by Hannah Thompson
It’s important to remember that every woman- and every labour- is different. Most labours, however, follow a progression of stages, and understanding these can help you support your partner in the best way possible.
The latent phase
This is the time when a woman’s body is getting ready to go into labour. Although what she’s feeling is sometimes referred to as “practise contractions” or a “false start”, this is actually a very important time, especially for a first-time mum. The latent phase can last for anything from a few hours to a week, and sometimes doesn’t happen at all.
The main thing your partner will notice is contractions that are painful but not strong enough to make her pause for breath. These contractions will usually be quite irregular, and may even go away for several hours before returning. Your partner may also have a “show”, which is a mucousy, blood-streaked discharge from the vagina. This happens as the cervix begins to open, and is a very good sign! Sometimes the waters will break during the latent phase, or you may notice small amounts of bleeding. While this can be normal, you should always contact your midwife for advice.
The latent phase is a very exciting time and brings you one step closer to meeting your baby! But it can also be long and tiring for you both, so you will need to support each other. Try to carry on with daily life as much as possible, eat and drink as normal, and try to sleep or nap. There may be times when your partner needs some support through some intense contractions. This is where massage, long baths and long walks will come in useful.
The first stage
During this time a woman has regular contractions that help her cervix to open, letting the baby descend into the vagina. Most women will have between three and five contractions every 10 minutes, but- as always- remember that every woman is different! Usually there will come a point when your partner will want to go to the place where she intends to give birth, whether this is at home, at a birth centre, hospital, or somewhere else. At this point it is worth phoning your midwife or hospital for advice.
The length of this stage varies hugely, and tends to be shorter if you have had more babies. For first time-mums the average is 10-12 hours. This may seem daunting, but remember that your partner is strong and that her body is capable of doing this!
You will probably have discussed birth options between yourselves during the pregnancy. While it is important to respect those decisions, it is also true that birth plans can go out of the window during labour! Your midwives will discuss all your options with you as they arise. The best thing you can do is to support your partner in a way that gives her the strength, confidence and self-belief she will need to make the choices that are best for her.
I like the analogy of a marathon runner: we all know he or she is in pain, but nobody watches these phenomenal athletes feeling sorry for them. We cheer them on in wonder of what their bodies can achieve, and how mentally strong they are. This is also what women need in labour, no matter what birth options they choose!
Towards the end of the first stage, a woman without an epidural may feel a lot of pressure on her back and bowels. This is a great sign, as it means baby is on its way, but a lot of women find it difficult. At this point your partner may well tell you she can’t do it any more, or ask for more pain relief. The best way to support her is by being calm. You know, after all, that this is a good sign! Remind her she is your hero! This stage doesn’t usually last long, and you and your midwife will be able to help her through it.
This is the stage where the cervix is fully open and the woman can push the baby through the birth canal. This can take time and a lot of effort, but it’s the last bit before you meet your new arrival! The second stage usually lasts for between one and three hours for a first-time mum, less for subsequent babies. The length depends mostly on the strength of the contractions and the position of the baby. Women without an epidural will usually feel an irresistible urge to push. If your partner has an epidural, don’t worry: your midwife can guide her on when and how to push.
The baby may come through the birth canal gradually, slipping back between pushes. This can feel frustrating, but is good as it allows baby to adjust and your partner’s muscles to stretch. Your midwife will monitor mum and baby more closely during this stage as it can be hard work for both. Eventually the baby will “crown”, and won’t slip back any more. A few pushes later, you baby will be born!
Your partner, the baby, or both can become tired during this stage. Usually this is normal, and your support will be all your partner needs. In certain situations, your midwife or doctor may suggest an assisted delivery with a suction cup or forceps. This is a safe procedure which guides the baby out while your partner pushes. Around 12% of babies are born this way, usually when the position of the baby is making the second stage very long.
Now that your baby is here, you can relax while your midwife delivers the placenta, or afterbirth. This stage can take up to an hour and there are two ways of managing it. The first is to let nature take its course and let the body expel the placenta. Your partner will feel an urge to push and the placenta will come out (this is nothing like pushing out another baby, though, so if your partner was crushing your fingers during baby’s birth, good news- you’ll still have one working hand!).
Alternatively, your partner can choose to have a hormone injection to separate the placenta, after which the midwife will guide it out by pulling on the cord. There are some side effects to the injection, such as nausea and vomiting, but it can also reduce blood loss. If your partner is at high risk of bleeding after birth, your midwife may suggest she has the injection.
Now the birth is over and you can enjoy getting to know your baby! Relax, take some time for bonding with baby in skin-to-skin, and remember to take plenty of photos. Most women recover very quickly from birth, but your partner will naturally be sore and tired. Plenty of her favourite food, sleep, and good support will get your new family off to the best start.