Labour: the not-always-dignified truth

Or, things you always wanted to know about childbirth but never dared to ask...

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Labour – the truth behind the myths

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Anyone with the slightest bit of preparation for labour will know to expect the possibility of pain, intervention and a fair bit of mess. But there are plenty of aspects of childbirth that are less well documented but which it can pay to be prepared for, just in case: None of the following are particularly dramatic and they’re certainly not dangerous, though they can be embarrassing if you do experience them, particularly if you’re unprepared. So, in the spirit of forewarned is forearmed, here are some of the quirkier and less often talked about happenings that can occur during birth.

1. Is it true that I might do a poo during labour?
2. Swearing and singing…
3. The public vagina
4. Tearing and snipping
5. Vomiting
6. Sexual arousal during childbirth? That can’t be true!

1. Is it true that I might do a poo during labour?

I’m afraid that this is true, yes. While it probably sounds hollow to you right now, there really is no need to be worried at the possibility of it happening or embarrassed if it does, because it is nothing the midwives haven’t seen before – lots of women pooh during labour, it’s perfectly natural.

It happens because all your muscles in the nether regions are connected and your baby is exerting pressure on the whole area as you’re actively pushing down to push your baby out. So if there’s anything in your bowels the chances are that it’ll be pushed out too. In fact, lots of women say that when they need to push during labour it feels just like they need to do a big pooh.

If it does happen then your midwife will quickly clear it up for you (it’s one of the less glamourous sides of the job) and many women won’t even know that it’s happened to them at all. It’s a good one to warn your partner about if he’s going to be present at the birth.

You might be tempted to try to hold in your bowels as you push, but really, don’t bother. There are far more important things to think about at that point than trying not to pooh, you need to concentrate on getting the baby out. Besides which, you can’t push and hold in at the same time!

2. Swearing and singing…

We’ve heard women say that they used words during birth that up until then they didn’t even know were part of their vocabulary. Most midwives have probably developed cloth ears to filter the f’ings and blindings out by now (but it won’t hurt to apologise afterwards anyway) and if you do turn into the fishwife from hell it won’t be the first time she’s heard the like of it. Your partner might come in for a bit of blue language too, so it’s not a bad idea to prepare him for the possibility.

If you use gas and air then you might find yourself talking nonsense, feeling high, laughing at nothing or even singing. There’s no telling what weirdness might result from the stuff and different people react in different ways, but it’s nothing sinister and you might even find you’re having a good time!

3. The public vagina

This is the most obvious item of our list. If you’re having a vaginal hospital birth then you should be prepared that you’re likely to spend a fair bit of time during labour with legs akimbo and open to the world, not that you’ll care at that stage. What you may not be so prepared for is how much action the area down below might be in for. Midwives will go up there to find out how many centimetres dilated you are, doctors will investigate up there to see how things are progressing, you may be given a membrane sweep to get things moving (where the midwife places her fingers inside your cervix and makes circular movements to try to lift the membranes away from the cervix) and you may also need a bit of needlework after the event. All births are very different, but most involve a fair bit of scrutiny of your nether regions.

4. Tearing and snipping

It’s important to say that not everyone tears or needs an episiotomy when giving birth vaginally, but one or the other are quite common. Tearing happens when the perineal tissue at the entrance to the vagina can’t stretch enough to allow your baby through. If the midwife thinks that you may tear badly then they might well recommend an episiotomy, where the doctor or midwife cuts into the perineal tissue to allow the baby through more easily. People have mixed opinions about episiotomies, and some women prefer to risk a natural tear – if that’s you then you need to be sure to state your wishes in your birth plan.

If you do tear, or need an episiotomy, then you may not feel it happen as there’s so much else going on, and depending what pain relief you have. After the birth the midwife will stitch you up (more fiddling down below) and believe it or not you will eventually heal.

There’s evidence that daily perineal massage with oil in the 6 weeks leading up to birth can improve the area’s elasticity and help prevent cuts and tears, so that might be worth investing the time in if it’s something you’re concerned about.

5. Vomiting

You may think that you’ve got enough on your plate to worry about without adding vomit into the equation, but it is reasonably common during birth and often can be brought on by drugs, though that’s not necesarily the case. On a more positive note the chances are that if it does happen, it won’t take up your focus for very long as there will be far more important things going on. With my first labour I completely forgot that I had vomited several times until a couple of weeks after the birth, when I suddenly had a kind of flash-back.

If you suffer from emetophobia, fear of vomiting, then you’ll want to take this into account when devising your birth plan so as to avoid the most common triggers of vomiting during childbirth.

And because we like to save the best until last…

6. Sexual arousal during childbirth? That can’t be true! 

Some women are, in fact, lucky enough to experience physical pleasure, sexual arousal or even orgasm during birth – though you might not think it lucky to have an orgasm in front of a room full of medical staff! It’s not clear how many women feel physical or sexual pleasure during birth, but it does seem to be a feature usually confined to natural births – without medicinal pain relief – and probably related to a woman’s mental approach to childbirth and the ease of labour. It’s difficult to say how common an experience this is as people aren’t necessarily prepared to talk about it.

We think it’s fair to say that for a lot of women labour couldn’t be classed as pleasurable until the moment it’s over, but others can and do find it a pleasurable experience, even orgasmic. What’s more, pain and pleasure aren’t necessarily incompatible, even during childbirth. During labour our bodies reward us for the pain with a flood of feel-good, euphoria-inducing chemicals, the effect of which may not kick in until your baby is safely out and the worst pain is over, but that’s not necessarily the case. So if you do start to feel a different kind of stirring down below then don’t think that there’s something wrong with you, or that you’re some kind of freak – birth is a natural process and those are entirely natural feelings of pleasure.

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Share your own experiences

Every woman’s experience of labour is unique, and we’ve by no means covered all the oddities that can occur. If you had a labour experience that you wished you’d been prepared for then share it with other mums-to-be on the forum thread below and pass on the knowledge.

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