Birth balls are used in every MummyNatal class. MummyNatal teachers are specifically trained and insured for using them in antenatal education. But quite often clients enquiring about my antenatal classes haven’t used or heard of a birth ball. Some clients have them from previous exercise routines and haven’t realised with guidance they can be safely used in pregnancy. They are also generally available in most hospital labour wards and midwife-led delivery suites.
You might wonder what birth balls are for, is it just sitting or bouncing on? And what’s the point of buying something if it can only be used for a few months of pregnancy? After becoming an antenatal teacher, I am passionate about advocating the use of birth balls for expectant mums. Here’s why:
Love Your Balls
Birth balls, generally speaking, can become quite personal items. You begin to form a connection to your own ball, so it's wise to invest in your own. It could be that you’ll want to only use your own as they feel such a part of you. Also you might want to use it at home to keep practising all the things we try out in class.
Your MummyNatal teacher will check your posture on the birth ball to begin with. She will see if your ball needs to be inflated to raise your hips higher than your knees, or if it might need to be deflated slightly if you are a bit shorter. The first part of my first lesson is always spent huffing and puffing, not at my clients - just inflating everyone’s balls! They've usually been done a few days before, but they always go down a little bit as the material stretches with use or heat. I don’t mind doing this at all for my clients as it is a good workout for my arms!
1. Sit on It
Like the Fonz says (yes, totally showing my age) sit on it! Even just sitting on a birth ball begins to work your core muscles: as you balance you’ll hopefully feel supported and not find it too difficult to sit on the ball. You’ll also be using your abdominal and back muscles to keep your position there. This will help to improve your posture and gently strengthen the lower back and stomach muscles. This in turn can greatly help postnatal recovery. Your stomach muscles have had to undergo a lot of movement and change over the 9-10 months of pregnancy, and they will need to work during labour too. The stronger they are the easier it can be for them to regain their tone once baby has arrived and birth balls can really help with that.
2. Pregnancy Problems
Some physiotherapists and doctors suggest that ladies suffering with SPD or PGP try using birth balls. This is because while you are sitting on the ball it helps to put your pelvis in a neutral or more symmetrical position. That can take pressure off painful areas. Because your lower muscles are all gently working and strengthening to keep you balanced, this supports your pelvis. If you do have SPD/PGP then a MummyNatal class might be ideal for you: we can modify any of the ball movements if they aren’t comfortable for you, and the movements you can do will all be helping to support and align your pelvis.
3. Turn Baby Turn
Simply sitting in the ‘tripod’ position can help your baby to move into the ‘optimum birthing position.’ This means head down, spine along the left side, ready for the shortest rotation down through the birth canal during labour. Because you are upright and not slouching backwards, you're working with the benefits of gravity. This is enhanced even further with movements such the ‘birth ball hug’, leaning forwards over the ball to relax. This helps you to connect with baby, creating lots of space in your uterus for him or her to move positions, as well as relieve aches or pains in your back and hips.
Every movement we do on and with the birth ball supports your baby moving into this ‘optimum’ position. Each movement also has a benefit for you during pregnancy, as well as labour! On our birth balls we go through a range of mindful movements and gentle stretches, but also use it to support us with our floor work and meditations too. We practise positions you can use to relieve discomfort during pregnancy, as well as ones which can help you to manage any strong sensations felt during your labour (see this blog for why we don't refer to 'pain' in classes.) Even if baby doesn’t move into the optimum position, it is still entirely possible to birth a transverse, breech or back-to-back baby vaginally if that is your choice.
4. Bringing on Baby
If you wanted to try out less invasive techniques to induce labour, the birth ball could be one way you do this. Obviously trying out certain positions and moves to begin labour is in itself a type of induction, so this might not be for you if you are happy that baby will come when baby chooses to! But sometimes labour can begin and slow down; sometimes it can stop completely if mum is feeling any pressure, stress or fear. Moving on your ball can help to relax you, and in turn help labour along if you wished to do so. When you spiral on the ball you are helping baby’s head connect with all the areas of the cervix, releasing the hormones necessary to signal to your body that labour can begin.
After travelling from home to hospital my contractions, which had previously been very close together, suddenly stopped completely. I stood blinking in the glare of the disorienting ward lights and a stern midwife. No wonder really when you think about it: my body was confused by the journey and change in environment; I didn’t feel safe or comfortable or relaxed; my baby decided she was safely staying put inside, thank you very much! Despite being labelled as ‘high risk’ I heard the dreaded words: ‘We will have to send you home if things don’t get going.’ Tick-tock, tick-tock.
After my previous (totally unplanned) home birth, I wasn’t taking any chances on being sent home. A midwife plopped a ball down in front of me and said I needed to bounce to hurry things up, I went for it. Bouncing wasn’t at all comfortable for me, and I found that I naturally began to rock, rotate and spiral on the ball. Thankfully it worked and my labour soon picked up where it had left off as I relaxed and found my own rhythm.
5. Labour Day
Birth balls can be safely used in all stages of labour. You can use your ball to mediate and centre yourself in the earlier stages of labour, and rock your way calmly through contraction sensations. MummyNatal classes will show you how to integrate your ball movements, mindful breathing practise and mantra to reinforce and build a confident mind-set.
You can actually even give birth on your ball if you choose to. Sometimes women do not want to lie down during labour and prefer to be more upright. However this can be tiring as labour is a very physical process. So you might want to sit on the ball to conserve your energy, this way you can sway your baby down. Perhaps a birth partner supporting you from behind, just to help you keep your balance if you need it. You might want to get right down on the floor behind the ball and use it to support your chest and arms, from there you can rotate your hips to help baby descend. The great thing is here you can take a few moments to relax and re-centre after the contraction passes, whilst still keeping your lower half active and helping labour progress. In these upright positions your birth partners can also help rehydrate you with sips of a drink or even a few bites of a snack. Make sure they’ve got a long bendy straw packed ready!
6. Balls Away?
You might be thinking, what about after I have given birth? Isn’t the ball just going to take up space and get in the way?
Well yes, it might be a bit bulky. But you can actually use your ball for as long as you like once baby has arrived, and you might find sitting on it can help your posture and help bring those tummy muscles back together. You shouldn’t do any specific exercise routine until you have had your postnatal checks though.
7. Rockabye Baby, Don't You Cry
You might also find sitting and rocking on the ball can calm and soothe baby. This is a similar movement to the swaying motion your baby got used to when he or she was floating quite comfortably in your waters. A gentle bounce on the ball has a similar feel to pacing up and down. So baby gets the motion, but you get to rest your legs! And if you have stitches or discomfort, then the ball provides a gentle seat for you without any counter-pressure as you'd find from a chair or bed. If and when you know you aren’t going to be using your ball for any future exercise, it can simply be deflated and packed away or passed on.
8. Evidence-Based Birthing
So basically balls are great. But don't just take my word for it! The Royal College of Midwives found that "The use of the ball in second stage is thought to be supportive by providing counter pressure on the perineum that aids descent in second stage pushing... The labour environment is key to women’s ability to try different positions. There should be appropriate furniture and props readily available: bean bags, mattresses, chairs and birth balls." Further studies in labouring women in Hong Kong also found that "Use of the birth ball reduced pain and anxiety levels of women in labour... the duration of the first stage of labour was significantly shorter... After delivery, women in the study group commented that the birth ball could promote comfort and relaxation, and reduced anxiety and pain during labour. The majority (95%) indicated that they would like to use birth ball in future pregnancies."