This article was written for Juno, the natural parenting magazine.
Manual Labour – using acupressure for pain relief in childbirth
Like a lot of people, I had no interest in childbirth until it became clear that I was going to have to do it myself. Once I was pregnant, the anticipation of those few hours (or days) filled every waking moment, and a lot of sleeping moments too. I read, I listened, I googled. And I watched. Guiltily, knowing it was probably a bad idea, with my hands often in front of my face, I watched TV programmes about birth and made myself sick with worry. Because although I was planning a home birth and really didn’t want to have drugs if I could manage without them, there was no escaping the fact that many of the women in those programmes who didn’t have epidurals, through choice or staff shortages, made labour look really, really scary.
I also remember being struck by how useless a lot of the men appeared to feel, especially those who clearly really cared about their partners and wanted their experience to be better. My husband Tom, an acupuncturist, wanted to do anything he could to help, and had suggested trying acupuncture in labour. But we were both unsure as to how well that would work, practically speaking, with the active birth techniques we were hoping to use. If I suddenly decided I wanted to change position, needles might be a bit inconvenient. But what if we could get a lot of the benefits of acupuncture, but without the needles?
Acupressure was something Tom already used in his clinic, but when he started talking about it for use in the birth of our baby, I have to admit I wasn’t convinced. I was maybe 34 weeks pregnant and hurtling towards the inevitable with a sense of forced calm on an intellectual level (because of course, it would be OK in the end, wouldn’t it?) but also an honest, primal terror of all that pain and screaming and possible surgery. Tom had heard good things from colleagues about applying pressure on specific body parts to reduce pain, nausea and fear, and promote a better and more efficient labour. But I couldn’t help feeling that simply poking me in the back wasn’t going to help. Had he not seen those women on the telly, purple with pain?
Turns out, I wasn’t alone in my scepticism. Debra Betts, now the world authority on using acupressure in labour, says that she was once unsure about how effective it could be. “The idea that just putting pressure on acupuncture points with a thumb or an elbow could make a difference to labour pains seemed a bit outlandish,” she says. As a well-respected acupuncturist and educator, Debra already had quite a lot of faith in the power of acupuncture for fertility and the preparation for labour – but then she tried acupressure herself in the birth of her second child. “It halved the intensity of my contractions,” she says simply.
The easy-to-learn techniques that Debra teaches expectant women and their support people can improve many aspects of childbirth. Firm downward pressure on a point at the top of the shoulder can help the baby’s head to descend – so much so in fact that in acupuncture this point is known as a ‘forbidden’ point during the rest of pregnancy because of its ‘descending’ action. The sole of the foot can be stimulated to reduce feelings of panic and anxiety, and midwives, doulas and birth partners trained in the techniques will use points on the ankle and lower leg to increase the intensity of contractions if they’ve died off. Being the childless novice that I was, boosting the ‘intensity’ (and therefore, the way I saw it, boosting the pain) of labour wasn’t something that I had ever thought I’d need. But then labour started.
And of course, Tom and Debra were right. It worked – and it worked really, really well. Not just for getting labour started, properly and for good when it was threatening to drag on and on; but also for the pain. Debra hadn’t been exaggerating: acupressure halved the pain. I was on my own for a few contractions while Tom went and filled up the birth pool, and the difference when he was gone was astonishing. His thumbs in my sacrum were the analgesic equivalent of putting a 100-tog duvet over a speaker.
So, once I’d recovered and we’d got the hang of being parents, Tom and I collaborated with Debra to make a DVD. It’s called Acupressure for Natural Pain Relief in Labour, and it shows you how to find and use the points. We included the eight points that Debra finds helpful, plus a couple of other related techniques to use during and after the birth. There’s a short section on moxabustion, a traditional Chinese treatment involving the warming of compressed herbs near the points – not as dangerous or painful as it sounds – which can help the mother regain her strength. The points are easy to learn, and we took care to make the DVD as clear and no-nonsense as possible. Putting aside just over half an hour will be adequate for familiarising yourselves with the basics, but it’s important to remember that acupressure is best used from the very start of labour. “Invariably, the women who report positive results from using acupressure during birth are those who started using the techniques early on,” says Debra.
The extra bonus of this is that dads or other birth partners have something positive to do from the beginning. And if you have a long labour and/or if you have a very hands-on partner (excuse the pun) who gets a bit twitchy when there’s nothing they can do to help, that’s a real positive. Tom, for example, is never happier than when he’s sticking pins in people, so he was delighted to have something to do that both kept his hands busy and made me happy. Or happy-ish, let’s say.
I’m not particularly tough when it comes to pain but, thanks to Tom and what we had learned from Debra, I managed to get baby Mo out without drugs, just a bit of gas and air at the end. Acupressure gave us the sense that we were, in part, doing the job together, which is why I will recommend it to anyone who will listen. No other analgesic brings you together as a couple, or a team. Tom played an essential, active part in keeping me as comfortable and calm as possible – I needed Tom to be there, doing what he was doing. And if our DVD can bring that to other pregnant women and their birth partners, then we’ve done a good job.
Acupressure for Natural Pain Relief in Labour is published by the Journal of Chinese Medicine and is available as a DVD or download at www.jcm.co.uk
Kate Simants is a writer, video producer and mum. Her partner Tom Kennedy (www.tomtheacupuncturist.co.uk) is an acupuncturist, video editor and dad.