What is a regulated nervous system?
A nervous system that is functioning optimally which in turn allows the persons automatic, or not consciously controlled, bodily functions to run smoothly. This includes a stable heart rate and blood pressure, normal digestive function and breathing rate, appropriate bowel and bladder functioning and normal sexual functioning. When your nervous system is “regulated” you feel good, you feel safe, you feel comfortable, you feel calm. The signals your body is sending your conscious brain feels appropriate and helpful for the situation you are in.
How does regulating your nervous system benefit labor progression and birth?
If we consider labor, this is not an everyday experience. There are things your autonomic (unconscious) nervous system is doing that aids your labor progression and birth, but they are not normal events outside of labor. Some of these include:
For many birthing people these sensations bring about their fight-flight-freeze response because the sensations are scary, painful, intense and for first timers, unfamiliar. This raises the birthing person's fear and/or anxiety which dysregulates their nervous system. Other external factors can add to this, such as their environment and their interactions with others. If a birthing person has heightened anxiety in a medical environment or they have someone present who makes them feel uncomfortable their nervous system can be even further dysregulated.
Labor in of itself does not cause nervous system dysregulation. In fact, we don’t need to do anything consciously to birth our child. Our body will do it for us. It is our own conscious brain and our response to the signals we receive from our body and environment that causes nervous system dysregulation during birth.
What happens if my nervous system becomes dysregulated during birth?
When a birthing person becomes fearful, stressed, anxious, scared, or even mad during the labor process their emotional response interferes with their bodies automatic responses that allow labor to progress. This can result in a slower labor progression, increased perception of pain, higher muscle tone and tension particularly in the pelvic floor, diaphragm and jaw, as well as a higher risk of elevated blood pressure and difficulty controlling breathing rate. These responses can lead to more nervous system dysregulation.
So things can quickly and easily spiral out of the birthing person's control resulting in a birthing experience that is not what was originally envisioned.
How to keep your nervous system regulated during labor?
Simply understanding this spiral of events can go a long way! Knowledge is power when it comes to birth. The more you understand what is happening the better you can stay in a regulated nervous system state.
Here are my top recommendations for learning strategies that help keep your nervous system regulated during labor:
1. Take a childbirth education class. Whether it’s at your local hospital or through a private provider of childbirth education, it is priceless! Locally I would recommend: Maluhia Mama Hypnobirthing by Nadine Gilmore https://maluhiamamahypnobirthing.com
2. Take a prenatal yoga class that focuses on body awareness, breath and helps you feel good about the power of your body to birth your child. I loved the prenatal classes at Open Space Yoga- due to COVID-19 they are not open but they have an online class for prenatal yoga with teacher Yuko Kowal on their website: https://www.yogaopenspace.com/yoga-hawaii
3. Dive into meditation. Here is my blog post about meditation and learning to meditate during pregnancy: http://www.windwardmaternalwellness.com/blog/i-wish-i-had-done-this-when-i-was-pregnant#/
4. Identify what sensations comfort you best in times of stress and pain. I suggest identifying 2-3 senses that feel the most soothing to you- seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, movement, and pressure. Your senses are the way your body receives internal and external information and sends it to your nervous system. Knowing the ones that are best for calming you down gives you a direct link to some excellent comfort measure for labor. These comfort measures assist you and your nervous system to stay better regulated while your body does the work.
As your due date approaches you will be able to stay in a more regulated nervous system state if you have put in the time for self discovery and learning that comes with really engaging in any of the above recommendations. Everyone’s path to get there will look different, but we are all capable of getting there.
I wish you the best on your path to an empowered, confident, calm, and beautiful birth!
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Hilary Valentine, Owner of Windward Maternal Wellness
I was born and raised in Massachusetts but I have called Oahu my home for the past 14 years. I live with my family in Kailua, including my husband, Jason, my daughters, Victoria and Gwendolyn and my parents, Nanette and Geoff. This blog is intended to shine light on both my work as a women's health occupational therapist and postpartum doula, my personal views on lifestyle topics such as parenting and women's health as well as a resource for education on topics relevant to the clients I serve. I welcome any and all comments and feedback! Mahalo!