It’s started! You’ve been gearing up for this moment for the last nine months, the moment when you feel the first pangs of labour. You’ve got your birth plan set out, your hospital bags packed and you’re about to meet your new baby. So why are you panicking?
Don’t worry, you’re not alone and nothing will prepare you fully for how you feel in the onset of labour. It’s normal to be nervous. But knowing what to expect will take away some of the fear of the unknown and give you a greater feeling of being in control.
If you’re opting to give birth as naturally as possible then getting yourself prepared will help you feel empowered to do things your way.
So, in the words of the famous book and film, here’s what to expect when you’re expecting… just three steps to go until you get from bump to baby.
The first stage can be notoriously slow, especially if it’s your first child. We’ve all seen the movies when the woman feels a sudden pain, her waters break and she and her husband go charging to hospital, only to emerge what seems like minutes later with their newborn.
But life isn’t quite like that and no labour is text book. You might feel contractions straight away or your labour may start with backache or that crampy heavy feeling you get just before a period. Other signs to look out for include a show, when the mucus plug sealing the cervix comes away, or your waters breaking, although for most women, this happens later on in labour.
It all means your body is getting ready for the first stage of labour, when the muscles of your uterus contract to open up the cervix so your baby can make his or her way out. When you’re about 3cm dilated you’re said to be in established labour and, fully open, the cervix will measure around 10cm across.
Lots of women feel most relaxed at home during this early stage. Try a bath or shower, the warm water can relieve some of the pain. If you have a TENS machine, early labour’s a good time to use it. And, try some gentle exercise.
There’s lots of research to show that keeping active in labour helps relieve some of the pain and speeds things up - as the experts at the Royal College of Midwives say: “Gravity is the greatest aid in giving birth”.
Midwives tell women in their care to be mobile and to try different positions in labour and birth. Gone are the days when it was thought women should lie down to have their babies.
Dr Maggie Blott, a consultant in Obstetrics and Maternal Medicine at University College London Hospital, says: “We very much encourage women with low-risk pregnancies to move around, use a ball, get in and out of the birthing pool… modern practice does not recommend lying down in the first stages of labour.”
As well as staying active, now’s the time to put those nesting instincts into practice. After all, you’re bound to feel calmer if your environment is more relaxed. So whether at home, at a birth centre or in hospital, make sure you’ve got everything you want, whether that means surrounding yourself with comfy pillows, putting on a CD of your favourite music or dimming the lights.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re as comfortable as possible. You’ve probably carefully packed your baby’s first clothes, but what about you? Have you thought about what you want to wear for the birth itself? It may be your favourite t-shirt, your old man’s shirt, or maybe you want to treat yourself to something specially designed for the purpose.
Mum-of-two LindseyBenson founded The Birthing Shirt Company because she couldn’t find anything comfy to give birth in.
“I was at my most comfortable and relaxed in a t-shirt and leggings,” she says. “But leggings wouldn’t work for the baby’s delivery and a regular t-shirt wasn’t long enough to cover my modesty. Obviously, during labour the most important thing is the health of mother and baby, and there is little room for vanity, but I realised through my own experiences it is natural to worry about exposing oneself to others and I wanted a birthing shirt that would give me confidence and a feeling of calm through this serious yet wonderful event.”
So Lindsey came up with shirts made using super-soft and eco-friendly bamboo, designed to stretch and flex with mums-to-be as they get into whatever position they feel most comfortable in.
“Using upright positions and movement in labour helps your baby into a better position to move down into the pelvis and birth canal and helps to ease the discomfort,” says Lindsey. “Our bamboo birthing shirt has a number of special features which makes them ideal for this purpose. Due to the loose fit and extended length, you will feel less exposed and therefore more relaxed in whichever birthing position you are in.”
Contractions become more intense during the second stage of labour. Here’s when you feel the urge to push. When your baby’s head appears, and stays, at the entrance to the vagina, it is said to have crowned. For most women, that’s the most difficult part over. Usually a few more contractions are all that are needed before the head is fully out. The shoulders and body then turn sideways and, with more pushes and guidance from your midwife, you baby is ready for the outside world.
The final stage is one you may not even notice as you’ll be so absorbed with your new baby, enjoying some skin-to-skin contact or maybe trying your first feed. This is where the placenta is delivered. There are two options for mums and you should discuss with your midwife as part of your birthing plan which one you would prefer.
You may be offered an injection to speed up this process and help to stop bleeding but this can cause nausea, headaches and raised blood pressure. Or, you can opt to deliver the afterbirth naturally. Sitting upright while breastfeeding your baby can help nature take its course.
Just remember, it’s your pregnancy, your labour and your baby. So, unless there’s a medical reason why you can’t, you’re entitled to do things your way.