Four exercises to ease labor
The seated transverse * Sit cross-legged on the floor or in a chair with your shoulders lined up with your hips. Place one hand on your belly and the other hand on your back, just above your waist. Take a deep breath, expanding the belly as you inhale ("a belly breath"). Exhale, and as you do so, contract your abs to pull your belly button in, about halfway back to your spine, then all the way to the spine itself. Squeeze and hold, then release to the half way point (don't go all the way back to the expanded position) and repeat again. Each squeeze and release counts as one contraction. * Start with a set of 25 contractions, five times a day. Work up to 100 contractions a set, which should take about two minutes. Continue to perform five sets a day. As you get stronger, start the movement further back toward the spine, making each contraction smaller.
The back-lying pelvic tilt During this exercise and the Headlift, don't lie on your back for more than three minutes or you run the risk of compressing your vena cava, a major blood vessel from the heart. If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded at any point during these exercises, roll onto your side immediately.
* Lie on your back with your knees squared with your shoulders. Place one hand on your belly and the other just under the small of your back. Take a deep belly breath, expanding your abdomen as you do so. Bring your belly button back to your spine, hold, then press your back to the floor as you exhale. Do a set of 10 tilts daily.
The headlift After you've done about four weeks' worth of the Seated Transverse and Back-Lying Pelvic Tilt, you can add Headlifts to your routine.
* Before you begin, wrap a sheet or long scarf (to be used as a "splint") around your middle, pulling the two ends across your belly. Then, lie on your back with your knees squared with your shoulders. Rest your elbows on the floor and hold the ends of the splint together on top of your belly. Bring the belly button back toward the spine, hold it there, then press the small of your back to the floor (essentially, the Pelvic Tilt you've been doing). Then pull the two halves of the splint together as you gently lift your chin to your chest (not too high) and push the belly button further toward the floor. Release the belly button as you lower your head again. Start with one set of 10 headlifts a day. Work up to three sets of 20 headlifts, then three sets of 30. Remember, don't stay longer than three minutes on your back, and if you start to feel dizzy, roll onto your side.
The Kegel Before you were pregnant, you probably gave little thought to the muscles in your pelvic area. Now that's all you hear about, and for good reason: The pubococcygeus (PC) muscle forms a figure eight around the urethra (where you urinate), the vagina, and rectum, enhancing your sex life and helping you hold in your bodily functions until you can get to a bathroom. It's important to keep your PC muscle in shape, but the weight of your pregnant uterus does a number on it. Performing Kegel exercises will help retain the PC muscle's strength and elasticity as well as teach you how to relax it so the baby can better travel through the birth canal.
* Sit with your legs slightly apart (so you don't squeeze your buttocks) and your hands resting on your belly. Close your eyes and pretend you are stopping the flow of urine. Hold that squeeze for 10 seconds, relax and feel it open, and then repeat. Do 20 repetitions five times a day. (If you can't hold the muscle 10 seconds at first, start with 5 seconds, then work up to 8, then 10.)
Julie Tupler, R.N., is a certified fitness instructor and childbirth educator. She is the author of Maternal Fitness (Fireside) and the creator of the Maternal Fitness Prenatal Video series. Stephanie Wood is a mother of two who writes frequently about parenting issues.