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What to Wear During Your Birth

One question that gets asked in social media messages and in doula meetings is the best thing for a woman to wear for labor and birth. It may not seem an important choice at first thought but it can sometimes play an important role in your birth! Your choice of clothing can even facilitate a better birth experience both physiologically and mentally.

We are human persons, body and soul. What we wear and how we choose to dress in all settings conveys a message - both to ourselves and the people around us. The clothes we choose every single day speak something about what we believe, who we are, what we are doing that day, and the environment we are in. This is also true during our birth! As you partake in this beautiful bodily offering birthing this new image of God into the world it's appropriate to consider how you will clothe that body during such profound and holy moments.

Why not the hospital gown?

First thing to note is that if you are in a hospital setting, you do NOT have to wear a hospital "gown" unless you truly want to. There are actually many good reasons to decide not to.

A hospital gown is deeply associated with illness and disease. It sends the message that a woman is a patient and that there is a sickness or pathology inherent to pregnancy and birth. Both those messages are very problematic. Wearing a standard-issue hospital gown also detracts from a woman's personality (and therefore a personalized approach). It can become a uniform of sorts and instead of feeling like your unique self, it's easier to feel like and to be treated as just another patient in a long line of other patients.

Hospital gowns are also notoriously more uncomfortable than wearing your own clothing. They're often stiff, cold, difficult to maneuver, and known for being difficult to protect modesty. Legs are completely bare which can make a woman feel more exposed, cold, or self-conscious. The gown can make an already vulnerable time feel even more vulnerable and make her feel less safe. Even just the fact that they are almost always shapeless and ugly sends the wrong message about labor and birth! Birth should instead be considered one of the most profoundly beautiful and significant and powerful moments in a woman's life. If birth is one of the most personal and beautiful moments in a woman's life, shouldn't what she wear (or doesn't wear) reflect that?

A hospital gown is also associated with an inappropriate hierarchy and can psychologically interfere with our own understanding of our autonomy with decision making and authority as mothers. It makes it harder to confidently advocate for and stick to our birth plans when we feel in a position of passivity and inferiority. It's much easier in a factory-style hospital gown to feel weaker, as though we are not the maternal authority or that we don't know best for ourselves and our babies, and that we have to subjugate our decisions to an "expert". Wearing the hospital gown deeply affects our emotions and mindset about our health, our ability to birth, our mood, and even our determination in the labor process.

From a physiological standpoint, all these things can then interfere with the actual labor and birth process. Your emotional and mental state is intimately connected with oxytocin release and is critical to mitigating trauma. Inhibiting that natural oxytocin release necessary for physiological birth can then interfere with labor. Wearing your own clothes feels safer and more familiar. It feels more personal, comfortable, and smells like home rather than like bleach or hospital cleaners. It belongs to you, rather than being shared with hundreds of other strangers, who are in the hospital for all sorts of reasons. Those feelings of safety and comfort facilitate a more continuous and increased oxytocin release for the mother which then facilitates a smoother and simpler labor and birth.

One final important benefit is that declining a gown and wearing your own clothes signals to yourself and to the people around you that you are invested and have made confident decisions about your birth. It is a strong reminder that you are going to be intentional about your birth, that you aren't going to surrender your decisions and power to the standard protocol and factory-model of care. Just like walking in with a doula or birth plan, wearing your own clothes tells the staff that you want something different and that you intend to be treated with individualized and respectful care.

So then, what DO you wear for labor and birth?

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Especially in early labor, consider something that makes your feel good about yourself, that makes you feel attractive and even beautiful. Doing so helps you feel confident and facilitates oxytocin release. Consider even treating yourself to something special to wear during labor and/or postpartum. (See here for some ideas!)

  • As things progress into more intense labor keep it comfortable! Comfort is key here. Soft fabrics that aren't too constricting and that allow you to move freely are best.

  • If you keep it on during pushing, easy opening or removal is important. Once baby is out and their cord may still be attached, you don't want to mess with something too tight, fussy straps, or getting something over your head. You'll want your baby to be able to be directly on your skin. This is especially true if you also have medication lines or any monitoring wires to contend with.

  • When birth is imminent you will obviously need to remove any underwear or pants. So keep that in mind when choosing.

  • If you plan to use water for labor or birth but still want something on, make sure it can easily dry or have other options available to switch out if necessary.

  • Choose something that you don't mind getting messy or that can easily be washed.

Here are a few ideas of what many women choose to labor in:

  • A camisole or t-shirt and loose fitting pajama pants

  • Bra/camisole and a stretchy jersey/maxi skirt

  • Bathrobe

  • Nursing gown

  • Swim top (especially if using water)

  • Nightgown

  • Nothing! Don't worry, a lot of women end up removing all clothing as things get close to birth and when they feel completely free, safe, and uninhibited. Many women get very hot during transition or the feeling of clothing gets irritating. When/if the birth team sees this happening we actually consider it a great sign that baby is coming soon! It's not immodest and doesn't need to be embarrassing. Anyone who is around birth a lot is used to it and the virtue of modesty is directly connected to the situation and circumstances. Birth is certainly a time where less or no clothing is appropriate.

  • Consider also incorporating worn sacramentals into your birth such as a scapular, blessed medals (the St. Benedict medal is traditionally used for a safe birth), a crucifix, or an Agnus Dei (also used for safe birth). Sacramentals are a beautiful way to invite God's grace and supernatural aid into your labor and birth.

It's good (and can be fun!) to plan ahead with what you will wear for labor and birth. Of course, know that things may change in the midst of birth - you may want nothing to do with that outfit you chose or you may end up with a faster than expected birth where you didn't even remember or have time to get it on! But thinking about what you would like to wear and having that on hand and ready is best done beforehand as you prepare for your beautiful and holy birth.


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