What does labour REALLY feel like?
I remember when I was pregnant with my first child, I Googled exactly that. No-one seemed to want to tell me the truth. A lot of people told me, “oh it’s worth it” and “you forget all about the pain once the baby has arrived”. Whilst I believed both those statements were true, it didn’t answer my question.
Is it as bad as the make out on TV and in the movies? Would my waters break in dramatic fashion? How would I know I was in labour? What pain relief should I opt for?
Now I know every labour is different, each of my three could not have differed more. All I can do is offer my own experience, and the experience of a few other lovely ladies.
Pain relief used: tens machine, paracetamol, morphine, spinal block.
With my first child, my eldest son, I made it to 42 weeks and 2 days without a single twinge. That’s right, 16 days past my due date. I tried every trick in the book to get him outta there but he wasn’t for moving!
I was induced using the pessary and had a monitor strapped around my bump. I was informed after a few hours that I was contracting regularly. I was sat happily reading a book and the perplexed midwives asked whether I required any pain relief. I didn’t, as other than extremely mild back pain (possibly due to the uncomfortable bed I was perched on) I wasn’t in any discomfort at all. When I informed the midwife of this, she said according to the monitor the contractions were regular and intense.
My husband told me how proud he was of me, and how well I was doing and I felt like a fraud. Was this really it? Was I really just immune to the pain?
No. No I was not! As it turned out the contractions were ineffective and my cervix wasn’t actually dilating, hence the lack of pain! After 24 hours, I was taken to the delivery suite, had my waters manually broken (not painful) and was put on the Syntocinon drip. My pain level went from 0-60 almost immediately! I didn’t have the slow steady build up I was told happened during labour. I was certainly left in no doubt that this was the real deal!
I wanted as natural a birth as I could and hoped I could cope throughout the labour with mild painkillers and my tens machine. My tens machine was useless! The idea is you use it at the start of your labour and as the contractions intensify, you administer stronger “shocks”. As my contractions went straight in at a toe curling level of pain, I found the tens to be more irritating than helpful.
So what did the contractions feel like? The best way I can describe it is a very intense tightening at the lower end of my bump. It almost felt like there was a tiny person in there twisting and trying to pull the baby out! The pain would intensify to the point it was almost unbearable and then would gradually subside. I’m not going to lie to you. It hurts. A lot.
Having said that it wasn’t necessarily the pain that I was struggling with at this point (although I could certainly have done without it!) It was the complete exhaustion. After 6 hours of intense contracting (my husband and I were fascinated by the monitor informing us just how intense each contraction was!) I was devastated to discover I was still only 2cm dilated.
Starting to feel disheartened, I tearily asked the midwife what my pain relief options were. I was so sure that after contracting so regularly I must be nearing the end, so discovering I was only a 5th of the way through the labour was a complete slap in the face. I wanted drugs.
I was given morphine and it was glorious. I had read that morphine wasn’t recommended towards the end of the labour as it could make mum and baby drowsy, but I figured I’d be safe at 2cm! I could still feel the pain but it felt further away. It was a surreal experience but I did actually fall asleep during contractions which I would never have thought possible!
A further 8 hours later, I was examined again amid concerns that my baby’s heartbeat was rising dramatically with every contraction. The midwife was worried that baby was becomingdistressed…aint we all, kid! My fears were realised yet again when I was told that I was still only 2cm dilated.
Do you remember that episode of Friends where Rachel goes into labour and after hours and hours is only 2cm, and Ross says “Two?! Even I’m dilated two!” Well it was like that. Except not in the slightest bit amusing.
Due to my failure to progress, the doctor, midwife and I came to the joint decision to have an emergency section. By this point I would have agreed to anything! I was taken to theatre, had the spinal block and within minutes of it kicking in, my little man finally made it into the world.
Pain relief used: morphine, epidural (unsuccessful)
With my second labour I opted for a VBAC – vaginal birth after caesarean. This time my second little man was 10 days late. Honestly these boys are tardy! I was booked in to be induced 2 days later and I was desperate to avoid that. I didn’t have the best experience of induction with my first and I was told being induced would reduce my chance of a successful natural delivery.
Unlike with my first labour, I started with mild cramping pains. I was once told early labour felt like intense menstrual cramps. I’d never really suffered from severe period pains so I had no point of reference, but I imagine this is what they meant. They gradually grew more intense, to the point I was struggling to breathe and rock my way through it. Unfortunately although they were intensifying, the contractions were far apart and only coming every ten minutes. This continued for over 36 hours.
I was advised by the hospital to come in and be examined. The doctor examined me and said I was only 3cm dilated, and made a derogatory comment about my contractions “only” being every 8-10 minutes. I was tempted to ask him whether he would enjoy being kicked in the balls every 8 minutes for a day and a half, but despite my sleep deprived state I managed to hold my tongue.
I was delighted to be 3cm, it was 1cm more than I got to last time! They decided to admit me and although I hadn’t slept for nearly two days, I was feeling positive. I was examined by a different midwife who told me that baby was back to back. She said it with a sympathetic grimace which immediately made me anxious. She informed me that back to back labours tended to be longer and more painful. Awesome.
That theory was realised 4 hours later when I was examined and still only 3cm. Here we go again! I was put back on the not so affectionately nicknamed “Drip Of Doom” and the regular painful contractions started up like last time. The pains were different this time though, as the midwife had warned. During my first labour the pains were predominantly around the front, under my bump. This time the pains were in my lower back. I would still describe the pain as an intense tightening but I found it harder to manage it. It felt like my lower back was slowly being crushed.
I immediately asked for morphine, knowing it was the only thing that came close to helping last time. I didn’t find it to be quite as effective as I had in my first labour, and as the day dragged on and another five hours passed, I was examined only to be told I was still only 4cm. By this point I had been having contractions for over 48 hours. I was tired, I was defeated, I wanted another caesarean. Luckily for me I have an awesome husband who told me not to give up. The midwife said I was progressing, just slowly and asked whether I wanted an epidural. Yes please!
But things didn’t exactly go to plan. As I sat on the edge of the bed as the anaesthetist starting to jab my back with needles, I felt a massive gush of water as our baby completely shifted position. The pressure on my back was immediately relieved but the contractions started to ramp up. I was told the epidural would take a while to kick in and as I lay back on the bed I remember looking at my husband and saying “I feel strange”. Within 15 minutes I was shouting to the midwife that I needed to push. It turns out once he was in the right position, I went from 4cm to 10cm within the space of 30 minutes.
Unfortunately it didn’t give the epidural time to work so I felt EVERYTHING.
When it came to pushing I was lucky that he was out in the fewest of pushes. The worst sensation was trying not to push when the midwife told me not to. I was told to pant and wait so I didn’t tear. That didn’t work! When it came to crowning, the best way I can find to describe it was an intense stinging pain. But after the previous 48 hours I felt invincible. My second baby was born just minutes after starting to push.
After my first son was born via c-section I was delighted and filled with love, but the emotions were completely different this time round. I felt europhic, not just because of our new baby, but because of my achievement. I’d survived! I’d done it! I felt like Wonder Woman and I remember constantly repeating to my husband “I can’t believe I’ve done it!”
It was the most empowering feeling of my life.
Pain relief : Paracetamol, gas and air.
My third labour was quite a different experience to my other two. My girl was overdue just like her brothers, but thankfully just the 4 days this time.
I was in slow latent labour for just shy of three days, which basically meant I had the cramping pains every 15 minutes during that time. However rather than feel exhausted and defeated, I felt empowered and confident. I’d done it before, against all odds, I could do it again. I even took my sons to a rhyme time session at our local library during this time. Life doesn’t stop, not even for labour!
Things only really started to get moving when I got out of bed after a night of not much sleep. As I got up I felt a slight trickle and turned to my husband with an “Oh!” To be completely honest I wasn’t sure if I’d wet myself a little or if it was my waters! We decided to go for a walk and I had barely got to the end of the street before I felt an unmistakable gush. I knew I definitely hadn’t wet myself this time!
The more intense pains started almost immediately. We took ourselves off to the hospital and despite only being 3cm, they decided to keep me in. With my history of tricky labours and the fact I was starting to bleed a little, they wanted to keep an eye on me.
I was given some paracetamol and was then left alone in a cubicle with my husband. It was 6 hours before I was checked upon again. I think they figured it was going to be a while! By the time the midwife came back I was really starting to struggle. The contractions were coming every 3-5 minutes and were becoming more intense. The midwife took one look at me stood swaying with my eyes closed and said “I think we need to examine you”.
And praise the Lord, I was 7cm! I was quickly shipped off to labour ward and 90 minutes later our little girl was born. Compared to my last two labours it had been so quick and straightforward. There was barely time for any additional pain relief so I relied solely on the gas and air. I wasn’t a fan of the gas and air during my previous labours but found it helpful third time round. It helped me focus on my breathing and allowed me stop tensing up.
As you can tell, all three of my experiences could not have been more different. Here’s what some other lovely ladies had to say about their experiences of labour:
“It was way worse than I imagined! Terrible carpet burning non stop ripping pain! After 2 kids I never ever want to go through it again!”
Victoria @ https://www.lyliarose.com
“Far worse than I ever could have imagined. I went from wanting a natural drug free birth, to asking the midwife at what point is it too late for an epidural. I learnt I am not as tough as I thought!
Nothing can compare (although a recent foot tattoo was close call)”
Sinead @ Sineadlatham.com
“I was induced because my waters broke and I never went into labour. I didn’t find it that painful and have always thought I had a low pain threshold. I didn’t get to the pushing stage so I’m not sure how much different they would have been though”
Ayse @ Www.Arepops.com
“To me the pain felt there but the gas and air made it feel like it was far away – like I could feel it in the distance! It was surreal”
Lianne @ www.anklebitersadventures.co.uk
“I’m going to be the odd ball – I loved it. I’m by no means an au naturelle kinda Mum, I was quite looking forward to trying all the drugs. But I didn’t find the pain such that I needed anything (disappointing). The head crowning was the worst and smarted a bit!Found it all quite manageable and a wonderful experience both times (once in the UK, once in France). I had 2 very quick and uncomplicated births, and I don’t take for granted for even a nanosecond how lucky I was.”
Kate @ www.fivelittlestars.com
“So much worse than I ever imagined it would be. The pressure was immense and I had no idea it would be like that. Someone asked me if it was a bit like having really really bad constipation and actually, it kind of is – but a million times worse. I didn’t have any pain relief and both of my babies were a big size for my body so that may have played a part!”
Sarah @ Www.arthurwears.com
“I thought it was much better than I thought it would be and didn’t suffer too much at all though I did need to be cut and the stitching up was horribly painful! I gave birth with no pain relief to a 9lb 1oz baby but I quite liked it really except the stitching up! My boy was born not breathing though so that possibly made the stitiching up worse as I was very emotional as he had just been resuscitated!”
Jen @ www.justaveragejen.com
“The contractions were worse than I ever imagined! However I actually loved the sensation of pushing, I felt so empowered!”
Rachael @ www.fromrachaelclaire.com
“I didn’t think it was that bad it was pretty much what I expected but I have a high pain threshold. I just kept concentrating on my baby getting here safe and that got me through it with just gas and air. At the end I had forceps intervention with no gas and air at all but my body just kind of took over.” Sophie @ https://www.sophobsessed.com
“Mine was very quick and went from nothing to full blown labour to giving birth in less than 4 hours so I felt very overwhelmed as it was so intense with no build up. I thought I was going to die, there were no gaps between and I couldn’t catch a breath – I knew I couldn’t cope for hours longer but what I didn’t know is that I was almost done!”
Emma @ www.notmyfirstrodeo.co.uk
My tips for new mums
- Go in with an open mind. I was so set on having a natural birth first time round that I ended up feeling like a failure. Have a birth plan by all means, but be prepared to deviate from it.
- Don’t be defeated, you CAN do it!
- Don’t compare yourself to anyone else. I finally had the birth I wanted with my third, but there was no way I could have survived the second labour on just Paracetamol! Every person is different. Every labour is different.
- Remember there are no medals for being a martyr. You want an epidural? Have one. You want the drugs? Go for it! As long as you and baby are healthy, that’s all the matters
- Try to relax. As impossible as it sounds try not to tense up. That was the best piece of advice given to me and focusing on my breathing and staying (reasonably) calm really did help third time round.
This was the first in a series of upcoming posts on pregnancy, childbirth and newborns. I’m aiming to cut my way through the old wives tales, the horror stories and the competitive ramblings, and offer my own honest perspective.
Also in the series –
Coming soon –
- What to pack in your hospital bag
- Self-care post caesarean
- Must have baby essentials
- Tips for first time dads
- What to include in your birth plan