Great expectations what to expect from labour

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Information & Advice

Great expectations: what to expect from labour

It's hard work but it's SO worth it! Find out how to spot the tell-tale signs of labour

Make your house safe for children

Great expectations: what to expect from labour

It's hard work but it's SO worth it! Find out how to spot the tell-tale signs of labour

Mum-of-two Carrie says

Mum-of-two Carrie talks about her experience of labour

"With both my boys – born two years apart - I went into labour at 2am after just two hours sleep, and although both labours were really different, they were both born a few minutes after 3pm – talk about a predictable body clock!"

You've carefully carried your little bundle of joy for nine months (maybe more, maybe less), but now it's time for the real labour of love – giving birth! If it's your first baby then you're probably wondering what to expect, and are maybe even a little apprehensive – which is totally natural. Hopefully you'll be reassured to know that the body is an amazing thing – many women say that when the time comes their body seems to take over .

Information might help take away some of the doubt: If you've been for ante-natal classes then you'll already be armed with lots of useful information and we're also here to take you through all the different signs of labour and what to expect every step of the way. Add this to all the support you've already got from friends and family and you won't be doing this alone!

Mum-of-one Louise says
 talks about her experience of labour and child birth
"My waters broke over 12 hours before any contractions started. I thought it was going to happen straight away and got ready to go to hospital, but it was 36 hours later when my baby finally arrived. That's the thing about labour, the rules are made to be broken – you just never know what's going to happen!"

The tell-tale signs of labour

There are four main signs of labour, but the two biggest tell-tale signs are contractions and what's called a "show", which is a sign your body is preparing for labour – and your body is certainly about to put on the performance of its life to help you deliver your baby.

  1. Regular contractions:
  2. Your body may have already given you a little clue about what contractions feel like in the form of Braxton Hicks, which are pain free and known as practise contractions.

    A contraction is simply when your womb gets tight and then relaxes: some people liken it to a strong period pain to start with. However when they become a little more painful and last more than 30 seconds and begin to become regular in their pattern, it's likely that labour has started. As labour gets going contractions become longer, stronger and more frequent.

    When your contracts last -60 seconds and come every five minutes you should call your midwife or hospital for advice.

  3. A "show":
  4. While you're pregnant there is a plug of mucus in your cervix, helping protect the baby. When your body is preparing for labour the plug can pass away and this is known as the "show". A show can start two weeks or two days before labour, or even not until during your labour. It's perfectly normal for this to be pink as it is blood-stained. It can be a sign that labour is about to start, or it may not be a few days yet. Not every woman has a "show" before labour so there's nothing to worry about if it doesn't happen to you.

  5. Waters breaking:
  6. When it's time for your baby to be born, the amniotic sac of fluid that your baby has been growing in, breaks and the fluid comes out. This is your waters breaking.

    Most women's waters break during labour, but it can also happen beforehand. For some women it's just a trickle, but for others it rushes out and you can't control it. You can be prepared for this by carrying a sanitary towel or incontinence pad with you and putting a plastic sheet on your bed.

    If your waters break before labour starts, phone your midwife or hospital for advice as your baby is no longer protected by the amniotic sac and there is a risk of infection.

  7. And finally, backache:
  8. You may notice backache as you are about to go into labour or that achy, heavy feeling that some women get when they have their monthly period.

The three stages of labour

You may not know this but there are three stages of labour:

  • Stage 1: This is usually the longest stage and is when contractions gradually open up (dilate) your cervix
  • Stage 2: This is when your cervix is fully open and it's time to push!
  • Stage 3: This is after the baby has been born and your womb contracts to let the placenta come out

The first stage: Dilation

For your baby to be born, your cervix needs to be fully dilated, to about 10cm. If you've ever had a cervical smear this may seem like a "mission impossible" for your body to do this, but contractions help to soften the cervix so it can gradually open.

We know you'll probably want to get it over with as quickly as possible and hold your new baby in your arms, but the process of softening can take many hours before you're in ?established labour', which is when your cervix is dilated more than 3cm. Don't be surprised if you get sent home if the hospital finds you're only a couple of centimetres dilated.

Top tips: How to pass the time while nature takes its course!

  • Make sure you eat and drink – you'll need the energy for later
  • Try a warm bath or shower to help you relax
  • During the day, try to stay upright and active, this will help the baby to move down into the pelvis and the cervix to open
  • If it's night time, try to get comfortable and relaxed, and if possible, to get some sleep

Here's what else to expect in the first stage of labour:

  • Foetal heart monitoring: Your baby's heart rate will be monitored throughout the labour so your midwife knows that everything is okay
  • Speeding up labour: If your labour is taking a long time there are certain things your midwife may recommend to speed things up. These may include breaking your waters or giving you a drug to help with your contractions and this is given through a drip

The second stage: The final push

By now the longest stage of your labour is over, your cervix is fully dilated and you're ready to deliver your baby. This is where the hard works really begins, but hopefully not for too long!

  • Find a position: You need to find the position that you think is going to work best for you. This could be in bed propped up with pillows, standing, sitting, kneeling, squatting or kneeling on all fours. We know it's probably not the most glamorous you've ever looked but the more comfortable you feel, the better!
  • Pushing: This is it! When your cervix is fully dilated you can start to push during your contractions:
    • Remember to take two deep breaths as the contractions start and push down
    • Take another breath and give one long push into your bottom for as long as possible
    • After each contraction rest until the next one begins
  • This stage takes about an hour.

Once the midwife can see the baby's head you'll be asked to stop pushing and to give quick, short breaths so that the head can be delivered slowly and gently.

At this stage it will help you to really listen to your midwife who will talk you through the best way to deliver your baby. You might see women in films screaming at this stage – and you might feel like doing that too – but if you can focus your energy into a deep push, it will be a much better use of your energy!

The third stage: The placenta

You've given birth to your beautiful baby, but it's not all over just yet! In the final stage, further contractions (usually pain free, you'll be pleased to hear!) help to push out the placenta and you'll be offered an injection to help speed this up. After some little skin-on-skin time, your baby will be checked, weighed, offered a vitamin K injection and given a band with their name on.

Now, all that's left for you to do is to enjoy some bonding time with your new born bundle of joy. Make this most of this precious time – you deserve it!

Read more like this:

A labour of love: your birth plan
The role of birth partners
Birth stories

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Going to hospital: your baby bag checklist
Don't leave it until the last minute to pack your hospital baby bag! If you go into labour early the last thing you're going to want to do is to scrabble around to get everything together that you need to take with you to hospital.

The NHS says you should have your bag ready at least two weeks before your due date, but many mums on internet chatrooms say how glad they were that their bag was ready at least eight weeks before their due date. When your baby does decide it's time to make their debut, you want to be able to devote all your thoughts to giving birth.
  • Your birth Plan and maternity notes
  • Your phone
  • Important phone numbers written on paper - just in case your mobile battery is dead
  • An old nightie or T-shirt - giving birth is messy, so be prepared to throw it away afterwards
  • Lightweight dressing gown and slippers - choose a dark colour to hide any stains and keep it thin - hospitals can be hot.
  • Socks - your feet can get cold during labour
  • Hairbands and grips - if you've got long hair you may be glad to have your hair tied back off your face during labour
  • Snacks and drinks - don't be at the mercy of the vending machines. Pack some for your birth partner too.
  • Lip Balm - hospitals are warm and the salt in your sweat during birth can dry your lips out
  • Tens machine - if you have decided to use one
  • Water spray - for a cooling spray on your face during labour
For after the birth:
  • Nursing bras, nipple cream - if you have chosen to breastfeed
  • Breast pads - Whether or not you plan to breastfeed, you will need pads to stop leakage
  • Nightie or T-shirt - front opening if you will be breastfeeding
  • Old comfy knickers - orget the pretty panties and take lots of cotton briefs. You'll be glad - especially if you have a caesarean, as the elastic will be right up by your waist and not near your scar.
  • Toileteries - Decant anything you need into travel-sized bottles. Keep to the basics - such as deodorant, toothbrush and paste, face wipes (or cleanser) and moisturiser
  • Maternity pads - maternity pads are bigger, more absorbent and softer than sanitary towels. You will probably need to change your pad every couple of hours
  • Shower gel and a towel - a shower or a wash after labour will feel like an amazing luxury. It might be best to choose an unperfumed shower gel - as you are likely to be sensitive if it has been a vaginal birth
  • Going home clothes - keep them comfy and loose and try and find waistbands that don't sit low on your tummy, just in case you have had a caesarean. Remember, you won't fit into your pre-pregnancy clothes just yet
  • Cotton wool balls - for changing baby's nappy. Baby wipes are not recommended for premature babies. There are wipes available that are suitable for newborns, but many hospitals may still advise against using them until baby is two to four weeks old. Speak to your midwife if you are unsure
  • Tissues and wet wipes - There's always something to mop up!
  • Nappies - count on changing baby's nappy about 10 times a day. Make sure you buy nappies for newborns
  • Scratch mittens - baby skin is delicate, so prevent your little one from scratching themselves
  • Cardigans for baby - pack two for extra warmth, even in spring or summer
  • Socks or booties - socks tend to stay on baby's feet far better than old-fashioned booties
  • Sleepsuits - pack at least 3 or 4 in a range of sizes, but have more available which your birthing partner can bring in for you
  • Baby vests - take at least 3 or 4
  • Baby hat - for the ride home
  • Baby blanket - keep baby snug on the way home
  • Baby car seat - If you're travelling home by car make sure that you and your birth partner have already practised how to use a car seat

A few extras to consider
  • Giving birth can have long periods of down-time until the contractions build, so you might want to take something to entertain yourself with in hospital such as magazines/books/MP3 player
  • You might also want to put in a hairbrush, to give yourself a spruce up for photos, or when family and friends visit
  • Are you planning to take your camera, or will your birthing partner have theirs? Make sure the battery is fully charged
  • Consider throwing in a few old plastic bags to put any dirty clothes in
  • Do you have a watch, or does your phone have a clock application so you can time the contractions?
  • Most NHS hospitals allow use of mobile phones in certain areas, but it is unlikely you will be allowed to charge your phone there. You may want to buy a phonecard in advance, or take some loose change
You can also try soothing and cooling your legs with these products.
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