Being in the Moment:
Pregnancy, Childbirth and Parenting
Embracing the pain of labor contractions is not a typical way to approach the childbirth experience. However, Nancy Bardacke, CNM and founding instructor of the nine-week Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) course at the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, teaches expectant parents that labor pain is unlike other pain. It is not a sign of injury or illness to be feared, but rather a sign that the body is doing the work it needs to do in order to birth a baby. Bardacke says that through teaching mindfulness–the skill of paying purposeful and non-judgmental attention to one’s unfolding experience, moment to moment–it is possible to learn a way to approach the pain of childbirth with greater confidence and less fear. Rather than having a mindset that says, ‘’I want to get away from this pain,” mindfulness practice supports pregnant women and their partners, or other birth companion, to make a fundamental shift in attitude. They begin to find a way to open to and accept the pain. Beyond that, couples learn skills to manage stress in their everyday lives. These skills serve them well both before and after the baby arrives.
Sharyn Boisseuain-Chen, who completed MBCP with her husband Spencer Chen in November 2009 and gave birth to their daughter Siena in January 2010, began to use the mindfulness skills immediately. She explains, “When I would have a stressful moment at work, the baby would kick, and it would be a reminder. It would bring me back into the moment, so that I would not be caught in worry or stress about how things were going to unfold. It’s a whole approach to living. It’s not that I can be mindful all of the time, but when I am, I definitely feel better and live more fully.”
Hadley Leggett, who also completed MBCP with her husband Michael Leggett in November 2009 and gave birth to son Owen in January 2010, shares a similar story. “When I started the course, I was really stressed out with working and was so tired all of the time. I wasn’t enjoying being pregnant as much. With the formal, daily mindfulness practice, I started enjoying small moments. It helped me slow down a lot and just made me happier throughout the day. I took the class knowing that it was going to help me through the labor and the childbirth, but I didn’t realize that I was going to have immediate benefits from it. I felt like I was enjoying life more.”
Being with Pain
Labor pain is intense. During the MBCP course, couples learn a variety of mindfulness skills, including awareness of breathing, which can be very helpful for coping with the pain.
Hadley, who wanted to give birth with minimal medical interventions, found that her mindfulness practice proved to be all she needed to manage the pain of labor. Her husband Michael was an incredible asset during labor. “I would not want to go through labor without having taken the course. Both Michael and I really learned a lot about how to handle pain. He learned how to be a very good coach and was incredible as a partner going through it. If he hadn’t had the preparation and known what to expect, along with the tips and tricks that Nancy taught us, I think it would have been a lot harder on him to watch me be in so much pain.”
Like Hadley, Sharyn found her mindfulness skills were very effective during labor and delivery. She found that she could actually just be with one contraction at a time, without dwelling on the pain that had just passed or worrying about the pain that was to come. She reflects, “I knew that I needed to stay in the moment and that was going to be my challenge. But it was amazing, and it worked. When the labor began to get intense, I really just had to be in the moment. One technique I used was mindfully listening to music. I was able to focus on the music, and that really helped me get through each contraction. I did have thoughts like ‘Wow, how much worse is it going to be?’ When I had thoughts like that, they didn’t really last that long, because I just kept coming back to my breath and listening to the music or listening to Spencer’s voice. Those are the things that helped me the most. I am really happy with the whole process. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was really happy with how everything turned out.”
Spencer added, “At times, I found myself worrying about when the baby was going to come and if Sharyn was going to be able to do it, because she was pushing for a really long time. Then I would just try to bring myself back by focusing on the moment and what was going on.”
Bringing Mindfulness to Parenting
“Babies are just in the moment, all the time. They don’t think about the past. They don’t think about the future. As a parent, it helps to be able to be in the moment with your baby and not worry about what is going to happen next or what has already happened. Of course, I can’t do it all the time, but it allows me to let go of my fears and enjoy being with Owen.” –Hadley
The skills learned during the MBCP course extend well beyond childbirth, offering valuable skills for new parents who are adjusting to life with a new baby. Hadley takes small moments to continue her mindfulness practice. “There’s a lot of time with a newborn when he’s nursing. I use that time for some informal meditation. It is quiet time when you can get in touch with your breath again and you can really focus on the moment. It allows me to be very present throughout the day and take care of him more,” says Hadley.
Spencer works at balancing some of the challenging moments with baby Siena by being mindful. “It is really useful late at night when she is waking up at 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning. She doesn’t like getting changed, but she also doesn’t like a wet diaper, so it is sort of a challenge. She cries during that process, and I realize that she’s unhappy. I acknowledge and understand that she is unhappy, but I stay with her in the moment,” says Spencer.
Spencer found the MBCP course a wonderful way to learn and practice meditation, especially as a beginner. He felt a sense of confidence with the things that came easily in meditation practice, yet also found camaraderie through the difficulties. “It was really helpful to be able to see that others were having similar challenges and discuss it together. Alternatively, others would have challenges with things that came more easily for us. It ‘s reassuring that others have challenges, too. It helps us feel normal, plus we learned things from each other. I could see all of us growing as a group together. We don’t all necessarily live close enough to get together frequently, but we’re on e-mail. From this experience, we already have a group of people who offer resources and community.”
This creation of a supportive community is an essential element to the MBCP course. Though it begins with learning the meditation practice and the invaluable lessons about being mindful in one’s life, participants quickly find that they also have a community of like-minded parents who share information, resources and lessons learned about applying mindfulness to parenting. The new parents from the recent MBCP course, including Sharyn, Spencer, Hadley and Michael, are staying connected through a Google group and occasionally get together for outings, like a recent walk together through Golden Gate Park.
Sharyn said that, “all in all, it was such a good experience, from learning meditation and how to be mindful to being with the breath when you need to. Plus we now have a community of other parents who want to create a similar home for their children. Being in the moment is so powerful. I think we’re off to a good start because of the MBCP program.”
Connecting Research to Patient Care
Providing skills for coping with stress during pregnancy has the potential to impact numerous health outcomes. In fact, a number of studies have shown that mindfulness training holds promise for alleviating anxiety and depression. Because of this potential benefit, Larissa Duncan, PhD, is investigating how mindfulness for stress reduction can be beneficial during the perinatal period. She recently completed a pilot study of MBCP in collaboration with Bardacke that showed that pregnant women who take the course during their third trimester find relief from depression and feelings of anxiety about their pregnancy. Participants in the pilot study also reported experiencing more positive emotion and an enhanced ability to use mindfulness practice to cope with the stress of pregnancy after completing MBCP. Future research at the UCSF Osher Center will use rigorous methods to test the effects of MBCP on things like stress hormones, birth outcomes and indicators of child development. Read more about this pilot study online.
Nancy Bardacke, CNM, MA founder of the MBCP Program, is an Assistant Clinical Professor in the Department of Family Health Care Nursing at UCSF. She has been assisting families during pregnancy and childbirth for almost four decades.