What your Loved Ones Don’t Know About Active Labor

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In most normal women, the signpost of active labor is the thought “This isn’t fun anymore.” You will probably ride through the contractions of early labor thinking, this is not so bad, I can do this, all I needed to know about labor I learned in prenatal yoga class. I remember laboring at 10 o’clock at night in our living room, in hands and knees with my head on the couch during a contraction and thinking, I’ve got this labor thing in the bag. Meanwhile, fast-forward three hours later to what was supposed to be a peaceful stroll on the beach. I was in hands and knees in the sand on the Dog Beach of all places, the most filthy and poop-contaminated sand in the entire state of California, and telling Mike I couldn’t walk anymore and that he would have to carry me home. That was seven hours before Tusca was born.

Many women panic once they realize how painful real labor can get. Many of these women go on to successfully give birth naturally. This is the point in labor when women need to call on the resources they have made available to themselves in advance. This is when you need to have your doula come over, when you can start using massage, counter-pressure, and hypno-birthing techniques, or when you should get ready to hop into a hot shower.

Sometimes positive words are all a mother needs to hear to keep going.

  • It sucks that you have to feel this pain
  • It’s hard to even know how intense it is until you feel it
  • It is a good sign, things must be progressing
  • You have to feel more pain before the baby can come out
  • You are strong, you can do this
  • I will be here with you every step of the way

Hitting A Wall 

A mother who is supported in labor will feel pain, but she will not suffer. There will be times when she will be obviously discouraged. I tell my clients that this will feel like “hitting a wall”, and that she will want to give up. Then something will change, and she will move on.

When you first feel what labor contractions are all about, you might find yourself “hitting the wall” psychologically. Many of us have a image in our heads before labor starts that birth is not actually painful unless you are a wimp or not in touch with your body. I have met a few women in my lifetime (maybe three, out of the few thousand births I have witnessed) who did describe birth as orgasmic. For the rest of us, birth is hard work, intense, painful by most descriptions and after a certain point quite overwhelming. The key thing to remember is that you are just as strong as I am, and I did it. I know you can do it.

As a doula I knew when a mama was “hitting the wall” because I heard her say something like:

“I can’t do this anymore.”

“I didn’t know it would be like this.”

“This is so much worse than I thought it would be.”

This kind of language tells me that she needs a change of scenery. Getting into the shower is usually a really good game changer, at least for half an hour or so (or until the hot water heater runs out, don’t remember to check it ahead of time!) A lovely shower can buy the mother time until her labor changes again and she gets lost in Laborland and discovers her own way of coping (which she will).

The best relief a mother will get may come from water: be it the shower, bath or the birthing pool. Midwives usually won’t let their patient get into the pool until they check them, because if it’s still early (less than 4 cm dilated) than getting into the pool can slow the labor down. You also want to save your “best tools” for when you really need them, for example during transition when nothing else is working. Research also shows that being submerged in water for longer than an hour can slow down labor.

Alternate Rest with Activity

At some point, you will need to get back out of the water, and encourage the labor to get stronger. When contractions are about five minutes apart still but quite uncomfortable already, I like to alternate 30-minute periods of activity (walking, curb walking, stair climbing) with hour-long periods of rest (getting into the shower, or lying down on one side while dad or doula provides counterpressure to the back).

A good doula balances the good cop with the tough-lovin’ bad cop.

This is where a good doula comes in. She will help you relax as best as you can for periods of an hour, but afterwards that she will firmly encourage you to get up and get the labor going again.

Note: Sometimes it is the daddy’s (your man) and loved one’s (your mom/friend/sister’s) tendency to want to protect you as a laboring mama from discomfort. They will want to rescue you from pain, but the only way they will be able to do that is to drive you to the hospital to get you an epidural. No one can honestly rescue you from the pain of labor and still empower to have the transforming birth experience that you deserve.

As a professional I can say that by getting you moving, even though it will bring contractions stronger and closer together, your doula and midwife are still on your side. Remember: the more up and active you are, the fewer minutes you will have to be in pain. You need someone experienced enough who has seen this first-hand, and so knows that causing you more discomfort in the moment will get you what you really need in the long run. You will not want to put yourself through more pain, even if it’s what you have to do to get your baby out.

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