Updated: Jun 8
In order for women to move through the physiology of labour, they utilise the limbic system or what's often called the MAMMAL BRAIN – the part of our brain that governs the emotional body, this primal part of the brain helps us to connect to feelings, sensations and most importantly instinct and intuition!
This is completely opposite to how the brain works in everyday life.
The frontal cortex - the decision making part of the brain is inhibited by the release of oxytocin and endorphins during labour which help to keep the limbic system more active during labour.
And FYI it’s for this reason that a birth 'plan' is so important, not so much the plan itself but the process of becoming informed in the preparation for your birth, discussing possible scenarios and decisions prior to being in labour when your prefrontal cortex takes a step back!
The limbic part of the brain is a kind relic if you like of our mammalian existence, it moves the labouring woman into an altered state of consciousness; it can feel as though you are 'on a high' which many women describe it as 'labour land' - if you know, you know!
One of the ways in which we can better connect to the limbic system is through self-awareness, this is THE MAIN principle of yoga and it's one of the reasons why a prenatal specific yoga practice throughout pregnancy can be of immense benefit - not just to prepare the body and connect with your baby but more so to prepare the mind! By increasing our self-awareness through practices of pregnancy yoga, pranayama (breathing techniques) and meditation practices we become better attuned to our inner landscape, connecting with and becoming aware of different sensations on a deeper level and thus preparing us to move into the limbic part of the brain during the birth of our baby.
While all of this is going on, the brain is also releasing hormones that help us move through labour - oxytocin helps the uterus to contract and in doing so squeezes baby down into the pelvis; through gentle touch and pressure point massage from a birth partner or doula we can increase the secretion of oxytocin to facilitate this release of oxytocin and ensure 'good' contractions!
During the early part of labour the brain also releases adrenaline as a protective mechanism for any perceived threats (this is the mammal part of the brain protecting our baby from predators or people in our birth space that don’t make us feel safe), however by ensuring our birth space remains a safe space and that the mother feels secure and protected in her birth space (this is often the role of the birth partner or doula), this helps to keep the adrenaline low, so she can move into the mammal brain - limbic system and continue to move through the labour journey.
Additionally the brain releases beta-endorphins which help us to cope with the strong sensations of contractions, endorphins can increase during labour when we are moving as well as through touch and massage mentioned earlier, so movement during labour will not only help us manage pain, but will also help baby to navigate their way through the pelvis - much like a corkscrew in a wine bottle!
The basic needs of women during labour are actually quite simple, the female body is a masterpiece of divine engineering; minimal intervention and observation, low lighting, loving support and presence are all that is required for the process of birth to unfold. You already have all that you need to give birth, however a birth education class or workshop will often build the confidence and awareness needed to give birth with this mindset.
If you're curious to explore more about the wisdom of your body and how to prepare for the birth of your baby, our monthly Yoga for Birth workshops provide comprehensive birth education through a combination of insight, information and practical hands-on preparation for labour, birth and the transition into parenthood: Yoga for Active Birth.
More Resources and supporting information:
Pregnancy to Parenting Australia provides further insight: Universal Needs of Women in Labour
Spiritual Birth go into more detail about the brain during birth.