What labor is really like

A little preparation will help you feel positive, knowledgeable and confident about delivering your baby.
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During pregnancy, while you're looking forward to meeting your baby, it's easy to feel slightly overwhelmed about the prospect of giving birth. After all, it's a completely new experience. However, a little preparation will leave you feeling positive, knowledgeable and confident about delivering your baby.

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Everyone is different

You’d think that the phrase "You’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all," would be a phrase often used by midwives and OB-GYNs, but that’s not the case. “Each birth is different, just as each mother and baby is,” says Jane Munro, a midwife with the UK Royal College of Midwives. “Most elements of the birth process are the choice of the mother."

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Warning contractions

From around the mid-term of the pregnancy and prior to going in to labor, many expectant mothers experience Braxton-Hicks contractions. These act like rehearsal contractions, and though they may become more rhythmic and more uncomfortable as the actual labor approaches, they’re not the type of painful, stronger and regular contractions that indicate the onset of labor.

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It’s show time

“Some women report a noticeable back pain occurring as they go in to labor,” says Munro. This may result from the release of the hormone relaxin that the body creates in order to loosen muscles. For others, the first indication that their baby is on its way can be what’s called the "show.” As the body prepares for birth, this "show" appears as a discharge of mucus from the vagina. There may be some blood in this from the blood vessels in the cervix, not from the baby.

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Labor and the lavatory

A noticeable shift in your bowel movements can be a sure sign that labor is due to start, especially as the body releases prostaglandins, hormones that help the uterus to contract but have the side-effect of possibly triggering diarrhea. First-time mothers may also experience pain or pressure around the pelvis as the baby moves into position – the baby’s head pressing on the bladder may make trips to the bathroom more frequent.

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Helping hand

In some circumstances – including concerns about the health of the mother or the baby or the slow pace of labor – the midwife may offer to induce your baby. This can involve a "sweep" of the cervix designed to stimulate the release of hormones that can bring on labor. The midwife will perform this with her finger to try to separate the membranes from the cervix. Other options used include a pessary gel and even an injection of synthetic hormones.

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Strange contractions

“Contractions grow more frequent and intense as labor progresses,” says Munro, explaining how the actual labor contractions differ from the Braxton Hicks ones. They can last up to a minute at a time and don’t go away if you change position. As the real contractions take hold the membrane of water protecting the womb will break – releasing a leak of fluid.

“The pain of childbirth will be different for each woman,” says Munro. “It’s not easy to compare ... some liken it to really strong versions of period pains.”

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Unfamiliar faces

Depending on the type of birth you’re having, the experience will vary greatly. Hospital births are the most common. Aside from the obvious environmental differences to home births, new moms may not be prepared for the clinical approach that comes with a hospital birth. Instead of being the sole focus of the midwife, as you may be at home, you’ll find that you’re seeing different midwives or doctors at different times of your labor – or may spend much of your time with just your husband or birth partner as the labor progresses through its stages.

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Prepare for position changes

It’s not all lying back in bed – chances are, you may find yourself having to contort into a series of unusual positions during labor. A UK Royal College of Midwives survey of 929 women revealed that the majority of positions (63%) used in labour were in the upright category which included supported standing (20%), on all fours (14%), and sitting on a ball (13%) – though  nearly half of the women appear to have got onto the bed for the birth.

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Crowning moment

In the final stages of labor when the baby is far enough down the birth canal, the top of its head will become visible – called crowning. With each push, it will continue to come down a little farther. Sometimes, the baby’s head can cause a tear in the tissue of the vagina. The midwife or doctor performing the delivery may make a small cut called an episiotomy which is repaired once your baby is born.

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