In 1994 I attended a week-long retreat for health care professionals interested in mindfulness meditation, led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I had heard about Jon’s pioneering work at UMass Medical Center teaching mindfulness meditation to patients suffering from a wide range of physical and mental health challenges; as a practicing midwife for more than 20 years, and a meditation practitioner since the early 1980s, I was deeply curious about how Jon’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course might apply to my work as a midwife and benefit the families I served.
Sitting on the floor practicing meditation and learning along with 125 other health care providers that week, I developed a deep appreciation for how the MBSR course helped people access inner resources of strength, resilience, and well-being. And in one flashing moment, I knew what I needed—or, more accurately, felt compelled—to do: bring this way of teaching mindful awareness to expectant couples. In 1998, after teaching the MBSR course for several years, I began morphing it into the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting (MBCP) program, which is currently offered at the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) Medical Center.
We now know that mindfulness can help couples through the often stressful changes that are a normal part of pregnancy, prepare them for the profoundly transforming experience of childbirth, and help them navigate the joys and challenges of parenthood with greater joy, compassion, equanimity, and self-acceptance.
While the eight-week MBCP course includes much of what is taught in a traditional childbirth class—such as the physiology of labor, positions for birthing, and breastfeeding—the foundation of the class is mindfulness practice. Expectant parents who sign up for the course commit to a daily formal meditation practice using CDs. The program includes yoga, ways to use the mind to work with stress and pain in labor, mindfulness in daily life,a daylong retreat, and a reunion after all the babies have been born. When the course is over, participants often stay connected, forming a community of parents committed to the ongoing work of raising their children with wisdom, kindness, connectedness, and care.
Several thousand expectant families have now learned mindfulness skills in this program, and the results have far exceeded anticipation. Parents report that the practice of being in the present moment was vital for their birth experience however it unfolded and offered a way to fully experience the joys as well as work with the sometimes intense challenges that can come with caring for a newborn. For many, mindfulness practice became a cornerstone of their parenting. As one new parent said, “The practice helped me learn how to manage not only the contractions of labor—but the contractions of life!”
We are now finding initial empirical evidence to back this up: Results from an uncontrolled pilot study conducted by myself and Larissa Duncan, PhD, an assistant professor of family and community medicine at UCSF, published in a recent special issue of the Journal of Child and Family Studies, suggests that pregnant women who take the MBCP course experience reductions in pregnancy-related anxiety and depression, and increases in mindfulness and positive emotions during pregnancy. They also report using mindfulness skills for coping with the stressful aspects of the pregnancy, childbirth, and early parenting.
Before teaching mindfulness skills to expectant parents, I had worked for decades in childbirth preparation. Introducing mindfulness skills has greatly expanded my own view of what is possible to teach and learn in preparation for childbirth. The wonderfully open and receptive time of pregnancy provides a rich opportunity to cultivate skills for emotional regulation, inner resilience, increased happiness and stress reduction—skills that are vital to the lifelong adventure of parenting, family-making, and indeed, life itself.
This piece originally appeared on Greater Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life.