First Stage of Labor … My Reflections

Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today, Issue 129, Spring 2019.
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“To manifest successfully, you must open your heart and let in your new intention and its vision on every level of your being.”
—Katherine Hurst

We know that how a pregnant woman experiences, evaluates, and copes with labor depends on: where and with whom she is during labor; her personality; her past experiences dealing with love, empathy, compassion, depression, anxiety, and stressful life events; as well as her partner and providers—whether midwives, doctors, or doulas.

The way that I will approach this discussion of the first stage of labor has to do with my latest literature reviews and my clinical observations during more than 30 years as a midwife, family physician attending births, prenatal educator, and father of three children born at home.

For this discussion, I will set aside the academic teaching of first stage as the three-part breakdown of passive, active, and transition phases, with all the physiological and anatomical changes easily found in any textbook and extensively taught in most prenatal courses around the world.

What I want to do is to invite you to follow me into a deeper journey, which is the energetic heart/brain/mind connection between a mother in labor and her unborn baby. From this perspective, it is almost impossible not to include the second stage of labor, where that same energy of connection takes place.

In this journey, we want to help mothers during the first stage of labor and beyond to bring their physical, mental, and emotional systems into balanced alignment with their heart’s intuitive guidance. This unfolds the path for becoming a heart-empowered mom who chooses the way of love, self-trust, calmness, and being in the present moment of awareness and mindfulness, which she experiences during labor through compassionate care for the well-being of herself and her baby in the womb.

Over the last two decades, research has shown that the human heart is much more than just an efficient pump that keeps us alive—suggesting that the heart is also an access point to a source of wisdom and intelligence that we can call upon to live our lives with more balance, greater creativity, and enhanced intuitive capacities. (Most of you have likely read about this in Michel Odent’s book, The Scientification of Love.) I believe that this wisdom is very important in relation to the first stage of labor and beyond, to increase mom’s calmness, mindfulness, and effectiveness and to allow her to achieve a peaceful, happy labor all throughout passive, active phase, transition, and into second stage.

What am I trying to unfold? An exploration of the intriguing aspects of the science of the heart, much of which is still not relatively well understood outside the fields of neurocardiology and psychophysiology, as mentioned by Dr. Rollin McCraty. I hope that new windows will open for many of you, as they did for me, that may explain the different reasons many mothers live the experience of hard labor at any phase during first stage, or second stage—no matter how well prepared they were after having taken a great prenatal course with all the necessary information (from the instructor’s or coach’s point of view). Many of these moms have needed midwifery techniques (rebozo, herbal relaxation baths, massaging birth canal and cervix with primrose oil, relaxation of pelvic floor, etc.). I am clearly not against any of these techniques, and we all have seen them work with many moms and not work with others. Of course, we know about side-lying release and forward-leaning inversion during third trimester and first stage. This is the new paradigm Gail Tully teaches with so much love and wisdom at Spinning Babies, where she replaces the old 3 Ps (passenger, pelvis, pressure) with balance, gravity, and movement. These come into play during second stage and do help to solve an anatomical issue between mom and baby. But still, a small percentage of moms have a very hard first stage despite needing or not needing the use of these awesome techniques. In the same line of thoughts, many moms have an easy, joyous labor without having taken a prenatal course or received outside information, only connecting with their inner wisdom and mindfulness during any stage of labor. Finally, another percentage of moms need to be mothered, guided, and protected.

That brings me to my next point: having had the opportunity to work in South America and the US in medical and midwifery settings—with many doctors, midwives, and doulas—exchanging experiences with many of them in different parts of the world during professional conferences, some years ago I started seeing a similarity among certain moms in both models.

In the medical world, in many hospitals, when a laboring mom experiences hard labor and active management of labor is implemented—with all the technology, control, and medications available—many times it ends with an instrumental delivery, a c-section, or a bad outcome. Invariably, the providers say, “We did everything possible.” In the same vein, in some freestanding birthing centers and/or homebirths-to-be, when a transfer is needed, usually during transition or second stage, it is also said “We did everything possible for you to have the natural birth you wanted” or “You did awesome, but it is time to transfer to the hospital.” Physical and emotional exhaustion usually play an important role here.

My point is: How do we address emotional exhaustion? Can it be foreseen or suspected during prenatals? During first stage of labor? At which phase: passive, active, or even transition? What about during a prodromal (very slow) initiation of labor? Is emotional exhaustion the same as emotional dystocia? This is what I am trying to elucidate and, as you may know, emerging research is giving us more tools to guide those moms who get stuck during first stage of labor—or even before, during third trimester or afterwards during second stage—without an anatomical issue.

In 2003, Dr. Rollin McCraty measured the amplitude of brain waves versus heart waves and discovered that the magnetic field and energy produced by the heart is about 5000 times as powerful as the field produced by the brain. What I find
relevant is that this energy field difference is based on feelings rather than thoughts. So it doesn’t matter if a mom convinces her mind that she can have a nice, easy first and second stage of labor based on being well-informed and knowing all the details about passive, active, and transition phase. If her heart doesn’t believe it’s possible, she may be bound to a hard labor with all the potential implications of which we are aware.

However, when these moms believe in their heart feeling rather than in what their mind may be whispering, they actually can tap into that higher electromagnetic energy and feel their manifesting power unfold, with no doubts during first stage and beyond. Here we can add, if mom has any doubts, she will act on the doubt, and there goes her physical and emotional energy.

The HeartMath Institute Research Center in California has explored the physiological mechanisms by which the heart and brain communicate and how the activity of the heart influences our perceptions, emotions, intuition, and health. We can extrapolate these findings to pregnancy, labor, and birth.

McCraty also mentioned that in the early 1990s, they were among the first to conduct research that looked at not only how stressful emotions affect the activity in the autonomic nervous system (ANS) and the hormonal and immune systems, but also at the effects of emotions such as appreciation, compassion, and care. I add that these love emotions in fact are what every midwife, doctor, and doula should offer from their heart to all moms in labor.

At the HeartMath Institute it became clear that stressful or depleting emotions, such as frustration and overwhelm, lead to increased disorder in the higher-level brain centers and autonomic nervous system, are reflected in the heart rhythms, and adversely affect the functioning of virtually all body systems. Here I would add the uterus and unborn baby during first stage of labor; just think of mom’s heartbeats and the corresponding fetal heart rate (FHR).

The heart is, in fact, a highly complex information-processing center that communicates with and influences the brain via the nervous system, hormonal system, and other pathways. These influences affect brain function and most of the body’s major organs, and play an important role in mental and emotional experience and the quality of our lives. Why not also the quality of the first stage of labor and beyond?

Dr. Joe Dispenza mentions in his August 2018 blog that when you open your heart and feel love, the power of that profound love can create a new baseline in your brain and body’s survival systems. Here is his analysis (with some of my thoughts), which we should address with all pregnant moms, either at prenatals or during childbirth education classes. Usually when I address this issue in my Magical Beginnings course, in every group at least one couple or single mom approaches me after class asking for a private counseling session.

Dispenza continues, noting that when we experience traumatic incidents in our lives—such as pain, loss, abuse, and so on—the strength of the corresponding emotional quotient turns on the amygdala, which is a survival center in our brains. Because the experience was painful, the activation of the amygdala serves to protect us from the situation should it happen again. In other words, it’s an unconscious response to an external situation designed for self-preservation. Now you all can imagine what starts building up in some fragile moms during the passive or active phase of first stage of labor.

The more times you experience the trauma, or revisit on a daily basis the emotions of the suffering caused by it (that is to say, the more times the amygdala turns on), it’s as if your brain continuously sets itself to a new baseline—a baseline not connected to love, joy, balance, or homeostasis. Instead, it’s based in the hormones of stress and, as we all know, living in the hormones of stress for extended periods of time has serious health consequences—let alone the consequences during any phase of first stage of labor.

Dispenza adds that if your senses are always sweeping the environment to determine what is safe and/or what is not, if something in your environment triggers an association to the memory of that trauma, as the amygdala switches on, you’re back to living in your past and anticipating that future event happening again.

I had always understood that the frontal lobe lowers the volume to those strong emotional centers—that the frontal lobe allowed us to begin to quiet down those survival centers. In this paradigm, the brain is the control center of the body. Recently, however, my friends at the HeartMath Institute showed me some interesting research that made me think differently.

The researchers pointed out that there are afferent nerve fibers that go directly from the heart to the brain. Not only do they go directly to the brain, but they go directly to the amygdala. Why is this important? Because the research demonstrates that when you open your heart and feel love, the power of that profound love can create a new baseline in your brain’s and body’s survival systems. This means that the heart and brain together are the command center of the body.

So, what is the power of love and how does love heal? When we truly open our hearts, let go of the past, and forgive, we reset our baseline into a more harmonious, more elevated state. This in turn brings us into a state of homeostasis and by returning to a state of homeostasis, we free ourselves from the past. According to Dispenza, when we free ourselves from the past, we gain a new freedom to create our future. We can also gain a new freedom to create the gentle labor and birth every mom and baby desire.

In my experience, the energetic field that builds up during labor is itself a transformational power, especially for mom and baby in the womb. This is when we say that not only the baby was born, but the mom was also born as a mother and dad was born as a father. A new family was born out of love for a more coherent humanity. As Dr. McCraty says, “Coherence is the state when the heart, mind, and emotions are in energetic alignment and cooperation. It is a state that builds resiliency—personal energy is accumulated, not wasted—leaving more energy to manifest intentions and harmonious outcomes.”

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About Author: Fernando Molina

Fernando Molina, BS, MD, midwife, prenatal educator, researcher, and Midwifery Today speaker has been traveling a long career as a natural birth advocate in hospitals, birth centers, and at homebirths in Venezuela and the US. Fernando now lives in Eugene, Oregon, and is a father of three children born at home in Venezuela. Follow him on Instagram @magicalbeginningsfm or contact him at fmolina55@gmail.com.

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