I like to think that I went into my birth about as well educated as a first time mom could be. I was one of those women who read everything she could get her hands on. Now, looking back, I see how little I really knew. Sadly, most of that was simply because I didn’t look into the right subjects. I focused my time and energy on normal pregnancy and birth coping information rather than thinking about any complications I might potentially face and how to handle them, challenges I might encounter during and after birth, and everyday mothering. Now, having been through it, there are 7 things I wish I’d known before I went into my first birth.
1. Educate yourself on variations and common complications of labor.
Yes, most births are a natural, physiological process. However, the unfortunate reality is that sometimes complications do arise. A 2008 study found that “...nine out of 10 women giving birth suffered complications ranging from ectopic pregnancies...to perineal tears during delivery…”(1) That’s 94.1% of women!(2) Even if you don’t require a medical intervention to correct a deviation, you need to know how to handle it naturally and what steps to take if primary interventions fail to work.
If you equip yourself with knowledge of “common” complications, you will be empowered to address them confidently. I recommend reviewing and learning the definitions and consequences of meconium staining, amniotomies, posterior position, back labor, vacuums, c-sections, hemorrhage, episiotomy and tearing. Don’t let this knowledge scare you. Use it to empower yourself. In the event that one of these complications occurs, you will not regret having a working knowledge.
It didn't occur to me to research complications beforehand, and I had no idea what was happening when I was struck by back labor. Because I didn't know what it was or what to do for it, I ended up with an epidural, a vacuum extraction, an episiotomy and a 4th degree tear - some of which I may have been able to prevent if I’d just known more about common complications.
2. Be prepared to advocate for yourself and ask questions during labor.
Ask what is going on with your body when you are unsure or need some extra reassurance. Ask why procedures are being performed. Talk to your care providers and let them know what kind of birth you would like to have before things get too intense. Make sure your partner knows to speak up for you if you can’t. It's one of the most important things they can do to support you during labor.
Remember, no matter how in-line with your beliefs about birth they are, your healthcare providers aren't mind readers! If you want something during your labor, you need to ask for it. If you are denied, find out why. Sometimes you simply have to be persistent and speak up to get what you want. Studies have found that women have higher rates of satisfaction in their birth when they felt they had some control in the process. With that in mind, don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself to help achieve a more satisfying birth experience.
3. Don't set your heart on anything for your labor and birth.
Know your preferences and be prepared to advocate for them (unmedicated birth, getting to move during labor, no episiotomy, etc.) but don’t set your heart on any one thing. Before my birth, I thought I was open to whatever course my labor would take, but part way into it I realized that I had set my heart on something: getting to labor in water. When I wasn’t allowed in the tub, I was devastated. Laboring in water had been my key pain relief and relaxation plan. Denied that, my whole process was derailed. I suddenly felt unprepared and afraid, which was doubly unnerving because I had told myself over and over that I would be open to my body’s process.
Because I was so determined to get a particular thing in my labor, I set myself up to be disappointed. Being open and accepting of your body’s unpredictable course and outcome will help you avoid birth trauma. Instead of setting your heart on a particular “kind” of birth or coping technique, be truly open to a variety of options. Pursue the course you want but know that birth rarely goes as planned.
4. Pick your battles.
Sometimes doctors, hospitals or nurses aren't always perfectly in line with the way you envision birth should be. When this happens it is essential to decide what’s important to you during your birth and to concentrate on those few issues. You can't fight every little thing you disagree with; it's simply not realistic. To achieve a minimally stressful birth, know what you will and won't let slip.
Is it hospital policy to monitor baby for an hour or so when you check in? Maybe it's not your ideal but you can probably live with it. If they want to continuously monitor a healthy baby, however, it may be worth fighting if you want freedom of movement.
Does your doctor routinely induce women without true medical reason? That’s a battle worth fighting, but if your nurse wants to give you some Pitocin immediately after birth to help prevent hemorrhage, do you really want to stress over it?
The bottom line is you need to accept that it probably will not be realistic to “get your way” in every aspect of your care. Instead, decide what things are truly important to you, and don’t sweat the small stuff.
5. It’s easier than it sounds - caring for your newborn, that is.
Reading articles on how to care for your infant is great, but it can undermine your confidence and make everything sound much harder than it is. So many people told me how things “fall into place” and you “just know what to do” after the birth of your little cherub, but of course I didn’t believe them! I stressed and studied and read and watched videos and wondered how on earth I would take care of a precious baby.
But you know what? Things did fall into place. I did “just know”. To a certain extent, just like everyone said, mothering is instinctual. Changing a diaper in real life is far easier than reading how to do it or even watching a video! You just start trying things when baby cries until something pacifies her. Knowing the basics like safety and general care of baby is necessary but stressing that you won’t know how to care for her and over-studying is not. If you would like some reading, I recommend Dr. Harvey Karp’s book, The Happiest Baby on the Block.
6. Read about baby sleep and sleep training before your bundle of joy arrives!
Do you want to let your 6 month-old cry-it-out (letting babies cry it out younger than this this is not a good idea), or are you determined to take a more attachment parenting approach to sleep? Trust me, riffling through a book in the middle of the night as you frantically bounce a crying baby is not the route to go! Knowing different options and strategies to try will help ease the stress of teaching your baby (a hard enough task as it is) to sleep at night.
With the arrival of our angel, I thought I wanted to take a “no tears” method of sleep. And for about seven months, we did. She slept like a champ through the night from birth to about two months. I thought I was hot stuff for “training” my newborn to sleep a solid six hours straight every night!
Then, around two months, she started to fight going down for the night. I had to nurse and nurse and nurse her until I could lay down in bed with her and let her sleep with me. Eventually, she began to wake up when I would lay down with her and be ready to party. Evenings became incredibly stressful, with me dreading bedtime. I was at a loss. I didn’t know what kind of sleep training to try because I didn’t really know my options. I was so bleary-eyed and dazed that the last thing I wanted to do during the day was read about baby sleep.
Eventually, stressed to the max, my husband decided that it was time for us to try the "cry it out" sleep method, and it turned out to be the right choice for us. Our daughter now knows how to put herself to sleep after milk and snuggles and then comes into bed with us sometime in the middle of the night.
For some fantastic tips on getting your baby to sleep, try Dr. Harvey Karp’s The Happiest Baby’s Guide to Great Sleep: Simple Solutions for Kids from Birth to 5 Years and The No-Cry Sleep Solution by Elizabeth Pantley.
7. Be ready to fight the guilt.
Don't worry if you don't know what I am talking about. You will once you are holding your little bundle and are suddenly faced with your new life as a mother. Mommy guilt is feeling guilty about everything no matter what. For example, after I had my daughter I felt guilty for resting while she slept, but if I got up and did something I felt guilty for not resting. I felt guilty for letting someone else watch her so that I could spend some uninterrupted time with my husband, and I felt guilty for neglecting him if I didn't. I felt guilty if I didn't use all natural products on my baby, but I felt guilty for spending a ton of money on them if I did. Get the picture? You can't win. All my mom friends talked about the guilt.
If you can't avoid the mommy guilt, you can accept it. You will not be perfect. Ever. Period. What you will be is a mother - a kind, loving, responsible mother who makes the best decisions she can in the situations with which she is faced.
Studying for your birth and parenthood is vitally important, but it is even more important to prepare for the right things. Having been through it once before, I know now what I should have devoted my time to researching. Birth doesn't always go the way you want it to and you need to know how to handle it when things go awry. You need to be ready to advocate for the birth you want and ask questions about your labor. Even as you take control, you also need to be open to the course your body takes, even if it doesn’t perfectly match your expectations. Deciding ahead of time which battles are worth fighting will help with that, as will avoiding stress over how to care for a newborn. Studying up on sleep training can be very worthwhile! Finally, and most importantly, remember that the only measure of a mother that really matters is that she makes her baby feel loved.