Since relaxation holds the key to managing pain in labor, it is important to take the necessary time to learn and master techniques to relax your body, and to keep it relaxed during contractions. Relaxing through pain takes practice. For many people, the first response to pain (headaches, muscle cramps, stubbing your toe) is to tense the offending part of the body.
Do not rush this exercise. Practice in various situations, in different positions. Try it when you have a headache or other pain to see if you are able to concentrate enough to relax through the pain.
Start slow. Active muscular relaxation takes practice. Gradually increase the amount of time you spend in relaxation daily until you have the concentration necessary to relax for at least half an hour. During labor, your contractions will be 60 to 90 seconds long at their most intense, but you may desire to continue relaxation between contractions when the labor nears transition.
Step One: Identify Tension
Your first job will be to learn to recognize tension in your body. Quite possibly your body is carrying a lot of tension right now, only you are so used to feeling it that you don’t even recognize that you are tense. Understanding the difference between a tensed and a relaxed muscle is key to being able to relax on demand.
Begin this exercise by assuming a comfortable position. The actual position you choose will be personal to you and your bodies intricacies. For some women, strategically placed pillows will improve comfort. Do not be too concerned about the placement of your arms, do what feels comfortable and avoids squeezing or pulling any part of the body.
Choose a part of your body and tense the muscles as much as possible. For example, if you chose your shoulders, lift them high to your ears really crunching your neck. Feel the discomfort and tightness in these muscles. Recognize how the tightness carries to neighboring muscles.
Then, after holding that tension for about ten seconds, release the muscles, letting the body part go limp or get soft. Feel the looseness in the muscle, and the difference in comfort. Repeat the tensing and relaxing a few more times, trying to achieve a deeper relaxation of the muscle each time.
After you have tensed and relaxed that muscle group in one direction a few times, switch to the other direction. For the shoulder example, you will now press your shoulders down toward your waist, as if you were trying to stretch your arms to reach something low without bending over. Feel the tension that is created by the muscles this way, and the difference between the tensed position and the relaxed position.
There may be other directions you can try with certain muscle groups. For example the shoulders can be tensed forward or backward, each time tensing a different set of muscles, but the knee can only go forward and backward. Become as familiar as possible with the feeling of tension in your muscles. Once you have explored all possibilities with a muscle group, move on to a different group. Remember to do your face and neck, back and buttocks, chest and stomach.
Step Two: Relax at will
What you will find after several sessions of this exercise is that some muscles will come under your control very easily, and you will be able to relax them without tensing them first. That is what you ultimately want to achieve for all muscles. You will find there are muscles that seem resistant to your desire to have them relax. That is ok, you need to know what muscles you need help relaxing so your labor support will know where to concentrate efforts.
When you gain the ability to relax three or four muscles at will, change your practice from a tension focus to a relaxation focus. As you move through the body, try to actively relax each muscle group. If you come across a muscle group are unable to achieve relaxation without first tensing, then tense that group. With a few more sessions you should be able to relax nearly every muscle group at will.
Review Your Work
- What parts of your body were very easy to relax?
- What parts of your body were very difficult to relax?
- Did anything surprise you while trying this exercise? What was it?
- Try practicing this exercise with your labor support. Can your labor support tell when muscle groups are tensed or relaxed?