After telling my birth story to a dozen women and being met with awe and disbelief, I’ve come to realize how unusual my natural childbirth experience truly was. And I know how easily and quickly my labor and delivery could have turned into the one I had been dreading.
A quick recap of how it all went down: On the morning of Valentine’s Day, I felt a contraction which caused what I thought was my water to start breaking (no one ever figured out when it actually broke because the amniotic sac was still intact at 6 cm dilated). Throughout the day, I had irregular contractions associated with early labor. I went to lunch with my friend, got my nails done (my manicurist asked me how far along I was and I didn't want to tell her that I was already in labor haha), finished packing my hospital bag and spent the remainder of the evening resting at home all while timing my contractions. Steve went to Trader Joe’s to buy salad, cheese, crackers and snacks on his way home from work. Some of that ended up being our romantic Valentine’s dinner since my contractions were getting too strong for me to feel like I could enjoy our dinner reservations.
Around 1:30 am on February 15, my contractions were 3-5 minutes apart and lasted for one minute. At 3 am, we left home and headed to Kaiser Sunset. My husband called our doula who joined us at the hospital. My midwife's shift at the hospital started at 9 am so I was put in the care of the OBs and nurses on duty until then. After exams, they determined that I was 2 centimeters dilated and 75% effaced and said that it could still "be days" before I deliver. They were concerned because our baby’s heart rate was dropping with each contraction. They admitted me, hooked me up to an IV of fluids to see if dehydration was causing it, put me on continuous fetal monitoring and told me that if things hadn’t progressed in a few hours, they would have to induce me.
The dreaded word: induction! They offered me medication to deal with the contraction pain and I rejected it. By 5 am, I was in my delivery room, laboring in whichever way felt comfortable. I used a peanut ball, walked around, ate some snacks. Every fifteen to thirty minutes, someone came in to check how I was doing and offered to administer pain medication. “We have something that could take your pain away,” they said. I turned them down every time, but I could see how tempting it would be and how someone could feel pressured to accept.
At 9 am, they did another cervical exam and announced that I was 4 centimeters dilated and in active labor so they would not have to induce me. Thank goodness! Again, I was offered an epidural and I stood my ground. At that point, I knew my midwife was at the hospital and I asked to be transferred to her care. She knew and approved of my birth plan and would not offer me any pain relief. Around 11 am, I was given an hour break from the fetal monitor and was able to join my husband for breakfast and take a shower which helped tremendously with the labor pains. At 1 pm, I was 6 cm dilated and the nurse said I was “halfway there.” The contractions were getting more intense so my husband called our doula and she came to our room. Around 2:30, I felt the ring of fire and the urge to push so my doula led me to the bed. My midwife checked me again and announced I was 10 cm. It was go time! In retrospect, by the time the thought crossed my mind that maybe I actually can’t do this, I was already doing it.
When it was time to push, the frequency of contractions slowed way down. I pushed for about 30 minutes (which is four good pushes) on my hands and knees--a way better position for childbirth than on your back--and our sweet baby boy, Griffin Levi Herman, joined us!
When I tell this story to my friends who have children, they are shocked that I was able to move around and eat. There were many factors that I firmly believe contributed to my being able to have a natural delivery, but I know that my choice of hospital and my midwife were the most important. Because of Kaiser Sunset’s midwife program, they witness intervention-free childbirth on a more regular basis and are less likely to push patients to get epidurals, inductions or C-sections. Even then, they still offered them to me every chance they got. Had I delivered at a different hospital, I’m not so sure the outcome would have been the same.
That being said, there were a few other factors that I attribute to having the unmedicated birth experience I wanted. This is what I did in the nine months (and even a few years) leading up to my labor and delivery:
Decide why you want a natural delivery and write it down for easy reference.
My research about the risks of induction, epidurals and C-sections led me to decide almost immediately that an unmedicated birth was the right choice for me. From that moment on, I wouldn’t even entertain the idea of getting pain medication. I wrote down my personal reasons for not wanting an epidural to keep me focused, but every woman has her own.
These were my reasons:
Hire a doula
I can’t say this enough: I don’t think I would have been able to have a natural delivery without my doula. My doula, Jessica Diggs, gave me advice on how to labor at home before heading to the hospital and what to do once we got there, showed my husband how to be a more effective labor partner, was available to answer any question I had leading up to, during and after my labor and delivery, and was there to support me and give me the confidence I needed to succeed. Doulas are seriously the best.
Don’t go to the hospital too soon
When the ob-gyn told me I was only 2 cm dilated, they said that my labor could still take days. That’s when talks of induction began. As soon as you go to the hospital, you’re on their time and time is money. They want patients in and out so if things aren’t progressing as quickly as they would like, they will try to speed the process up. This is a terrible idea if you are planning to have a natural birth. Stay home for as long as possible, especially if you plan on giving birth at a place that doesn’t let you eat or move around or has high rates of C-section.
Read Mama Natural and Watch The Business of Being Born
These two resources really inspired me to pursue a natural pregnancy and unmedicated labor and delivery, and helped me feel like I could succeed. According to the documentary, the C-section rate in the U.S. has risen 46% since 1996 and in 2005, it was one out of every three births. That’s just crazy, if you ask me!
Have the courage to advocate for yourself
Before going into labor, do your research about the pros and cons of each intervention. Don’t be afraid to ask why they are recommending a certain procedure and if it is actually necessary. If you can’t stand up for yourself and your own well-being, no one else is going to. I’m not refuting that pitocin, epidurals or C-section are medically necessary in some cases, but there is a body of research that shows that these interventions are recommended and administered to many women who don’t need them and at much higher rates in America than in other countries.
I got one every month for the last 4 months of my pregnancy but would have gotten them once a week if I could afford it. Prenatal massage feels amazing, helps keep the baby in a good position, opens up vital space in the body and is incredibly relaxing. With my second pregnancy, I decided to see a chiropractor for the four months leading up to delivery so we'll see how this one goes.
Erase from your mind the idea that labor and delivery are painful
If you have watched How I Met Your Mother, you may remember the episode where Lily and Marshall both eat the same soup which causes Lily to become violently ill. Knowing how it affected Lily, Marshall keeps thinking he will be sick all day. Just by thinking something, you can cause it to happen.
The mind is an incredibly powerful tool that can be used to our advantage or disadvantage. If you spend your entire life hearing stories about how excruciating childbirth is and thinking that it will be unbearable, that’s how it will be for you. When you reframe the way you think about the process, the feelings of labor are intense and purposeful, but they are not painful. The way it feels is completely different from a migraine or a toothache or any other physical pain that seems to be happening for no reason. Contractions are literally bringing a new life into the world.
Each contraction is finite, it has a beginning and an end, and it lasts for only a minute. Then you get a break during which you feel completely normal. The time between my first real contraction and holding my baby was 30 hours. The problem with labor is that all of it is way more intense than anything you’ve ever felt and you don’t know how much worse it’s going to get. For me, the worst of it lasted for a maximum of two hours. But there are laboring, breathing and meditation techniques you can use to cope with these very intense sensations.
Women’s bodies were made to give birth--there are many processes in place to make sure that we are able to do so without pain medication. With the proper preparation, it is possible to have a beautiful, empowering natural childbirth.