12 Things Every New Mom Should Know About Birth Before Going Into Labor, According To A Doula

Scared of the worst possible scenario? Worrying you won’t be able to handle it? Freaked out from dramatic movie scenes or horror stories from Facebook moms? I’ve compiled the most important tips about vaginal delivery I’ve learned as a birth doula that every new mother should know. 

By Anna Hugoboom8 min read
Pexels/Philip Warp

First of all, exhale! It’s okay. Women have been giving birth since the dawn of time, and babies are born all over the world every day! About 385,000 babies every day! And the majority of those births are in the normal range of the childbirth experience. Yes, today, we have more health complications, but we also have improved technology and research to aid us! 

However, it’s important to know what is involved before you go into labor and childbirth for the first time. Feeling equipped and in-the-know will help you feel more capable and reduce your stress hormone levels and your pain. No need to add to the labors of the moment with anxiety and fear of the unknown.

Mentality Is Key

Preparing for your birth is crucial to your birth experience, mentally as well as physically. This is going to be very hard, probably one of the most physically painful and draining experiences of your life, if not the most.

Your mentality is key to regulating your hormones. If your stress and cortisol levels increase, your nerves will signal to your muscles to tense up and contract, which will slow or even halt your labor progress. Think of a native woman hundreds of years ago giving birth in the woods or “squatting in a field.” If she saw a tiger or a bear, she would have to run for her life. She can’t be pushing out a baby at this moment, so her body would contract its muscles (a normal stress response) to hold the baby in. 

To prevent this stress response during your labor, keep your environment peaceful and quiet, stay off social media and off the phone, and only keep positive and relaxing people around to assist you. If your husband is present, tell him how he can help you. Let him walk with you as a support, hold your hand, help you do labor positions, massage you, hold a fan to your face, and give you affirmation when you need encouragement (make sure you go over all this with him before your labor and then practice). Engaging in relaxing or positively distracting activities will lower cortisol levels and increase oxytocin and dopamine levels. 

Learn the Stages of Childbirth

This might be obvious to some, but many new mothers don’t know or aren’t taught what to look for in the stages of labor to measure their progress. And one of the most frustrating things can be not knowing where you are in the process to have some idea of how much longer it’ll last.

There are three stages of childbirth. The first stage is labor, which is divided into two phases: early labor and active labor. If you’re birthing at a hospital, you won’t be admitted until you’ve begun active labor, and even then, often not until you’ve dilated past a few centimeters. Transition is the turning point in active labor before the baby comes out and your body is getting ready to push. The second stage is delivery, the birth of your baby. The third stage is the delivery of the placenta. 

Make a Birth Plan

If you plan on laboring and birthing at a hospital, you should make a birth plan early on (at least three months before your due date), so you can have your wishes communicated ahead of time. 

Hospitals and OB doctors all have different policies, but this is your birth, your body, and your baby! Besides whatever is necessary in the case of emergency or health concerns for the well-being of your baby and yourself, all other details should be communicated with your OB so you can have control over your experience.

For example, if you don’t want an episiotomy (unless absolutely needed) or you don’t want your baby to get vaccinations or shots, that’s your decision and no one should try to manipulate or force you to change your mind. If you want to hold your baby skin-to-skin immediately after birth (if possible), that is your prerogative and natural right to hold your baby. Also, you probably won’t be able to have more than one or two people in the room with you beyond hospital staff, so you have to decide if your husband, mother, birth doula, etc. will be with you. 

Home births are much more personalized, and midwives are usually more holistically minded as far as traditional birth processes go. They will generally help you make a birth plan or at least ask you about your preferences as to certain birth details (such as if you’ll be nursing or using formula). 

Beyond your birth plan, make a list of what to buy for birth (if at home, a birth tub, sheets, etc.) and/or your hospital overnight bag and newborn needs. Also, don’t forget to make a list of what foods to have on hand before birth and postpartum (frozen meals come in clutch), and compile your favorite music playlist!

Relax To Boost Oxytocin

Now we get to labor time! With early labor, pre-labor contractions are unpredictable for a first-time mother; they might begin as much as a week or as short as a few hours before active labor starts. This is simply the process your body undergoes to prepare itself for active labor and delivery. Since you don’t know how long your early labor will last, the best and easiest thing to do is simply relax as much as possible and keep yourself busy with low-impact, low-stress activities that will help boost your oxytocin.

Oxytocin is the love hormone, which is why it’s released during sex, orgasm, birth, and breastfeeding, and it helps you feel happier. Oxytocin production is inhibited by stress and adrenaline, which is why you need a calm and peaceful environment for labor! Don’t stress yourself worrying about what could happen or wondering how long it will take. Your baby will take as long as is needed, and you can do your best by simply trying to relax and stay positive (note: you might feel a rush of adrenaline in later labor, and it’s actually this sense of urgency that can give you momentum to push). 

It gets daunting and even overwhelming very quickly if you set a time limit for yourself or aim for a certain amount of time to your birth – no need to put that pressure on yourself or set yourself up for disappointment if indeed you happen to labor past that premeditated time. It’s best to simply distract yourself in the moment and just gear yourself up like you’re going into a long fitness challenge. (If anything, think that your birth will take a really long time so you’re happily corrected if it finishes sooner!) Remember, the first baby is typically the hardest

Depending on your mood and energy levels, distraction activity examples include:

  • Take a walk.

  • Bake some cookies.

  • Listen to relaxing music.

  • Watch a movie.

  • Take a warm bath or shower (use a plastic chair to sit if you’re weak or want to stay in for a while).

  • Take a nap to recharge your batteries and catch up on sleep while you’re able.

  • Read a book.

  • Do a chill activity like organize baby clothes or do a puzzle.

  • Change positions every once in a while, to keep your body moving.

  • Try doing some labor stretches to relax and encourage the baby down the birth canal.

  • Get some gentle TLC from your man; cuddle skin-to-skin to boost your oxytocin.

Don’t forget to give yourself a pep talk with positive affirmations, focus on the beautiful big picture of your baby entering the world, try to imagine what he/she will look like, and think of how happy you’ll be to finally hold your little nugget in your arms!

Stay Well Hydrated

It’s extremely important to stay hydrated to keep up your energy and to ease contractions. Muscles tend to cramp up more when you’re dehydrated. So, keep drinking and sip throughout the day. Besides water, you can drink:

Fuel Your Body Well

A racecar driver fills up his tank with quality gas before a race, right? Obviously, you need to stay nourished and energized, so be sure to stay fed as much as possible. This is key to remember, especially if you’re going into the hospital because once you check-in, you won’t be allowed to eat until after delivery – so eat that protein before you drive to the hospital! It’s important to have good protein and natural fats, plus some gentle fiber, but nothing that will cause gas or indigestion. If you feel queasy, fresh raspberries and cold mint tea can help alleviate nausea. 

Besides whatever sounds good to you, some options include:

  • Salmon and baked sweet potato

  • Chicken soup

  • Almond butter toast 

  • Avocado toast

  • Steak and eggs or cooked veggies 

  • Berries and yogurt 

  • Fruit smoothie with collagen protein

Your Water May Not Break

Before I learned about maternity health and birth, I used to think that a woman’s water always broke early on and that was the starting gun to your active labor (probably because every single movie with a childbirth scene always dramatically starts with the woman’s water breaking, usually at the most inopportune time). In reality though, many women don’t have their water break after pre-labor but go well into their active labor before their water breaks, sometimes even right before the baby is born! For those whose water breaks earlier on, active labor contractions may or may not begin shortly thereafter.

There’s a Time Window 

Now, if your water does break in the beginning of your active labor, that means two things: 1) You’ve started active labor, so you can do labor stretches to help your cervix dilate, and 2) Your water breaking starts a countdown as most hospitals will give you about 24 (sometimes around 30) hours before they recommend inducing your labor, and then several more hours (all doctors are different) until they might mention a C-section. Or, if you’re doing a natural birth and your body is just exhausted to the point of not being able to continue on its own, the doctor might suggest an epidural so the baby doesn’t get stuck. If your labor slows and doesn’t continue to progress, the doctor might want to put you on Pitocin to speed things up. Pitocin often causes pain, so you might need an epidural, and there have been some health concerns related to its side effects on the baby.

If you’re giving birth at home, you have an average of about 24 hours with your midwife until she is legally obligated (some states differ) to recommend your transfer to the hospital or at least an IV of antibiotics. This is because there is an increased risk for infection after 24 hours post-water break, but that doesn’t mean you absolutely have to deliver by the 24-hour mark. Unless you show signs of infection, like fever or swelling, your baby might just need a bit more time. So don’t let that freak you out, it’s just a factor you should know.

Active Labor Is Hard but Doable

I won’t sugarcoat it – labor is very difficult. But billions of women have done it, and you can too! Once active labor hits, your contractions will be stronger and gradually occur closer and closer together. Your cervix will become more dilated (widened), bit by bit. Just remember that 10 cm. is fully dilated, which means the baby is coming and ready to make its entrance into the world! So, your goal is to help your body get closer and closer to that 10 cm. mark.

During labor progression, it’s crucially important to keep your environment as peaceful as possible and keep yourself as calm as possible to avoid stress levels from increasing, which would result in muscle contraction which could slow your labor progress. Have your birth doula or husband help you with movement and labor positions (see here), and play your favorite music.

Transition Is Short But Key 

Transition is a turning point in your labor progress. It’s a signal that your body is preparing itself for delivery and that the cervix is approaching full dilation! It’s a short period in your active labor, and it’s the step immediately before your baby’s arrival. Symptoms of transition are shaking, sweating, disorientation, and longer and more intense contractions; you’ll also feel pressure in your lower back and rectum. Whether you’re at home or the hospital, transition reminds you to have your cervix checked and prepare your position for delivery. 

Delivery = Home Stretch

The actual birth time could take a couple of hours, some minutes, or less than 60 seconds, depending on how fast the baby moves and how many pushes it takes. In general, it usually lasts from 20 minutes to two hours.

Crowning is when the baby’s head appears and is pushed out. Crowning is often considered the most painful period of delivery, where the mother will feel a burning pain. The “ring of fire” is the grand finale, when the largest part of the baby’s head is being pushed through. If it’s not painful (if you’re blessed with an easier delivery or on an epidural), it’ll at least be uncomfortable. Just stay focused on the next breath, remember you’re almost done, and soon it will be over, and then you’ll be able to hold your little cherub in your arms! 

At a certain point, you will be able to reach down and touch your baby’s head as it emerges. You can watch the progress in a mirror or ask someone who is not actively assisting you to film the birth, if you want. 

After the baby’s head pushes through and out into the air, your OB or midwife will support the head while the rest of the body comes out. Sometimes this exit process is slow and gradual, sometimes it’s fast! Every birth is different. One of my clients, a first-time mother, had her baby slide slowly out, which allowed her and her husband to watch the process while they laughed excitedly. Another client, birthing her second baby, had a very fast labor and her baby came out quickly after just one push! If there are no complications, the baby should come out naturally on its own (sometimes the OB or midwife might need to help move the shoulders if they are stuck or need a nudge in the right direction).

After the baby is born (umbilical cord still attached), your OB/midwife will declare the sex or let your husband declare it if requested. Then, they will clean the baby off, weigh and measure it, and place it on your chest for skin-to-skin contact and nursing. Or you can request the baby be immediately put on your chest and cleaned from there and measured after a period of time. The OB/midwife will cut the cord, or let your husband cut it if desired, a few minutes after birth, unless you request the cutting to be delayed

Placenta Delivery Is Easier

The third and final stage of birth is the delivery of the placenta (the organ that forms inside the womb and connects mother and baby through the umbilical cord). This is much easier than birthing the baby and happens much more quickly, and it usually delivers within five to 30 minutes after the baby is born. Your midwife or OB doctor will gently pull the placenta out, and you can either discard it or have it encapsulated for consumption later (if there are no health concerns or risks for infection). You can read here about the potential benefits of consuming your placenta.

After birth, your midwife or OB doctor will massage your abdomen to reduce the swelling, then periodically check your vagina to be sure you aren’t hemorrhaging. It’s normal to bleed a little bit post-birth, but not excessively. Be sure to eat good quality nutrition and lots of protein to fuel your breastmilk (if nursing) and restore your energy! You burn up to 3,000 calories giving birth! 

Closing Thoughts

This probably seemed like much more than 12 facts to remember, but there is a lot to learn when in the business of birthing babies! And by educating yourself on what to expect, you’ll feel much more capable and confident (and hopefully calmer and less stressed). Birthing is no small feat, and this amazing ability to participate in creation and bring new life into the world is the privilege of women alone. 

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