Labor & Delivery




What to Expect During Labor and Birth

Labor and Birth What to Expect

What to Expect During Labor and Birth

Soon, you'll experience the amazing process of childbirth! Find out the signs of labor and learn about your options for giving birth. We'll cover everything you need to know in this article, so let's get started! There's plenty to go over.

Key Points

  • There are multiple places you can have your baby at, including a hospital, birthing center, or at home.
  • There are multiple options for managing pain, depending on your health history and preferences.
  • It's important that you carefully consider all of your options before making a decision on how to have your baby.

Signs of Labor

Many women, especially with their first babies, think they are in labor when they're not. This is called false labor. Do not feel embarrassed if you go to the hospital thinking you're in labor, and then you get sent home.

If you think you are in labor call your doctor or visit the hospital. Signs that you're in labor or that labor is approaching include:

  • Contractions that come at regular and increasingly shorter intervals. Contractions will become stronger over time.
  • You have persistent lower back pain. You might also feel cramps as if you were premenstrual.
  • You find it easier to breathe. This means the baby has dropped, and that you should soon be going into labor.
  • You need to pee more. As a baby drops in preparation for birth, it will place pressure on your bladder.
  • You have more energy. You might find that you have more motivation to do things as you draw closer to labor.
  • Your water breaks in a large gush or a trickle.
  • You have a brown or red-tinged mucous discharge. This is most likely your mucous plug. Losing your mucous plug usually means your cervix is dilating and becoming thinner and softer. Labor could start right away or could be a few days away.

Choosing Where to Deliver

Many women carefully choose the kind of environment in which to deliver her baby. Not all insurance companies will cover birth at a birth center and even less will cover planned homebirths. The three ways women can choose to deliver are at a hospital, birth center or at home. Most hospitals and birth centers offer birthing classes and breastfeeding support.

Laboring in a Hospital

If you have health problems, pregnancy complications, or are at risk for problems during labor and delivery, you should give birth in a hospital. Hospitals offer the most advanced medical equipment and highly trained doctors for labor and delivery. In a hospital, a doctor can do a cesarean section if needed. Epidurals or many other pain relief options are also available. If something goes wrong, you'll have a medical team ready to assist you as needed. Most people will choose to deliver in a hospital, but the choice is up to you!

Only certain doctors have admitting privileges at each hospital. So, before you choose your doctor learn about their affiliated hospital. When choosing a hospital you might consider:

  • Is it close to your home?
  • Is an anesthesiologist on staff at the hospital 24-hours a day?
  • Do you feel comfortable in the labor and delivery rooms?
  • Are private rooms available?
  • How many people can you have in the room with you?
  • Does it have a neonatal intensive care unit in case of serious problems with the baby?
  • Can your baby stay in the room with you?
  • How is the hospital rated? Does it have a good reputation for safety and patient care?

Laboring in a Birth Center

Healthy women who are at a low risk for problems during pregnancy, labor, and delivery may choose to deliver at a birth or birthing center. Birth centers give women a more relaxed, home-like environment in which to labor and give birth. A birth center will focus on making labor and delivery a natural, family-focused process. Usually certified nurses or midwives deliver babies at birth centers.

Birth centers do not do any routine medical procedures. This means you will not automatically be hooked up to an IV when you are in labor. You also will not have an electronic fetal monitor around your belly the whole time. Instead, the midwife or nurse will check in on your baby from time to time with a handheld machine. When your baby is born, all examinations and care for the baby will occur in your room. You cannot receive an epidural at a birth center although some pain medications may be available. If a cesarean section becomes necessary, you will be moved to a hospital for the procedure. Basic emergency care can be done on a baby with problems while they are being moved to a hospital.

Keep in mind that these centers are not equipped to deal with emergencies that require an extremely fast or technical response. If you're older, or if you have any concerns about complications, a birthing center may not be for you. If you value having a calmer, potentially safer environment to deliver in that your family can be part of, then this might be the right choice for you!

Many birthing centers have showers or tubs in their rooms for laboring women. They also tend to have the comforts of home like large beds and rocking chairs. Birth centers usually allow more people in the delivery room than hospitals. A birth center can be affiliated with a hospital, inside of hospitals, or completely separate facilities.

Homebirth – Labor at Home

Healthy pregnant women with no risk factors for complications during pregnancy, labor or delivery can consider a planned homebirth. Some certified midwives and physicians will deliver babies at home. If you are considering this choice you should ask your insurance company about their policy on homebirths and if they cover costs.

Homebirths are common in many parts of Europe, but in the United States planned homebirths are still controversial. If you are considering a homebirth, you should fully research the pros and cons. The main advantage is that you will be able to experience labor and delivery in the privacy and comfort of your own home. Since there will be no routine medical procedures, you will be in complete control of your experience.

The main disadvantage of a homebirth is that in case of a problem, there will not be immediate hospital/medical care. You'll have to wait for an ambulance to arrive or until someone can drive you to the hospital before you can get assistance. This could put your life or the baby's life in danger. Women who deliver at home have no options for pain relief.

To ensure your safety and that of your baby, you must have a highly trained and experienced midwife to assist you. If you live far away from a hospital, homebirth may not be the safest choice. Your midwife must have the necessary training and supplies to perform emergency care for you and your baby if need be. Your midwife should also have access to a physician 24 hours a day. Homebirths aren't the most popular choice for a reason; they're relatively dangerous compared to birthing in a hospital or birth center. If you have a strong desire to remain in the comfort of your home, however, it may be worth a consideration. Just ensure you're prepared for the potential complications that could arise.

Who Should Deliver Your Baby?

Women can also choose what type of health care provider they would like to deliver their baby. An obstetrician is a medical doctor who specializes in the care of pregnant women and in delivering babies. Obstetricians also have special training in surgery so they are capable of doing episiotomies and cesarean sections. Women who have health problems or pregnancy complications should see an obstetrician.

A certified nurse-midwife (CNM) and a certified professional midwife (CPM) specialize in prenatal care, labor, and delivery. Either one can offer a different care choice for healthy women at low-risk for problems during pregnancy, labor, or delivery. A CNM does not need experience delivering babies in home settings. Most CNMs practice in hospitals and birth centers. A CPM is required to have experience delivering babies in home settings because they deliver in homes and birthing centers. Both should have a back-up arrangement with an obstetrician in case of a problem or emergency.

Some women also choose to have a doula assist with labor and delivery. A doula is a professional labor coach who gives physical and emotional support to women during labor and delivery. The doula offers advice on breathing, relaxation, and positioning. Doulas also give continuous emotional support and comfort to women and their partners during labor and birth. Doulas and midwives often work together during a woman's labor. Check with your health insurance company to find out if they will cover the cost of a doula. Keep in mind that doulas do not have professional medical training, so you will still need the assistance of a midwife or doctor while delivering.

If you want to have total control over your delivery, you may feel tempted to try to handle your delivery all on your own. This is not advisable. If anything goes wrong, you won't be in any position to help yourself. You'll be in pain, and you'll be quite immobile due to the labor and birthing process. Not having anyone with training and experience there also means that you might not know if something is going wrong. It's best to at least have an experienced, trained midwife with you. There's no need to be embarrassed; this is what they do for a living. They've seen it all!

Managing the Pain

Virtually all women worry about how they will cope with the pain of labor and delivery. Childbirth is different for everyone. So, no one can predict how you will feel. The amount of pain a woman feels during labor depends partly on the size and position of her baby, the size of her pelvis, and the strength of the contractions.

Natural Pain Relief During Labor

Many women choose to deliver their babies without using medicine for pain relief. Things women do to ease the pain include:

  • Use breathing and relaxation techniques.
  • Take warm showers or baths.
  • Receive massages.
  • Have the supportive care or a loved one, nurse, or doula.
  • Find comfortable positions while in labor (stand, crouch, sit, walk, etc).
  • Use a labor ball.
  • Listen to music.
  • Building a positive outlook on childbirth and managing fear may also help some women cope with the pain.
  • Take a childbirth class. Call the doctor, hospital or birthing center for childbirth class information.
  • Get information from your doctor. Write down your questions and talk about them at your regular visits.
  • Talk about your fears and emotions with friends, family and your partner.


More and more women in the United States are using water to find comfort during labor and delivery. In waterbirthing, a woman in labor gets into a tub of water that is between 90 and 100 degrees. Some women get out of the tub to give birth while others remain in the water for delivery. The water helps women feel warm and relaxed which helps to ease the pain of labor and delivery for many women. It is also easier for laboring women to move and find comfortable positions in the water.

Waterbirthing is relatively new in this country which means there is very little research on its benefits. However, many women say giving birth in the water is faster and easier. Waterbirthing may be gentler for your baby as it can ease the baby's transition from the womb to the new world. The baby is born into an environment that is similar to the womb it inhabited for nine months. Make sure you discuss waterbirthing with your doctor or midwife to see if you are a good candidate for waterbirthing. Water birth is not safe for women or babies who have health issues or a woman in a higher risk pregnancy.

Waterbirthing is going to be easiest to achieve at home or at a birth center. If you choose to go through with this method of delivery, make sure you have people around you to assist if necessary. In the unlikely event that you fall unconscious during delivery, you'll want someone there to help you. If you slide underneath the water, this person can pull you back out. They can also help you get in and out of the water as needed, while the midwife or doctor you have with you focuses on the baby.

What to Expect – Labor and Delivery

Medical Pain Relief

While you're in labor, you will have the option for pain relief. There are many different kinds of pain relief available, but not all options are available at every hospital and birthing center. Your health history and any problems with your pregnancy will make some options better than others. If you have any questions or concerns about what medications will be available to you, make sure you speak with your doctor.

Types of pain relief used for labor and delivery include:

Intravenous or Intramuscular Analgesic

A doctor gives you the pain medicine through a tube inserted in a vein or by injecting the medicine into a muscle. These medicines go into your blood. This type of pain relief does not get rid of all of the pain but it usually makes it bearable. After getting this kind of pain relief, you can still get an epidural later on. Some disadvantages of getting intravenous or intramuscular analgesics are that they make you feel sleepy and drowsy and can cause nausea and vomiting. They can also make you feel itchy. Another issue is that the medicines cross into the baby's bloodstream. They can affect the baby's breathing, heart rate and cause him/her to be very sleepy for a while after birth.

Epidural Anesthesia

A doctor injects medicine into the lower part of your spine. The medicine blocks pain in the area of the body below the shot. Epidurals allow most women to be awake and alert with very little pain. Medicines used in epidurals include novocaine-like drugs that block the pain in that area combined with opiods like fentanyl. An epidural can make you shiver uncontrollably and can lower your blood pressure. It can also make you feel very itchy and can cause headaches. An epidural also may not numb the entire painful area, which means women continue to feel pain in some parts of the abdomen and back. This is a very popular method of pain control for women during delivery, and is a very safe option for you and your baby.

Spinal Anesthesia

A doctor injects a medicine into the lower part of your backbone. This medicine numbs the entire body below where the medicine was injected. Spinal anesthesia gives immediate pain relief so it is often used for women who need an emergency Cesarean section. Spinal anesthesia uses numbing medicines similar to novocaine, combined with opiods like fentanyl. Some disadvantages of spinal anesthesia are that it numbs the body from the chest down to the feet. It makes you feel short of breath and can lower your blood pressure. It will, however, be the best course of action if you need an emergency C-section. It will completely prevent you from feeling any pain in these areas, which you'll want if you need a C-section.

Cesarean Sections

Most healthy pregnant women with no risk factors for problems during labor or delivery have their babies vaginally. However, the rate of babies born by cesarean section in the United States is on the rise. In 2004, 29.1 percent of babies were born by C-section in the U.S which is an increase of more than 40 percent since 1996. Many experts think that up to half of all C-sections are unnecessary. It is important for pregnant women to get the facts about C-sections before they deliver.

What is a Cesarean-Section?

During a C-section, the doctor makes a cut in the mother's abdomen and uterus and removes the baby surgically. Most women get spinal or epidural anesthesia during a C-section which allows her to stay awake without feeling pain but in some cases general anesthesia is needed. With general anesthesia the woman is asleep during the entire procedure. A C-section can save the life of a baby or mother by allowing the doctor to get the baby out very quickly. A cesarean section is major surgery and all surgeries have risks. This includes infection, dangerous bleeding, blood transfusions, and blood clots. Women who have C-sections stay at the hospital for longer than women who have vaginal births and recovery time is longer and is often more painful than that after a vaginal birth. C-sections should only be done when the health or the mother of baby is in danger.

Some mothers want to request a C-section because they fear the pain or complications that can come with vaginal delivery. This is generally not possible; most doctors will only perform a C-section if it's needed for the health and safety of the mother. Talk to your doctor if this is an avenue you want to pursue. If you have a strong fear of vaginal delivery, it may be worth it to speak with a counselor or to consider if pregnancy is the right fit for you.

Doctors recommend C-sections when the health of the baby or mother is in danger. However, there are risks associated with delivering by C-section, as we discussed. Limited studies show that the benefits of having a C-section may outweigh the risks when:

  • The mother is carrying more than one baby (twins, triplets, etc.)
  • The mother has health problems including HIV infection, herpes infection, and heart disease
  • The mother has dangerously high blood pressure
  • The mother has problems with the shape of her pelvis
  • There are problems with the placenta.
  • There are problems with the umbilical cord
  • There are problems with the position of the baby (e.g. breech presentation)
  • The baby shows signs of distress (e.g. slowed heart rate)
  • The mother has had a previous C-section

Elective C-Sections: Can Women Choose?

A growing number of women are asking their doctors for c-sections when there is no medical reason. Some women want a c-section because they fear the pain of childbirth while some others like the convenience of being able to decide when and how to deliver their baby. Still others fear the risks of vaginal delivery including tearing and sexual problems. Is it safe and ethical for doctors to allow women to make medical decisions? The answer is unclear and further research on both types of deliveries will provide the answer. Many obstetricians feel it is their ethical obligation to talk women out of elective c-sections. Others believe that women should be able to choose a c-section if they understand the risks and benefits.

Experts who believe C-sections should only be performed for medical reasons point to the risks. C-sections can be dangerous for the mother and baby because it is major surgery which increases the risk of infection, bleeding and pain in the mother. C-sections also increase the risk of problems in future pregnancies and C-sections cause a higher risk of uterine rupture. If the uterus ruptures, the the baby's and mother's lives are in danger. Babies born by C-section have more breathing problems right after birth and are very rarely cut during the surgery.

Those who support elective cesarean sections say that this surgery may protect a woman's pelvic organs, reduces the risk of bowel and bladder problems, and is as safe for the baby as vaginal delivery.

Vaginal Birth after a Cesarean Section (VBAC)

Some women who have delivered previous babies by C-section would like to have their next baby vaginally. This is called vaginal delivery after C-section or VBAC. Women have various reasons for wanting a vaginal delivery after C-section. Some want to avoid the risks and long recovery of surgery while others want to experience a vaginal delivery.

Studies show that vaginal delivery after C-sections are more risky for the woman and baby than a repeat C-section. The most serious danger of vaginal delivery after C-sections is the chance that the C-section scar on the uterus will open up during labor and delivery, or uterine rupture. While very rare, uterine rupture is very dangerous for the mother and baby. Uterine rupture can lead to life-threatening bleeding for the mother and brain damage or even death for the baby.

Studies and Opinions on Vaginal Delivery After C-section

The biggest and best study on vaginal delivery after C-section was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2004. The researchers studied more than 30,000 women who had had a C-section and were pregnant again. Some of these women chose to have a vaginal birth after C-section while others decided on a repeat C-section. The doctors compared the health of the women and babies after both types of delivery. Almost three-quarters (73%) of women had a successful vaginal delivery after C-section. The other 27% of women who tried to deliver vaginally ended up having another C-section. While rare, problems with the woman and baby were more common among vaginal delivery after C-sections compared with repeat C-sections. Only 0.8 % of women had a uterine rupture. Women who tried vaginal delivery after C-sections had more blood transfusions and a greater risk of endometriosis than those who had repeat C-sections. Babies born by vaginal delivery after C-section had a higher risk of brain damage than those born by repeat C-section.

The percentage of vaginal delivery after C-sections is dropping in the United States for many reasons. There are worries about the rare, yet possible problems of vaginal delivery after C-sections. A growing number of doctors and hospitals are not allowing vaginal delivery after C-sections because they are afraid of lawsuits that might follow vaginal delivery after C-sections that go wrong. In 2004 the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommended that hospitals have a surgical team standing by whenever a woman is having a vaginal delivery after C-section .

Doctors are also discouraging or flat out refusing to perform vaginal delivery after C-sections. Sometimes this is because their affiliated hospital does not allow them. In other cases, doctors can not get malpractice insurance to cover claims related to vaginal delivery after C-sections. And some doctors admit they are afraid of getting sued if a vaginal delivery after C-section goes wrong. Choosing to try a vaginal delivery after C-section is a difficult decision for many women. If you are interested in a vaginal birth after a C-section, talk to your doctor and read up on the subject. Only you and your doctor can decide what is best for you. Both vaginal birth after cesarean and planned C-sections both have their benefits and risks. Learn the pros and cons and be aware of possible problems before you make your decision.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recommends that doctors consider vaginal delivery after c-section when:

  • A woman has had 1 previous planned C-sections done with a low, horizontal cut or incision (“bikini” incision)
  • A woman has no other uterine scars (aside from the prior C-section) or problems
  • A woman has no known problems with her pelvis
  • A doctor is present during all of labor and delivery and can perform an emergency C-section if needed
  • An anesthesiologist and other members of a surgical team are standing by in case an emergency C-section is needed


As you can see, there's a lot to learn about labor and childbirth. We know all this information may feel overwhelming, so take your time and work through everything piece by piece. It's best to start reading up on these things as soon as possible during your pregnancy, so that you have plenty of time to think and prepare. If you have any questions or concerns, you should seek the advice of your doctor. Congratulations on your pregnancy!

None of the information provided in this article should be taken as medical advice. If you are experiencing issues with your pregnancy, or have any concerns or questions about your health, please seek the advice of a qualified medical professional.

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