Like many pregnant women preparing for the birth of their first baby, Brianna Quasius, 32, of Chaska, Minnesota, wanted to use natural ways to cope with the pain and avoid a long labor, medical interventions and a cesarean section.
“We always wanted to do natural childbirth if I could handle it,” she said.
Quasius already had a midwife and doula but once she was in labor, she decided to try a new tool she had learned about during her childbirth class: a labor or “birthing” sling. Labor slings are made from a long piece of fabric tied to a carabiner that clips into an “O” ring attached to the ceiling.
“I really gripped it hard with my upper body to really try to alleviate any sort of tension or pressure from my lower half [during contractions],” she recalled. “It was better than squeezing my husband and hurting his shoulders.”
The sling also helped her to be mobile and feel more comfortable throughout her 28 hours of labor, 22 of which were un-medicated.
“Being up and down and changing positions was really beneficial, not only physically, I think mentally as well,” Quasius said.
The birth sling revival
Women have actually been using tools like the birthing sling—or some form of it—for hundreds of years.
Today in Europe, birthing suites often include birthing slings as well as birth chairs, wall ladders, polls and ropes, birth mats and bean bags and experts say they’re growing in popularity in the U.S. too.
“It’s actually a revival of these tools that women have used in the past that we’re bringing into the modern hospital,” said Tracy Donegan, a midwife in San Francisco and founder of GentleBirth, a childbirth education program.
These tools have the potential to help women have shorter, less painful labors, lower the risk for unnecessary medical interventions and caesareans and empower them to have the best births possible.
In fact, women who use upright positions and are mobile during the first stage of labor have shorter labors, and a lower risk for an epidural and caesarean, according to a Cochrane review.
“We’ve been looking at lots of ways to reduce the rate of cesarean birth in general and one of those ways is to promote mobility during labor and upright positing,” said Heather Jelinek, a certified nurse-midwife with The Birthplace at the University of Minnesota Masonic Children's Hospital in Minneapolis.
The birthing sling allows moms to move during contractions and find a comfortable position to rest in between. Studies show women are also less likely to ask for pain medication when using a sling.
“They’re supported and they don’t have to use any extra energy,” Jelinek said.
The Rebozo and “birth sifting”
Another technique that’s growing in popularity is birth sifting. Like the birthing sling, birth sifting can help reduce pain, help labor progress and has the potential to reduce the C-section rate. The technique uses a Rebozo, which is a cross between a scarf and a shawl.
“[Using] the Rebozo is a wonderful technique to make room for the baby in an enjoyable way for the mother,” said Gail Tully, a professional nurse-midwife in Minneapolis and founder of Spinning Babies, a childbirth education program.
As the woman lies on her back, stands, kneels, or leans on a birth ball, the Rebozo is wrapped around the woman’s belly or hips. The person holding the Rebozo then lifts the weight of her belly off her spine and then gently, rhythmically moves it from side to side.
“It’s not a very wide arc, it’s like a vibration,” Tully said.
The goal of using the Rebozo isn’t to reposition the baby, but to help the muscles and the muscle fibers inside the uterine ligaments to relax, stretch and lengthen.
“When the muscles get longer, they get softer,” Tully said. “Therefore, there’s less resistance to the uterus trying to rotate the baby and the baby trying to find the best position to come through the pelvis.”
The Rebozo can be used for as little as three minutes, depending on when the mother or the person using it gets tired.
Experts agree that whether women choose natural childbirth or not, they should have a variety of tools available to them during labor because what works during one contraction or stage of labor, may not work for the next.
Most importantly, women should be able to choose how and where they labor and the positions that feel right to them.
“We want to make sure we’re stacking the odds of our babies being healthy and well through labor,” Donegan said. “Getting [mothers] off the bed has to be a priority.