Health and Beauty

African Black soap and its benefits

You already know I am a big fan of Moroccan black soap, a soft soap made with olive oil. But I had never tried its cousin, African black soap, made with shea butter. Shea butter comes from the nut of the Shea tree, that grows mainly in West African countries, particularly Ghana and NIgeria. It is very popular in Western countries now, and it is frequently used in cosmetics. However, the quality can be lacking. Unrefined shea butter should be white or creamy in colour, and have a nutty scent. For the best quality African soap, choose one that is preferably organic and unrefined. It comes with varying degrees of solidity, depending on the recipe used, but essentially it is made with Shea butter, plantain leaves and oil (either coconut or palm kernel).

Shea butter and nuts

Why is African Black soap good for you?

First of all, because unlike supermarket shower gels, it is made from natural ingredients and doesn’t contain harmful chemicals such as parabens and sodium lauryl sulfate, the two main culprits, but also perfumes that can irritate the skin. You might also come accross ingredients that are downright dangerous, such triclosan and phtalates. Secondly, you can find it in all types of containers and buy a big batch of it, so it is less plastic in your bathroom. It lasts for a while so it will probably end up saving you quite a bit of money too. Another important aspect to consider is that black soap is often made traditionally and sold by women working as independent traders. I would much rather my money goes to them than big brands or supermarkets!

Benefits for the skin and hair

Shea butter is one of my favourite ingredients for soap-making, because it is just so nice to work with. It’s creamy, it’s rich, it’s deeply moisturising and it has a slight nutty scent, unlike coconut butter than can be a bit overpowering. Shea has been used for skincare for centuries across Africa, and in many families, children are lathered in it daily, leaving their skin soft and protected. It contains a large variety of vitamins and nutrients, most importantly vitamins A and E.

African Black soap

Black soap thus ticks the boxes for me: very moisturising and gentle on the skin, no fragrance nor artificial ingredients so great for the whole family. It also has antibacterial and antifungal properties, which can make it useful for people suffering from candida or skin infection , and it also seems to help with eczema in some cases.

African Black soap can also be used on the hair, although I have to admit I haven’t tried it yet. My hair is quite thin and generally reacts pretty badly to any hard or handmade shampoo, so I have gone back to using organic bottled shampoo for now, until I find better!However, curly ladies seem to have great results with black soap, as it moisturises the scalp and adds curl definition. You simply need to dilute the soap with a bit of warm water, and you can add a few drops of oil for extra care.

Health and Beauty

Dealing with PMS symptoms naturally

Premenstrual syndrome (commonly referred to as PMS) is an issue that many women are familiar with in one form or another: up to 75% of women suffer from moderate to severe symptoms as some point during their childbearing years. Modern medicine only has limited options to offer to women who suffer from PMS, and they are often short-term solutions such as painkillers. This is why women often look at alternatives such as herbs and other natural remedies, which have been used for generations of women with success.

What is PMS?

PMS can be difficult to identity because it has a very varied range of symptoms: headache, bloating, irritability, mood swings, skin problems and others . There is a lack of research on the causes of PMS and how it works, but it appears clear that it is related to hormones levels increasing and decreasing during the menstrual cycle and creating an imbalance in the body.

PMS can have a severe impact on women’s quality of life, leading some to miss school or work, having issues with sleep, or affecting their mental health. It can be particularly helpful to keep a diary of when symptoms occur and how they manifest themselves, to identify possible triggers.

In more severe cases, we talk about PMDD (Prementrual dysphoric disorder). Again, treatment for PMDD is usually limited to birth control pills, antidepressants and NSAIDs (pain relief medicine), who all come with side effects.

PMS Herbal remedies

How herbalism can help with PMS symptoms

First of all, it is important to look at one’s diet, sleep pattern and exercise regime, as these can all have an impact on PMS symptoms. Herbal remedies can be very beneficial for women because they generally have no side effects, are safe on the long term, and have been used successfully for centuries in folk medicine.

One of the herbs most commonly used for PMS related symptoms is Chasteberry (Vitex Agnus Castus). It is said to be particularly efficient against breast tenderness, and it also helps with a variety of symptoms such as bloating and headache. In practice, Chasteberry increases levels of Luteinizing Hormone (LH) in the body, while decreasing Follicle-Stimulating Hormone (FSH). It can thus help the body address changing hormone levels during the menstrual cycle and help it reestablish balance.

Another herb that is very frequently prescribed for women’s issues is St John’s wort (Hypericum perforatum). St John’s wort is often used against depression and irritability as it is said to increase serotonin levels. A word of caution: be careful if you are taking antidepressants, as combining them with St John’s wort can be dangerous. A 2010 study confirmed that “Hypericum perforatum was statistically superior to placebo in improving physical and behavioural symptoms of PMS”. St John’s wort should be taken in the morning, as it is a stimulant.

Valerian (Valeriana officinalis) is recommended for cramps: it is a highly relaxing plant with antispasmodic properties. Valerian is a perennial plant native to Europe and Asia, and it has a very long history of medicinal use. It was particularly used for insomnia as it has a sedative effect. It can easily be taken as a tea made from valerian roots, as it is the most potent part.

For digestive issues related to PMS, carminative herbs such as fennel seeds can be very helpful and in fact fennel seems to help reduce PMS symptoms more generally, as shows this study.

Evening Primrose oil is also frequently recommended, but there is little evidence that it is efficient: a 1990 study seems to suggest that any improvement experienced by women could simply be due to a placebo effect.

Gardening, Health and Beauty

Dandelion as a medicinal herb

Are dandelions weeds?

It’s early spring and dandelions (Taraxacum Officinale) are sprouting everywhere. Your first reflex is to pick them and discard them, to keep your lawn pristine. But don’t! Dandelions are very useful herbs for your home pharmacy, and every part of the dandelion has its own medicinal properties. Dandelion has been used for centuries in Europe, but it is also part of Chinese and Islamic traditional medicines, as well as Native American cultures. It is truly your garden’s overlooked treasure! Here are some of dandelion’s main benefits:

Benefits of dandelion

Dandelion root

Dandelion root is a powerful tonic and has long been used to support digestion and support the liver. It is a diuretic and thus it encourages kidney function. It is thus commonly used as part of a detox diet as it supports the liver and helps it cleanse itself through excretion of the bile. You can drink dandelion root as an infusion or decoction. It has a delicious nutty flavour and none of coffee’s side effects and addictive properties, so it is a perfect replacement for your morning brew. To collect your roots, look for young dandelions that have not yet flowered: they are easy to identify because of the distinctive shape of their leaves (dandelion comes from the French “dents de lion”, meaning lion’s teeth!). After that, the roots will shrink and get slightly bitter, so it’s better not to use plants with flowers.

How to make Roast dandelion root coffee?

Roasted dandelion roots

Collect a small handful of dandelion roots and rinse carefully. Place in the oven on medium heat (around 180°C) for about 20 mins. Then, prepare your decoction: place the roots in a small pan of water (about 2 cups of water), bring to boil and let simmer for about 10 minutes. Your decoction will take a brown colour. You can then add frothy milk, or drink straight as!

Dandelion tea
Dandelion latte!

Dandelion leaves and flowers

Leaves are usually taken as a tea: collect and clean a few leaves, leave them dry for a couple of days, and they can then be consumed as needed. They can also be eaten fresh as a salad as they are full of minerals, particularly iron, magnesium, manganese, calcium and copper.

The leaves are actually a stronger diuretic than the roots, and they can be very efficient in cases of water retention, or if you are feeling bloated. They act gently on the digestive system without leaving you dehydrated. It is also used for people with high blood pressure.

The flowers can be eaten fresh from your garden! They can be added to salads, and you can also gently fry young buds in a bit of butter. They add a pop of colour to your plate, and they are also a good source of flavonoids. They also contain lutein which is very important for eye health. Flowers can be used in a large variety of recipes: try making Indian fried pakoras or fritters for instance!

Health and Beauty, Nutrition

The amazing health benefits of Black seed oil

Black seed- different forms

What is black seed?

Black seeds ( Latin name Nigella sativa) come from small blue or white flowers native to Europe and parts of Asia. They are known under a variety of name: black cumin, nigelle, habbatu sawda in Arabic, and kalonji in Ayurvedic medicine. They belong to the family of Ranunculaceae and the seeds are usually harvested in late summer, after the flowers have turned into seed pods. The seeds look slightly like poppy seeds, but they have a triangular shape and a more nutty flavour, so they are usually used with savoury food and bread.

I get my own black seed oil from Blessed Seed, which has excellent quality products available in several strengths. I would always recommend you start with a low strength product and wait for a few weeks to see how our body responds. Then, possibly increase the strength if needed. You can also find the seeds in Asian and Middle Eastern shops, where they are sometimes called habba sawda (‘Black seed’ in Arabic) or Kalonji.

Black cumin flowers

Health benefits of black seed oil

Black seed oil is a natural remedy that has been used for millennia for a whole range of ailments. In Muslim cultures, it is said that black seed is the remedy for everything apart from death (hadith reported by Abu Huraira)! Ancient Greeks used it for digestive disorders. In a nutshell, the main reported benefits of black seed oil are:

How to use black seed oil?

Used as a supplement, black seed oil should be taken daily. I am going to be completely honest here: black seed oil has quite a strong taste and it is not particularly pleasant. My husband has a sensitive gut and he tends to get acid reflux if he takes it every day. It is generally advised to take a spoon of oil first thing in the morning on a empty stomach, but you can also incorporate it into food if you don’t like the taste. I personally use it in bread recipes very regularly (both the oil and seeds) and I find it works really well. It adds a lovely depth of flavour, and it is actually often used in Middle Eastern recipes. Of course, you can also use capsules (taken daily), which is probably the easiest way to take black seed oil if you don’t want to mix it with your food.

Health and Beauty

A pink soap with calendula-infused oil

I will admit that pot marigold (calendula officinalis) has never been my favourite flower. I am more of a peonies type of girl. However, after studying the really amazing properties of these orange blooms, I had to admit that they really are a superior kind of flowers. They are packed with so many benefits it is hard to list them all, and they actually taste pretty good as a tea as well.

Calendula is particularly recommended for skin issues: wounds that won’t heal, scars, skin infections, eczema, or more generally dry skin. It can be taken as a tea (and it actually tastes quite nice), or you can make a little infused oil or balm to use directly on the skin. It has antifungal and anti-inflammatory properties, and it is a herb for a gently, moisturizing soap.

As I had some dried calendula flowers, I thought I would try making a soap out of them, infusing calendula-infused shea butter as a base for extra gentleness and moisture. Adding herbs or flowers to your soap can be very useful because it adds a health dimension. Many herbs lend themselves pretty well to the soap-making process: lavender and chamomille are quite common as they are soothing, relaxing plants, but you can also use more original combinations. Nettle for instance is an interesting choice as it is astringent and helps relieve acne.

It is my 1st time using calendula infused oil and I am quite taken by it. The soaps turned out really pretty and I am quite pleased with them, so I am sharing my recipe.

Recipe for 4 medium sized soaps

Soaps ready to cure!
  • 190g Shea butter (I had about 150g left after infusion)
  • 2 tablespoons of calendula (marigold flowers)
  • 100g olive oil
  • 3 teaspoons of pink clay
  • 30 drops of palmarosa essential oil
  • 43g of potassium hydroxide
  • 75-80mL of water

First of all, melt your shea butter, add the dry calendula flowers and let infuse. There are several ways to do this: you can use a crockpot on the lowest setting, or use a double boiler, which is what I did. You want very gentle heat, so I got my shea butter to melting point then switched off the fire to let the butter infuse gently. I repeated this a few times over 2 days. Alternatively, you can also leave your oil in a sunny spot for a few days. I then drained using a fine sieve (or a piece of muslin). You will lose a bit of oil at this stage and that’s completely normal. You could also actually leave the flowers in the soap, but I preferred to take mine out this time. This is your infused oil, and it is packed with properties from the flower; it is a very potent ingredient.

Once you have drained the butter, make sure to weight it again as you need precise measurements for soap making! Use the sage lye calculator for reference.

I then added 100g of olive oil and mixed well.

To make the lye, I used 43g of potassium hydroxide for about 75mL of water. Again, use the sage calculator to check how much lye you need, as you can easily go wrong with soaps. Add the potassium to the water, never the opposite way. Make sure to wear gloves and safety glasses for this part. The lye will heat up; leave it to cool down for a while until it is pretty much room temperature. Don’t rush it: if the lye is too hot, your soap will reach trace much faster and it might impact its texture. I added my pink clay powder straight into my lye after it cooled down, to make sure I didn’t end up with clumps.

Add the lye to your oil mixture. You can also add your additives at this point: here, I used palmarosa essential oil. You only need a little (less than 1% overall) as essential oils are very concentrated. It’s better to avoid if you are making soap for children, or if you have very sensitive skin. Blend thoroughly, ideally with a stick blender. After 5-10 mins, your mixture should start thickening up to a thick custard consistency. This is what we commonly call the “trace” stage. You can finally pour your mixture into clean, dry molds.

Trace stage

This is what is known as cold-process soap making, therefore your soaps will need to be cured for a while in a cool dry place. First of all, take your soaps out of their molds (or cut them to desired shape) after a few days, and put them in a dry place, out of direct sunlight (mine are in a cupboard). Curing allows the moisture to evaporate, and it makes the soap harder and longer lasting. It varies according to the composition of the soap: the minimum is 4 to 6 weeks, but castille olive oil soap is frequently left to cure for 6 months to 1 year. This process also depends on the conditions where you leave: temperature, humidity…. This is a longish process but it can’t be rushed, because this allows the lye to fully saponify. If not fully cured, the pH of the soap will be too high to be used on the skin.

Since this recipe does have a large percentage of olive oil, I am aiming to leave it cure for about 3 months in the dark place, until it is completely hard. They already smell divine and I really can’t wait to try them!

My new molds!
Health and Beauty

Warming balm for joint and muscle pains

My finished balm

This is a 10 min recipe for those days when you are just aching all over! Use this balm to gently massage the area where you feel the pain. It contains turmeric and cayenne pepper, which help to stimulate blood circulation to the area and alleviate pain. It is really easy to make, using coconut oil, olive oil and a bit of wax (I used soy wax pellets but bees’ wax is absolutely fine), along with your spices.

Recipe for a small pot of balm (approx. 150 g)

1 tablespoon of curcuma (turmeric) powder

1 teaspoon of cayenne pepper

3 big tablespoons of coconut oil

1 tablespoon of olive oil

4 tablespoon of soy wax pellets (or beeswax)

Combine the oils and the wax in a bain-marie or double boiler and heat on low fire until the wax is completely melted. You can also melt in the microwave. Take off the fire, leave to cool a few minutes and add the spice. Mix with a whisk until the spice is fully incorporated to the balm, as the cayenne tends to fall at the bottom. If you have some spice left over in your pan, no worries, retrieve as much liquid as possible by putting it through a muslin cloth and discard the rest.

Finally, pour into your pot (or pots, it’s quite useful to have little pots to take with you or to give away). It will take a while to cool down and solidy; I put mine in the fridge overnight.

The texture is quite soft and creamy: relatively firm inside the pot but it melts on the fingers when you use it, so it’s perfect for a quick massage. It’s gently warming because of the cayenne pepper, and the curcuma is anti-inflammatory so perfect for muscle and joint pains. Both spices can help with arthritis pain, and can help you avoid taking strong painkillers or anti-inflammatory medicine which often come with sode effects. The curcuma can be a pain to wash off clothes, so keep this in mind when applying on yourself. It might make the skin slightly yellow, but it is quickly absorbed. If you live in a very hot area, keep it in the fridge, but otherwise your balm will last you quite a while!

If you find the texture too soft or too hard, you can easily modify the recipe by melting the balm again and adding a tablespoon of coconut oil (if you want it softer) or wax to solidify it a bit more. Have fun!

Health and Beauty, Nutrition

Let’s talk about aphrodisiacs…

February is the time of the year when many of you celebrate love, so I am sure you will be interested in today’s topic: natural aphrodisiacs!

Aphrodisiac comes from the Greek root aphro, coming from Aphrodite (the Goddess of Love), and it qualifies a substance that increases sexual desire. Different types of food are meant to have aphrodisiac properties, namely chocolate, oyster, almonds, celery and asparagus… However, medicinal plants can have a much stronger effects. The most popular aphrodisiac herbs are all roots: ginger( probably the easiest to find, depending on where you live), Chinese ginseng, and Galanga (also known as Galangal).

Galanga is a spice that is frequently used in South Asia, but it is also present in North African culture ( I bought mine from Morocco, as part of a mix of spices used for teas and infusions). If has several interesting properties :

Health and Beauty

Rosemary infused oil for hair growth

In my postnatal state, there is one thing that horrifies me (well, as much as stretch marks), it’s brushing my hair and seeing handfuls fall off. This is a perfectly normal experience in pregnancy and afterwards, and it usually resolves itself within the first year, but it really makes you realise how gruelling pregnancy and labour are for the body, and how important it is to take time to recover, rest and restore yourself to full health. I am going to share a quick, basic hair oil recipe to stimulate hair growth, and hopefully it will also be an opportunity to look after yourself and reconnect with your body.

First of all, there are many different natural products that can be used to address hair loss. I originally tried Amla oil, which is widely used in India and Asia more generally, but it can darken hair and it wasn’t the best fit for my thin Caucasian hair. I therefore created a recipe that is more adapted to my hair type, based around three simple ingredients.

For this recipe, I used ingredients that I already had at home: fresh rosemary, a herb that stimulates circulation and is also used to deal with dandruff, jojoba oil (because it also encourages hair growth and it is easily absorbed by hair and skin), as well as lavender essential oil (which I use for everything and anything. All three elements have benefits for the hair, and the combination has a pleasant herby smell. You could easily adapt this recipe depending on what is easily available to you, and your hair type ( if you have a dry scalp for example, you may want to use ylang-ylang essential oil).

I love making using infused oils because they are such an effective way to extract a plant’s chemicals and they can be used in many different ways. They are also quite easy to make! There are many ways to make infused oils: you could simply live them on a sunny windowsill (but sun in a rarity right now in the UK), and I am told that a slow cooker is particularly efficient too. Personally, I use a vintage double boiler (or bain marie), which needs to left on very low fire for at least a couple of hours. I actually leave mine for a few minutes until the water starts simmering, and that I switch off and cover, as I don’t have a setting that is low enough to leave for a long while.

What you will need:

  • a handful of fresh rosemary
  • 100 mL carrier oil ( I used jojoba but it could be replaced with almond oil for instance)
  • an essential oil of your choice, here lavender.
  • a double boiler ( or slow cooker, or plenty of sun!)
  • a piece of muslin cloth to strain the liquid
  • a clean bottle or jar for storage

I made a very small amount, as I only use a few drops a day and it is a temporary measure, but feel free to double the measurements.

Cover the rosemary with your oil (you might need to chop the herbs a little bit). Bring your bain marie to simmer and leave for 4-6 hours on the lowest setting if possible. The oil should never boil. After that time, you can remove the rosemary and repeat the process with another fresh handful, which will create a more potent oil.

Once you are satisfied with your oil, leave to cool before adding a drop of essential oil. It is important not to add it when the oil is hot, as it will affect the potency of the essential oil. You only need a drop or two (around 1% of your final product), as it it a very concentrated liquid, and too much could be toxic.

Finally, strain the liquid through your muslin or a thin sieve to make sure you collect as much oil as possible, bearing in mind you will lose some during the infusing process.

Use this oil to massage your scalp and damp hair every day and leave in for best results; the massage will also help stimulate your hair follicles so turn this into a relaxing, feel good time for yourself.

Enjoy and let me know about your herbal creations!

Health and Beauty

Boosting your immunity in the time of Covid-19

2021 is starting on a rather anxious note, especially for us in the UK where the new strain of coronavirus seems to be spreading like wildfire. As every winter, there are steps we can all take to boost our immune system and protect ourselves from viruses. Coronaviruses are viruses that affect the respiratory tract, with a very wide range of symptoms from cough and fever to difficulties to breathe. We will then look at how to support the respiratory system during the coldest months.

Getting good quality vitamin supplements is thus important, and make sure to check dosage. 1000 IU (or 25mg) of Vitamin D3 is what is usually recommended for people with mild deficiency, but a GP might prescribe a higher dose after a blood test. For my children, I used Vit D drops which I usually add to their breakfast porridge. Of course, it’s always better to get the “real thing” rather than take supplements, so try to get some sun even when it’s cold outside! It’s hard to get enough vitamin D through diet as few food items contain it, but it’s mainly found in fish (salmon, herring, sardines, tuna), and egg yolk to a lesser extent.

  • Vitamin C is another very important vitamin during the winter. There is a reason we have an abundance of citrus fruits in the colder months: pomelos, oranges, clementines and grapefruits are good options to raise your Vitamin C levels, as your body will always get more benefit from a naturally occurring vitamin than a pill. Kiwis are also brilliant, and in fact they contain more vitamin C than oranges!
  • One of my personal favourite immune boosting recipes is elderberry syrup or rob (recipe here). Unfortunately I didn’t find enough berries this year, but I usually use Sambucol. The great thing with elderberry generally is that it tastes great, so we all love having it. Elderberries have strong anti-viral components and can slow the spread of virus through the body. Elder (Sambucus negra) can also be used as a tea made from dried flowers, and it has long been used in traditional medicine to cure viral infections such as flu, bronchitis and sinusitis. It is particularly helpful to clear mucus from the throat and nose, as it is a natural decongestant. It is also perfectly safe for children (as long as you make sure you have the real thing!).
  • Honey is an easy to find, popular, delicious product, and I personally have excellent results with it. I use it as a preventive measure throughout winter (for myself and children) and we are very rarely sick. A hot lemon or ginger tea with a big spoon of honey works a treat if you feel a bit rundown or are developing a cough. I usually have a teaspoon before breakfast every morning, and as with most things, what makes the difference is quality honey. Most supermarket honeys are a mix of different ‘honeys’ including Chinese ‘honey’, which mostly is not honey at all but sugar syrup. To be fair, real honey costs money, so if you see a product that seems particularly cheap, the real honey content is probably very low. Get raw, organic honey, preferably local to you: always check the source. I also use Manuka honey (definitely NOT local to me!), but we all love it. Get a small pot of the higher concentration you can find (currently 350 for me); it is expensive but if you only have a small teaspoon a day, it will last for a while and you will see the benefits.

If you do catch Covid-19, remember to drink plenty of fluids, give yourself a rest, and try to act early. Once the virus has reached your lungs, it will be much harder to get it out. At the first sign of a runny nose or tingling throat, get your honey, ginger and lemon out, and put the kettle on.

Steams can be a very efficient tool to clear your airways if you are struggling to breathe. Thyme is usually recommended and it is easily accessible; many people have dry thyme in their kitchen (but make sure you use thyme that is not too old!). Simply boil water, pour over your thyme in a large bowl and inhale deeply. You can also put a towel over your head. This should give you temporary relief so can be repeated several times throughout the day. Thyme might also help prevent secondary lung infections.

Diet is also very important for the recovery process (as always!): allow your body to focus on fighting the virus by eating easy to digest food: plenty of fruit and veg, broth, boiled eggs, veg juices, plain rice, and avoid processed food. Make sure you stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water and herbal teas throughout the day.

REST! I know it’s hard when you have a busy job or young children, but with the prevalence of long-term effects with Covid, it is really crucial to let your body recover and get some proper rest. You will experience fatigue, and this is completely normal. It is simply your body telling you to go to bed, let go of stress and daily mental load, and focus on yourself. Everything else can wait!

Health and Beauty, Raising healthy Children

A relaxed labour experience

We are coming to the end of 2020, a year that will be remembered as one of the most stressful for many of us. At the same time, it is also the year that I gave birth to my last baby, a completely unplanned but very welcomed daughter. A “lockdown baby”, a “corona baby” as she is now known in our family, a blessing in the midst of a very challenging year.

It is my 4th baby and you would expect that by now, I know my way around pregnancy and childbirth, but she has taught me much. After a few months of recovery and reflection (in my postnatal fog brain), here are a few thoughts for mothers-to-be who want to take charge of their baby’s birth:

  • There is ONE thing that is out of your control (apart from a planned caesarean delivery), and that is WHEN baby is born. Babies come whenever they are ready, and only then. I actually had an induction at 39 weeks for this baby, which failed. I asked to be discharged (after ensuring that baby was completely fine) and she ended up being born at 42 weeks plus. There are loads of tips online about how to bring on labour: eat spicy food, go for a walk, drink raspberry leaf tea…These might or might not work, and in my experience, they only work when baby is actually ready. Use that precious time to go out, take in a movie or exhibition, see friends, exercise, relax. Learning to let go is a learning curve!
  • Labour NEVER really goes as planned, but it doesn’t mean that you can’t have it your way. I wanted a home birth. I had planned it for months with my team of midwives, I had bought tons of towels and plastic sheets for the floor, I had my birthing ball and I had freed up my guest room to make space for labour. In the end, after much fretting, I had to go into hospital because baby was too late. Here, I want to make it clear that it was MY choice, and mothers (in the UK at least), always have a choice of where they give birth. It was my own risk assessment, and while risk remains very low after 42 weeks, I felt it was time to go in. Remember that you always have a choice of where to give birth: at home or at hospital, in a midwife-led unit or a birth centre…Go with whatever makes you feel more comfortable.
  • Bring your “birthing kit”: the one thing I wanted for my labour was a birthing ball, as I find it very useful for the first stages. It ensures you stay in an upright position, which helps baby find his way down the birth canal, and bouncing on it gave me something to focus on. Sitting on it seemed to take the edges of the contraction pains for a while, relieved pain in my lower back, and I felt freer in my movements. For other women, a TENS machine might do the trick, or a relaxing soundtrack and a back massage (don’t forget your massage oil). I also kept lavender essential oil with me because it calms me down, and some chamomile homeotherapy pellets which I took every couple of hours. You might prefer a water birth, in which case you might have to hire/buy a pool or find a hospital where this option is available.

Birthing kit bits
  • Find a comfortable position for the 2nd stage. One thing is for certain: lying down on your back is NOT and is NEVER the best position for pushing a baby out, whatever we have seen in movies! This position was actually introduced to make it easier for doctors to see what’s going on, but it is not a natural birthing position. Prefer a position where your body stays upright, such as squatting, standing up while holding onto something, kneeling forward…This helps your pelvis open and the pressure of the baby’s head help him/her to push forward.
GIVING BIRTH CHARTS
Courtesy of Medshop.co.nz

Look at this graph: it’s clear that staying upright is the best position for the baby to come out without straining the body too much. Lying on your back, on the opposite, will need more effort and might lead to more tearing. It’s completely fine moving around until your body naturally settles in one position. In my case, I asked for a mat to be placed on the floor and actually gave birth there, kneeling forward while gripping on the hospital bed.

  • Focus on your breathing! This is so important, I just can’t say it enough. Ideally, this is something you will practice throughout your pregnancy: there are many videos online that will demonstrate breathing techniques for labour, and there are extremely useful. Essentially, you should take long, deep belly breaths through your nose and exhale slowly through your mouth, letting the air run out of your lungs. As you move on to the 2nd stage, your breathing naturally changes; try to keep taking long deep breaths, and exhale in fast movements (as you do in intense exercise). Breathing completely changes your birth experience: it helps you remain calm, set the rhythm for your body and keep in control of its movements.
  • Make informed choices, and don’t be afraid to ask for a 2nd opinion. You might not be a medical expert, but you know what is happening in your body. How many times do we hear of women being told their babies are too big or too small, only for them to be born perfectly average? In this pregnancy, I was told I had low fluid and had to be induced immediately (which failed). I then did my bit of research, realised that many measures taken in pregnancy are only estimates, and requested a new scan. This showed fluid was above average, and baby was completely fine. Doctors always err on the side of safety, but this can cause a lot of unnecessary stress. Similarly, if you feel something is “wrong” with your pregnancy, never hesitate to contact your midwife or ask for a scan. Women have strong gut instincts, so learn to trust yourself.
  • One last piece of advice, which might be quite controversial. If you are standing upright, the baby’s weight will help him “come down” so that you shouldn’t really need to actively “push”. For my 2nd baby, I was so desperate for the pain to stop that I started pushing too early, which lead to minor tearing. This time, on the opposite, I kept focused on my breathing and trusted my body to do its job. This can be a bit frustrating because in-between contractions, you might feel as if the baby is moving back up, but this is completely normal. There is no need to rush: baby will come out eventually! In effect, the baby was “pushed out” without me having to make a conscious effort. End result: no tearing at all.

I hope sharing my own birth experience will be useful for some of you out there! Pregnancies are such individual journeys, but they are life-changing in so many ways. Please do share your own experiences and tips!