Exercising while pregnant has been shown to have a broad range of benefits, including avoiding pregnancy complications like preeclampsia and diabetes. Exercise will also help you stay fit, keep your weight gain under control and can shorten labour. Similarly remaining active and upright during labour has been shown to shorten labour, increase pelvic diameter, produce more effective contractions, and result in fewer interventions such as forceps or vacuum births and episiotomies.
Probably the first most important question to answer is… what is a birthing ball? A birthing ball is a large vinyl ball inflated with air, sometimes referred to as a physiotherapy ball. Gym balls are also very similar to birthing balls, although gym balls are sometimes significantly smaller so less useful in birth. A birthing ball needs to be around 65cm or 75cm in height when inflated.
Like gym balls, birthing balls are made from special anti-burst materials which ensure that if they are punctured they deflate slowly rather than rupturing suddenly. Some birthing balls have a non-slip surface which can help to ensure they do not slide along the floor so easily. This is particularly good when using a birthing ball on hard surfaces whether at home or in a hospital birth suite.
Like sleeping comfortably, sitting comfortably often becomes an almost unattainable dream as pregnancy progresses. Between the weight of your growing belly and the back pain it can induce, chairs, couches and other surfaces just don’t seem to provide comfort any longer. A birthing ball however will mould somewhat to your shape, providing comfort while also being firm enough to provide support.
Using a birthing ball during pregnancy has been shown to provide a range of benefits including:
Because of its size and flexibility, a birthing ball during labour can assist you to remain upright, in lots of different positions, much more effectively than say using a chair or other surface. The birthing ball also lends itself to instinctive rocking or swaying, as in moves naturally with you. Being made of waterproof material, you can also use your birthing ball in the shower, provided you ensure it cannot easily slip away from you.
Research has shown that using a birthing ball during labour significantly reduces:
You may also like to use your birthing ball to support you during the third stage to assist you to deliver the placenta.
There are a variety of different ways to use a birthing ball during pregnancy and labour. During the first stage of labour, sitting astride your birthing ball will enable you to rock your pelvis back and forth and side to side as well as in circles. Because of the high range of movement the birthing ball offers, you can achieve these movements with a good deal less effort than if you were standing, or sitting on a chair.
As your labour progresses, particularly once you reach the second stage (the ‘pushing’ phase), you can place your birthing ball on the floor, kneel and lean forward on it. This can enable you to rest your head and allow your body to relax between contractions, while still maintaining an upright position. Placing a pillow or folded towel under your knees can make this position more comfortable.
From this position you can also hug the birthing ball providing you the extra support you need to lift your bottom up from a kneeling position, rolling forward on the ball and better enabling you to rock your pelvis during contractions.
A birthing ball need not be confined to the floor. If you find your knees are getting sore, you have a condition which makes kneeling difficult, or you simply want to change position, the birthing ball can be placed on a bed or a solid table, enabling you to stand upright and lean over or hug it.
In addition to keeping you upright and helping your baby descend, using a birthing ball also has the added benefit of enabling your support people to better reach your lower back. This enables them to apply pressure or massage you through contractions, providing additional relief.
The usefulness of a birthing ball does not end once the birth is over. If you have stitches, bruising, tears or a just plain sore perineum, hard chairs will not be your friend. Your birthing ball can be used in place of a chair in virtually any location – at the dining table, at your desk, in front of the television. Letting a little air out of it will make your birthing ball a little softer if you find the firmness uncomfortable on your bottom.
Holding your baby and bouncing gently on your birthing ball might help to soothe an anxious baby, and once you have mastered breastfeeding you might also like to feed your baby while rocking gently on your birthing ball. As was the case during pregnancy, sitting on your birthing ball will help you to maintain good posture while feeding your baby.
Remembering that your birthing ball is very much the same as a gym ball, exercising using your birth ball can be a good way to help re-tone your muscles and re-strengthen your pelvic floor. Remember to consult your midwife or doctor first though to ensure your body is ready for exercise, and remember to start gently and stop should you experience pain.
As your baby grows they may well take a liking to your birth ball as a play thing, as well as to assist them in progressing to standing, scooting and walking.
Efficacy of birth ball exercises on labour pain management. (n.d.). Retrieved June 03, 2014, from http://www.hkmj.org/abstracts/v19n5/393.htm Gau, M.-L., Chang, C.-Y., Tian, S.-H., & Lin, K.-C. (2011).
Effects of birth ball exercise on pain and self-efficacy during childbirth: a randomised controlled trial in Taiwan. Midwifery, 27(6), e293–300. doi:10.1016/j.midw.2011.02.004
Taavoni, S., Abdolahian, S., Haghani, H., & Neysani, L. (n.d.). Effect of birth ball usage on pain in the active phase of labor: a randomized controlled trial. Journal of Midwifery & Women’s Health, 56(2), 137–40. doi:10.1111/j.1542-2011.2010.00013.x
Using a birth ball - BabyCentre. (n.d.). Retrieved June 03, 2014, from http://www.babycentre.co.uk/a1048463/using-a-birth-ball
International Birth and Wellness Project. (1998) Utilizing the Birth Ball. Special Delivery, 21(2), 22. Retrieved June 03, 2014, from http://go.galegroup.com/ps/i.do?id=GALE%7CA56456803&v=2.1&u=swinburne1&it=r&p=AONE&sw=w&asid=da815055f0ea38d52bffa79ff8265bc3
Written 4 Jun 2014 for www.pregnancy.com.au