By Kelly Brusch and Nancy Bardacke
Pregnancy and birth, under the best of conditions, can be a stressful time for expectant parents – and right now, across the globe, pregnant couples are experiencing previously unimaginable levels of stress, anxiety, isolation, and depression due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Birth providers are also navigating new challenges and stressors as they consider how to best support families during the transformative time of pregnancy, birth, and early parenting.
According to published research by Dr. Larissa Duncan and Nurse Midwife Nancy Bardacke, stress in pregnancy has been associated with preterm labor, a decrease in the quality of the childbirth experience, and an increase in postpartum depression. It can also lead to a decreased quality of attachment between a mother and her infant, postpartum couple conflict, and less than optimal neurocognitive development of the child.
This is where mindfulness practice comes in. Studies show that mindfulness practice helps us cope more effectively with stress, pain, illness, depression, and anxiety. Evidence also shows improvements in brain and immune function. A two part research study published by Dr Larissa Duncan found that expectant parents who learned mindfulness skills before the baby was born showed lower maternal depression symptoms during pregnancy and immediately following childbirth and lower perceived distress through the first 1-2 years postpartum.
There have been hundreds of published research articles on how mindfulness can reduce stress and depression, but what exactly is it about mindfulness practice that makes such an impact? And what about when it is applied in childbirth preparation?
What we know about mindfulness is that it is the practice itself that allows us space and time to cultivate new inner skills. The more we formally practise, the more likely it will be that these new skills can be applied right in the present moment in daily life. Here are some life skills that practising mindfulness during pregnancy may cultivate:
- an acceptance of present moment experiences
- non-attachment to expectations about the future
- healthy physiological conditions which promote optimal functioning of the body
- awareness of inner resources that allow for more “responding” vs. “reacting” to everyday challenges
- compassion for oneself and others
- an opportunity to reassess one’s relationship to both physical and emotional pain
Every woman’s labour and birth is unique; however, when we look at birth physiologically, we can see some universal features. When we teach mindfulness skills to prepare for childbirth, expectant parents learn how the inner skills they cultivate during mindfulness practice can help facilitate the normal physiological birth process.
The birth process involves intense physical sensations, which most women call pain. And the pain of childbirth is what midwife Nancy Bardacke, who developed the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) program, describes as transformational pain. Transformational pain is normal pain. This pain is not a signal that something is wrong; it is a result of a rapidly changing body that is doing what it is meant to do. As Nancy describes in her book, Mindful Birthing:
“Mindfulness practice helps us connect with the truth of transformational change and perhaps helps us to see childbirth in a new light: it certainly can be comforting to know that however long your labor lasts, it is not a permanent condition. Nothing is.”
What we also know about childbirth is how one’s relationship to fear and pain can inhibit the body’s natural physiological processes. Through mindfulness practice we can become more aware of our relationship to fear and pain and find moments of ease, presence, and even peace during childbirth.
Birth providers across the globe are curious about how to cultivate a mindfulness practice of their own to cope with the stressors of work and life, as well as being interested in learning how to teach mindfulness to expectant parents in the communities they serve. The Mindful Birthing and Parenting Foundation has trained nearly 200 perinatal birth professionals from 28 different countries how to teach Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) to expectant parents.
One birth professional describes her motivation for training to teach mindfulness skills to expectant parents as:
“To teach mindfulness for expectant parents is to guide them how to “dance in their contraction of life with mindfulness”, to help them to face every pleasant and unpleasant moment mindfully.”
Or as another MBCP teacher puts it,
“The most important value of teaching mindfulness for expectant parents is the opportunity to contribute to a decrease of intergenerational suffering. There can’t be peace in the world until there is peace in our homes.”
To learn more about the benefits of teaching mindfulness skills to expectant parents you can:
- Read Mindful Birthing by Nancy Bardacke, CNM
- Enroll in the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting live-online course as a professional participant to observe the curriculum in action
- Learn more about the online MBCP Teacher Training for perinatal professionals and the suggested background for MBCP Teachers
- Study the research on the benefits of a mindfulness practice during pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting
Nancy Bardacke, CNM, MA, is the Founding Director of The Mindful Birthing and Parenting Foundation
Kelly Brusch, MA, is the Managing Director of The Mindful Birthing and Parenting Foundation