fertility

A journey from conception to birth and beyond

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I’ve recently had a baby and because I had a great pregnancy and birth, I want to share some practical insights. Obviously, this is my personal journey which may not be the same for other women. Nevertheless, I hope it will shed some light on the most important matters. Couples come to me for support when they struggle to get pregnant. But family planning is so much more than just conceiving. It also means preparing to sustain a comfortable pregnancy, having a smooth delivery and giving birth to a healthy baby who will become a healthy, happy adult. In other words, conscious preparation for the whole process is a lifetime investment for all all future parents.

Special thanks to my friend Nathalie who had a baby 3 months ahead of me and was a wealth of knowledge, which made my own journey a lot easier.

PRECONCEPTION

I didn’t plan my pregnancy. Saying that, I was ready to have a baby because I prepared for many years in advance. Not specifically for pregnancy as such but I went through a process of getting my general health in order. I followed various dietary protocols, tested many supplements and tried different therapies because I don’t believe it’s ever about just one thing.

What was key for my reproductive health:

Resolving existing health concerns: I worked on digestion, energy, mood, oestrogen dominance and getting my pelvis aligned. Although none of my complaints had ever been ‘labelled’ as specific health conditions, they took a good bit of work. In the world of natural medicine diagnostic names are not important. Any ongoing dysfunction (symptom) is a stressor for the body, and during stress nature does not allow for creating a new human until conditions are more favourable. I wish more couples on fertility treatment programmes knew about this. I went down the holistic route, taking into account the body, mind and spirit. I found osteopathy, nutritional therapy, herbs and homeopathy invaluable.

Thorough diagnostics: I did regular blood tests every 6 months for the first two years which enabled me to track progress and implement changes according to the results. Numerous clients of mine who struggle to get pregnant find it challenging to get blood referrals from their doctors. It’s frustrating because guessing what’s going on in the body is not good enough after many years of ‘trying’. At the same time, there are plenty of private labs that can save the hassle and I would like to see more people using them. Tests can be costly but worth every penny because they allow for a targeted treatment, save time and money in the long run. As a practitioner, I find it challenging to address the root cause with limited data to work with.

Nutritional therapy: dietary changes had the most profound effect on my health. I’ve always cooked from scratch but it wasn’t until I worked on my gut that I realised that my nutrition was far from being right for ME. Moreover, non-industrialised societies around the world continue to prepare for conception emphasising animal foods, specifically organ meats, cholesterol (hormones are made of cholesterol) and fat soluble vitamins. Coincidentally, I followed a Paleo style diet for a long time which must have positively influenced my reproductive health, specifically the following:

  • having a variety of foods based on seasonality

  • significantly increasing animal fats and vegetables

  • regular consumption of meat stock, bone broth, eggs and liver

  • supplementation with cod liver oil and emu oil

PREGNANCY

It was the happiest time of my life, even though I was convinced it wasn’t going to be plain sailing. Remembering my mum being severely sick when pregnant with my brother, I was anticipating nausea day after day but to my surprise, it never came. Except for three headaches and a week of being tired, I didn’t experience any other pregnancy discomforts. Overall, It was a very comfortable pregnancy which I attribute to the following:

Diet: nutrient density is key during pregnancy. The more nutrients the less cravings, fewer unpleasant pregnancy symptoms and more reserves built for the postpartum period. I emphasised quality protein, animal fats and mineral rich foods. These not only support baby’s development but also mother’s health, both physical and mental. Some of my dietary choices may seem controversial but I went against some common misconceptions because I think that the typical guidelines don’t stress what’s truly important and are full of illogical myths. This actually deserves a separate post. Here is a brief outline of what I ate:

  • a variety of meat, liver once a week, black pudding

  • fish and seafood, including tinned fish in brine and olive oil, tinned cod livers, fish eggs

  • meat and fish stock (great as a base for a variety of dishes)

  • eggs in all forms, including raw egg yolks in smoothies

  • lots of butter and ghee

  • dairy: mostly artisan aged goat and sheep’s cheeses (made from raw milk when available)

  • all vegetables and fruit

  • no commercial dairy and rare cow’s dairy consumption

  • very rare consumption of wheat

Extra nutrients:

  • Multivitamin: I tried various products but the only one that made a difference was Garden of Live mykind Prenatal Once Daily. It’s important that the multivitamin is food based. If it’s not specified on the packaging, the nutrients are synthetic. It’s important that the product contains folate and not folic acid which is synthetic and should be avoided.

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  • Cod liver oil: for active vitamin A (retinol, not beta carotene), DHA and vitamin D3. Retinol is the key nutrient for fetal development, and cod liver oil is one of the richest sources. It is also required for iron absorption which is a common deficiency during pregnancy. Insufficient intake of retinol during pregnancy is also associated with spontaneous abortion. Moreover, baby’s brain needs plenty of DHA fatty acids, depletion of which is associated with postnatal depression. Therefore, supplementation helps the mother to build up reserves to have a good start into motherhood. No plant oil can supply DHA, and the conversion of plant oils into DHA is poor. Omega 3 fatty acids in general prevent from ‘the pregnancy mask’ (melasma) so that the sun can be enjoyed more safely.

    Many products have added synthetic vitamin A (retinyl palmitate) so beware of those. I took 3 teaspoons a day of orange Nordic Naturals which is a quality, natural product.

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  • Emu oil: the richest source of vitamin K2 which is a very special vitamin that activates all other nutrients in the body. I took Walkabout Australian Emu Oil, 1/2 tea spoon twice a day.

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  • Probiotics: key to maintain an overall health balance and help to colonise the birth canal with beneficial microbes. During labour the baby swallows maternal microflora which then populates baby’s gut and determines its health. As a practitioner, I always recommend targeted probiotics but there are some products that can be taken by a wider audience. One of them is BioKult which I took for a portion of my pregnancy.

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  • Collagen powder: collagen is key for the integrity of connective tissue and skin, which plays an important role in keeping the skin toned, the prevention of stretch marks, diastasis recti and post-labour healing. It is also a great source of protein which can be added to a variety of cold and hot foods (e.g. soups and smoothies). I like Great Lakes Collagen Hydrolysate because of good quality that comes at a reasonable price.

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  • If I didn’t eat liver, I would have also taken desiccated liver capsules.

Keeping active:

I walked everywhere, often carried my groceries in a backpack, and always took the stairs. I also did 10-15 minutes of easy yoga practices on most days, using various YouTube channels. What I didn’t do was Kegel exercises because many women who train the pelvic floor during pregnancy can have a more difficult time giving birth. Kegel exercises are best after the labour.

Perineal massage:

The area between the vagina and anus needs both strength and flexibility, which can be enhanced with a massage. I recommend Weleda perineal oil, YouTube tutorials and partner’s help.

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Balance:

I followed the 80 / 20 rule which means doing what’s optimal 80% of the time. I drank 1-2 coffees a day, had an occasional glass of wine, surrendered to a few serious sugar cravings and had a good few late nights out. But I didn’t let myself go. Pregnancy is not an excuse to eat rubbish and put on unnecessary weight. Especially that it can affect maternal and baby’s health, not to mention the postnatal struggle to get back into shape, both physical and mental.

BIRTH

Stage 1 (0-7cm dilation)

It started one day before my daughter was born and felt like period cramps that came at random intervals. At night they got stronger and more regular (every 30 minutes or so) but I didn’t think I was in labour yet because I was told that contractions were going to be very obvious. After all, false signs are common and I was expecting different pain. We even had a pregnancy photo shoot in the morning because we didn’t manage to get one done over the 9 months :) But when I saw blood on the tissue shortly after, my doula came over to check on me and we soon decided to go to the hospital. And rightly so because I was already 5 centimetres dilated and went straight to the delivery room. I was offered Epidural and gas but didn’t feel I needed anaesthesia, even though I was open to do whatever felt right at the time. Instead, I took a hot shower, bounced on the gym ball, walked around but most importantly - focused on breathing.

Stage 2 - transition (7-10cm dilation)

Apparently there is a time during labour when all women want to give up, not being able for more. This is transition - the most challenging stage because the contractions get a lot more intense, you want to push but can’t just yet. The closest I can compare it to is an extreme urge to go to the bathroom but having to hold it while attempting to relax the pelvic muscles, which feels contradictory. Saying that, this is the key to a faster delivery. I fell asleep between contractions for a minute or two which made me a little drowsy and yet gave me more energy. It’s amazing what the body can do to make the experience as smooth as possible. Eventually, the contractions got so strong that I knew I had to push.

Stage 3: active labour (10 cm dilation)

Pushing made the pain productive which was a big relief. Due to baby’s rapid descent which caused extreme downward pressure, I had episiotomy. I didn’t feel a thing though because the skin is so tight that there is no need for an anaesthetic. Pushing didn’t hurt, it was just a bit of hard work. It was certainly the best part of labour, even though it may seem impossible that something as big as a baby gets out through such a small exit. Nature really does amazing things when we cooperate with it . The baby was born with the 4th pushing contraction. She was put on my chest straight away and the whole new chapter of my life began :)

Does the labour hurt? It’s intense but it’s not regular pain and certainly not something I wouldn’t like to go through again. Quite the opposite - it was amazing to experience the beautiful symphony of hormones and extreme euphoria that came with the baby.

Things that positively influenced my experience:

Trusting the process: although it’s good to understand what happens during labour, planning the process of delivery (which is unpredictable) can cause disappointment. Only during labour does it become clear what birthing position feels right or if anaesthesia is needed.

Choosing the right clinic: I chose Policlinica Miramar in Palma de Mallorca which promotes natural birth. The staff are fantastic, there is access to all sort of props, aromatherapy, music. They certainly know how to create homey atmosphere away from home. Stress hormones can stall the labour so it’s important to feel comfortable.

Doula: support of a professional that can be with you the whole time is invaluable, especially that she can help you make wise decisions when you’re not thinking clearly. I’m relatively new to Mallorca and except for my partner, she was the only one who was there for me. Very precious. Here you can read what a doula can do for you.

Ina May’s book on childbirth: the only book on the subject that I read, and I believe it’s the only one needed. I thought some aspects were a bit far-fetched but overall, it gave me a good understanding of the process.

Osteopathy: I saw an osteopath three times before birth and I’m certain she prepared my pelvis for labour more than enough. I highly recommend Kate Howe at OsteoPalma.

Lower back massage: during contractions my doula pushed my pelvis forward which gave me a great relief. I tried the TENS machine too but didn’t like the tingling sensation and found manual massage a lot better. She really knew what she was doing.

Focus: a friend told me ‘don’t waste your energy on screaming and unproductive breathing’. So true! Focused breathing gives the labour a calming rhythm. Challenging as it can be, it’s worth the effort.

Relaxing, breathing down, opening up: it’s a natural reflex to tighten the muscles when we experience pain because it’s a protective mechanism that numbs the sensation. Even though there is an urge to tense up during contractions, it’s important to relax the pelvic floor as it will help to speed up birth. Imagining that I was ‘opening up’ while relaxing the muscles and breathing down certainly helped to have such a fast birth.hormones

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Low sounds: they promote breathing down. I found long, mooing sounds very helpful.

Surrendering to gravity: naturally makes things go down.

My partner: he was my ‘leverage’ during pushing contractions and reported the labour progress. He is a task-oriented person, and I used that to my advantage. Everyone has different needs though and not all people are suitable to assist a birthing woman, even the close ones. There is no right or wrong here. If you feel you would prefer to leave the partner behind, it’s perfectly fine to do so. Intuitive wisdom makes the labour smoother.

Homeopathic remedies: my homeopath who specialises in female health sent me remedies for a smooth delivery which I took prior to, during and after the labour. Contact Lilian Van Eyken for more details, she works remotely and sends remedies by post.

POSTPARTUM

It’s a vulnerable time and it’s important to prepare in advance so that you can focus on YOURSELF and not just the baby. I had a great start into motherhood but it can go either way, with hormones bringing about unexpected behaviours and feelings. On top of that, healing ‘down there’ is itchy and annoying. Nipples can be sore. Stepping into the new role as a mum may not feel natural. But the important message is that it all gets better day by day and it’s imperative to celebrate the little achievements and improvements. I recommend speaking to your partner about the potential obstacles you may face and changes in the daily routine. After all, it’s all about supporting each other in a way that works for you as a couple.

What I found helpful:

Frozen food: I cooked batches of freezable healing one pot dishes. As a base I used collagenous meat stock and bone broth. From beef Bourgignon to curries and chunky soups, it saved us a lot of time. Postpartum nutrition is medicine for the body and mind.

Nipple butter: made with edible ingredients, I found this fantastic. Now I use it as a lip balm.

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Perineal balm: cooling and soothing with a beautiful smell. Designed to heal wounds and haemorrhoids.

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Salt sitz bath: due to baby’s rapid descent, I developed a haematoma. Sitting in hot salt water completely brought it down in just a few days.

Preparation for breastfeeding: the more you understand, the better you can prepare.

  • milk doesn’t come in right away and the baby is well prepared for this so there is no need to worry. Babies usually lose weight before they leave the hospital but gain it back quickly. The colostrum which comes in first may seem insufficient but it’s extremely nourishing, and perfectly enough for the little digestive tract. Diet, birthing experience, thoughts and emotions all affect lactation. Sometimes it’s easier said than done but in case of issues with the supply, there are various lactation teas on the market, Pukka being one of the favourites.

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  • If breastfeeding hurts, it means that the baby didn’t latch on properly. The baby should take not just the nipple (this is when it’s sore) but also the bottom part of the areola. It’s important not let the baby suck with a bad latch and not pull baby’s head away from the nipple because it will cause more pain. Instead, place the little finger between baby’s lips and the nipple to break the vavuum and start again.

    If you feel lost and hopeless, talk to a nurse, midwife, doula or a breastfeeding consultant as soon as possible. It can save a lot of tears.

  • Nipple shields: during pregnancy my nipples got harder and flatter, and it was difficult for the baby to embrace them with the little mouth. Many say that shields are a bad idea but if anything can make breastfeeding more effective, why not use it? Now that she’s bigger, she takes the breast with no shield. I think Medela’s shields are great.

    It’s important that mums keep trying to feed the baby without the shields. If this is not made clear from the beginning, some mothers are stuck and unhappy that the baby won’t take the breast without it.

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To sum up, it takes preparation to have a truly positive experience and it’s worth the investment. My role at GLOW is to support couples to have a positive experience with family planning, pregnancy and birth. Private consultations and workshops available.