No, your birth is not like running a bloody marathon!
Don’t get me wrong, you can absolutely birth with no preparation, but in my experience the more preparation you can do, the better chance you will get a positive birth.
But it is time to put to bed a ridiculous analogy that has been used for ages to encourage women to attend antenatal classes. An analogy that is at best a stretch (no pun intended), and at worse a comparison between fish fingers and the Eiffel tower.
I applaud the effort of birth teachers like myself who want to get parents to understand that birth preparation can make a HUGE difference to your birth. That knowing what is happening in your body, and how you can help it, enhance labour and train how to cope really well with contractions can make the difference between a traumatic birth that scars you for life, and an awesome that changes your life for the better forever.
And yet this stupid comparison with an epic sporting event does nothing but damage in my opinion.
It gives the impression that you have to be a superstar athlete to even attempt birth. And that you have to train for a Very Long Time in order to give birth.
That you have to be super-fit and healthy to get through birth, and that any help that you accept along the way is either unfair or downright cheating for all the others who have done it without help.
STOP! It drives me mad how we finally managed to get women off the bed in labour, and finally got them around to the idea that perhaps training for birth is a good idea. But then we slap them around the face with this ludicrous notion of a birth marathon. A 26-mile, epic, round-trip-of-London birth marathon. That we need to channel our inner Paula Radcliffe to even think about it.
No. No. just NO!
So in order to redress the balance, here are ten ways that your birth is nothing like a bloody marathon!
1. There is only one way to train for a marathon
When you are training for a marathon you generally need to get fit and practice running. After all, you are going to be *running* the marathon. OK, I admit, some other general fitness and mindset stuff probably helps a lot. But basically, you just need to be able to run. A lot. For 26 miles.
As there are many ways to be IN labour and birth, so there are many ways for you to prepare for birth. There are different elements to birth and each is influenced by different things, as well as an overall interaction between them.
And actually finding a method or technique that suits your learning and understanding style is really important as well.
If you Google birth classes in your area you’ll find many flavours of class that offer a wide range of resources and training programmes.
So no, there is way more than one way to train for birth.
2. You only need to do one thing to get through it: run
In a marathon you start at the start line, the hooter goes off (do they use a hooter? I can’t say I’ve ever watched the start of a marathon) and you all start running. You keep putting one foot in front of the other and just run your little socks off until you get to the other end. A piece of piss.
Whereas labour starts in a multitude of different ways (like waters breaking, losing your mucous plug, period pains, cramps, backache, nesting and a combination of them) and there is often no obvious “start” point.
You can even be in labour and not even realise!
And in labour, there are many different stages that have different qualities and sensations as different things happen in your body, and it is just not as simple as putting one foot in front of the other repeatedly. Actually, there are many MANY ways to cope with labour: moving your body, massaging your body, different positions, breathing techniques, not to mention all the mental techniques as well.
And then when you do get to the end of labour, you are handed a fricking BABY! And instead of chilling the hell out, you have to start being a full-time mum and all the rest that goes with it (for the next 18+ years)!
So no, there isn’t just one thing you have to do, to get through labour.
A FREE 60-minute live group antenatal class via video link.
3. Not many people run a marathon
It’s a pretty damn small number, even if you take into account all the other marathons in other countries they might travel to. And if you remove the men, and women who are post-menopausal that number will decrease by maybe half (sadly I couldn’t find any stats on how many of the runners were women).
Around 775,000 births in the UK in 2017 (give or take) mean that a whopping 1.17% of the population gave birth, or around 2.2% if you just count the women. And if you take out girls under the age of consent and post-menopausal women, that number just gets higher and higher. OK it’s small numbers here, but still, around 38 times more people give birth than run the marathon.
So, actually, a shitload of women give birth every year. Way more than run the marathon.
(p.s. these statistics are from 2017 except the birth rate which is from 2016)
4. You know the route a marathon will take
The route of a marathon is well advertised many months in advance. It is a complicated design taking into account different roads, and paths and whatnot. But basically, it is one route that everyone has to take. In fact, it is pretty much the definition of a marathon that you all have to follow the same path EXACTLY.
In birth, however, you have no bloody clue the route it will take. OK, I do concede that we know the anatomical journey the baby, the pelvis and uterus have to make to get the baby from inside to outside. But outside of that fact, there are many different variables that can affect journey a labour will take.
Factors such as the position of the baby, state of the cervix, tone of the pelvic floor, mums’ position and movements, tension in muscles, the tilt of baby’s head, baby’s movement, mothers hormone levels, the location of birth, support, time of day, tiredness of mother…the list is pretty endless actually.
And these things can affect the intensity of labour, the type of sensations of contractions, the way the mother can cope…you know, it’s a long list as well.
And we do write birth preferences and aim for a particular type of birth. But the best kind of preparation leaves you with tools to be able to make decisions on the fly, with knowledge of many different paths and what to do should you take that path. In fact, labour is more like being a London taxi driver than a marathon runner (I can see a blog post there…).
So, no. You have no idea what route your labour will take.
5. You know how far a marathon is and roughly how long it will last
They measure it quite carefully and the very definition of a marathon is that it is 26 miles. Actually, Google just told me it’s 26.2 miles to be specific (that’s 42.195Km for those who prefer metric). And from your own training, you should be able to pretty closely predict the time it will take you to run it, on average around 4.5 hours. Faster if you are in good shape, and slower if you are walking round in an iron diving suit.
Birth can last anything from a few minutes (yes, seriously – I mentioned before that you can be in labour without realising it) to many hours or days.
In fact, I know someone who was in labour for 7 days (if you count from the very first twinge).
And it can change from first to subsequent births. My own experience was my first birth was 85 hours (that’s exactly 3.5 days), and my second was 6hours 5 minutes.
You really cannot predict with any accuracy whatsoever how long labour will last.
Birth Preferences: a useful tool for labour with template
6. You can do it in a couple or a team
A marathon is indeed a solitary task, but you can also have a running buddy or even be part of a team in order to share the load, chivvy each other on, compete with each other and generally feel a part of a greater whole to enable you to stick with it. You are all in it together, you all have to get through the good points and the bad points, you all have to just keep putting one foot in front.
Birth, on the other hand, is truly a solitary experience. It is just you, your body and your baby (and you can’t communicate with your baby).
You can have an amazing and supportive birth partner, who can offer massage, kind words and supporting comments. You can have a brilliant doula who can coach you and encourage you and be there for you. You can have a special midwife who is caring and considerate and respectful.
But none of those people are feeling the sensations. None of them are actually going through the experience. They are accompanying you, but they are not birthing with you.
In birth, you go it alone, and their support and kindness helps a great deal, but the way you cope with labour is up to you. The way you birth your baby is up to you. You are in full control of the ship!
So you can HAVE a birth team, but you can’t birth in a team.
7. You do it in a public arena and that helps
If you just ran a marathon on your own, with no other people either in the race or standing cheering you on, it would probably be a very unpopular sport. Many marathoners (is that a word?) speak of how they felt as if they couldn’t go on but then turned a corner when a stranger in the crown yelled, ‘Come on, you can do it! Run! Run! Run!’ That cheering and public acknowledgement of the effort makes a massive difference to the energy and stamina of the runner and is an integral part of the race.
In birth actually the completely opposite is true.
The more public a place you are in, the harder it is to let your body do the thing it needs to do. Observers, and strangers and even people cheering you on only serve to interfere with the birth hormones that thrive in a warm, dark, private place.
Your midwife yelling, ‘ Come on, you can do it! Push! Push! Push!’ will actually have the opposite to the desired effect of encouraging the woman.
You do need love and support and kind words in labour. You do need encouragement and support of both friends and strangers. But that support needs to be soft, and loving, and appropriate. And preferably at the mother’s request.
So, labouring in a public place is the LAST PLACE you should choose.
8. You can change your mind, rest, slow down, stop or drop out at any moment if you’ve had enough.
You don’t sign up to a marathon unless you fully intend to run it. You train and get fit. You have your sponsorship to give you public accountability. But the bottom line is that if you are unwell, or injured, you can drop out before it even starts. If you get too tired, hot, have cramp or pull a muscle, you can slow down to a jog or a walk. You can even stop and sit down and have a rest. You can pick it up again when you feel ready or if you want to, you can actually leave the race completely and all you have done is lost face.
Once you get pregnant, your baby has to come out one way or another. There is no other option.
Once labour starts, you may find it ebbs and flows if you get tired, but you have to keep going – for as long as it takes – to birth your baby.
Even if it is clear baby is just not going to be born, or needs to come out in an emergency, the alternative is major abdominal surgery, a recovery time of at least 6 weeks, and lasting changes to your body. Having a caesarean is not an easy way out.
So, with labour, there is no giving up. There is no stopping until you drop your baby (so to speak).
9. You are the only person involved in a marathon
I don’t mean when you are not part of a team, because, in a marathon, it is you and only you that has to run it.
In labour and birth, the very definition is that you are in it in partnership with your baby. You are facilitating the emergence of your baby from the inside of your body to the outside. Your health and wellbeing is important, but the baby is just as important and so the things we do affect them as well as us.
I did say you are not in a team, but you also are working in tandem with your little passenger, and that affects the choices that you make and the route that your labour goes.
10. You can’t use drugs or get help to reach the end.
It is pretty much agreed that using drugs to enhance your performance in a marathon is frowned upon. Anything from coffee and energy bars, to steroid and I don’t know what else, can give you bursts of energy and help you increase your stamina, energy and performance.
Honestly, I am sure it is pretty rare to abuse drugs for a marathon, but it is definitely considered to be at best not running a fair race, and at worst blatantly cheating. Drugs are a no-no in marathons and that’s the way it should be. It is a test of endurance and fitness, and everyone should have a fair shot at it.
Labour and birth, however, can be really enhanced with drugs. Don’t get me wrong I fully and wholeheartedly support natural birth and think everyone should aim for it.
But I also fully and wholeheartedly believe that if you need a bit of help, there is plentiful help available and if it helps you to have a positive experience then it is most definitely a Good Thing.
It can make the difference between not being able to cope, and nailing it. It can be the valuable rest that you need in order to be able to get to the end. It can enable you to take control of your body and choose the route that your labour is taking. In some cases, it can be life-saving, literally.
We are incredibly lucky to have pain-relieving drugs are available to use to help us cope with labour, and that there are some amazing and clever interventions that can help our bodies birth our babies if there are problems or concerns.
We should learn about them and use them if we need to or want to. And it is in no way cheating or taking advantage of other people. It is simply choosing the right birth for us on the day.
So, yes, you can use drugs and they can be bloody amazing!
I worry as I write that perhaps some of my comments might come across putting birth in a negative light. But in fact, everything I say is true.
Labour and birth can be challenging. It can be painful and difficult and unknown. But it can also be beautiful, empowering, enriching and, yes, it can be awesome.
I feel myths around birth are prevalent enough without silly analogies getting in the way. Birth marathon, pah!
I want us to talk freely and truthfully about birth. The good bits and the bad bits. I want to educate women so that their expectations of birth are actually realistic. Not Eastenders, media-farce, TV-friendly scary realistic. Not fantasy natural birth in a stream under a rainbow with a unicorn doula realistic. But the whole other spectrum in between. You know, the birth that real women have.
Eleanor Hayes Online Antenatal Teacher and Author
I founded Birthzang after having an incredible birth experience that enlightened me that with the right tools and skills at her fingertips, any woman can have a positive birth experience.
I discovered my passion for providing parents with practical and non-fluffy information in my online antenatal workshops and classes about how to cope with pregnancy, labour, birth, and parenthood.