How to Move Beyond the Birth Environment and Enter the Birth Space

6 Ways to Ensure a Sanctuary of Support, Wherever You Birth

Beyond the fairy lights and nature sounds, discover how the perfect birth environment is so much more than the physical features.

The perfect birth environment

Beyond the twinkly lights and nature sounds, the perfect birth environment is much more than just the physical features. Enter the birth space – a dynamic, intangible realm that encompasses how you feel, how you’re supported, and the overall atmosphere that surrounds your birthing experience. In this blog, we’ll explore the distinction between birth place and birth space, and discover how you can protect this abstract yet crucial element. Whether you choose to birth at home, in a birth centre, delivery suite or operating theatre, use these points to create a safe sanctuary for your birthing journey.

“The basic process of labour hasn’t changed since the beginning of human existence, however, the environment in which women today give birth has changed significantly.” [i]

Whether you’re pregnant, had a baby, or are a fellow birth nerd, you will likely have heard chat of the birth environment

The birth environment plays a fundamental role in protecting physiological birth and can be “the difference between a fulfilling and a traumatic childbirth experience.” [ii]

But what does it actually involve?

Type ‘birth environment’ into Google and you get a lot of fairy lights, candles, and birth balls.

There’s advice on how you can control your birth environment, which often turns into a list of stuff you need, complete with links to an Amazon storefront.

It’s pretty much just pictures of rooms. Lovely rooms, most of the time. But just empty rooms, devoid of one of the key influences on birth – people.

“The birth environment is not just an envelope of inert space within which the independent physical act of birth occurs. Like all space and place, the birth environment is partly created by the thoughts, feelings and responses of those that interact with it…” [iii]

Understanding and planning for the birth space involves not only focusing on the physical elements around you, but also the more cerebral ideas: agency, safety, ownership – concepts that transcend a shopping list and set the intentions in your birth environment.

I’m not saying to chuck the fairy lights…

Research shows that a comfortable environment can help reduce feelings of tension and anxiety, promote well-being, and significantly influence a person’s satisfaction with their birth. [iv] Engaging your senses helps protect birth physiology by letting your mind relax so your hormones can get on with the task at hand. And there are loads of ways to do this (keep reading for tips!)

The physical environment influences how we feel. There’s a reason spas look and feel the way they do – dim lights, calm music, privacy – it all helps you feel relaxed and calm. I mean, you wouldn’t want a massage in the middle of Aldi.

But birth isn’t just physical. The inner transformation is just as life-altering, but is often left out of the conversation.

“Birth is usually referred to as a physical process, but it is as much a mental and emotional process.” [v]

The same can be said of the birth space. While the birth place is the physical location where you have your baby, the birth space is the emotional climate surrounding it. It’s the physical, mental, and emotional protections you put in place: the vibes, the energy, the unspoken support that makes all the difference. While your birth place can and might change, your birth space should be consistent, regardless of where you are. Imagine a dance – the birth place leads, but the birth space follows, creating a harmonious partnership. Just as a dance adapts to its rhythm, your birthing journey synchronizes with the energy you cultivate in the birth space. [vi] Understanding this nuance between the tangible and intangible elements lays the foundations for a truly empowered birthing experience.

So, how do you do it?

1. Engage Meaningfully with Your Senses

I love candles. I love the comforting, curling of the flame and the soft glow they cast. One of my close family members, however, suffers from excruciating migraines that can be easily set off by the flickering candles and can’t be near them in dim light. My cosy, safe haven would be an utter nightmare for her.

Similarly, I’m a big fan of soothing music and nature sounds – my favourite cassette tape (yes, I’m that old) as a child was one called ‘Dolphin Dance’ which featured waves, calming tones and the odd whistles and clicks. Bliss. My Mum, however, can’t stand ‘plinky-plonky’ music (her words..!) when she has a massage. She actively requests for it to be turned off.

My point? Engaging with your senses in the birth space isn’t just about filling the room with twinkly lights and wave noises if it’s not your thing, just because you think you should. The sights, smells, textures, and colours you choose should be ones that mean something to you, the things that make you feel calm, safe and protected. For me, that’d be candles and rain sounds, for others, it’s a noughties emo playlist (you know who you are.) You do you.

It was the nineties, dolphins were in. The cassette tape was obviously so old that there’s not even a photo of it on the internet.

2. Claim Your Birth Territory

Not the peeing around the room kind, obvs. But, tapping into your more primal being, is on the right lines.

In the animal kingdom, female primates actively seek a safe, familiar environment in which to give birth. They define the limits of their birth territory, allowing no intrusions, no disruption and free movement. [vii]

Research shows that when birthing humans take control of and shape their space, regardless of where it is, they claim a sense of ownership. Adapting the room can convey powerful messages about the birth you want to experience – if the bed isn’t central in the room, you have more space to move; if medical equipment is unobtrusive, your mind isn’t focused on potential interventions; if the door isn’t left open, privacy and dignity are maintained. [viii] The sense of intimacy and privacy influences you psychologically, and therefore impacts you physically. [ix] The feeling of being observed during birth can provoke hormonal responses that disrupt the physiological processes, and the flow of your birth. However, when you express your identity, creativity, and values in the space, you create a personal, safe environment in which you can relax and birth free from restraint. [x]

Orangutan - Accurate representation of the 3rd trimester!

Accurate representation of the 3rd trimester!

3. Realise Your Power

The key decision maker in the birth space is the birthing person. End of.

Yet, in some birth places, their power is diminished by unnecessary instruction, coercion, or quite simply, by ignoring them. Too often, wishes and preferences are used as an illusion of dialogue and autonomy, and place the needle of power leaning steadily away from the birthing person. Having a firm understanding of your rights is one of the most powerful acts of birth preparation and protection. Read up on the choices you have in birth and state your decisions clearly with purpose and intent.

When you enter the birth space equipped with knowledge, skills, and the guts to stand up, the power dynamic shifts. Not just for you, but for every woman and birthing person who comes after you.

4. Have Your Birth Partner as Guardian


Imagine if the roles in the birth space were all ‘assist’ and no ‘support’ – it makes for a very cold, uncomfortable experience.

Birth partners don’t get enough credit. They too, are under intense psychological change, and are too often dismissed because they don’t experience the physical process. But as we’ve already said, birth is not just about the physical. Supporting birth requires huge internal strength: to watch someone you love experience an intense physical transformation that you have very little control over, can leave some feeling helpless. But, as we discovered in lockdown, the presence of a loving, supportive birth partner makes the world of difference.

Birth partners interact with the birth place in a very different way to the birthing person. While the waves of hormones will detach the birthing person from their external reality, the birth partner remains fully aware of their surroundings, sometimes in a very visceral way. Research shows that when the features of the birth environment also benefits birth partner’s feelings of calm and safety, it allows them to be more present for those they support. [xi]

They’re also treated very differently. Of course, care providers prioritise the birthing person and the baby, naturally. When giving birth to my first son in hospital, I was offered tea and toast all the time, though I couldn’t bear either in that moment. But even after 2 days of being there and over 88 hours of supporting my labour (yep, it was loooong), my husband still was refused a cup of tea.

There are physical needs to be tended to; massage, counter-pressure and help with breathing play a big part of the birth partner’s role. But it’s not just about physical support; it’s about curating an atmosphere that nurtures strength, advocacy, and trust. The birth partner is the link between the birthing person and the physical world. They guard and protect the birth space so the woman can focus, undisturbed.

At least give them a fucking cuppa.

5. Control the Communication

Picture the scene: I was giving birth to my second son, and he was just about to emerge. (Okay, don’t picture it too vividly please.) I had been fully embracing my primal vocalisations and to be honest, was making a sound I’ve never been able to recreate. In that moment, the midwife said to me “Stop screaming, and put all that energy into pushing.” I distinctly remember feeling annoyed at the use of the word ‘screaming’. I wasn’t screaming – it was a deep, throaty, guttural roar, not the high-pitched squeal of a teenager on a rollercoaster. And that moment has stuck with me, even 3 years on.

Communication is a key element of the birth space. When you’re giving birth, you’re a combination of both powerful and vulnerable: birth requires a unique kind of physical and mental strength, but your body and mind are also open and exposed. The way you’re spoken to, the language used, and the timing of conversations have a big influence, and both the good and bad can stick in your head. If there are certain terms or phrases you do or don’t want used, by anyone, make it clear in your birth decisions. While for some birth companions it’s another day at the office, for you this is a day you’ll remember for the rest of your life – it’s on them to get it right, and rise to meet your expectations.

During birth, your hormones alter your cognitive processes: you’re ‘in a whole other place’ (thanks, Endorphins 😉) and when you’re in the throws of a contraction/surge/wave, you’re not going to want someone asking you to decide on something. Actively plan for how and when you want to be communicated to, and when you don’t. You’ve got more important things to do!

Very little roaring on a rollercoaster…

6. Plan Adaptable Protection

Birth is unpredictable, and so too, can be the journey within the birth space. When birth location changes, as it often does, the physical elements of your well-planned birth environment may prove tricky to transfer. After all, it’s not always feasible to rock up to a hospital laden with candles, photographs, and your printed birth affirmations (laminate them, people. Birth is sticky.)

Physical birth location can change, but the aim is to always maintain the integrity of the cerebral birth space, even during transitions. The key to protection lies in planning for adaptability.

Regardless of the twists and turns, the birth partner needs to adapt to preserve the psychological safety of the mother. Protect the physical environment by using eye masks and headphones to maintain calm, and plan how you will protect the internal space no matter what pathway your birth takes. Flexibility is a shield against external disruptions, ensuring that the birthing person can navigate the journey undisturbed.

And maybe set your birth affirmations as your phone wallpaper instead.

lady wearing eyemask in the car

She gets it.

Ultimately, the birth space is where memories are stitched into the fabric of your birthing journey

Beyond the physical location, it’s the emotional resonance that stays with you. By actively participating in the creation of this space, you lay the foundation for positive, empowering memories that transcend the specifics of the birth place.

As you set out on your birthing journey, remember that the birth space holds the key to a truly empowered experience. Whether at home, a birth centre, or a hospital, protect and nurture this intangible realm. Birth partners, embrace your role as guardians, actively planning and flexibly adapting to create a sanctuary for the birthing person. Craft an atmosphere that resonates with your vision, and download our free guide for additional tips on birth space protection. Your journey is unique – let your birth space reflect that.

References

[i] Aburas R, Pati D, Casanova R, Adams NG. The Influence of Nature Stimulus in Enhancing the Birth Experience. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal. 2017;10(2):81-100. doi:10.1177/1937586716665581

[ii] Walsh, D., Evidence-based care for normal labour and birth: a guide for midwives. 2007, London: Routledge.

[iii] Hammond, A., Foureur, M., Homer, C.S. and Davis, D., 2013. Space, place and the midwife: Exploring the relationship between the birth environment, neurobiology and midwifery practice. Women and Birth26(4), pp.277-281.

[iv] Yunus, A., Bajwa, R.S. and Mushtaq, S.K., 2023. Mothers’ Perceptions of the Birthing Environment on their Birth Satisfaction: A Qualitative Study. Journal of South Asian Studies11(3), pp.267-275.

[v] Hansen, M.L., Lorentzen, I.P., Andersen, C.S., Jensen, H.S., Fogsgaard, A., Foureur, M., Jepsen, I. and Nohr, E.A., 2022. The effect on the birth experience of women and partners of giving birth in a “birth environment room”: A secondary analysis of a randomised controlled trial. Midwifery112, p.103424.

[vi] Mondy, T., Fenwick, J., Leap, N. and Foureur, M., 2016. How domesticity dictates behaviour in the birth space: Lessons for designing birth environments in institutions wanting to promote a positive experience of birth. Midwifery43, pp.37-47.

[vii] Drglin Z (2020) Towards Salutogenetic Birth Space. Childbirth. IntechOpen. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.5772/intechopen.89771.

[viii] Skogström LB, Vithal E, Wijk H, Lindahl G, Berg M. Women’s Experiences of Physical Features in a Specially Designed Birthing Room: A Mixed-Methods Study in Sweden. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal. 2022;15(3):193-205. doi:10.1177/19375867221077097

[ix] Nicoletta S, Eletta N, Cardinali P, Migliorini L. A Broad Study to Develop Maternity Units Design Knowledge Combining Spatial Analysis and Mothers’ and Midwives’ Perception of the Birth Environment. HERD: Health Environments Research & Design Journal. 2022;15(4):204-232. doi:10.1177/19375867221098987

[x] Jenkinson, B., Josey, N. and Kruske, S., 2014. BirthSpace: An evidence-based guide to birth environment design.

[xi] Hansen, M.L., Lorentzen, I.P., Andersen, C.S., Jensen, H.S., Fogsgaard, A., Foureur, M., Jepsen, I. and Nohr, E.A., 2022. The effect on the birth experience of women and partners of giving birth in a “birth environment room”: A secondary analysis of a randomised controlled trial. Midwifery112, p.103424.

Sign up to my Newsletter

Join the Empowered Birthing community! Just friendly chats, pregnancy wisdom, and support through your birthing journey. I know your inbox can get a bit crazy, and I promise I won’t bombard you with a million emails….just things that you will find really useful. You can unsubscribe at any time. Please whitelist abbie@empoweredbirthing.uk

We use MailerLite to send out monthly emails packed with valuable tips and exclusive offers related to antenatal and hypnobirthing education. You can unsubscribe at any time with just one click.

Share:

Facebook
Twitter
Pinterest
LinkedIn

Related Posts

Scroll to Top