Mother and Baby

Birthing balls: what are they and how do I use one?

Section: Labour & Birth

You’ve probably heard a lot about birthing balls, but if you’re wondering what all the hype is about (and whether that yoga ball in the loft will do) we’ve made this go-to guide.

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Answering the most common birth ball questions is One Born Every Minute midwife, Hana Pauls from Liverpool Women’s Hospital, who explains just why this inflatable ball really is your best friend during labour.

Firstly, what is a birthing ball?

Simply put, a birthing ball is an exercise ball, though affectionally referred to as a 'birthing ball' when used in labour. 

What are the benefits of using a birthing ball?

Not only can a birth ball help reduce back pain, it is said to ease labour pains and reduce the pain of contractions. It can also help you move your baby into the right position for an easier birth.

Are birthing balls the same as exercise/yoga balls?

Effectively, yes! Sometimes cheaper exercise balls will deflate faster than specialist birthing balls, so make sure it’s fully inflated before birth. Also, some birthing balls will have a non-slip finish which is important. One thing to check is the size of the ball, as some yoga balls are much smaller than you think when you inflate them – ideally, your birth ball should be 65cm (26in) or 75cm (30in) when inflated.

What size birthing ball do I need?

Knowing what size to buy can be difficult, yet this is the one thing you need to get right. Hana explains “you want to be able to sit with your feet comfortably flat on the ground. If you’re having to tip toe, it’s too big. Likewise, if you feel too close to the ground and your knees are positioned higher than your tummy, it’s too low.

“Ensure the ball can take your weight. Instructions on the box can tell you the maximum weight.”

Ideally, your knees should be about 4 inches lower than your hips when you sit on it, so as a rough guide if you’re shorter than 5ft 8, it’s best to get a 65cm ball. If you’re taller than this, opt for a 75cm ball.

What are the best birth ball exercises to try during labour?  

Pregnant woman resting on birthing ball

Midwife Hana Pauls explains ‘birthing balls are wonderful at really opening up the pelvis. Ensure you have someone standing behind you to steady you, then sit on the ball, opening your legs wide with your toes pointing outward, so your feet are at what we call a 10 to 2 position.

“From here, keeping your upper body still, imagine that you are sitting inside a barrel and have a cloth tied around your hips. Without using your hands, you’re going to circle your hips to clean the inside of the barrel. This type of circling the hips is especially helpful in getting your baby into a favourable position and for bringing the head down. This helps put an even pressure on the neck of the womb to open it up. Carry on circling on the ball for 20 minutes – ten minutes one way, then change direction.

“In labour, you can also lean forward on the ball whilst kneeling for support. This allows you to rock back and forth with ease.”

Can a birthing ball induce labour?

Midwife Hana explains, “You can use a birthing ball to prepare for labour, or during labour. However, it doesn’t induce labour per se! In the early stages of labour, the birthing ball can bring on surges if a woman sits on the ball and does rotations or the circle exercise mentioned above.”

How common are birthing balls in labour? 

There’s a reason why you’ll have heard a lot about them whilst getting your birth plan ready! According to Hana, “birthing balls are very common in labour. In fact, every single one of our birthing rooms are furnished with at least one if not two birthing balls. We’re crazy about birthing balls – they are such a wonderful tool and labour aid. I’d really recommend you make sure one features in your labour; if you’re planning a hospital birth, make enquiries to check that they have one, and buy one if you plan on a home birth.”

Can I use a birthing ball to help break my waters?

Girl hugging pregnant mumThis is a complicated answer, as nobody really knows how waters break. Midwife Hana explains, “I have known many women to state with great conviction that the birthing ball helped to break their waters! In truth, nobody really knows why a woman’s waters break, so there’s no harm in trying to use a birth ball. Saying that, the longer the waters are in place the more cushioning you and baby have when the surges begin.”

Should I practice on my birthing ball before labour?

Yes! It’s important to get used to sitting on the ball, so get it inflated and practice the exercises mentioned above. When trying the ball for the first time, place it on a carpet rather than a smooth floor, as this will reduce the movement. Also, it’s a good idea to have someone stood behind you to help you get balanced. Remember, barefoot is best, but if not, make sure you have non-slip shoes or socks on.

Where can I get a birth ball pump?

Depending on where you buy your ball, a lot of them will come with a pump, however, if not, a foot or bike tire bump should help. 

Where can I buy a birthing ball? 

Birth balls are pretty easy to get hold of - you'll find plenty of them online. We've picked some of our favourites for you to choose from here

You can watch Hana and her fellow midwives on One Born Every Minute, Tuesdays on Channel 4 at 9pm


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