If you are pregnant, or considering getting pregnant, you may have begun thinking about childbirth. You may have scary images in your mind, or none at all. Because we do not readily discuss childbirth in our culture, there is a big void of information that often gets filled with anxiety and fear. To help, we’re creating a 3-Part Childbirth Preparation Series that will take you through an overview or the labor process and give you simple and tangible tips to more effectively prepare. We partnered with Childbirth Educator and PROnatal Advisory Board member Ashley Brichter, CCCE, CLC of Birth Smarter for this series.
In this first post, we’ll focus on providing an overview of what happens during labor. Then, in the following 2 posts, we’ll break down stages 1 and 2 in more detail — providing you strategies to help you navigate them more successfully.
What Actually Happens During Labor?
What actually happens during labor? You may conjure up images from the movies of a woman’s water breaking (like a gigantic waterfall), the mad dash to the hospital, and then her furious torrent of expletives at her partner in between tiring bouts of pushing. Hollywood drastically misrepresents childbirth, and it does us no favors. While slower, and less dramatic, childbirth in the real world is likely the greatest opportunity a woman has to showcase her strength, endurance, and mental fortitude.
Let’s begin with a basic overview of what has to occur to get a baby out of the womb. Take a look at the image below. Babies grow inside a muscular organ called the uterus. The bottom of the uterus is the cervix. Think of the uterus like a garage, and the cervix like the garage doors. The garage doors must open in order to let the baby (or “car” in this analogy) out.
Note the following two things about the image above:
- The cervix is closed here and doesn’t look like it’d be very easy for baby to get out. Therefore, the first part of labor is the cervix dilating or “thinning” to allow baby to pass through. Under optimal conditions, this occurs physiologically with the release of hormones and the power of uterine contractions.
- One other challenge. You can see that the cervical opening (where baby’s head will come through) doesn’t line up with the vaginal opening (where baby must come out of). This means baby will have to perform a series of movements and rotations to get aligned with the vaginal opening. While this sounds quite complicated, in most cases, babies are actually pre-programmed to do this. Watch this fascinating video on the cardinal movements human babies perform to navigate the complex trip down the birth canal. Maternal position can play a significant role as well. Doulas (birth coaches) are skilled in determining which positions to put women in, which is why they can be very helpful during the labor process.
So, in short, three things must occur BEFORE a woman can begin to push the baby out:
- The cervix must thin and open to allow the baby to pass through
- The uterus must contract to push the baby downward (and also pull the cervix out of the way)
- The baby must rotate to get aligned with the vaginal opening
All these things occur during Stage 1 Labor, the stage often over-looked (or sped through) in Hollywood.
Stages of Labor (Overview)
There are essentially 3 Stages of Labor. We have summarized them here below, then in the following posts, we will go into more detail on Stage 1 and Stage 2.
- Stage 1 (Uterine Contractions and Cervical Dilation): This is the stage where the uterus is “contracting” and the cervix is getting thinner (effaced) and opening (dilating) to allow baby to pass through. When baby’s head presses against the cervix, the pressure causes the cervix to thin, and in turn, causes the uterus to contract. These uterine contractions push the baby downward while also pulling the cervix up and out of the way. Contractions typically start quite short and mild, and gradually grow longer and (much) stronger. The whole process of Stage 1 labor takes anywhere from a few hours to a few days – and is often longer for first time mothers.
- Stage 2 (Delivery of the Baby): Stage 2 is the “pushing stage” (the one we know so well from Hollywood), which can occur once the baby is in position and the cervix is fully dilated to 10 cm. There are many factors that determine the length of this stage, including the baby’s and mother’s position, but a huge factor is the woman’s strength and her ability to understand how to effectively push.
- Stage 3 (Delivery of the Placenta): Say what? There’s a stage AFTER the baby comes out? Yes, once the baby has been delivered, and everyone in the room is flooded with elation and emotion, there is one last stage of actually “birthing” the placenta. This entirely new organ, grown to nourish the baby, sometimes comes out with very little effort. Other times it may require the mother to work to push it out. Some women will experience contractions while others won’t. Either way, the placenta is often delivered within a half an hour after childbirth.
So there you have it – childbirth in a nutshell. Before we breakdown Stages 1 and 2 in detail, we want to leave you with one critical tip to master that will make a huge difference in your birth experience (and your overall health)…
The First and Most Fundamental Technique to Master
If you’ve been reading our blog posts, you’ve likely heard us say over and over (and over) again just how important proper breathing is. Well because it’s THAT important! Not only is proper breathing critical for improving your health, building a strong core, creating a healthier fetal growth environment, and preventing pain or injuries like diastasis recti, pelvic floor dysfunction, SI joint pain, and low back pain, but it’s also crucial during the childbirth process.
When we say “proper” breathing, we are referring to known as 360° Breathing. This style of breathing has a host of benefits, but when it comes to childbirth, 360° Breathing reduces stress, improves the ability to focus, and actually helps you manage pain better. Watch this video to learn 360° Breathing. Practice it over and over again until it becomes natural.
Now that you have a basic overview of what happens during childbirth, we’ll move onto breaking down Stage 1 Labor in more detail — providing you strategies to help you navigate this challenging stage more effectively. So, take a few deep (360°) breaths, and let’s discuss Stage 1…
ACOG. “Nation’s Ob-Gyns Take Aim at Preventing Cesareans.” Feb 19, 2014