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A pregnant woman leaning against the window of her hospital room being supported by a midwife

Labour is like a marathon

Giving birth to your first baby can be hard work. This is why we introduce you in this first week to ways you can keep yourself fit and healthy so that you will be much better prepared for the birth.

Different women have different lengths of labour, from a couple of hours to a full day or more. Usually, first babies take longer because it is the first time that your uterus (womb) has had to use its muscles and, in particular, it is the first time that the cervix (neck or opening of your womb) has had to open up to let a baby out.

Some women may feel that they are in labour for longer, but usually this is their cervix softening and shortening before true labour begins. Another slow part of labour is at the very beginning, while your cervix is opening the first 1-2 cms. Once labour really starts to get going, your cervix will dilate much more quickly.

If you have had a baby before, and maybe your last labour was long and slow, remember it will be much quicker this time. Many women say their first labour took 24 hours, and then their second and third ones were about 3-4 hours.

It is important not to get excited too early and spend all your ‘pre-labour’ time breathing and walking around, thinking that you are in labour, as you will get very tired. Try to keep on doing all the normal things: cooking, cleaning, resting, going out to sit in the park, walking gently, having a bath, watching a film, reading. Often, if your mind is distracted by watching a good film, you may not notice these early contractions.

Sometimes it is hard to rest, as when you lie down the contractions may feel more uncomfortable. If this is the case, here are some things that may help:

  • Standing or sitting upright may be more comfortable for you.
  • Try sitting on a birthing ball, or back-to-front on an upright kitchen chair, with a pillow on the back of it; or sit back-to-front on the closed toilet lid, with a pillow on the cistern, to rest your arms or head.
  • When the contractions begin to bother you more, you could try dancing, bouncing gently on a birthing ball, or having a warm bath, with lots of water as it will help you feel more weightless, and will ease the pain (Cluett et al 2018).

In Weeks 3, 4 and 5 of this course, we will give you more information on ways to cope, and positions to use for labour and birth.

The longer you can stay at home calmly and quietly, the better your flow of birth hormones (see Step 3.2) will be, and the more likely that you will have a faster, more normal labour. But of course, if you are worried at any stage, contact your home birth midwife, birth centre or hospital and they will advise you.

Have a look at this short video clip of a woman labouring in hospital/home, using a birthing ball for support.

This is an additional video, hosted on YouTube.

As you can see, a few hours of that sort of activity will be tiring, so it is really important to rest completely in between contractions, drink frequently and eat small snacks as you wish to keep your energy levels up.

When the time comes to push your baby out, you will get a surge of energy from your body’s own hormones (see Step 3.2), and you will feel able to do it, especially if you are upright for the pushing stage, for example if you are in the all fours position, kneeling, standing or squatting.

We hope you will take on the challenges suggested each week to help you be fitter and healthier for birth, and that you find yourself feeling better in mind and body as the weeks go by.

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This article is from the free online course:

Journey to birth

Trinity College Dublin