doula bag!) or hanging strands of twinkly lights around the room. IV poles are a great place to hang your strands of lights! Dimming the fluorescents will also encourage a sense of quiet and calm that will be recognizable to others who are entering the room, like nurses, and hopefully they will be supportive of the space you are creating.
Tip: when moving from home to the hospital, especially if home feels like a nice warm, dark cave, wear sunglasses!
Idioform (that yellow hospital disinfectant), bleach, hand sanitizer, myriad other chemicals, and that distinct hospital odor can really disrupt your labor flow. You might not even realize that when those smells hit your nose and sting a bit, you tighten up other muscles in your body, too — exactly what you are trying to avoid!
Engaging your sense of smell can have many different effects: it can relax you, energize you, calm your stomach, or stimulate your brain. If you have used essential oils before, now is a good time to incorporate what works for you. Your doula might also bring some — I typically carry peppermint, lavender, and grapefruit in my doula bag, but will use any others that are safe for pregnancy/labor and requested by a birthing person. However (and this is important!), you should not diffuse oils into the whole room, even if you know you love them. Why not? Well, that lavender scent that keeps you grounded during active labor may make you want to vomit during transition, and then you can't get rid of it! Instead, try a few drops on a cotton ball or flannel that you can hold up to your nose.
You can also brew a cup of your favorite tea and sip it gently or just inhale the fragrance. This can double as labor support if you choose teas made specifically for pregnancy, like those containing nettle leaf or red raspberry leaf, which are thought to tone and stimulate the uterus.
Everything in a hospital probably feels unfamiliar to the touch, too. It's cold, hard, crinkly, and sterile — not exactly comforting or easy on the senses! So, I suggest bringing your own blanket and pillow/pillowcase from home and wearing your own grippy socks and clothing.
Yep, you heard that right: you can wear whatever you want to your labor and birth.
There are lots of good options for labor clothing out there, if you'd like to treat yourself to something new. However, there's a real lack of clothing that isn't frilly, floral, or flirty, and most "labor gowns" are very feminine and might not fit with your aesthetic. And the only clothing brand dedicated to providing androgynous and masculine pregnancy/labor wear — Butchbaby & Co. — has yet to get off the ground! If new labor clothes don't fit your gender presentation or don't get you excited, you can grab whatever clothes you lounge in at home — just make sure they provide easy access to your chest, belly, and vagina, or that you are alright with taking off layers as necessary.
Wearing your own clothes and bringing some cozy textiles from home can help you feel like a person, not a patient, while in labor.
The hospital setting can give even the most chill laboring people (and partners!) anxiety, which can activate hormones (like adrenaline) that feed our fight or flight impulse and cause muscles to tighten up. The mind and the body are so intimately connected, and fostering that sense of safety and empowerment is almost as much a mental task as it is a physical one.
A good way to get mentally centered and grounded is to incorporate written or spoken birth affirmations into your space. Birth affirmations are short, simple phrases or pieces of guidance that encourage and motivate you during labor. You can repeat them verbally, like a mantra, or have them hanging around your hospital room where you can read them to yourself. They can be anything that reminds you of your power and gets you through a tough moment: "breathe baby down," "open, soften, release," "my body can birth this baby," etc. Try writing these affirmations on decorative paper before birth with your partner or your doula (an exercise I love doing at prenatal appointments!) so that you can meditate on them prior to labor and cultivate a positive, empowered birthing mindset.
"Great suggestions! But now I'm overwhelmed."
This list isn't intended to add to your pre-birth to-do list, by any means! And not all of these elements of the birthing atmosphere will resonate with every laboring person — essential oils might seem weird to you, or you might want total silence so you can concentrate. Or you might not feel like you need to make any modifications to your hospital room at all! Your choices are just that: yours.
If you're feeling overwhelmed by these suggestions, there's an easy solution: describe your ideal birthing atmosphere to your doula, and trust them to help you create and protect it. It's one of the benefits of working with a doula!