Meet Jo O’Connell, who wanted to be fit and ready for birth
How one mum trained for labour like it was a marathon
When I found out I was pregnant again, I made a vow to have another active pregnancy. I love running 10K races and pushing myself on long bike rides. To me, birth is the biggest endurance challenge your body will ever experience, so it made sense to train for it as I’d train for a sporting event. I did everything I could to prepare my body. Two or three times a week I’d do a pregnancy workout DVD called Prenatal Fitness Fix by Erin O’Brien. The squatting exercises really helped strengthen my thighs, ready for any birthing position. And going to a local pregnancy yoga group kept my core muscles strong. I carried on with my weekly Zumba class, doing low-impact moves instead of vigorous jumping. Right up until I was 30 weeks pregnant I went on gentle bike rides too. And I did daily pelvic floor exercises whenever I was waiting for the kettle to boil. Knowing my body was as fit as possible affected my mindset and I found myself looking forward to the challenge of labour. Our hired birthing pool was set up in the dining room and, whenever I looked at it, I would imagine the positions I’d be able to get into thanks to the hip-opening exercises I’d done. I was bang on 40 weeks pregnant on the day I felt my first labour twinge. I’d walked to my antenatal appointment, where my midwife had
JO O'CONNELL, 36, A PR CONSULTANT, LIVES IN BOURNEMOUTH, WITH HUSBAND JO, DAUGHTER BETHANY, 4, AND SON BO, 2
given me a sweep to encourage my cervix to dilate. Walking home, I noticed a mild cramping sensation. I phoned my husband, also called Jo, to let him know that things were starting to happen.
Once Bethany was asleep I decided to have an early night, and soon drifted off. A couple of hours later, the cramps woke me. I sat up in bed while Jo slept beside me. Whenever a contraction came, I used a technique my yoga teacher had shown me: with every breath I moved my arms slowly forward, imagining I was pushing away the pain. I sat cross-legged to open my pelvis. At midnight, I gently nudged Jo. ‘This is actually OK!’ I whispered.
By 1am, with my contractions intensifying, I sensed it was time to phone the midwife. Jo busied himself downstairs filling the birthing pool and boiling saucepans to keep the water temperature up while I stayed upstairs, leaning over the bed and rotating my hips. ‘You can do this,’ I told myself.
Two midwives arrived at 2am and, as I lay back to be examined, I was excited to hear I’d reached 6cm. It was a real boost to know I’d come so far. Jo helped me downstairs to the living room, and I leaned over the sofa. Now I was feeling the pressure of each contraction shooting up my back and down my hips. The sensation was all-encompassing, but I focused on how strong my body and mind were.
Still, it was a relief when the pool was ready. Jo helped me out of my nightie and into the water. With my arms over the side of the pool, I bent my knees and squatted down. The position felt familiar after all the exercises I’d done during pregnancy, and I knew that opening my pelvis would help the baby to come down as easily as possible.
The contractions were coming thick and fast now. I closed my eyes whenever one came, and breathed slowly and deeply. Although it was hard work, I felt nowhere near as exhausted as I’d expected. Every contraction was just like jumping over another hurdle, and my labour was at the same level of endurance as all those races I’d run. It was tough, but my training had given me confidence in my body.
At 5am, the sensation changed. ‘I need to push,’ I announced. My body seemed to be reacting involuntarily, urging me to bear down. But my yoga teacher, an ex-midwife, had explained that ‘breathing’ the baby out was more effective than pushing. I remembered her advice now, and made a conscious decision not to follow my body’s instructions. I waited for the pushing urge to pass, then breathed slowly and steadily through the contraction. It was easier than I anticipated.
Jo and the midwives encouraged me as I continued to breathe calmly. Within three or four big breaths I felt a huge pressure. The contraction tailed off and I put my hands down in the water. ‘Here’s the baby!’ I smiled, feeling a mop of hair between my legs. While I waited for the next contraction, I stroked the head. ‘Come on, little baby,’ I whispered.
The midwife put her hands down too. She explained that the baby’s chin was caught, which was why the head hadn’t come out. She didn’t seem overly concerned, though, so I stayed focused on my breathing. I knew being relaxed would give my baby the best chance.
It was time for the next big breath, and I exhaled smoothly and calmly. I felt a change in the pressure as the baby’s chin popped out, followed quickly by the rest of the body. After that last, enormous breath, relief overwhelmed me. I’d finally reached the finish line!
Jo reached down in the water and caught our baby. I turned to see the most beautiful little thing. ‘It’s a boy!’ Jo announced, and I gasped. I couldn't have been happier. Still in the water, I took hold of baby Bo and placed him on my tummy. He shuffled up towards my breast and started feeding. Bonding with my newborn, smiling at Jo, and knowing my daughter was safe in bed upstairs, I felt complete.
I spent the morning in bed, cuddling Bo and introducing him to Bethany and my parents. In the afternoon I ventured downstairs, and by day two I was taking Bo for little walks. I felt strong and ready for any amount of sleepless nights. And on day six, I hopped on my bike and went for a 15-mile cycle! It was just what I needed to feel even more refreshed and alive. It had taken weeks of dedication to prepare my body for labour, but I’m so glad I did. Labour is more challenging than anything else I’ve ever trained for, but the prize is a million times better than any medal.
Jo with daughter Bethany and Bo at two weeks old Out and about with Bo at six weeks
Bo at eight weeks old