Pregnancy labor is viewed with equal amounts of excitement and dread. Excitement because you finally get to meet the newest member of your family & dread because of the pain and the potential embarrassment of labor. However, most women who have had babies will agree that they forget all pain and embarrassment once they hold their babies in their arms.
Labor and delivery are the final stages of pregnancy. Going into labor can be confusing and greatly disorienting. The experience can get fuzzy and a little scary because the pain becomes the focus of your life for those few hours. It greatly helps if you know what is going on while you are on the delivery table. Now a doctor cannot sit there and explain it all as she will have to focus on your labor and delivery. So it is up to you to learn as much as you can about labor and delivery before it happens. There are literally thousands of books on childbirth that you can read. Your doctor will be willing to speak to you about it during your regular prenatal care visits. And you can speak to other women you know who have undergone labor and delivery to hear a firsthand account of what it is like. Armed with all this knowledge, you will be better equipped to handle the trials and stress of labor and delivery.
Symptoms of Labor
The symptoms of labor begin long before delivery. Some are more subtle than others and you may not even realize they are occurring. But it is always a good idea to understand what is going on during your pregnancy and especially during labor and delivery. This can prevent a lot of unnecessary worrying and give you a better idea of when labor has actually begin so that you can prepare accordingly. Following are the most common symptoms of impending labor that will lead to delivery.
Occurring as early as some weeks before labor and delivery to as late as just a few hours before labor and delivery, lightening is when your baby drops lower into your pelvis in anticipation of birth. The baby rests almost directly on top of your cervix and the weight of the uterus pushes heavily into your bladder. You will be urinating much more often than at any other time during your pregnancy.
The most recognizable and famous of labor and delivery symptoms, contractions will feel like your uterus is tightening and then releasing. The pain can range in intensity depending on which stage of labor and delivery you are in. However, you may experience false contractions of Braxton Hicks contractions way before you are anywhere near labor and delivery. Doctors speculate that this is the body’s way of preparing itself for the trials of actual labor and delivery, kind of like a test drive.
This is when the amniotic fluid that surrounds your baby starts to leak out of your vagina as a result of the amniotic sac breaking just before labor and delivery. You may experience just a slow dripping or a full-on gushing of a clear fluid.
Ripening and Dilation of the Cervix:
Ripening means that your cervix is becoming soft and starting to thin out to ease the way for labor and delivery. This is not a symptom of labor and delivery that you will see or experience. Your doctor will be able to detect this change at one of the vaginal examinations somewhere toward the end of your pregnancy third trimester. Dilation is the other symptom of labor and delivery, although this can take several weeks or days. You will not generally feel your cervix dilating until you go into actual labor because the change is far too gradual to be noticed.
Although most doctors will deny that this is an actual symptom of labor and delivery, a majority of women have reported that they get the sudden urge to clean up and organize and get things ready for the baby a few days before they go into labor. This is called nesting. No one knows for sure why it happens. Nesting may happen long before your pregnancy due date, but you may recognize it in full force just before actual labor and delivery.
You may have recurring pain in the lower back as your body prepares for labor and delivery. Other bodily responses to labor and delivery include diarrhea, nausea, vomiting, weight loss, and indigestion, though these are not very reliable symptoms.
STAGES OF LABOR AND DELIVERY
There are three stages of labor and delivery – early and active, the actual delivery of your baby, and afterbirth or the delivery of the placenta. Each phase is briefly described below.
Stage 1 of Labor and Delivery
This phase of labor is also known as the latent phase. It is the longest but least painful of the whole labor and delivery process. It can last anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks. Early labor begins with the opening and thinning out (effacement) of the cervix. You may or may not feel the contractions depending on the period of time over which the process occurs. If it occurs over a few days or weeks, you probably will not feel a thing until you are ready to deliver the baby. If it occurs over a few hours, then you will experience contractions every 20 to 30 minutes. You may experience pain in the lower back or some period-like cramping. The mucous plug that blocks your cervix during pregnancy may also be discharged through the vagina around this time; this is aptly named the bloody show.
During this stage, you know that labor has begun, but there is not much you can do but wait till the contractions come on in earnest and actual labor begins. You will be very nervous so try to keep yourself busy to keep your mind off the next stage of labor. You will have plenty of time to think about it when you are actually in it. Try to sleep if possible. And empty your bladder as often as possible. Alert your doctor of the symptoms and changes as they occur so she can advise you accordingly.
This phase of labor will be dominated by discomfort and pain as the contractions increase and the actual delivery time edges closer and closer. The contractions will get intense, will last longer, and will occur more frequently. You can expect one every 3 to 4 minutes, although they may not always be regular. The active labor phase is when your cervix will dilate to about 7 centimeters. If you had decided on taking some sort of pain management medication, now would be the best time to ask for it. You will also need to stay hydrated as much as possible. Although you cannot eat, you can chew on ice chips, take sips of water, or choose to be hooked up to an IV if you do not feel up to oral feeding. You can try walking around and changing positions to manage the pain. If you took Lamaze classes, now would be the perfect time to start on those breathing exercises. Know that pain management medication can only help to a degree. You will still experience a lot of pain during this phase of labor and will have to figure out ways of managing it whether by distracting yourself or trying out breathing techniques. If you prefer to opt for pain management medication, discuss the various options with your doctor during one of your regular visits in the earlier stages of pregnancy.
Stage 2 of Labor and Delivery
This is the advanced stage of labor, also known as the transitional phase of labor and delivery. Your contractions will be about two minutes apart and last for more than a minute each. They will be very, very intense and the time between them will barely be enough to catch your breath and prepare for the next one. Many women report that it just feels like an endless stream of pain.
Although you are closer than ever to meeting your baby, the minutes can seem like days. It is normal to feel frustrated and physically drained. Your cervix will dilate the last few centimeters in this last phase of labor. You may feel the urge to push before your cervix is dilated all the way through. You should ask your doctor if you can but it is not normally recommended as it can cause swelling of the cervix in addition to some other delivery complications. This phase of labor can last anywhere from 30 minutes to a couple of hours.
When your cervix is fully dilated, the pushing will begin. You will be advised to push in time with your contractions. You can push just once per contraction or up to three times depending on your strength and whether or not you feel like it. The pain can be excruciating and you will be fatigued beyond measure. You may not be able to push at every contraction. This is absolutely OK. You can rest between contractions if you need to. You may feel like you are pushing forever and seeing no results. But be assured that every push contributes to the delivery of your baby.
While you push, you are sure to pass urine or even empty your bowels right there on the delivery table. Don’t worry about it. This is normal and your doctor and the staff at hand expect it to happen and do not even think about it.
After what will seem like an age, your baby’s head will finally push through your vagina, and it will get just the slightest bit easier from then on as your doctor can then help to pull the baby out also. A couple of more pushes will get the shoulders, trunk and legs out. The umbilical cord will be cut, your baby will be cleaned and handed over to you to hold for the first time.
Stage 3 of Labor and Delivery
Afterbirth or the delivery of the placenta is just as important as the delivery of your baby. The placenta is the organ that keeps your baby fed with nutrition and oxygen throughout your pregnancy. After your baby is born, it needs to be ejected from your body as it can cause an infection or severe bleeding otherwise.
You will still be having contractions, but most women claim that they do not feel it at all at that point. These contractions are designed to encourage the placenta to break away from the wall of the uterus where it is attached and to stem the flow of bleeding. The delivery of the placenta usually takes about 20 to 30 minutes. Your doctor will massage your abdomen to encourage contractions. Once the placenta is delivered, your doctor will examine it to ensure that it is intact, and that it has been fully expelled. If there are any pieces of the placenta left in the uterus, your doctor will have to manually remove them.
Finally, you will be checked to see if you have any tears that need to be taken care of. If you do, you will be given a shot of some local anesthetic and receive some stitches.
Every case of labor and delivery is different. Women experience the differences from one pregnancy to the next as well. While labor and delivery can take anywhere from 12 to 18 hours, it can take much less time or be significantly longer. Usually, the first baby takes the longest amount of time. Subsequent births are less painful, only comparatively, and also take less time. Recovery time is also greatly reduced.
How Long Does it Take to Recover from Labor and Delivery?
Labor and delivery put your body through unbelievable amounts of physical and emotional stress. So do not expect to recover in a few hours or even a few days. Your body can take up to six weeks to go back to normal after labor and delivery. It may take longer if you needed stitches or if there were complications during labor or delivery. Even if your labor and delivery were normal, you may have postpartum complications like bleeding, infection, pain, depression, and fatigue. Speak to your doctor about the special measures you need to take after labor and delivery to speed up and assist recovery.