Passionate about all things pregnancy, birth & postnatal, Karen Shlegeris has worked in the maternity industry for over 20 years. As the founder of Noosa-based business, Birth & Baby Village, she has helped hundreds of women experience a more empowered pregnancy & birth. Here we speak to the birth educator, doula and yoga teacher about her positive pregnancy advice, holistic birth preparation insights and top tips for new mums.

Writer: Rebecca Walker, The Conscious Wordsmith

What motivated you to open Birth & Baby Village?

There are lots of mums, dads, babies and kids on the Sunshine Coast who want and need support for the huge job they’re doing. Pregnant women and mums with new babies don’t want to schlep all the way to the city for appointments when they’re tired or baby’s crying; they want to stay close to home in their own community.  And I was able to refer them to local support services in our area which made their lives so much easier.

You teach ‘Calmbirth’ courses to expecting mothers (and partners). What is Calmbirth and how can it positively impact the birthing experience?

Calmbirth is a trademarked Australian birth education course which runs over about 13 hours. Its foundation is its breathing techniques, and guided relaxation scripts which help shift the couples’ deeply held beliefs to ones of calm and confidence so that they look forward to the upcoming birth and the mother doesn’t tense up during labour. 

As well as teaching couples how the body works in conjunction with hormones during labour, they learn how to communicate with their caregivers, how to make decisions and understand their rights in the maternity care system. They practice skills including relaxation, visualisation, positions and movement, touch and massage, acupressure and more, as well as setting up a calm birthing space and staying calm whatever comes their way. It’s taught by midwives and other birth professionals who have years of experience with pregnancy and birth. 

You also teach ‘Active Birth’ classes. What is active birth and how is it different to traditional birth practices?

Active Birth is nothing new; it was developed in the 1980s in response to women being told to lie in a hospital bed, stay still and quiet, receiving ‘active management’ of their labours with drugs and interventions.

Down through the ages women have birthed in their comfortable and familiar home environments where they’ve been free to move and make noise, but now that women go to hospital which is an unfamiliar environment, they have to be taught to be instinctive, which can be a challenge.

I encourage all my clients to do Calmbirth, or if they’ve done it before, to complete a refresher Calmbirth class, because the relaxation scripts access the subconscious mind where all our beliefs are held and that’s what makes the biggest difference to birthing women and couples. 

However, if they want a shorter class, or something to complement their hospital classes, an Active Birth class gives couples time-out to focus on why birth works more smoothly when the woman uses upright, open positions and movement during labour to give the baby room to move through the pelvis. I teach partners the skills they need to support the mother, plus emphasise the importance of relaxation and a feeling of safety and privacy.  

What are some of the potential health benefits of practising prenatal yoga during pregnancy?

Creating a tribe of other pregnant women who really understand the challenges you’re facing during pregnancy, and who become your support group after the baby’s born.  Connection is so important.  I’m still friends with women I met at pregnancy yoga over 27 years ago.

Learning the importance of slowing down, tuning out of being constantly busy, taking time for yourself and your baby, and realising that it’s a time to soften rather than be hard and tight. 

Practicing breathing and relaxation helps pregnant woman feel more calm during pregnancy; It keep things in perspective and helps her not be spooked by social media stories or things her caregivers say to her. By being more chilled, she’s teaching her baby to be calm. And of course she develops skills to use for labour and birth, which works so much better when the woman relaxes instead of tensing up against contractions and pushing. 

You offer new baby prep workshops for mums-to-be. What are some helpful ways expecting momma’s can best prepare themselves for impending motherhood?

I teach a breastfeeding and new baby class to couples during pregnancy, because parenting effects them both in many ways. Parents love learning about breastfeeding…yes, the partners love it too…particularly the science of the process. They often remember things that the mums forget. We explore why babies cry, how and why babies sleep differently from adults and how to settle them, and to have realistic expectations about this challenging stage of life. 

When they understand that during the first three months, which we call the 4th trimester, a baby is completely dependent on the parent for everything including a sense of safety as it adapts to life outside the womb, their perspective changes and they become more receptive toward their baby’s needs.    

They can start sorting out their life so they have time and space to give almost constant care and attention to their baby. I also encourage parents to release anything that’s not essential, during the 4th trimester.

Not only is the baby new, but the couple are new parents to a new baby. They need time and care to recover from the pregnancy and birth, and need more energy to recover if they’ve had challenges with the birth or with breastfeeding. They’ll be learning new skills while tired, so will need an excess of patience and kindness to each other. 

After birth, the mother will be filled with nurturing hormones which literally change her brain, and we now know the partner’s brain changes too, which can be a challenge to each of them. Change can be hard, or fun, depending on your perspective. Expecting change and expecting that it will be hard at times helps to normalise challenges when they arise. 

Having other mothers to compare and ‘normalise’ will make it much more bearable, and having reliable sources of support such as a local Lactation Consultant, a good GP, a trusted paediatrician and Child Health consultant are essential before baby’s born, if they’re too tired to think straight when they have an issue.  

You also offer postnatal services such as mum & bub yoga classes, ‘mums connect’ sessions and ‘fit mums’ stroll and stretch gatherings. Why do you think its important for new mothers to find a supportive tribe?

It’s important and essential for every mother with a new baby to have friends to unload with, to compare and discuss (often at length) and to call or message when she’s having a rough time. Being heard and understood lightens the load. When women hear other stories it normalises what they’re going through, and helps them gauge what’s normal and what’s not. Emotions run strong and deep at this intense time and friends can mean everything to a new mother.

Do you have any favourite pregnancy & birth books that you recommend?

My current faves include: ‘The Positive Birth Book’ by Milli Hill (it’s British but very well written and relevant). Of course ‘Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth’, a classic by Ina May Gaskin,

‘Men, Love and Birth’ by Mark Harris is a great one for dads. ‘Down to Earth Birth Book’ by Sunshine Coast birthworker Jenny Blyth. ‘Gentle Birth Gentle Mothering’ by Sarah Buckley if you like a bit more technical information about the amazing birth hormones.

I’ve also written an e-book Guide, ‘Having a Great Birth on the Sunshine Coast’ and will be releasing my book about positive birth stories in 2022.  

Totally avoid the ‘What to Expect’ books!

What advice do you give to new mothers who are nervous about birth and the transition into motherhood?

If you’re nervous about birth, do a Calmbirth course with your partner. It will make all the difference and is worth the investment. Go to pregnancy yoga every week and soak up the positive energy you’ll find there. Choose good sources of information including the books I’ve named along with podcasts like ‘Calmbirth’, ‘Birthful’, ‘Informed Pregnancy’, ‘Dr Sarah Buckley’, ‘Australian Birth Stories’, websites like spinningbabies.com, pregnancybirthbaby.org.au, bellybelly.com.au, mamanatural.com, raisingchildren.net.au, positivebirthmovement.org and good social media pages. Take care with social media pages where women are sharing incorrect information and bad birth stories. 

For the transition to mothering, a gentle start will make it much easier so prepare for a quiet and well-supported 4th trimester. By three months you’ll be confident enough to venture out. Most women exhaust themselves way too early and suffer for it, physically and emotionally. It’s unrealistic to expect that you’ll be able to work during this time, so plan in advance. Use all your new mothering energy to learn about your baby, breastfeed, rest and recover. Life will wait for you. 

Gather a tribe of other women and birthing couples around you, plus extra support to help with chores, meals etc. Focus some of your attention during pregnancy on what happens after the birth: read a couple of books, find some great social media pages to follow, and have a date with your partner to prepare for life after birth including who’s going to do the shopping and housework and meals, how much time they will have off work (the longer the better), who will help with other children etc.

If breastfeeding works everything will be easier, so do a class during pregnancy and know who to call immediately if you’re having trouble. Don’t wait!  

You have been working as a birth educator, doula and yoga teacher for over 20 years. How has the pregnancy/birth/postnatal sphere changed during that time?

The first 15 years of my career were spent in Townsville, North Queensland, where the maternity care system was very conservative and medically-focussed. As the only independent childbirth educator and pregnancy yoga teacher in town, I introduced the concept of conscious birthing to many women and couples who began to take responsibility for their births by asking questions, getting up off their backs to birth actively, and change caregivers if they didn’t get the feeling their wishes would be respected. 

On the Sunshine Coast there are increasing numbers of women who want a positive birth and who work hard during pregnancy to educate and inform themselves. By choosing their caregivers and place of birth carefully, and considering homebirth and private midwifery care as safe options, they are achieving really positive birth experiences.  

Midwifery group care at the Sunshine Coast University Hospital (SCUH), has improved care for a small group of women who are allocated their own known midwife and her team through pregnancy, birth and in the early postnatal period. This is known as continuity of care and is the best type of care available. When women know their midwife they usually have a more enjoyable pregnancy and are more relaxed during labour, so they have better births.

The addition of Birth Centre care at SCUH has allowed an even smaller number of women to achieve a healthy, natural birth, supported by caring midwives. If SCUH would increase the number of midwives offering these services many more women would have better births, interventions would be increased and I’m sure outcomes would be improved for mothers and babies. And it would save money, because a vaginal birth costs less than an epidural or a caesarean birth.  

The number of private midwives as well as doulas on the coast has been growing over the past few years, offering more choice to women and couples. Women can give birth at home or have continuous support from their known midwife in hospital, and doulas are accepted and often welcomed in both settings, making a big difference to the experience of birth.

I think the biggest change is that couples are choosing to attend independent birth education classes like the course that I teach, Calmbirth. These courses teach much more than hospital classes have capacity to teach, so couples leave with shifted, realistic perspectives of birth and the maternity care system and have skills to manage whatever comes their way. I love watching the partners become way more confident and involved in pregnancy and birth these days, just as they’re so much more hands-on after the baby arrives.    

What is your favourite thing about working with pregnant women and new mothers?

I adore pregnant bellies, the vulnerability and openness of pregnant women, and their desire to get everything right.

After their babies are born I see a newborn confidence in them, plus a relief that the birth is over. The love for their babies is so strong and passionate. When they’ve had a fabulous birth they’re like superwomen.  

If you’d like to get in touch with Karen or utilise any of her services, visit her website https://birthandbabyvillage.com.au/