Knitting and doulas – a yarn of pattern, rhythm and relaxation.

Last month I attended a hospital birth. In the weeks before the due date the mother-to-be and I met several times and discussed what she felt she may need to make her birth comfortable. These included suggestions of relaxation techniques – visualisations and ways to focus on releasing tension. We also discussed massage or touch – did she like firm or gentle touch, on her back, feet, or hands? We talked about music, positions for birth, and the practicalities of the support I could offer.

A few weeks after our last antenatal meeting, the mum called me to let me know her labour was beginning. Once she felt her labour was beginning to settle into a pattern, she rang again to ask me to make my way to meet her at the hospital. When I arrived she was very happy sitting on her birthing ball in the early stages of labour. The atmosphere in the room felt relaxed and happy as I chatted with the mum and dad to be.  

As her labour progressed, the mother became more and more inward focussed and I felt confident that she was finding her own rhythms and ways to concentrate on what her body was telling her to do. Our chatter ceased as the mum fell silent through each contraction as the sensation demanded more of her attention. I had brought some knitting with me and after two false starts of the pattern, I got into a rhythm myself, of knitting a baby hat. I found that knitting had exactly the effect I had read about – instead of focussing solely on the mother, I could relax and focus on my knitting. Perhaps this sounds a little odd – surely doulas are meant to ‘be there’ for the labouring mother, by her side, supporting her physically or emotionally, not getting on with a craft project! However, knitting can have a much deeper effect than just creating a piece of clothing….

The French birth expert, Michel Odent wrote of a renowned midwife, Giselle,  who often knitted at births she attended. In his article ‘Knitting needles, cameras and fetal monitors’ (1996), he focussed on Giselle’s knowledge of physiology of birth and the importance of privacy and darkness for a woman in labour. He wrote how a woman may feel less observed by a midwife whose attention appears to be focussed on knitting. Odent still talks today of the importance of labouring women having privacy and not being watched.

Odent later wrote how repetitive tasks are an effective means of reducing tension. Labouring women can be particularly sensitive to atmospheres or feelings within a room – if those around her are stressed or anxious the mother may pick up on these feelings and in turn become anxious herself. Anxiety and fear produce adrenalin  – this hormone counteracts the effect of the hormone oxytocin, which drives labour. The converse is also true – if the atmosphere in the room is one of calm, then the mother is more likely to feel relaxed, allowing the free flow of oxytocin and her labour to progress.

Odent suggested that if a woman is aware that her midwife is knitting, then she may feel reassured that all must be well with her labour and that the midwife is not worried about what is happening. Knitting helps to keep adrenaline levels low, creating a relaxing sense of security all round.

When I knit, my mind can clear of the chaos of the day and I can become almost meditative as I relax into the rhythm of the clicking of the needles. When in labour, women need to be able to switch off the ‘thinking’ part of their brain and tap into their instinctive thoughts to guide them through their work of bringing their baby into the world. Many women find a rhythm or a routine to help them focus, yet relax, and in this way I feel I share a connection with the mother.

I hope that the baby’s hat that I completed is a reminder for the mother of how strong she was in labour, how her mind and body carried her through her labour, how she was able to use a rhythm to keep relaxed and focussed and – perhaps – how my relaxed state empowered her to have the birth she wanted.