There tends to be a lot of nerves and fear surrounding childbirth and a lot of that is due to the unknown aspect of it. When it’s your first child you’ve obviously never experienced childbirth so you just really have no idea what to expect and that is unnerving. I’m a bit of a planner (ahem understatement) and so I completely understand the desire to want all the details up front. And when you couple that with other women insisting upon telling you their horror story (seriously people…quit doing that), it can make it even more nerve wracking as your due date approaches! Well I’m here to give you the nitty gritty of what to expect from that first birth. But hopefully in a way that makes you feel more knowledgeable and empowered rather than nervous or fearful.
Now full disclosure, I can’t tell you exactly what to expect from your birth because birth is unpredictable in many ways and I don’t know how yours will go. But lucky for you, I experienced a large variety of birth possibilities during my own birth experience so I can give you some insight on a whole lot. So are you ready for some real life? Maybe a little bit too much information?
There will be three parts to this little series, so keep an eye out for part two!
Don’t Expect to Be Early.
I say this with love because I know you’re sitting there, feeling huge and so unbelievably pregnant with everyone telling you there’s no way you’ll make it to your due date. Ignore them. People just forget how big pregnant women get and tell them to expect their babies early when in reality the average delivery date for a first time mom is 41 weeks 1 day. That’s 8 days late! I was convinced I was going to be early. Everyone said it when they looked at my basketball belly, heck even my doctor seemed to think I wouldn’t make it all the way to 40 weeks. All that did was make me super antsy waiting around for labor to start because I just knew it would be any minute.
I did end up being early…but only by 2 days and only because they had to jumpstart my labor due to some unexpected heavier than normal bleeding. This ended up being nothing and was most likely a result of my membrane sweep but I was ok with using it as an excuse to get that baby boy on his way. But who knows how long I would have gone if we hadn’t decided to move things along. My advice? Ignore everyone and try to relax. Then you’ll be pleasantly surprised if you’re a few days early and not as disappointed if you’re a few (or more) days late.
This is not technically part of the labor/birth experience. However, it is something many women end up having done or are at least offered at the end of pregnancy and from what I see in some pregnancy and mom groups I’m in, there is a lot of mystery and some fear surrounding it. A membrane sweep is where your provider uses their fingers in a sweeping circular motion to loosen/separate your amniotic membranes from your uterus. Note: it is NOT the same as having your water broken. A lot of people worry that it will be painful- here’s my take. It feels similar to a cervical check, just a slightly more aggressive cervical check. I never found cervical checks painful and did not find the membrane sweep painful- perhaps uncomfortable but not pain.
However, every woman is different, and your cervix can be in different spots (higher, farther back, etc.) and so I know some people do find cervical checks painful or uncomfortable. If you find that cervical checks are painful then the membrane sweep will probably be a bit more painful than that but not much. Here’s the thing though, it lasts maybe 30 seconds. So it’s very quick and if you’re looking to get labor going it’s a great drug-free option that has about a 50% success rate of kickstarting your labor.
A couple of things to keep in mind. You have to be at least one cm dilated for your provider to be able to give this a try and there is a chance it could lead to your waters breaking prematurely so that is something to consider. It can also cause some cramping and bleeding, which while typically not a concern can certainly cause anxiety. It didn’t work for me, I didn’t go into labor until 8 days after mine. But I do know people who went into labor just hours after having it done!
I’m going to be honest here and tell you I was not a fan of this part at all, I thought it was really gross. Sure it meant things were finally getting going (yay!!) but it was not the most pleasant of experiences. First of all, there is a LOT of fluid. A LOT. I thought my water broke at home when I experienced a huge gush when getting up from bed. And then they still ended up breaking my water at the hospital so there was even more fluid. And guess what…once it breaks, it just keeps leaking. They don’t show that in movies…there’s a big dramatic gush and then they’re off to the hospital. They leave out the part where you’re kind of waddling around because everything’s dripping and wet.
I remember telling my nurse fluid was still coming out after I felt like it should have been done and she very casually was like “Oh yeah, that will keep happening for a while.” So once your water breaks you just kind of leak for the rest of birth, something I wasn’t prepared for. Unlike the movies, most people’s water doesn’t burst in a giant gush at the supermarket. In fact, only about 10% of people have their water break before contractions start so odds are in your favor that you will know you’re in labor already when your water breaks so you probably won’t be grocery shopping or perusing the aisles of Target when it does.
If you end up needing your water broken for you either as a way to induce labor, or during your labor and you’re worried about it being uncomfortable or painful, do not worry about that one bit. I know that crochet hook looking thing they use to break it looks scary but I could barely even tell it was happening! To me it was even easier than a cervical check.
Arriving at the Hospital
At some point, if you’re having a hospital birth, you will have to make the decision to go to the hospital. Typically doctors have guidelines for how to decide this if you go into labor spontaneously, or you may end up there due to a scheduled induction. A lot of doctors operate on the 5-1-1 rule which is contractions every five minutes, lasting one minute, for one hour. But there are usually exceptions to this rule such as your water breaking or individual health needs.
When you get to the hospital your first stop will be triage. This is where a provider, most likely a nurse, will check you to confirm whether or not you’re actually in labor and if so how far along you are. This may feel frustrating if you’ve been in labor for a while already but unless you come into the hospital pushing, they’re going to want to check you and confirm progress before admitting you. A lot of moms come in thinking they’re farther along than they are and most hospitals won’t admit you if you’re still in pretty early labor. They often want you to be at least a few (about 4) centimeters dilated with consistent contractions.
Obviously there are exceptions, particularly if your water has broken or if you’re being induced or having any other kind of complication. If you do get to the hospital and they determine you’re still too early on to stay, they’ll typically send you home and give you guidelines as to when to return. DO NOT feel embarrassed or too disappointed if this happens. It happens all the time and better to get checked a bit too early than to wait too long and have your baby in the car, right? Sometimes if you’re definitely in labor but not quite where they’d like you to be to admit you, they may keep you in triage for an hour or so to monitor you and see if you make progress before admitting you officially.
Being admitted involves paperwork and a lot of questions from the nurses. If you are actually in labor when this is happening, answering questions is the last thing you’ll want to do. I would encourage you to be sure your partner knows as much of your medical and personal information as possible so they can answer questions or fill out paperwork for you.
Once you’re finally admitted, what happens next will depend somewhat on your specific hospital as well as your birth preferences. For many hospitals the standard procedures, not accounting for a birthing mom’s personal preferences, would be to get you set up in a labor and delivery room, hook you up to the monitors and start an IV or at least place the IV with a hep-lock. This means, you’ll get into your hospital gown and they’ll put the two monitors on your belly- one monitors your contractions and one monitors the baby’s heart rate.
The nurse will also place an IV. Sometimes they may start you on fluids right away, like if you’re wanting an epidural or are needing pitocin. Other times they may simply place the IV and lock it off so it isn’t attached to anything but is there in the event that it’s needed. My recommendation is to ask your nurse if they can place the IV in your forearm- this tends to be a more comfortable spot and less in your way during labor then in the top of your hand or in the crook of your arm.
Part two will cover everything leading up to birth, check back soon for that!