Vomiting? Shivering? Ripping off your clothes? We'll fill you in on what really happens during childbirth.
Published: March 1, 2023
By: Sandra Gordon
Now that you’re pregnant, you’re dutifully attending your childbirth classes and reading and viewing everything you can about the stages of labor and birth. But classes, books and online resources tend to give you the big picture, not the surprising— and sometimes embarrassing—details, like the fact that during labor–especially if you haven’t been given pain medication–
you may find yourself screaming, crying, even swearing at your partner or the doctor. Or you may strip.
“I’ve had patients who were so uncomfortable that they pulled off their gowns and delivered naked,” says Lisa Fraine, a certified nurse-midwife. These reactions are common; they’re simply a response to pain and exhaustion.
You can also blame hormones: “Labor causes a shift in your estrogen and progesterone levels, which is akin to a major case of PMS,” says Henry Klapholz, M.D., professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Tufts University School of Medicine in Boston.
If you do lose it, don’t feel bad. Doctors and nurses are used to these reactions. But if you’re uncomfortable with the idea of such a display, be prepared for your delivery. “Women who take childbirth classes tend to stay calmer than those who don’t,” Klapholz says.
Because knowing what to expect makes for a less stressful delivery, we’ve asked the experts to spill the beans on more common (yet seldom-talked-about) scenarios.
You throw up.
Who knew that vomiting during labor is normal? I was certainly didn’t–until the birth of my first daughter nearly three years ago. One reason it happens: Epidurals can cause hypotension, a sudden drop in blood pressure.
“An early sign of this is nausea and vomiting,” says David Birnbach, M.D., past president of the Society for Obstetric Anesthesia and Perinatology. But throwing up can occur even if you haven’t been given an epidural, either because of the pain you’re experiencing or as a result of food sitting in your stomach (digestion usually stops during labor). To keep vomiting to a minimum, eat only light foods during the earliest stages of labor, and stop eating completely—and drink only clear liquids—once you’re in active labor.
Your teeth chatter.
“Nearly 50 percent of women complain of shivering and chattering teeth chattering,” Birnbach says. It has nothing to do with being cold. In fact, your body temperature may rise a degree or two during labor, making you feel hot. The jury’s still out on what exactly causes this, but the latest evidence points to blood incompatibility. “During labor, a small amount of fetal blood crosses into the mother’s bloodstream,’ Klapholz says, “Studies show that when there’s an incompatibility in blood type between mother and baby—for example, your blood is type A and your baby’s is type B—the mother shakes, shivers and get chills.”
You make nasty noises.
As a baby descends through the birth canal, air gets forced out the anus, so be prepared to pass gas. This is especially likely if you’ve had an epidural, which paralyzes the anal sphincter.
Another unpleasant side effect of childbirth: You may have a bowel movement right on the delivery table. “It’s purely a space issue,” says Arianna Sholes-Douglas, M.D., a high-risk pregnancy obstetrician.
“As your baby’s head makes its way through the birth canal, the rectum gets flattened and its contents pushed out.” In any event, don’t worry. “These bodily functions happen all the time—there’s very little we haven’t seen or heard before,” says registered nurse Deborah Robbins.
Your mind goes blank.
In the heat of the moment, it can be easy to forget what they taught you in childbirth class. “I couldn’t remember the various positions I was supposed to get into to ease labor pains,” says new mom Elizabeth Estes Niven. “Instead, I stayed flat on my back, gripping the bed railing.” You’re also likely to forget many of the details of the birth. So be sure your partner takes plenty of photos or captures it all on video.
It might not be love at first sight.
Don’t feel bad if your first reaction to holding your newborn isn’t overwhelming joy. You’ve just been through an exhausting experience and need time to recover. If you can, try breast-feeding—then let a nurse take your child so you can get some rest. That’s what I did after 17 hours of labor and a C-section. But after an hour, I had them bring back my baby girl and was immediately smitten.
Labor’s Tough for Everyone
The nerve-racking beep of the fetal monitor. All those bodily fluids. Your roller-coaster emotions. Childbirth can be just as difficult for your partner. “We’ve had to ask partners to leave the room,” says obstetrician Elise Santana, M.D. “Seeing a spouse in that much pain can be upsetting, which only makes his partner more nervous.
“One father fainted when his wife delivered,” Klapholz recalls. “The poor guy broke his leg and had to be admitted to the hospital.”
If you suspect your partner might not have the stomach for labor, bring a second person along. Your best bet: a friend or family member who has given birth herself and knows just what to expect or a birth doula.
Sandra Gordon is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting, travel and consumer issues.