Written by: Kathryn Higgins, founder of Motherlove
I decided to have a home birth with my first child. We lived in the mountains in Colorado, far from a hospital. When my water broke and I went into labor, my husband and I drove to my midwife’s home in town, where we would be closer to a hospital in case of any unforeseen emergency. An intense 30-hour labor gave me plenty of opportunity to use my pain-relieving tinctures of crampbark and scullcap. But I had only dilated to three centimeters, and it was time to go to the hospital. There, hooked up to fetal monitors and pitocin, my cervix still would not dialate. Our first daughter was born by cesarean with her head tilted back and the umbilical cord wrapped around her neck three times; I was told she would have suffocated had she entered the birth canal. I was grateful for the herbs that helped me through a long labor and for the medical expertise that saved our lives. As soon as I returned home from the hospital, I put mashed comfrey leaves on the cesarean cut, and today I have no visible scar.
I was confident that I could have a successful vaginal birth with my second child, but my husband was not willing to try a home birth again. The local hospital had beautiful birthing rooms where I could bring my ritual objects, and I was encouraged to use my herbal tinctures during labor when I needed them. Soon after the birth of our second daughter, I took a combination tincture of crampbark, motherwort, and raspberry leaf to prevent any afterbirth cramping, give me emotional support, and slow the bleeding. I continued to take this tincture several times a day for three days. Our second daughter’s heart defect was discovered the day after she was born. Homeopathic arnica was invaluable to me, as I walked and sat comfortably through three days of tests and many appointments.
I was two weeks overdue in my third pregnancy. After consulting with my nurse midwife, I took a dose of blue cohosh tincture. Six hours later I went into labor. When we arrived at the hospital, once again I was dilated only three centimeters. But in less than an hour of soaking in a warm tub, with my oldest daughter pushing the pressure points on my lower back, I was ready to push.
The birth of our third daughter went very quickly. I walked and squatted as we waited for the placenta to expel. The placenta, however, had adhered to the uterine wall at my previous cesarean scar, and I was hemorrhaging internally. The warm blood came gushing out as the doctor on call prepared to do an emergency hysterectomy. My husband squeezed a dropperful of fresh shepherds purse tincture into my mouth. Almost instantly the bleeding “miraculously” stopped, and an incredulous doctor removed the placenta with a D&C instead of the planned hysterectomy.
Herbs are a great birthing ally. Used successfully by midwives for years to ease labor pain and reduce the need for drug intervention, herbs can also progress a stalled labor, slow bleeding, calm anxiety, provide focus, and give renewed strength and nourishment.
Tinctures are an easy way to use herbs during labor. In a tincture, active constituents of the herbs are extracted in alcohol and water for a minimum of two weeks. This liquid is then strained and bottled. The herbal drops are taken in a small amount of water to dissipate the alcohol, or used directly from the dropper bottle. I mixed my own tinctures, but they are readily available in natural food stores.
Raspberry leaf, the premier uterine tonic, can be taken throughout pregnancy and labor. Just as a runner prepares leg muscles before a marathon, raspberry leaf strengthens the uterine muscles so that they will work more efficiently during contractions. Raspberry leaf also helps to expel the placenta after birth, slow afterbirth bleeding, and increase breast milk. For convenience, prepare a tea or ice chips ahead of time to sip or suck on during labor. Add chamomile tea for a relaxing effect.
Scullcap, chamomile, and catnip tinctures, and a combination of chamomile and St. Johns wort, work well to relieve tension and ease labor pain. As the name implies, crampbark eases uterine cramping during labor, as well as pains after birth.
When the ups and downs and feelings of anxiety seem overwhelming, motherwort is the herb to use. Or use aromatherapy inhalers that contain specific essential oil combinations for emotional focus, clarity, and rejuvenation. Rescue Remedy, a Bach flower remedy, also helps when under stress. Take several drops when needed during labor. After a difficult birth, put drops on the wrists or forehead of the newborn baby as well.
Many midwives use blue cohosh and shepherds purse. Blue cohosh brings on labor when the baby is overdue and should not be used before the last two weeks of pregnancy. During a long, stalled labor, blue cohosh makes contractions more efficient and revitalizes an irritable mother-to-be. Shepherds purse is the best herb to immediately stop postpartum hemorrhaging. Take one dropperful of the tincture. For greater effectiveness, be sure it is made with fresh, not dried, shepherds purse.
Back labor pain and tension can be relieved by massaging with an oil made with chamomile, rose, calendula, lavender, or St. John’s wort. You can add drops of an essential oil with a comforting scent. Perineal massage is also helpful before labor, and as the baby crowns, to prevent tearing, ease any swelling, and lessen the sensation of burning. An herbal oil of comfrey or St. John’s wort works well; if you do tear or have an episiotomy, it will promote rapid healing.
After the birth, homeopathic arnica pills reduce the swelling of bruised perineal muscles. Arnica should only be taken internally in homeopathic form, not as an herbal tincture, which could prevent clotting. A sitz bath slows bleeding and brings immediate relief to swollen membranes. Use a mixture of herbs such as comfrey, yarrow, uva ursi, witch hazel, goldenseal, or garlic. Pour a gallon of boiling water over an ounce of herbs, then cover and steep for 20 minutes. Strain the strong infusion into a shallow tub or a sitz bath pan specifically made to fit on the toilet. Also squirt a strong comfrey tea from a bottle as you urinate. This prevents burning and aids in perineal healing.
Chances are that you won’t need all of these items at the birth. But after experiencing three very different births, I have learned the importance of being prepared for anything that may happen. So remember to call on herbs to help you, as they did me, minimize the pain, promote rapid healing after the birth, and reduce the need for any unnecessary drug intervention, as you go through this joyous time of transformation.