The Reason You Need Your Brain and Heart in Labor

Brain Decision Making Tool for Labor

Well... ANOTHER reason you need your brain and heart in labor, since the first reason is obvious (we hope).

One of the most crucial things we do as doulas is helping parents make decisions. 

It's not as glamorous or often discussed as giving massages, squeezing aching hips, or whispering words of comfort and encouragement (not that any of those things are particularly glamorous). But it's one of the most important things we do.

Decision-making happens frequently during pregnancy. Choosing a care provider, a place to birth, which breast pump to buy through your insurance, what kind of birth preparation class to take, what sorts of things to register for, and so on... the decisions to be made sometimes feel endless.

(To learn more about why decision-making is one of the most important skills parents need to develop during pregnancy, read this post.)

But during labor, things are different.

No longer is there a stretch of weeks or even months before baby is on the way - things are happening right now. Add to the urgency of time the fact that most people in labor or experiencing labor as a partner are not necessarily calm, cool, and collected the way they might like to be when making decisions. Parents often don't even understand the implications of the options their care team is presenting.

That's where we come in.

In our prenatal visits and birth classes, we often use a tool well-known in the birth world. In fact, it's a tool now used by many who encourage healthcare literacy as a helpful way to approach decision-making with care providers

This tool comes in handy no matter where you're birthing, but we find it's often especially helpful for clients who are having their babies in a hospital setting.

The tool is an acronym: BRAIN

When a question comes up in labor, or a procedure or medication is suggested as the next step, our first suggestion is always to stop and take a breath. Sometimes these situations can be nerve-wracking in labor. So give yourself a moment rather than responding quickly and impulsively.

Once you've gotten a nice breath or two under your belt, take some time to go through the acronym letter by letter and ask some questions. 

B: Benefits

The first question to ask is what the benefits of the suggested procedure, medication, or change to the situation would be. Remember to consider benefits both for you and for your baby.

We've found that usually care providers answer this question even before you have to ask it, because their suggestion is made with the intention of giving you and/or your baby a certain benefit. But if you have any additional questions about the benefits, ask them!

R: Risks

Next up: what are the possible risks to you? To your baby? 

Usually in a medical setting the answer to this question reads more like the side effects listed on a drug label. While this is good information to know, there are other indirect considerations to think about which sometimes fall outside the realm of the care provider's role in that moment.

For example, sometimes our clients ask their nurse or anesthesiologist about the risks of an epidural. Usually we hear care providers mention things like the possibility of a drop in blood pressure, headaches, nausea, itching, etc. 

However, I've never heard a care provider mention the increased risk of a longer pushing phase, the increased use of medication to augment a labor slowed by epidural (pitocin), or the increased difficulty of breastfeeding after births involving an epidural (probably due to the IV fluids that accompany the administration of an epidural). These are things we discuss with our clients if they're considering an epidural, along with the benefits including "therapeutic rest" if labor has been long and hard. 

If you ask about the risks of your care provider's suggestion and receive information from the drug label, also ask if there are any other indirect risks they know of. (And check in with your doula too, to see if they have any other information that might help you as you make your decision.)

A: Alternatives

Ask your care provider if there are any other alternatives that can be tried first before proceeding to the suggested procedure or medication. There may be something less invasive or more temporary that might help address the issue at hand. 

Often care providers and medical staff are much more comfortable with medications and medical technology in birth than parents are - primarily because they're around those things all the time. They see highly medicalized care help families every day. But most expecting parents aren't in that boat. Our clients are often surprised that their care providers suggested something more invasive when there was a less invasive alternative. Understanding where your care provider is coming from can be really helpful in this case. 

And of course, if your care provider suggests an alternative or two, make sure to use your BRAIN when exploring those options as well.

I: Intuition

What does your gut say about this? How are you feeling about the situation at hand and the proposed next steps? 

Studies have actually shown that the intuitive, ancient part of our brains (the part that gives us those gut feelings) often works faster than the more analytical part of our brains. Here is a fascinating article on the subject. It's important not to discount the sensations in your body we refer to as a gut feeling because what it can mean is that some part of you already knows the answer. It may just take a while for the rest of your mind to catch up and figure out the "why."

Pregnancy, birth, and parenting involve a LOT of intuition. Don't leave your intuition at the door when you enter the birth room.

N: Nothing

Also known as, "What if we wait an hour?"

This question can help you determine whether your care provider feels the situation is an emergency or not. If the answer to "Can we wait an hour?" is "Sure, I'll come check in later," you know you have time to think things over. But if the answer is, "Waiting isn't an option - we need to make a decision now," obviously that gives you a different picture.

If the care provider's response to waiting an hour is positive, sometimes parents are surprised they were being asked to make a decision earlier than necessary. It's important to keep in mind that care providers are often on a schedule and juggling multiple patients at once. Sometimes the timing of things has more to do with their patient load than with your particular situation, which is another reason why it's important for parents to be asking these questions. 

This question is especially powerful for parents who want to minimize medications and medical technology in their births. 


You should be able to take your time in making your decision unless there is a medical emergency at hand.

After you've had a chance to ask your questions, request a few minutes alone without your care providers in the room to consider your options. (If you have a doula, it could be beneficial to have them in the room with you as you talk things over. But if for any reason you'd be more comfortable having the conversation alone, by all means let your doula know.)

Once you're ready, let your care providers know you've considered your options and made a decision.

If you are choosing to accept your care provider's recommendation, often the conversation will be fairly straightforward.

But if you're choosing instead to try an alternative or wait a while before trying anything else, sometimes care providers can feel that their expertise is being undermined or that someone is convincing you not to accept their recommendation. This is a very human reaction!

To help diffuse any tension if this happens, speak from your HEART when communicating your decision to your support team.

H: Hear

"I hear what you're saying and I understand why you recommended this..."

E: Empathize

"...and I know you want the best for me and my baby..."

A: Affirm/Assert

"...but I intend to wait a while longer before considering x, y, or z." OR "...I would rather try this alternative instead."

R: Reassure

"I will let you know if anything changes."

T: Thanks

"Thank you so much for your time and for taking good care of us."

These kinds of conversations can be difficult, especially if any medical concerns are present. We hope these tools will give you an anchoring point when making decisions in labor and beyond.

Remember to use your BRAIN and HEART!

If you'd like to learn more about decision-making in pregnancy, labor, and parenthood, consider taking our Decision-Making Skills for Labor and Beyond class!

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