Mother and Baby

21 things no one tells you about labour (but a heads-up would have been nice!)

Section: Labour & Birth

We all think we know the basics about labour; contractions come and go, we have to time them and wait till they start happening more often before heading to the hospital.

Waters might break, it’s painful, and you may likely rip—down there. Oh, and poop could come out while you’re pushing (surely you’ve heard of this one by now).

But that’s not even scratching the surface of what labour is really like. We asked a bunch of mums to tell us the truth about labour, and about the things they’d wish they would have known before it started.

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1) You might not realise you’re in labour

You may be so accustomed to getting Braxton Hicks contractions during your pregnancy that when the real ones kick it, it could be hard to tell the difference.

Generally, labour contractions are much more painful, but there have been instances where labour has started and the mother was completely oblivious.

In addition, your waters may break and you might not even realise it.

With so much amniotic fluid and discharge coming out towards the end of your pregnancy, if waters break and start coming out a little at a time, you may be caught unawares.
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2) The whole process can take sooooo long and can be quite boring

We’ve all heard of those women who say that the baby practically just popped out effortlessly after only a two-hour labour—and that’s including the time it took for her to get to the hospital—but for the majority of women, labour can be a long waiting game.

Family tends to get excited and come to the hospital as soon as they hear that the baby is on the way, but before long they’re all just sitting in the waiting room, as bored as you are.

They’re often told to go home, getting called back when the real action starts to happen.

If the doctor tells your partner to go home and get some rest, you could end up alone at the hospital while in labour; not very nice.
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3) You could be sent home

Your OB/GYN will have already told you to go to the hospital when your contractions are five minutes apart, or if your waters break.

But in the panic of realising that you’re in labour, you might decide to rush to the hospital sooner instead.

If the doctors and midwives see that your contractions are not as regular as they’d like, or that your waters are still intact, it’s more than likely that they will send you home, even though technically, you’re in active labour.

This isn’t a bad thing though; it’s much better to wait it out in the comfort of your own home.
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4) Contractions can last a long time without anything actually happening

Just because you’re having contractions and are officially in labour, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll be giving birth to your little bundle of joy any time soon.

Contractions could last a very long time with nothing significant happening at all. While the doctors wait for you to get to optimal dilation, the contractions just keep on coming, and it could take a while to make progress.

A lot of women have reported having two- and even three-day labours, but if we take into consideration that one woman in Poland was in labour for 75 days, a 48-hour labour doesn’t sound so bad, after all.
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5) Waters break, and just keep on coming out till the baby is born

When waters break in movies, it just looks like a cup of water has been spilled to the floor in between the expectant mother’s legs.

In reality, there is usually so much water in there, that when your waters break, it could just keep coming out non-stop until the baby is out. “I thought it was just one gush of water and then it’s done,” one mum tells us.

“I didn't realise I'd need quite so many pads before I'd even given birth,” says another. “The night my waters broke, I went through a whole pack of thick pads with my waters leaking everywhere. I also went through so many leggings, towels, pads and undies. I just couldn’t get it under control.”

And this one takes the cake: “I rolled up one of those large incontinence bedsheets and shoved it in my knickers, and still water somehow managed to get into my shoes while I was walking to the ER.”
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6) How uncomfortable an IV during labour is

You’ll have to have an IV fitted as soon as you get to the hospital so they can administer meds in a flash if necessary.

You’re advised to move around while in labour; apparently it could hurt less this way, and encourage the labour to go by faster. Sitting on a birthing ball, pacing the floor, and changing your position often is recommended.

But doing all these things with an IV hanging out of your arm can be painful and uncomfortable to say the least. And don’t get us started on if you need to use the loo.
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7) You might have to have a urinary catheter installed and it’s ghastly

A full bladder can hinder the progress of labour, and if you’re in no position to be going to the loo alone, which is very possible in the final stages, the midwife will install a urinary catheter through your urethra—very often without much warning.

“It feels like you’ve got cystitis all of a sudden,” one mother said. “Getting the catheter fitted and removed was one of the most horrible parts of the whole labour. fter I’d had the baby and they took the catheter out, for some reason they had to put it back in again. Worst thing ever!”

These catheters are most often inserted if you’ve had an epidural so that you don’t have any accidents since you can’t feel anything—but that also means that you won’t be able to feel it going in, which is a good thing.
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8) Liquid meds are shoved up your bum, and, gross

As you may have started to guess with the IV and the catheter, labour isn’t all about stuff coming out of you; it’s a lot about things getting shoved in, too! When you first arrive at the hospital, they like to give you a nice cleansing colon enema.

This consists of two massive syringes full of liquid being squirted into your anus, while you’re propped onto your side, no doubt cringing in disgust.

It doesn’t exactly hurt per se, but it feels… well, gross for lack of a better word. You’re supposed to try to wait 5-10 minutes before emptying your bowels but this feels more impossible than the idea of a baby the size of a watermelon coming out of your vagina.

Ibuprofen, Voltarol, and other meds are also often given up the back passage and the feeling could take you by surprise.
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9) Contractions aren’t always predictable

Just like labour and birth in general can be unpredictable, contractions sometimes have a mind of their own. “The whole ‘3 in 10’ rule (three contractions in 10 minutes) doesn’t apply to some people,” says one mum.

“I had contractions with no real pattern for two days and then, all of a sudden, they came every two minutes with no warning! Got to the hospital at 7cm dilated. If I’d have known I didn’t have to wait for the ‘3 in 10’ I would have gone in a lot sooner and likely had a nicer experience!”

On the other hand, just because contractions are regular, don’t assume that you’ll have appropriately dilated.

Another mum tells us, “No one ever mentioned, not even once, that I can have a 24h labour with contractions every 3 minutes lasting 1.5 minutes each from beginning to end, while being only 1cm dilated.”
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10) The pain isn’t just in your tummy; you can feel it in your legs, back, and, well, everywhere

We all know that labour hurts, but a surprising number of new mothers were quite shocked to find out that the pain of contractions is not only felt in the abdominal region.

“The pain in my back was worse than the pain I was feeling in the belly,” one mother says. “Even in between contractions, I couldn’t get comfortable anywhere, and it felt like my back was going to break.”

In addition to the back and belly, it’s also possible to feel contraction pain in your legs, and hips, and pretty much everywhere else. Very temperamental, these contractions.
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11) Pushing is hard

“This might sound ridiculous, but the actual pushing was even tougher than I expected,” one reader tells us.

“My husband told me that he preferred to look at the horror show that was going on ‘down there’ rather than at my face. He said I looked like I was demon possessed while I was pushing; my eyes were bulging out of my head, my face was trembling, and I was practically purple from all the straining.”

If that’s not bad enough, a lot of the times you could be pushing with all your might, and the baby won’t have moved even a centimetre, leaving you feeling like you did all that hard work for nothing.
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12) You have to push as if you’re doing a number 2—and that’s why you may do

Since pushing from your vagina isn’t really something we do on the regular, midwives will often tell you to push as if you’re doing a number two.

“Come on love, push, do a poo, do a poo,” one midwife encouraged her patient in labour. This is most probably why a lot of times, some poo may make its way out while you’re pushing, despite the cathartic enema you may have had beforehand.

This is nothing to worry about, however; the staff wipe it away quickly—along with all the other gunk that’s coming out down there—so no one will suspect a thing.
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13) Pushing is not as scary and painful as contractions

A lot of people tend to think that it’s the pushing during labour that hurts—again, thanks to media representations that show women screaming in agony while they are pushing their babies out—but for most women, pushing comes naturally and provides a kind of respite.

“Why did everyone scare me with the pushing thing?” asks one new mother. “The pushing part is a relief. The worst pain is the contractions. The labour wasn’t as long as I’d expected, but it was much more painful.”

Also, contractions might not end completely and immediately after the baby comes out; did we not mention after pains?
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14) Induction could make labour pains worse

It’s true. Being induced can take labour pains up a notch or two. In response to having your waters manually broken, or being administered prostaglandins (the hormone you’re given to kickstart labour), labour pains tend to come on hard and strong. “No one told me that induction and the hormone drip would make my pains so much worse,” we’re told by one mum. “My third birth was fully natural and was a breeze in comparison.”
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15) It’s highly likely you will vomit from the pain

Vomiting during pregnancy is one of the most common symptoms and has almost become synonymous with the first trimester.

However, have you ever been in so much pain that you’ve thrown up? Well, labour’s your chance. It might be nice for someone to have mentioned that you may chuck your guts up from the pain of contractions, or the meds that you’ve been given, or even the exhaustion.

Vomiting is the body’s natural way to tell you that the body is currently in overdrive, but don’t worry; it’s completely normal and very common.
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16) Epidurals wear off quickly, and sometimes they only work on one side

 There’s nothing quite like the relief of an epidural after relentless contractions, and the best part is that it takes effect almost immediately. Unfortunately, though, it wears off just as quick as it starts to work.

One second it’s working, and the next—BAM—you’re wholly experiencing the full joys of contractions, until you get another dose.

Most hospitals nowadays give you your own epidural drip button so that as soon as you start to “feel” again, you can handle your own pain relief.

Did you know, though, that sometimes the epidural can fail on one side?

This means that while you’re numb on the one side, you can feel everything on the other, and for some reason, it feels like you are experiencing twice as much pain, but just on one side.
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17) You might fall asleep

You weren’t expecting this one, were you? See! It isn’t all bad! Going back to how awesome getting that first hit of epidural is after debilitating contractions, you might be so exhausted that you’ll immediately conk out.

“I was in a 10-hour labour and finally gave in and had an epidural,” one new mum says. “I promptly fell asleep for 20 minutes. It was the best nap I’ve ever taken. Got rudely awakened by excruciating contractions, of course, and begged for more epidural.”
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18) There may not be any pain in between contractions

A lot of scaremongering goes on when it comes to what labour is like, with everyone telling you the worst possible stories and scenarios, but something no one tells you is that, with a bit of luck, in between contractions, you might not experience any pain at all.

At the worst of it, contractions could just be one minute on, two minutes off.
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19) There will be a room full of people looking at your hoo-ha, but you just won’t care

Midwives, doctors, interns, your partner, your doula… There may possibly be around 8–10 people in the delivery room while you’ve spread-eagled your legs as far as they will stretch, vagina and anus on full display—and quite possibly the rest of you too (it’s way too hot and sweaty for clothes), and it won’t be physically possible for you to care less about it.
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20) Despite your best efforts, it might not all go according to plan

The rules in all the pregnancy and birth books stress the importance of having a birth plan, and like good little mothers-to-be, that’s exactly what we did.

Our trusty little detailed birth plan that we’ve learned inside out, and have made sure that our partner, midwife, and doctor know by heart too, has not left our side from at least 6 months onwards.

But no one warns you that despite your best efforts, sometimes it just won’t go according to plan. At any slight complication, the birth plan tends to go out the window, the priority always being getting the baby out safely.

The best approach is to have a birth plan but not have your heart set on any one course. Be flexible, and expect that the route to getting your baby out and in your arms might not be the one you would have preferred.
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21) It might not be awful at all

 A number of women—especially those who have had really heavy and painful periods all their lives and are used to abdominal pain of that type—have reported labour not being at all as bad as they had expected.

“Something I wasn't told by anyone other than the wonderful hypnobirthing group I was part of,” says one member of the Mother & Baby Facebook #mumtribe, “is that it's going to be okay. Everyone kept telling me horror stories and how awful it was, and for me that couldn't have been further from the truth. That’s why it’s nice having a doula. They’re there for the mother, constantly encouraging her with physical and emotional support, and making her feel that everything is A-OK.”

Can you relate to any of these? Let us know on Facebook or Twitter!

Now read:

The three stages of labour and what to expect

Practice these seven exercises to make your labour easier

Mums describe what giving birth *really* feels like


  • Author: Kat de Naoum Kat de Naoum
  • Job Title: Freelance Writer

Kat is a freelance writer based in the UK and Greece. She has written for many publications, and, as an advocate for female empowerment, loves to write about women’s issues, and helping fellow mothers feel supported and less alone.

She has birthed one child and written two books. She can read and write and tends to spend most of her (non-parenting) time doing that, as well as taking care of her several pets.

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