It’s a long-standing practice in many childbirth classes to incorporate the use of ice as a means of preparing women to physically and mentally cope with contractions. It usually involves either holding a piece of ice in-hand or submerging a hand in a bowl of ice and then focusing on coping with the discomfort by physical relaxation, mental skills and distraction. Sometimes partners are encouraged to participate in the ice exercise, too, as a means to help them experience the discomfort and empathize with the labor process.
I was recently chatting with a pregnant woman in her 3rd trimester and she asked me if there was anything wrong with the fact that she just could not take the ice practice exercises seriously. She explained that she and her husband just kept giggling when they tried the assigned homework exercise and eventually gave up. Being that this is such a common method of preparation, she was concerned about her inability to take it seriously and asked me what I thought. Her concerns were understandable. Here she was, very invested in preparing for a natural birth and she couldn’t take seriously one the main exercises touted as “labor practice” by so many major childbirth classes. Had she doomed herself to a labor where she was completely unprepared to cope with the intensity of contractions??
The short answer is… absolutely not! I reassured her by explaining that her inability to take the ice exercise seriously was totally normal. She then asked me if I utilized this approach in my classes and I explained why I do not find this approach helpful. Here is why I do not incorporate the Ice Method when I teach BirthWorks Classes:
Ice causes muscles to contract and tense up.
When a person submerges their hand into a bowl of ice, the body has an immediate, involuntary response to the sudden change in temperature and this causes muscles to contract and constrict as a means to conserve heat. Why do athletes warm up before exercising? Because warm muscles move easier, function better and stay more relaxed! The ability to keep the muscles of the body soft, loose and relaxed is one of the most valuable coping skills during labor.
So if the goal is to help someone learn to keep their muscles soft, loose and relaxed… then why in the world would I ask them to do something that causes the exact opposite response in her body?! It is absolutely counter-intuitive and counter-productive to the goal during labor, especially for those desiring a birth without pain medication.
The Ice Exercise creates a permanent imprint on the brain.
Some might wonder upon reading this, “What’s the big deal if the exercise leaves a memory in the brain?” While it might seem like a minimal concern in the grand scheme of birth, researchers have since long known that the brain is the star player during labor/birth. It’s responsible for communicating messages to the rest of the body, including the uterus, both through the complex set of nerves coming out of the spinal cord, but also by way of releasing hormones. It’s probably not surprising that our brains are quite impressionable, too! So something that seems as “harmless” as the Ice Exercise actually creates a memory in both the brain and the muscles that gets associated with “here’s what I do when I have a contraction.” Like I mentioned in the previous point, if relaxation is key during labor, then creating a memory in the brain and muscles associated with the exact opposite response leads to confusion and more difficulty maintaining relaxation.
There are so many other exercises that are far more effective for labor preparation!
Any birth professional who has a working understanding of birth physiology will tell you that relaxation during labor/birth is not only vital for coping physically/emotionally, but it’s also important for the progress of labor. Muscle tension can inhibit both the progress of the body opening up and the baby’s ability to move themselves down during labor.
In my classes, I’d much rather focus our time and energy on exercises that have a formidable impact on the labor process. So very early in my classes, we devote time to body awareness, breath awareness, deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and then follow this with practical ways all of these can be used as a tool during labor. We also spend time in BirthWorks exploring the topic of pain, including all the factors that affect not only how our bodies experience pain, but more importantly, what factors affect how our bodies perceive pain.
After this, we re-frame what might be experienced as pain into a positive or neutral experience, versus a negative experience, using a number of strategies. All of these are not only valuable tools that many participants have reported utilizing during their labor, but these tools also leave a permanent imprint on the brain, in a positive way!
After explaining these reasons to the pregnant woman during our conversation and encouraging her to focus on skills for deep breathing and relaxation, her face lit up as she realized that she didn’t need that silly ice exercise after all!