As a birth educator, I feel like I know a lot about birth. But the reality is that there’s an infinite amount to be learned on the subject! And, when it comes to birthing, there really are no rules.
Often times, childbirth is portrayed as a fairly straightforward process with a general set order to it. Obviously, there are some consistencies between all births (or at least, all vaginal births); at the very least, the cervix needs to dilate, and the baby needs to come out through the birth canal. But other than that, the process of birth is so incredibly variable! And even those two basic rules don’t apply to surgical births, of course.
Viewing childbirth as a set-in-stone process with a preset timeline, course of events, and expected characteristics is not only potentially frustrating for moms who don’t follow the “rules”, but it can be threatening to the natural birth process. Unless there is a true danger to mom or baby, or mom wants to have an intervention, intervening in the birth process simply because things aren’t going exactly according to plan is unnecessary and unhelpful.
Instead, we must realize that every birth is unique, and that we can’t know what is going to happen ahead of time or control the process. Surrendering to the process of birth is the key to peacefully accepting any path that birth takes.
We can start by recognizing some of the myths about the birth process, and correcting those misconceptions with more realistic expectations. Here are some of those common myths:
Myth: A woman’s water will break before she goes into labor.
Reality: Many women experience their bag of waters rupturing well into birthing time. Some babies are even born with the sac still intact. Other women may have amniotic fluid leaks earlier in pregnancy, or multiple episodes of their “water breaking” throughout their birthing process. And yes, for some women, their water breaking is the way that their body begins birthing.
Myth: Women must dilate to 10 CM before they can have their babies.
Reality: Every woman’s body is different, and while 10 CM is the “standard” measurement for full dilation, some women’s bodies may dilate slightly less or more. And, since birth professionals don’t exactly use a measuring stick, even the process of measuring dilation is basically a guess, which can vary greatly based on the practitioner’s perspective. The only real rule here is that all women giving birth vaginally will dilate enough to pass their baby through the cervix.
Myth: Birthing women dilate at a steady pace, so dilation is very important to gauge where a women is in her birthing process.
Reality: Some women may be 1 CM dilated for a long time, then become fully dilated within a short amount of time. Other women may reach 6 CM quickly, but take longer to complete. Some women walk around for weeks being a few centimeters dilated, before they really begin their birthing time in earnest. It’s also possible (I know from experience!) to dilate, even to almost complete, and then regress and close back up significantly. So checking dilation during pregnancy or birth is really quite useless, as this information does not tell us when a woman will give birth.
Myth: All women experience a bloody show, and this is a sign that birthing will soon begin.
Reality: Some women pass their mucous plug and/or some blood during birthing time, and some women never notice this phenomenon at all. Other women have a bloody show hours, days, or weeks before birthing. Still others may notice they pass some blood and mucus several times before and during birthing.
Myth: Babies are not ready to be born before exactly 37 weeks, and are “overdue” if they’re not born by their “due date” at 40 weeks.
Reality: Babies can’t tell time or read calendars. They don’t have tiny invisible in-the-womb iPhones to notify them when it’s time for their birth appointment. According to our labels, babies may be born pre-term, early-term, full-term, late-term, or post-term; but none of these labels will tell us if a particular baby is healthy or not. Some babies truly are ready around 36 weeks. Other babies truly aren’t ready until after 42 weeks. Most babies are ready somewhere between 37 and 42, but most is not all. And, it is very important to realize that our pregnancy dating system relies on the assumption that every single woman in the world ovulates on exactly day 14 of her cycle, which is quite false. So when a baby is born before 37 weeks, it warrants taking precautions, but it does not warrant panic or automatic assumptions that the baby needs special care. And when a baby is not born by 42 weeks, it warrants more patience and birth encouragement techniques, but not necessarily medical induction. (Induction before 42 weeks is even less evidence-based.) There are exceptions, but most babies will be born at the right time for them, if allowed to do so.
Myth: Birth begins and progresses in a clear pattern.
Reality: For some women, there may be an easily identifiable “early birthing time,” followed by a more active birthing time, and culminating in pushing and the actual birth. For these women, pressure waves (“contractions”) may begin fairly mildly and about 15-20 minutes apart, and continue to grow stronger, longer, and closer together until they reach transition, when they are very close together and strong. This process may take 8-12 hours or so. Other women may have a longer early birthing time, lasting 24 hours or more, before active birthing time begins.
But for still other women, there may be a very long, unpredictable period of “warm-up,” “pre-birthing,” and/or prodromal birthing waves, which lasts days or weeks, before leading into true early birthing time or even straight into a more active birthing time. (Prodromal birthing tends to feel like the real deal, but then it stops). So for some women, birth doesn’t begin in an obvious way, but rather a very slow and ambiguous way.
And even after birthing begins, it doesn’t always continue to progress smoothly. Some women experience starts and stops in their birthing process. Others never have a rhythmic pattern of pressure waves at all, instead experiencing sporadic waves that nonetheless work to bring baby out. This is why timing pressure waves periodically can be somewhat helpful for many women, but confusing and discouraging for others. Seeing a pattern may bring false hope that birthing time has started, while not seeing a pattern may be needlessly discouraging. Ultimately, birth happens in its own way on its own time.
Myth: Birth is always painful.
Reality: While many women do experience pain during birthing, others experience only mild discomfort, no discomfort, or even pleasure. Many women have used Supernatural Childbirth or childbirth hypnosis programs to eliminate pain during birthing. Some women naturally have easy and comfortable births, due to biological, psychological, or cultural factors that we don’t understand. For others, pain medications have been very effective at eliminating pain in childbirth (though pain medications for birthing are not without risks and side effects, nor are they always effective).
There are even many women who have experienced orgasmic birth (yes, you read that right!) The belief that birth is excruciating is one of the very reasons why so many women experience it that way. But it doesn’t have to be so! Birth can be a much more easy, comfortable, and enjoyable experience than what most women in our culture go through. Much of this is in our mindset, and much of it is in the tools that we choose to use.
When it comes to the institution of birth, particularly in our country, there are so many other myths that have been perpetuated as well. But, that’s a topic for another post. For now, I will simply end with this: birth is a mysterious process. We can’t control it, predict it, or put it in a box, no matter how hard we try. Our best bet is to respect the birth process for each individual woman and baby, trust in our natural abilities to birth as women, and do our best to keep moms and babies safe when issues do arise (without looking for or making issues where there really aren’t any).
The best thing for expectant parents to do is to educate themselves about the birth process to the best of their ability, and then to realize and accept that all births are unique and unpredictable, and that’s okay! Better Birthing online courses can help provide both information and confidence in the birth preparation process.
In birth, there are no rules, only guesses. That just might be why it’s such a fascinating and miraculous–and, yes, sometimes frustrating–event. Fortunately, no matter what path a birthing takes, the end result of a precious and beautiful newborn baby is worth every moment of uncertainty.
Do you want to be informed, confident, and empowered as you prepare for birthing?
Better Birthing courses give you the information you need to make empowered choices, so that you can look forward to your baby’s birth with confidence.