For nine months you prep and plan for baby’s arrival. You read books, watch videos and maybe even take a birthing class or two. But while movies and TV shows have led many of us to believe both labor and delivery happen while lying on your back with your legs spread wide, anyone who’s been through the experience will tell you it doesn’t have to play out that way.
There are actually a variety of labor positions you can assume during the first phases of childbirth and a whole other set that makes for good birthing positions when it’s time to push—and they don’t all call for you to be flat on your back. “Rotating between different labor and birthing positions is important to optimize conditions for the mom and baby,” says Sara Twogood, MD, assistant professor of clinical obstetrics and gynecology at the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. “For mom, this could mean making her more comfortable, especially if she’s having a medication-free birth. It can also mean maximizing the space in her pelvis so baby has more room.”
Here’s a primer on some of the best labor and birthing positions to help you prepare for the big day.
Best Labor Positions
The process of giving birth takes work (it’s not called “labor” for nothing). But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find a way to be as comfortable as humanly possible. “Labor positions are used during the labor process to help ease discomfort, move the baby down through the pelvis and encourage optimal fetal positioning,” says Lindsey Bliss, a birth doula and co-director of Carriage House Birth in New York City. “If you end up choosing not to utilize drugs for pain management, labor positions are essential for easing discomfort.”
Active labor, the phase in which contractions come on strong, is often when things really start to hurt. But keep in mind that women don’t start pushing until the cervix is fully dilated—for some women, this happens quickly; for others, not so much. So as your body and baby prepare for delivery, there are several labor positions your doctor or midwife may suggest to get you to the pushing point more comfortably. “Labor and delivery nurses are usually really great at helping a woman move around, even with an epidural, to find the labor positions that feel best for them,” Twogood says. “I recommend women try out a number of positions during labor. Every woman and baby is different, and what works for one woman won’t be ideal for another.”
Check out some of the most common labor positions:
The hands and knees position
The all fours position calls for you to get down onto your hands and knees, either in bed or on a floor mat. “The hands and knees position is a great one, since it helps open the pelvis,” says Rebekah Wheeler, MPH, a certified nurse-midwife in the Bay Area, California. Adds Megan Cheney, MD, MPH, medical director of the Women’s Institute at Banner University Medical Center in Phoenix, “Sometimes baby’s heart rate responds better when you’re in the hands and knees position, especially if baby isn’t in the best spot.”
- Takes pressure off the spine, easing back pain
- May help boost baby’s oxygen level
- Your arms may get tired
The sitting position
When you feel baby’s weight bearing down, you may just want to sit down—and that’s okay. Whether it’s in a birthing chair or even on a toilet, sitting and spreading your legs in this labor position can relieve some of the pressure on your pelvis.
- Good for resting
- Can still be used with a fetal monitoring machine
- Sitting on a toilet relaxes the perineum, which can help reduce tearing
- A hard toilet seat can become uncomfortable
Birthing ball positions
Besides sitting on a birthing chair or toilet, you can also work the birthing ball into your labor positions. There are more than a few women who hail the prop as their BFF during labor and delivery. “Birthing balls provide support while you shift around,” Twogood says. “Women who want movement in their hips seem to find them helpful.” You can use a birthing ball in several ways: Some women sit or rock on it, lean against it or simply drape their upper bodies over it while kneeling. It can even be used as support while squatting. “I’m a huge fan,” Bliss says. “It’s great because women can continue bouncing and moving through the contractions even while being monitored.” Check beforehand to see if your hospital uses wireless fetal monitors; if not, you’ll be limited in how far you can move in these labor positions.
- Can help move baby into a favorable birthing position
- Relieves back pressure
- Birthing ball labor positions can help encourage dilation and move baby deeper into…