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Transition in Labor: Catch the (Theta brain) Wave

We've all seen the images of the serene goddess-like woman, focused so laser-sharply on her breath and her inner process that she hardly even appears to be in labor.

How is she doing that?

In the chance that your trip through labor looks a little different, I want you to know what that hardest stage of labor really entails, how your body can actually help you (and your baby!) out, what it can look like and what your partner can do to really help you through it.

What is Transition, exactly?

Transition is typically the shortest and most intense phase of labor. I love calling it a phase, because it's just that; it doesn't last forever! For context, the first stage of labor includes Early Labor, Active Labor, and Transition, a literal "transition" to the pushing stage and meeting your baby. Let’s back up for some Labor Stages Basics: Early Labor often includes a crampy feeling in the uterus while the cervix opens or dilates from closed to around 4cm (there are some definitional changes recently that put early labor a little bit further into 5 or 6cm; for our purposes here, it really doesn't matter. Call it what you will). Next comes Active Labor, when the birthing mom typically realizes this is serious business and she has to use all of the amazing coping strategies she has already learned through her birthing classes and other birth preparation. Don't leave this part up to chance! Reading about pain-coping is not the same as experiencing pain-coping. Having a list of position changes is not the same as understanding how they feel and when or why to try them. Thinking that visualizations sound like a cool idea is not the same as practicing them prenatally so you're prepared during labor. Plan ahead!

Whoa, got off track there! Sorry...passion.

Back to Active Labor. The birthing mother's cervix opens or dilates from around 4 cm to around 7 cm. It's hard, painful work.

And then, Transition! So this is where the cervix dilates from 7 cm all the way to 10 cm, when a woman is said to be "complete", or completely dilated. If Active Labor is serious business, Transition is that class's instructor on final exam day.

How Your Body Helps You Out During Transition

While we all know that your body and hormones are changing quite rapidly during labor, it’s a little known fact that so is your brain. In everyday life our brain is functioning at Beta brain waves. As Early Labor makes its way into Active Labor, our brain waves begin to slow down, and enter the Alpha state. Cooler still, once in Transition we are able to access the deep, deep Theta brain waves. This can be likened to a trance-like state; your subconscious is helping you out and in Birthing From Within we refer to this state as "Laborland." It's not that you don't feel pain; it's just that your experience of it is altered. Your body does you a favor and processes the pain in a different way. Without medical support, your body actually helps you out and allows you to access a deeper part of yourself that you couldn't otherwise access if given medical support during labor. Ever heard of that birth high? This is where it comes from! There’s a quick read about brain waves at that is really interesting. From the article, “The voice of Beta can be described as being that nagging little inner critic that gets louder the higher you go into range. The voice of Alpha is your intuition. It is said that a sense of deep spiritual connection and unity with the universe can be experienced at Theta. Unlike your other brainwaves, the elusive voice of Theta is a silent voice.” Another way to think of Theta is absolute calm and stillness. One of the tasks of labor is to leave your Beta brain (thinking mind) behind, and allow and accept you’re the deeper, slower brainwaves (intuition and unity) to rise to their potential. In other words, let gooooo of control and actually look forward to (or at least accept) the not-knowing that accompanies hard labor and Transition.

What Does Transition Look Like?

Of course, there's no right or wrong way to "do" Transition. Sometimes those Theta brainwaves provide an analgesic effect, and sometimes a laboring woman may be too fearful to experience this effect. It depends a lot on how supported a mother feels, how safe she feels. (Doula Tip: Choose your birthplace and birth attendant carefully, even if your choice makes your mother-in-law or partner uncomfortable. It will matter when you are in labor!) Sometimes the birthing mother will find a repetitive, trance-like ritual that she might not even be aware she's doing. I can recall one particular labor that the mom, at 9cm, would start a contraction, find her breath, and methodically rub her hand back and forth over the sheet covering her bed, for the entire 90 second contraction. It wasn't something she had practiced, it's just what she *did*, to bring herself comfort, while deep inside her own subconscious. Another mom walked around her birthing room arcing both hands from her mouth up to the ceiling, over and over, during every contraction during Transition. When I later asked her about it, at first she couldn’t recall what I was talking about (Theta Brain!), and then she exclaimed, “Oh! I was Opening.” How about it! Using her whole body to open. Not in a Beta way, but in a deeply Theta way. Another mom I supported used her right fist to punch the daylights out of her hospital bed rail for every single contraction during Transition. I’ve seen a preacher’s wife cuss like a sailor during Transition. I’ve looked into dozens of eyes and pressed on dozens of hips during every contraction during Transition. And each of the mothers did it “right.”

What Should Your Partner/Husband/Support Person Be *Doing* During Transition?

  • Generally, once you have found your own way into Laborland, your support people need to be fully present but can tone down the support that had been given so laboriously during Active Labor. This is when, if given the opportunity to retreat into your subconscious, you can access a strength within yourself that you never knew you possessed. Gentle birth affirmations work well, here.

  • However, if you find yourself asking for an Epidural or other medical support, remember that it's normal to feel that way during Transition, to be looking for a way out of the pain. Your partner needs to understand this is his cue to step UP his support efforts, not to back away. Make sure you have a plan in place for if you hit the panic button, and clear steps for what he can and should do. I go over this in detail in my Birthing From Within class series.

  • You are in a highly suggestible state in Transition, which makes guided visualizations and guided meditations a great tool at this stage of labor. You'll need to have these picked out in advance. Printing them out for your partner is a great idea, and spending some time prenatally letting your partner read them to you before bed is a sweet late pregnancy ritual.

  • Check out Birthing From Within's suggestions for pain-coping called Finding The Center and Spiraling. Both are fantastic tools to use during Transition. Your partner can guide you through both, provided you have practiced prenatally.

  • Vocalizing is powerful in labor and especially during Transition. Your partner can learn how to do this along with you during a Birthing From Within class. If nothing else, he needs to be prepared for what natural birthing sounds like so he can hold his own during hard labor. This is not the time for you to worry about reassuring your partner, or to be self-conscious about what you sound like.

  • Remember, *allow* yourself to enter into your Theta Brain, by letting go of everything in your Beta Brain. Allow yourself to be swept away into your subconscious. Let your body do itself a favor and let intuition sweep over all thoughts in your conscious mind.

Are There Other Ways To Access Theta Brain Waves?

Sometimes for a variety of reasons a mother chooses to labor with an epidural, or her birth story unfolds to include medical support. It’s a different discussion, indeed, and a question for our birth community to ponder is how do we make space for these mothers when we talk about the “oneness with the world” that can be experienced during a deeply intuitive theta transitional state? Perhaps that’s why I share these thoughts with you. Will a mother with an epidural still experience the theta brain waves that accompany Transition? Part of the discussion is biology; the other part is culture. Are there other ways to experience theta brain waves that don’t include Transition in labor? (Short answer: Yes. Think meditations and visualizations). Will you choose to uncover them during your birth? Can they be accessed during a birth that includes an epidural? How curious will you get during your preparation? How will you prepare for a natural birth and how will you allow for a birth that unfolds to accept medical support?

If you found this article helpful, leave me a comment below and share around with your pregnant and birthy friends!


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