The roadmap of labor
I have created a visual guide to labor progress using the metaphor of a road map. It shows key labor landmarks and appropriate activities and measures for comfort as labor progresses (see Figure 1 above).
Parents can use it during labor as a reminder of where they are in the process and what to do. Teachers can use it as a tool for organized discussion of normal labor progress and as a backdrop for discussing laboring women’s emotional reactions, and how partners or doulas may assist. Health professionals can use it to help parents identify where they are in labor, adjust their expectations and try appropriate comfort measures.
Normal labor pathway
The roadmap portrays three pathways. The main brick road represents unmedicated labor and shows helpful actions, positions, and comforting techniques to use as labor progresses. The twists and turns in the brick road indicate that any normal labor does not progress in a straight line; the large turns between 3-6 centimeters and 8-10 centimeters indicate large emotional adjustments for the laboring woman, and present an opportunity to discuss emotional support and comfort measures for the partner or doula to use. After 10 centimeters, the woman’s renewed energy and confidence are represented by the second wind sign. Along with discussion of emotional support and comfort measures, the teacher can offer perspective and practical advice for partners and doulas, to use both when the woman is coping well and when she feels challenged or distressed.
The roadmap provides a clear and effective way to teach about normal labor. It keeps the discussion focused purely on the physiological and psychological processes, without inserting discussions of pros and cons of interventions, complications, or usual policies and hospital practices that alter labor.
Once parents have a solid understanding of normal labor, the teacher can explain usual care practices and possible options for monitoring maternal and fetal well being during labor. She can also discuss labor variations or complications and treatments with medical (including pain medications), surgical or technological procedures. With this approach, parents are better equipped to discuss risks, benefits and alternatives, because they can distinguish situations and conditions that are more likely to benefit from the intervention from those in which the intervention is optional, unnecessary, or harmful.
Planned and spontaneous rituals
The normal labor road suggests measures to use for distraction, comfort, and progress. Distraction is desirable for as long as it helps. The Relax, Breathe, Focus sign reminds parents to use this pre-planned ritual for dealing with intensifying contractions when distraction is no longer possible. Parents need to rehearse these rituals in childbirth class (i.e. slow breathing, tension release, and constructive mental focus) and use them in early labor. They set the stage for the spontaneous rituals that emerge later in labor (as women enter active labor), when they realize they cannot control the contractions or continue their planned ritual, and give up their attempts to do so, though sometimes after a stressful struggle. Spontaneous rituals replace the planned ones. They are not planned in advance – they are almost instinctual – and almost always involve rhythmic activity through the contractions – breathing, moaning, swaying, stroking, rocking, or even letting rhythmic thoughts or phrases repeat like a mantra.
The three Rs
The spontaneous rituals usually involve the three Rs: relaxation (at least between contractions), rhythm, which is the most important, and ritual, the repetition of the same rhythmic activity for many contractions. In order to give herself over to spontaneous instinctual behavior, the woman needs to feel emotionally safe, uninhibited, accepted unconditionally by partner and staff, and to be mobile in order to find comfort.
The motto ‘Rhythm is everything’ means that if a woman has rhythm during contractions, she is coping, even though she may vocalize and find it difficult. The rhythmic ritual keeps her from feeling totally overwhelmed. The goal is to keep her rhythm during contractions in the first stage. Once in second stage, however, rhythm is no longer the key. The woman becomes alert and her spirits are lifted. An involuntary urge to push usually takes over and guides her behavior.
The role of the partner in labor
The partner helps throughout labor, comforting the mother with food and drink, distraction, massage and pressure, assistance with positioning, and constant companionship. Sometimes, a doula also accompanies them, providing continuing guidance, perspective, encouragement, and expertise with hands-on comfort measures, positions, and other techniques gained from her training and experience.
The role of an effective birth partner includes being in the woman’s rhythm – focusing on her and matching the rhythm of her vocalizations, breathing or movements – by swaying, stroking, moving hand or head, murmuring softly in her same rhythm. Then, if she has difficulty keeping her rhythm, and tenses, cries out or struggles – as frequently occurs in active labor or transition – her partner helps her get her rhythm back, by asking her to focus her eyes on their face or hand and follow their rhythmic movements. This is the take-charge routine, and is only used if the woman has lost her rhythm, is fearful, or feels she cannot go on. Partners who know about this are less likely to feel helpless, useless or frightened. Simple directions, given firmly, confidently, and kindly (‘look at me,’ or ‘look at my hand’), rhythmic hand or head movements, and ‘rhythm talk’ with each breath (murmuring, ‘Keep your rhythm, stay with me, that’s the way…‘) are immensely effective in helping the woman carry on through demanding contractions.
During the second stage, rhythm is no longer important; now the partner encourages her bearing-down efforts and release of her pelvic floor, and also assists her with positions.
The motto “Rhythm is everything” means that if a woman has rhythm during contractions, she is coping, even though she may vocalize and find it difficult.
The detour for back pain
A second pathway, a rocky, rough road, represents the more difficult ‘back labor’, which may be more painful, longer, or more complicated than the normal labor pathway. Fetal malposition is one possible cause. The measures shown for back labor are twofold: reduce the back pain and alter the effects of gravity and pelvic shape to encourage the fetus’s movement into and through the pelvis. It helps a woman endure a prolonged or painful back labor if she and her partner use appropriate comfort measures, and if they know that dilation may be delayed while the baby’s head molds or rotates to fit through, or that changing gravity and pelvic shape may give the extra room that the baby needs to move into an optimal position.
The epidural highway
This third pathway represents a dramatically different road – smooth, angular, man- made, more comfortable – but it comes with extensive precautions and numerous procedures, monitors, and medications, which are necessary to keep the epidural safe. The woman adopts a passive role while the staff manage labor progress, and monitors the mother’s and fetus’s well being closely. The excellent pain relief and chance to sleep are the usual rewards. Discussion of how to work with an epidural in order to optimize the outcome is beyond the scope of the paper, but the basic principle is: treat the woman with an epidural as much as possible like a woman who does not have one! This essentially means,‘Keep her cool. Keep her moving. Keep her involved in the work of pushing her baby out. And don’t assume that if she has no pain, she has no distress! Do not leave her alone.’
The roadmap of labor provides a useful framework for teachers to explain the psychological and physiological processes of labor, and a variety of activities for comfort and labor progress for women and their partners to use. By focusing on the normal unaltered process, parents learn to separate the norm from the numerous interventions that alter the process, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The intention is to give them confidence that they can handle normal labor and to participate meaningfully in decision-making when interventions are suggested.