MEET THE EXPERT – Milli Hill is a mum of three, author of The Positive Birth Book and founder of The Positive Birth Movement.
When it comes to giving birth, most women’s bodies don’t conform exactly to set patterns. A labour may start slow, get fast, stall, do a bit more slow stuff, then get cracking like you’re riding the runaway horse in the Grand National. But if you’re pregnant for the first time, you’ve probably got one burning question at the forefront of your mind: ‘What will it feel like?’ To try and help give you the answers, I’ve divided labour up into 14 phases—yes, you heard me right, 14!
Trying to conceptualise one of the most mind-blowingly unique experiences of your life by dividing it into sections is a bit like trying to describe your wedding day in terms of car journeys, or measuring out your life in coffee spoons. In reality, all of these phases will probably blend and blur into each other. It will be different for you. But it will also be something like this…
The Nothing Doing Phase
In the days and hours before labour begins, you might feel the increasing intensity of this phase. You’ll be bombarded by well-meaning friends asking, ‘Anything doing?’ You might feel like the answer is, ‘Nope, nothing to see here’, but in fact, the dance of hormones is almost certainly beginning, and there may be internal changes that you cannot see or feel, like your baby moving further into position or your cervix beginning to thin. It feels boring, frustrating, exciting, heavy, cumbersome and filled with anticipation. Some women feel physically really uncomfortable, others are energised and agile. Many start to feel small urges to withdraw from day-to-day life.
The Maybe Something is Happening Phase
This can sometimes be your mind playing tricks on you due to your desperation to meet your baby— and be able to put on your own shoes again—but more often than not, it’s the beginning of little signs that birth is more and more imminent. You might experience an increase in Braxton Hicks, those tightenings in your bump that are like practice contractions. You might feel hormonal, perhaps with rushes of oxytocin which can make you feel very positive and loved up, or adrenaline, which can make you decide that now would be a great time to launder your curtains. You might also lose your mucus plug, which is the little blob of jelly that seals up your uterus. This will sometimes have a pinkish tinge and is also known rather romantically as a Bloody Show. It feels as if you are spiralling inwards, connected to your baby, and you might be nervous, excited and emotional.
The Niggling Phase
Midwives love this word: niggling. They use it to describe women in the very early part of labour who are starting to feel those Braxton Hicks more strongly. The tightenings start to be harder to ignore and some women’s waters break. We could also call this the Yes, Something Is Finally Flipping Happening Phase, but it can be very ‘stop start’.
The Ramping Up Phase
Slowly but surely, the niggling phase gives way to something that feels a bit different, as labour gathers pace and ramps up. You might find that the tightenings, surges or contractions demand your full attention, and that you begin to get into a rhythm or dance with them. For example, each time you feel one approach you might lean on the chest of drawers, rock back and forward, moan and work your way through it until you feel it subside again. Then you might carry on with what you were doing. Between surges you will feel completely normal and often very energised, happy, or even a bit ‘trippy’ from the hormonal experience. If you’re not giving birth at home, you will probably travel during this phase. It feels exciting, dream-like, intensifying, rhythmical, powerful and like you are definitely going to have a baby!
The Cracking On Phase
Hold on to your hat, this is when it really gets interesting! You are totally, fully and unmistakably in the thickest, fullest and most intense part of labour. Your contractions will probably come more frequently, be more intense and last longer. You will probably not feel like talking or doing anything else. You will be in the place that some people call ‘Labour Land’, utterly focused on riding the waves and staying afl oat. Many people do find this part of labour really hard work and really intense. There is still some of the golden time between contractions, but they are closer together, and the peaks of them can be, well, cracking.
I’ve deliberately not talked about dilation up till now because I really want to discourage you from worrying about measuring the opening of your cervix in centimetres and focus instead on the experience of being in labour. However, transition means you’ve reached full dilation, which is roughly around 10cm, the size of a box of cheese triangles. Transition is a time when everything changes. You will feel this, and it will be happening in your hormones as oxytocin makes way for the adrenaline you need to wake you up from Labour Land, and energise you enough to give birth. This hormonal shift may even cause you to feel ‘fear’ at this moment, but this doesn’t mean that you cannot do it. It just means you are doing it. This stage can feel hugely emotional, but although it’s intense, it’s usually brief: it is like a wave of feelings that will wash over you and then pass away, as all waves do.
The Rest And Be Thankful Phase
This doesn’t happen for all women, but some experience a pause here. For some it lasts long enough to cause care providers concern that labour has stalled. More often than not, it hasn’t, and after these moments of gathering in fortitude and courage, the majority of women make the leap of faith into the final phases of bringing a new human onto the earth.
The Pushing Phase
Some people can take up to two hours, sometimes longer to push their baby out, while others go from fully dilated to baby in arms in a matter of minutes. Some women like guidance and direction at this point, others prefer to spiral inwards again and listen to their body. Some find they don’t actually have to ‘push’ at all, and that the effort is completely involuntary, like sneezing. You still have contractions, but they feel different because you feel compelled to push while they are happening, and some women prefer this more active phase of their labour. It can make you feel like being intensely quiet or roaring like a lioness. The physical sensations as your baby descends, through the cervix and down your vagina are some of the most extremely intense bodily experiences you will ever have. Some women can feel themselves stretching and widening. Some feel their baby rotate and move, moment by moment.
The Crowning Phase
For some, there is a burning sensation as the widest part of the baby’s head sits momentarily in the opening of your vagina. You are stretched wide. But it’s different for everyone, and the good news is, if you are one of the women who does not enjoy crowning, it is usually over very quickly.
The Head Being Born Phase
As your baby crowns, one or two more pushes will bring her head into the world. There’s one final stretching sensation, and then often a huge sense of relief, as you know the hardest part of labour is behind you.
The Body Being Born Phase
There is usually a pause after the head has been born, while you wait for the next surge to give birth to the body. After the hard work of the head, the body feels like a slippery eel, moving out of you with one final sensation of release. Sometimes you will feel your baby wriggle to move out of you with the final contraction. Giving birth to the body is hugely triumphant and relieving. It can feel very sensual, a fantastic physical experience, perhaps even orgasmic.
The Baby In Arms Phase
Yes, you’ve gone and done it! Your baby has been born! At the moment of birth you might reach down to take your baby and bring him up to you. Or a midwife might pass your baby up to you. Some prefer to leave their baby for a moment and take a look at him before picking him up. Now is the time for vital skin-to-skin contact, and remember, there is no rush to cut the cord. This is a moment of triumph for many, that magical moment of meeting your son or daughter for the first time. For others, the magic comes later on and they need some time to take stock about what you have just done. Physically, some feel hugely energised and on top of the world, whilst others feel utterly spent.
The Placenta Coming Out Phase
Just when you thought you’d utterly nailed this birth business, you realise you’ve still got one more job left to do, pushing out your placenta. The good news is that after a baby this feels like a teeny tiny friendly little portion of jelly. And once you’re through this phase, you can sink back on your pillows with your baby snuggled in tight, feeling like an absolute goddess. Delivering your placenta is usually easy-peasy, sometimes quite enjoyable and, frankly, a bit weird.
The Tea And Toast Phase
All being well, you are holding your baby, skin to skin. There may be a midwife or two taking an occasional peek at your nether regions, but frankly, you don’t really give a damn. If you do need stitches, you will get them now. And proving for every yin there’s a yang, you’ll also get the best cup of tea and slice of hot buttered toast you’ve ever had in your life! What does it feel like? Champion.MB