The hormones responsible for labor have 3 primary requirements in order to “do their thing”:
Dr. Sarah Buckley, an Australian doctor, researcher, and author whose work focuses on the hormones of labor, has written extensively about this topic. And she boils everything down to these three important aspects. In labor, feeling safe, private, and unobserved gives our bodies the best chance at a smooth birth process.
Unfortunately, feeling safe, private, and unobserved doesn’t exactly go hand-in-hand with a hospital setting (where the great majority of babies are born in the US).
A big part of our job as doulas is to address that disconnect and help parents find ways to feel (say it with us) safe, private, and unobserved even in the midst of a bustling, sterile-feeling hospital. Because let’s face it: even recently-remodeled hospital rooms still feel like hospital rooms.
For parents birthing in a hospital, sometimes one of the biggest challenges to overcome during labor is feeling like an imposition in their own hospital room.
It’s easy to feel that your bags are in the way, or you shouldn’t have put your water bottle on that table, or feel guilty that a nurse just asked you to move something.
When we join a family in labor at the hospital, one of the first things we do is try to make the room feel a bit more comfortable. We move things around, open cabinets and drawers to get what we need, and change the lighting to help parents feel a little more settled. A subtle shift takes place as we notice parents’ breathing come a little easier, a bit of tension leaving their shoulders. These small actions can make a huge difference!
Whether or not you’re working with a birth doula, here are 10 ways you can make yourself at home in a hospital room:
Remind yourself (in your thoughts or out loud) that this is your birthing space.
It’s yours. Yes, you’re borrowing it temporarily from the hospital. But this space is your space for the duration of labor. Even if it’s hard to believe that, saying it to yourself anyway can feel very grounding. Moving toward ownership of the space and away from feeling as though you need to tiptoe around in it can be very freeing as your labor progresses.
Keep the door closed.
This one is for partners and support people. Remember those three things, safety, privacy, and feeling unobserved? One of the best ways to encourage those feelings for someone in labor is to make sure the door to their room stays shut. Often nurses, doctors, and other hospital staff aren’t thinking about that and leave the door open (or mostly closed, but not latched). As doulas, we always walk right over and close the door (and pull closed the privacy curtain while we’re at it) if someone leaves it open. For a person in labor, it can be so comforting and reassuring to know that someone is always keeping their eye out to make sure they’ll have the privacy they need to feel safe.
Wear what you want to wear.
Did you know you don’t have to wear a hospital gown if you don’t want to? There are a lot of options for alternatives, and it’s absolutely your choice! You can wear your own clothes, you can buy a labor gown that’s like a pretty, comfortable version of a hospital gown, or you can wear nothing at all. Amanda at Raleigh Birth Photography has a helpful blog post with different options for what to wear in labor, complete with beautiful photos. And of course, laboring nude is always an option.
Pro tip: Bring a few different options for what to wear with you to the hospital. Labor can be messy, and it’s not uncommon for a change of clothes to be needed.
Check out what’s in the drawers and cabinets.
The hospital will have locks on anything they don’t want you to open, so the rest is fair game! When you first get into your room, feel free to look around and see what extra supplies are stored in the drawers and cabinets. They’ll probably come in handy later, and it will feel great that you or your partner know where to get another washcloth or pillow without having to ask a staff member to get it for you! Little steps to maintain autonomy instead of feeling like someone else is in charge of your birth can really add up.
Arrange your things in a way that works for YOU.
As long as there is room for your care providers to walk around (i.e. nothing in the middle of the floor someone would trip on), set your things where you want them without worrying about being in anyone’s way. Get out your toiletries for easy access to chapstick, keep your snacks accessible, and make sure your water is within easy reaching distance. If you brought any special items with you like family photos, special things for your baby, or printed words and images to help you through labor (like birth affirmations), set them out in a place where you can easily see them. Most of all, try to avoid feeling like you have to hide the things you brought with you. You don’t have to!
Mess with the lights!
Making the lighting comfortable is a HUGE one! Most of the time, this translates to turning those bright hospital lights down or off and closing blinds and shades. We always bring some flameless candles and string lights to soften the light in a room, and parents and care providers alike loooooove the coziness that creates within the sterile hospital environment.
There are usually about a gazillion light switches in hospital rooms and most of the time NONE of them are labeled. But don’t feel bad switching them on and off to see which switches control which lights! (If you’re really nervous to touch a certain light switch, just as your nurse for help - although there’s a fair chance they won’t know what it turns on either!). If a care provider absolutely needs to turn on a light to complete a task, go ahead and turn the light off afterward as they probably won’t think to do so. Remember, hospital staff are used to how hospital-y the atmosphere feels, so they don’t always notice the things we do when it comes to light and noise. And speaking of noise…
Fill the room with sounds you love.
Whether it’s your favorite music, pretty white noise like ocean waves or birdsongs, songs or blessings from your partner, or something else - don’t be afraid to turn the volume up! Bluetooth speakers are awesome for this. Attending to your sense of sound can be so important in a building that’s full of beeps, buzzes, and loud voices in the hallway. If a machine is making a noise you don’t like, politely ask your nurse to turn off the alarm and resolve the issue. The fetal monitor machine volume can also be turned up or down. Some parents find the sound of their baby’s heartbeat quite comforting during labor, but others prefer to have that sound turned down or off so they can focus more easily. Either way, feel free to ask your nurse for help adjusting the sounds in the way you need.
Also, you have permission to make sound! It’s habit for many of us to try to be quiet and considerate in public places (library voice, anyone?), but labor is a huge exception to that rule. Vocalizing can be a key part of coping through labor! If you find yourself holding in a moan or a few choice words, try to remind yourself that this is your space (see #1.). Experiment with letting out some of those sounds. See how it feels to tap into that part of yourself that knows how to let go and do what needs to be done to get through each contraction.
Be where you want to be in the room.
Labor can happen in/on the hospital bed, and also out of the bed. If you’ve done any preparation with laboring positions, you’ll likely have some great options including standing, leaning on people/things, sitting on a birth ball, sitting on the toilet, standing or sitting in the shower, laboring in the bathtub (if there is one), etc. Part of claiming your space is being where you want to be in the room.
This applies to partners too! If you want to move a chair to be closer to your partner while they labor, go for it! You can even use the birth ball or rolling stool if you want a little more mobility. Feel free to shift your position frequently if you’re able to - variety between sitting, standing, leaning, rocking, and even lying down can be helpful as you navigate the strangeness of being in the same room for hours and hours. This is especially true if you’re experiencing any nervous energy - sometimes movement and changing position frequently can be really helpful.
Don’t be afraid to make a mess.
After a baby is born, the hospital room often looks as though a hurricane just ran through it. And that’s ok! One plus of giving birth in a hospital is that someone else will clean up the room afterwards. If your water is leaking all over, let it leak! It’s ok if the floor gets messy (as long as it’s cleaned up enough so it isn’t a slipping hazard). Don’t worry if spare washcloths, discarded blankets or pieces of clothing, snack wrappers or tissues, etc. make their way to the floor or clutter up a tabletop. Hospital staff will clear off any areas they need access to (or request the help of a partner or doula to do so), so don’t be shy about using up the space in the meantime. It’s yours to use!
And of course, if clutter or messiness is bothering you in labor, don’t be afraid to ask for the room to be cleaned up a bit! Sometimes a little refresh and reset can help someone to relax a little more during labor. Depending on how much support you need in the moment, that can be a job for your partner or doula, or a hospital staff member. (Often as doulas we’re doing little things to help keep the room a bit neater.)
Remind yourself (again, over and over) that THIS IS YOUR BIRTHING SPACE.
Chances are you’ll need to keep coming back to this. We have so much social programming from childhood about being polite in public spaces and in other people’s areas, and most of us go into that mental polite zone in a hospital. This is especially true since there are so many staff members and care providers (authority figures) around. The child in us wants to “be good” and stay out of everyone’s way.
But that’s not the way of birth. The way of birth is messy. It’s loud. It takes up space. And dropping down into that part of ourselves, the part that digs deep, that goes within, that finds more inner resolve and resilience than we knew we had… finding that place within ourselves is sometimes one of the primary challenges of giving birth, especially in a hospital setting.
Just a note - all of these things apply to births that involve more or less medical assistance. Just because someone has an epidural or is being induced doesn’t mean they can’t claim their birthing space!
Be messy. Be loud. Take up space.
That may feel quite extreme for many of us, but it’s a good reminder that this truly is YOUR experience. We encourage you to think about small (and big) ways you might like to make yourself more comfortable in your space if you are giving birth in a hospital.