Stress and Labor

I think that relaxation, mindfulness and stress relief have become buzz words in our society. We all know that staying relaxed and present is important, but do we really know why or how it’s important? Because relaxation actually has neurological and physiological effects on our well-being especially during times of intensity like labor! So let’s talk about it!

If we think about our early ancestors giving birth, we can imagine a time when giving birth was much less safe. There were more natural predators and actual, physical threats to our safety. When a saber tooth tiger appeared at the mouth of our cave, our bodies were flooded with stress hormones. The stress hormones were a signal that we were in danger. And stress hormones have an antagonistic effect on oxytocin, the hormone that causes labor contractions. They would slow or stop our contractions so we could get, run away and find a safer place to give birth.

But our minds and bodies now don’t always know the difference between something stressful and something that’s actually a threat. Being in an unfamiliar place like the hospital or meeting unfamiliar nurses and doctors can feel like a threat. Having your first contraction and being surprised by the new and scary sensation can feel like a threat. Your body might react the same way it would to that saber tooth tiger: you’re flooded with stress hormones and your labor slows down or stops.

So what do you do? How do you stay relaxed or come back to a relaxed headspace if you get off track? It really depends on you as an individual and your unique needs, but there are a few things you can keep in mind.


Creating a safe and comfortable environment is key. No matter where you’re giving birth it’s a good idea to keep the lights low and voices soft. If you’re giving birth at home, great! You’ve got all the things and ambience around you that you need. Maybe pick a room in the house where you feel most comfortable and relaxed and secure and set that space up as your birth room. If you’re birthing in the hospital or birth center, maybe bring some things that help set the mood and make you feel comfortable: pillows and blankets from home, pictures of pets or older children or familiar snacks and drinks. It might also help to visit your birth place at least once or twice to get to know the space. When you show up in labor, it can be a familiar place instead of a brand new, scary one.


I think this also ties into environment, but some of the work really needs to be done beforehand. Try your best to find a provider who is a good fit for you, someone who aligns with your values and hopes for your birth. If your provider works with a partner or within a team, try to meet their partners as well. See if you can schedule some of your prenatal visits with them so you can get to know them too. Also remember that you are in charge of who comes into your room. If you don’t feel safe or comfortable with a nurse, talk to them about how they can support your better or even talk to the charge nurse about finding another nurse. If your provider works with residents or students, remember that you can say no to having them be present or having them participate in your care. And if you find that your provider isn’t a good fit for you, you can always switch.


Focus on your breathing. Even if someone is asking you a question. Even if you stop in the middle of answering that question. Everyone is on your time. You are driving the ship. Whether you’re taking deep belly breaths all the way from your diaphragm or panting lightly, focus on the pattern. If it helps to count, then count your breaths. If it helps to repeat a phrase or a mantra, go nuts. If you need someone else to count or coach you, great. If you are getting overwhelmed or scared, go back to your breath. Increasing your oxygen intake will help calm you and keeping your brain busy with a pattern will quiet you mind and ground you. Even if you forget your bag of pillows and oils or your partner isn’t being helpful, you always have your breath.


Touch and intimacy serve two purposes. The first is that touch can be relaxing. Getting a massage from your partner or support person can relieve tense muscles. Holding someone’s hand can make you feel like you’re not alone. But touch, with people you trust, also stimulates oxytocin production. Getting a hug or even just making eye contact with a loved one produces oxytocin. If you’re getting scared or overwhelmed, you could go into the bathroom with your partner, close the door and just have a close, quiet moment. Ina May Gaskin, famed midwife and educator, is always encouraging her patients to “cuddle” and “smooch” their partners. And she says it because it works!

So if you find your stress levels rising during labor (or even during pregnancy or the postpartum period!), take a moment to connect with yourself and see what you need to get to a safer, calmer place. If you get off track, that’s ok! You can always come back to your strategies, whatever they might be!

Maggie Mehr