Linda Murray: There are many myths and misconceptions about labor. And we want to banish them for you partly because it's good to know the facts and partly because you'll walk away from labor a happier new parent if you know the truth. Research shows that you're much more likely to be satisfied with your birth experience if you have a realistic, positive expectation about labor.
Myth No. 1: It will be the worst pain I've ever felt. Fact, it depends. Some women do say that labor was the most painful experience of their life, but others say it wasn't so awful and that other types of pain are worse, like a kidney stone or a broken bone. If you're young, healthy, and have never experienced much pain, labor could top the charts for you. It's important to remember that pain is relative and that your tolerance for it is personal. So be prepared for anything.
Myth No. 2: Medication is the only way to ease labor pain. Fact, medication is the easiest way to dramatically relieve pain, but it's not the only way. Many women end up using both natural techniques and pain medication to get through labor.
Myth No. 3: There's no downside to using pain drugs. Fact, pain drugs are generally safe, but they come with potential side effects for you, your labor, and your baby. They can make you feel dizzy, itchy, or nauseated. Depending on when they're given, they can slow down your labor or make it harder for you to push, and they can dampen your baby's breastfeeding reflexes and cause drowsiness, potentially interfering with post-birth bonding. That said, if you do choose to use pain medication, there's no need to feel guilty about it. It's a personal choice, and every woman has to balance the pros and cons for herself.
Myth No. 4: The best way to labor is lying in bed. Fact, it's an image we're all familiar with, but laboring while lying down isn't your only option. When you're upright and moving around, you may feel more comfortable and your labor may happen faster too. For one thing, when you're upright, gravity helps nestle your baby against your cervix. This pressure helps your cervix thin and open, which moves labor along.
Of course, if you want to lie down, you're welcome to. Many women want to get in bed at some point just because they're tired and appreciate the chance to rest. It's important to know that in some circumstances, you'll need to stay in or near the bed. For example, if you get an epidural your doctor might make you stay in bed from that point on because your legs may be too weak to stand, or you might be hooked up to a machine near the bed that's monitoring your baby's heartbeat, which means you can't move more than a few feet away.
Myth No. 5: I shouldn't eat or drink during labor. Fact, drinking clear liquids is fine. You can quench your thirst with beverages like water, juice, a sports drink, soda, tea, or black coffee. Eating in early labor is okay too. But you may eventually throw it up. Nausea is common during labor and food stays in your stomach longer during pregnancy too. So even hours after you've eaten, a wave of nausea can bring up the majority of your last meal. Eating during active labor is another story. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends against eating this late in labor for one main reason. It can be risky if you have a complication that requires you to get general anesthesia. That is, be knocked out completely. The risk is that when you're completely out, you can't control your gag reflex and the contents of your stomach can come up and enter your lungs, a rare but serious complication. For that reason, an empty stomach is safer. Most women don't have to worry about this risk because general anesthesia is hardly ever used in childbirth. Even if you have a c-section, you're much more likely to be awake with pain medication numbing the lower half of your body. When you're alert like this, you can control your gag reflex and having food in your belly isn't a problem. Many caregivers like to play it safe and advise against eating in active labor, but not all caregivers agree. Ask your own doctor or midwife what she thinks. If you don't feel like eating or drinking anything, that's fine. Most laboring women don't complain of hunger. But if you are hungry or thirsty, ask whether it's okay to have something. In a long labor, you may feel like you need something to keep your energy up.
Myth No. 6: I shouldn't soak in a tub after my water breaks. Fact, it's true that once your water breaks, the amniotic sack is no longer sealing off your baby and guarding against infection. But contrary to what some people fear, soaking in a tub doesn't make it any more likely that germs will get inside your vagina and cause an infection. Studies have shown that even after your water has broken, it's perfectly safe to spend time in the bath during the first stage of labor, which is up to the point when you start pushing. So if the water helps you cope with your contractions, you should go right ahead. Of course, you should make sure you don't overheat. The water can be warm but it should never be hot. Your baby can't cool down by sweating like you can, and it's surprisingly easy to slip when you're getting in and out of a tub while pregnant. Tread carefully and make sure you have someone there to help you.
Myth No. 7: My primary caregiver will coach me through labor. Fact, some caregivers will do this and others won't. At most hospitals, the nurses will be in and out to check on your progress and will only be able to help you part of the time. And typically you won't see much of your doctor until it's time to push because she's helping other patients at the same time or dealing with an emergency. You'll be able to call for help if you need it but your main caregivers probably won't have time to reassure you and guide you through all of labor. If you want dedicated, constant support, it's wise to line up someone who will be there for you. That person might be your partner, another loved one, a midwife or a doula.
If you have questions about what type of labor support to expect at your hospital, ask your caregiver.