For me, ‘birth’ is a blanket term used to describe the many different ways our babies come into the world. Vaginal birth, instrumental birth, caesarean birth – these are all achievements that should be celebrated wholeheartedly. It is incredibly difficult to summarise the many different things I want to share about birth, but here are 10 things that my career has taught me that I want all mums to know.
1. Birth looks different for everyone
If being a midwife has taught me anything it is that there is no right or wrong way to welcome a baby. Our bodies are incredibly unique, therefore the way we progress, move, sound and feel in labour is so individual. Equally, each baby is different and this too plays a role in the way we experience birth. Therefore while tempting, comparison is redundant.
2. It’s okay to be vocal
Making noise in labour is a natural, normal part of working with contractions. For many women, vocalising can offer wonderful release. Unlike what is often depicted in the movies (more on that next), it’s rare to hear a woman in labour let out a high-pitched scream. It is more common for women to make deep, guttural noises that are somewhat primal. If it feels good to make noise – go for it!
3. The movies lied
While wildly entertaining, the depiction of birth in Hollywood has got to be one of the most frightening misrepresentations of reality…ever!
We have all seen these scenes. It’s usually some version of “Oh my god… my water just broke!”… “We have to get you to a hospital!”. Things move quickly and the next scene is a red-faced, sweaty woman being rushed down a corridor.
While we as viewers can logically differentiate between what happens in the movies and what happens in the real world, depicting labouring women as screeching banshee’s growling for someone to “give me the drugs!” is disempowering to say the least. By consistently framing childbirth as a medical emergency, we are eroding any confidence wider society has in a woman’s ability to give birth and instead, choosing to hero medical professionals.
It would be remiss not to acknowledge that for some women, the events of birth will require medical intervention, some of which may even be emergent in nature. Fortunately, we are well placed in countries like Australia to handle complications calmly and confidently. However, for the vast majority of women, childbirth is a significant yet normal life event, one she is more than capable of and one that will progress gradually and begin gently. Very few first labours move quickly. In fact, the opposite is usually true, only around 1:12 people will break their waters before the onset of contractions, and even within this group, most people’s contractions will begin slowly, sometime within the next 24 hours. For the majority of Mum’s expecting their first baby, the first signs of labour are mild period-like cramps in the lower abdomen, which leads me to my next point…
4. The best place for early labour is at home
Early labour is the warm up. Most babies will give you warning that they are on the way however this stage can stop and start, sometimes over a number of days. This is normal.
You may experience period-like cramping, lower backache, tightening’s and lose your mucous plug. All of these are signs that labour is on the horizon, but you are not actually IN labour just yet. If you have had an uncomplicated pregnancy, it is perfectly safe to remain at home until your contractions are stronger and more regular.
5. Your environment impacts your oxytocin
One of the reasons that remaining at home for early labour is beneficial is because of a hormone called ‘oxytocin’. Oxytocin causes the uterus to contract, and in the case of vaginal birth, contractions are a MUST in order to dilate the cervix. Oxytocin is often called the ‘love’ hormone because it flows when you feel safe and relaxed. Remaining at home, in a private environment that is familiar to your nourishes your oxytocin. By contrast, arriving to a brightly lit hospital can cause your oxytocin to drop if you are still in early labour, halting contractions. Once in hospital, I strongly suggest keeping the room dimly lit and ensuring the door is shut to minimise interruptions. It is important to create a calm, cosy environment to invite oxytocin and ensure your contractions can do their wonderful work.
6. Education is everything
When it comes to labour and birth, I firmly believe that knowledge is power. I have had many conversations with people who feel that preparing will only place pressure on things to go a certain way and therefore, they would rather keep an open mind and ‘wing it’. While I agree that being open-minded and dynamic is important, I cannot stress the value of education enough in helping you feel calm, in control and safe during labour.
Antenatal classes and birth plans are not about ensuring birth turns out a certain way – virtually nothing can do that. Rather, education is the process of learning about your options and knowing that you have choices. Preparation gives you the necessary tools to make informed decisions about your body and your baby and advocate for yourself in the birth setting. Do it!
7. You can say no
Absolutely everything that is suggested in labour and birth is just that, a suggestion. Procedures such as internal checks, monitoring, having a drip put in, being administered medications – all of these things require your informed consent. That means you should be given the information and time to say YES or NO. The choice is yours, please never feel bad about asking for more time, or wanting more information before providing your consent.
8. Childbirth is safe
The female body is PHENOMENAL. When we think about contractions, often our minds go straight to the concept of pain. While the experience of labour is undoubtedly intense, contraction patterns are purposefully designed by our bodies to provide a work period and a rest period. This rest is your body telling you, ‘don’t worry, this is safe’. It is a time to exhale, close your eyes, relax the muscles in your face and hands – everything is okay. Remember, contractions are a force produced BY your body, so while they may be strong, they can never be stronger than you.
9. Things happen
Even the best laid plans take unexpected turns. This is in no way a reflection of you.
The need for increased intervention during birth does not indicate failure. Perhaps you went in planning to not use pain relief and decided that actually, you would like an epidural – this is okay. Perhaps you had hoped labour would start on its own, but for safety reasons, you decided to go ahead with an induction – this is okay. Maybe, after many hours for unknown reasons, your cervix did not dilate and you decided a caesarean birth was the best way forward. All of these things are okay.
There are many, many variables that contribute to a labour and birth experience. Some things are within our control, but many are not. These scenarios are when the skills of midwives and doctors really shine. We are there to support you and guide you safely through this experience, no matter what it looks like. With all of this in mind, it is also okay to feel disappointed. Do not let anyone tell you that all that matters is a healthy baby. Your thoughts and feelings are valid, always.
10. You can do this
You are more than capable of growing, birthing and healing from welcoming your baby. Take it from someone who has the immense privilege to support women through the birth process – you can do this.
Expert author: Beth Ryan
Beth Ryan is a registered midwife currently finishing a Masters degree in Public Health. You can find out more about her by following her on instagram here.