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Birth Companions

Birth Companions is a unique charity that supports pregnant women and new mothers experiencing disadvantage. I first became involved with Birth Companions in 2007 not long after I completed my Birthlight teacher training. I underwent a year of training to ensure that I fully understood their model of working and values. I started out supporting women from Holloway prison when they went into labour and now that Holloway is closed I visit HMP Bronzefield as part of small team delivering pregnancy and early parenting groups.

When most women get pregnant they know they will have the support of family and friends as they embark on what is for most us an exciting journey of becoming a mother. The women Birth Companions support are usually facing their pregnancies alone and in uncertain circumstances. This not only makes this a time that is lonely, and stressful, but can impact negatively on the heath of both mother and baby.

The women we work with face a wide range of issues: time spent in prison; mental health issues; uncertain housing or homelessness; mental health problems, experience of domestic violence, trafficking and substance misuse are just a few examples. The majority of them are dealing with several of these issues at the same time, many have experienced extreme trauma at some point in their lives. Most are facing poverty. What they all have in common is that they are going through pregnancy and early motherhood without the support and care they need.  

Unfortunately the women we work with often have negative experiences of services which means they don’t always come forward to access maternity care. For example many are not even registered with a GP because they don’t have anywhere to live, they may not speak English very well, or they are afraid to go to antenatal classes because they fear being judged. A lot of these women are completely unaware that they can make choices about how and where they give birth.

Birth Companions offers emotional and practical support in a range of different ways - we work with women individually and we also run groups and specialist antenatal classes that allow them to access information in a non-judgemental environment and also develop a network of support. We visit four prisons around the UK on a regular basis. We also provide birth support to women who would otherwise be alone during labour. A lot of the women we support have no means to get the necessities they need for their babies. We work with PramDepot an amazing project set up by one of our volunteers that provides high-quality second hand items to the women we support. We recognise that as a small charity we can’t reach every woman who needs our help so we also work to influence policy and practice at a national level and work closely with women who have used our services in the past to engage and educate policy makers and service providers about the issues they face.

All our work is underpinned by the same ethos; there is a strong focus on offering support that is woman-centred, enabling and trauma-informed.Women often tell us that they do not want to feel defined by the difficulties that they are facing and that they want to feel like a “normal” pregnant woman or new mum. When we meet a woman for the first time we don’t ask her to tell us anything about herself unless she wishes to. We focus instead on asking what she needs – often it’s the first time since she found out she was pregnant that anyone has asked her this, rather than telling her what is going to happen.

Many of my fellow prison visitors, like me, have a background in teaching pregnancy or postnatal yoga. In many ways the approach that we take to delivering these groups encompasses many of the principles I learned in my Birthlight training. Although the women we meet in prison are often dealing with a lot of anxiety and uncertainty about their situations, they also want to know about the birth process and need evidenced-based information to help them make decisions about what is best for them. We focus on offering them a non-judgemental space, understanding that there may be things they are not sharing with us about their lives or past experiences. We are careful not to make assumptions about a woman’s situation or how she hopes to deliver her baby.  

We try to begin every group by greeting everyone and welcoming them. Women in prison tend to be very guarded and trust can be a huge issue. We realise that by providing a safe space and modelling inclusive behaviour, we are enabling women to support each other and our weekly groups may be the only time they get to be with other pregnant women.

Even though we plan to deliver a topic each week when we visit, we have to let go of our expectations about how much we will manage to cover. The women we meet in prison don’t have access to information in the way that the rest of us take for granted – they can’t just go on the internet and look something up or ring their midwife if they have a question or feel concerned about something. We try as much as possible to give space for whatever questions or concerns women have. Many of the women we work with in pregnancy don’t know if they will get a place on a Mother and baby unit and so may have to return to prison without their babies after the birth, this is obviously a huge source of stress for them and it means that we have to ensure we deliver any information in way that is inclusive and acknowledges that they are still mothers even if they don’t have care of their babies.

We usually try to include some time for yoga in both our pregnancy and postnatal groups and the feedback we get from women is very positive about these sessions. The prison environment can be a challenging place to teach yoga – there are numerous interruptions and we are often in an unsuitable room without access to any mats or other equipment. The women don’t usually have suitable clothing and many find it hard to focus. However we can show women positions of labour and talk to them about ways they can support the natural process of birth. We can help them when they have pelvic pain or back ache by showing them gentle stretches - we often have to be quite inventive as women don’t usually have access to things like extra bed pillows or birth balls. One of the things we find to be very effective is simple breathing techniques. These can be introduced in a short amount of time and can give women something very real and practical to help them cope in the prison environment. It’s really wonderful to see women start to relax as a result of a few simple stretches and some deep breathing.

There isn’t much we can do to change the situation of the women we meet but we try to help them feel more positive about their situations, sometimes we can only listen and acknowledge their feelings. Sometimes it feels like we have offered them very little so it’s always lovely when we get feedback from women about the difference our support has made.

“When I arrived at the group I felt so welcome, reassured and, even more importantly, accepted. I was encouraged to speak, never asked about why I was in prison and felt comfortable enough to open up about my hopes, fears and expectations as a mother to be. For two hours it felt like we were a normal group of mums and I can honestly say you forget where you are.”

Anna Wise
Birthlight Perinatal Yoga teacher

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