What is ‘Normal’ Labor?

A local childbirth educator with Beaumont explains the realities of labor and what parents should expect.

“Is this normal?”

It’s a common question asked by a laboring mother anxious to meet her new baby. And the answer – whether it’s about how long the childbirth process should last or what will happen during it – might sometimes come as a surprise.

Expectant parents often go into the delivery room with a wide range of misconceptions about what “normal” labor really is, says Maribeth Baker, childbirth education coordinator with Beaumont.

“Every labor is unique,” she explains, and helping women understand that can lead to better outcomes. “One example is not everybody understands that labor is a process and it’s going to take some time – and that’s OK as long as mom and baby are healthy and responding well to labor.”

Just how many hours should women expect, then? Up to 24 hours or longer is all very normal.

“We try to not talk in terms of hours,” Baker says, “because when you start talking in terms of hours, if they get past that expectation, then they’re thinking there’s something wrong.”

It’s part of the overall trend toward a more hands-off approach to childbirth.

“We’re just seeing a transformation of things like coming back to the old ways of thinking. Letting the woman and her family kind of move, eat what they want and do what they want during labor,” she says. “And just giving them that confidence that everything is normal.”

Encouraging women to get up and move around during labor is part of a safe labor initiative currently underway at Beaumont that ultimately aims to decrease the rate of cesarean sections. It emphasizes education – not only at childbirth classes but also from everyone involved in the woman’s care, from her OB-GYN or midwife to the nurses in the delivery room.

“For the majority of women, movement can help labor,” Baker says. “If a woman is in bed with an IV and a monitor on, if a nurse doesn’t tell her, ‘Hey, it’s OK to get up and move,’ then she feels confined to bed.”

Another part of “normal” labor is knowing that it all doesn’t need to take place at the hospital. Unlike the movies, women don’t need to rush into the maternity unit with their first contractions.

“On TV, when you see a woman go into labor she immediately is in the throes of discomfort and usually her water breaks at the same time and she’s off to the hospital,” Baker says. “What most women experience is they’ll start having contractions and they might be spaced apart. They might be questioning, ‘Is this labor?'”

In reality, women with low-risk pregnancies are typically encouraged to stay at home for a while where they’re comfortable, so that their labor can advance.

The role of the support person is also changing. Instead of just breathing along with the laboring mom, study after study has shown benefits to “continuous, bedside hands-on support,” Baker notes.

“We encourage them to be that active support person,” she says. This could include using massage, relaxation tools, aromatherapy and positioning techniques. “That has proven to give an overall satisfaction for the laboring woman and help get toward that goal of a vaginal birth.”

Deciding about pain relief during labor, such as an epidural, is another common area of concern for women. Like other childbirth issues, it’s best to be educated and know your options, Baker says – no fear or guilt necessary.

“I always want women to feel that no matter what decision they make as they’re laboring, that was the best choice for them,” she says. “I want to empower them.”

Women can also expect flexibility in birthing positions, pushing at their own pace and skin-to-skin contact with baby after birth.

“Women need to listen to their bodies,” Baker emphasizes. “They need to trust that their bodies are created to birth babies and to trust and listen to the evidence that’s out there. The evidence shows that the majority of women are able to go on and have an uncomplicated pregnancy, labor and birth.”

Of course, a C-section or other unexpected interventions are sometimes necessary. But with education about normal labor, women can feel empowered and better prepared to handle any special circumstances that may arise.

“This is one thing you can’t control at all,” Baker says. “The more educated you are about labor and birth, the more comfortable you’ll feel to follow your instincts as labor begins.”

For more information or to sign up for a Beaumont childbirth education class, visit beaumont.org/classes-events.


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