Labour is terrifying, especially if it’s your first. You’ll hear lots of horror stories when people find out you’re pregnant. But it doesn’t have to be traumatic or as terrible as some people (and TV shows) make it out to be.
Caveat: These are general thoughts, ideas, and tips. Trauma is real and this post is not intended to minimise it.
What makes a positive birth story? It doesn’t mean labour was painless, that it happened according to your birth plan, or that it was quick and straightforward. It’s not that you were able to successfully use all the Hypnobirthing techniques or you were able to get through labour without pain relief.
A positive birth story is one where you felt like you had some level of control, an understanding of what’s going on and what your options were. One where the gap between expectation and reality isn’t very large.
There are therefore many versions of a positive birth story and it’s possible to have one despite all the things that are beyond your control.
There’s so much about giving birth that no one really talks about until you’re pregnant. For me, it was particularly important to understand what was going on because the system in the UK is so different from the US or the Philippines. For instance, you only speak to an obgyn if your pregnancy or labour have any issues. Otherwise, the midwives take care of you.
First time mums may not realise how many decisions they need to make in the midst of contractions or in the daze just after giving birth. Often, if you’re not prepared, it’s easier to just say yes to whatever the doctors or midwives recommend, even if you feel unsure about it.
The mothers I’ve spoken to who’ve said they experienced a kind of trauma or struggle with their labour have said that the midwives didn’t even consider their birth plan or that they didn’t know they had options. While it’s important that you feel like your midwife considered your wishes and patiently explained why certain things can or can’t be done or why they recommend a specific course of action, it’s not always possible when you’re already in the labour ward.
It would therefore be helpful to understand the potential decisions you’d be making and situations you’d be facing before you go in.
You can learn about labour and everything that goes along with it by reading books (highly recommend Expecting Better by Emily Oster) and other resource materials (in Scotland, they give you a book and lots of leaflets), attending antenatal classes (loads of online ones but I liked the in person ones better), and asking your midwife lots of questions.
It’s also helpful to speak to other people about their experiences, but beware of horror stories. Choose who you speak to (if you can, as I found some people just want to share their traumatic birth experience with anyone who would listen) and take everything they say with a grain of salt. Everyone’s experience is different – especially if they gave birth at a different time and place than you.
Have a Plan… Or Not
Having a Birth Plan is largely dependent on your personality and what you feel comfortable with – whether control is important to you and you want to know (or can’t help but think about) each eventuality and you want to understand the pros and cons of all your options. If you’re the kind of person who would be happy to go with what your midwife or doctor recommends, you won’t need a plan. You’ll still need to make decisions though because the midwife may just say, “it’s up to you.”
Many people recommend having a plan because then you’re prepared and you can tell your midwife exactly what you want. Others say birth plans are useless because labour never happens the way you expect. However, there are some things you can do, regardless of what happens in labour (e.g. skin to skin after birth with either yourself or your partner). Having a plan also allows you to be proactive. While things won’t happen exactly the way you want them to, there may be things that do (e.g. you may have an assisted delivery but you’re able to still do delayed cord clamping).
Having a plan means you’re ready with decisions in various circumstances. For instance, you can have a vaginal birth plan and a C-section plan. If the midwife or doctor says you shouldn’t have an unassisted vaginal birth, you can decide to skip the assisted birth options and go straight to a C-section.
In other words, the plan allows you to make decisions beforehand so you don’t have to think too much or know and weigh the pros and cons in the moment, which could be quite stressful. Note that you can also change your mind in the moment if that’s what feels right to you.
The plan will also be helpful to your birth partner. It will be hard to speak up while you’re in the middle of labour. If you can, you should absolutely ask questions like why, what are the benefits, risks, alternatives, etc. and tell the midwife what you want or don’t want. But if you can’t, your partner, armed with your Birth Plan, can take charge for you.
The Birth Plan can be as simple as a few lines about the most important bits for you, or as complex as you wish. But remember that the midwives will probably not have that much time to read through all of it. There are Birth Plans too that use images (see the Positive Birth Book for a free download) and this might be easier for them.
I had a Birth Plan but I don’t think it’s particularly necessary to have one. You may be happy to leave the decision making to your midwife, but remember that you’ll only meet her when you’re in the labour ward. What’s important is that you make the decision to give that control over, and that you’re aware of the various scenarios you might face. What you don’t want is to think, “Oh I didn’t know I had a choice” after birth. You always have a choice. If, having educated yourself, you’re truly not fussed about any of it, you don’t need a plan.
If you have a Plan, let it go
The nature of labour is that things will probably not unfold as planned. There are just so many variables out of your control that it’s impossible to predict what might happen, even if you have a planned C-section.
Being attached to a Birth Plan that only shows your ideal labour without any flexibility will only set you up for potential disappointment. Understand that the Birth Plan only lists your preferences. It’s important that you go into labour knowing that things might not happen the way you want it to and that’s totally okay.
Some people say that what’s important is that you and your baby are healthy. For me, what’s more important is that the gap between expectation and reality is as narrow as possible. This means, whether you have a plan or not, you need to be knowledgeable enough and mentally prepared for anything that can happen.
There are many versions of a positive birth story. You can absolutely still love your story even if your labour didn’t happen the way you wanted.