Overall I would describe my labour as “very slow but steady”. It turns out that baby Zoe didn’t fully engage/descend until right at the end, so I feel like I laboured without the usual pressure on the cervix. This meant for me the first stage of labour was about 16 hours and the active stage was almost 9 hours.
Friday 2am: woke up to mild contractions every 5-10 mins but stayed in bed to rest (might not have slept very well but this rest was useful later on)! Contractions increased slowly throughout the morning. My partner and I watched TV while eating small meals on a regular basis. Most of the time I spent on my knees with nmy upper body draped over an exercise ball. This would be the position I’d keep coming back to throughout labour.
Midday: contractions had increased to 30 sec duration about 3 mins apart (but a phone call to the midwife confirmed they weren’t intense or long enough to warrant coming to hospital yet as I was able to talk to her on the phone about them... ) - so more TV. As they increased in intensity I spent some time standing up - did some dancing, singing and swaying to music to help with the pain. Attempted to lie down for a rest but was very uncomfortable. About 2pm I had what I didn’t realise at the time would be my last small meal - after this eating wasn’t something I wanted to do.
4pm: With contractions increasing further I hopped into the shower - leaned over with hot water on my lower back. At this stage I started using vocalisation during contractions with a long low groaning moan. A phone call to our midwife at 5pm confirmed that were strong enough to head into hospital (1 min duration about 3 mins apart at this stage) based on my sounds and intensity of contractions.
6pm: We settled into the Birth Centre room, has a quick check where the midwife confirmed baby was anterior and had a good heartbeat. I declined the monitoring and examination at this stage as I was feeling very uncomfortable with the contractions. I hopped back in the shower - aimed the shower heads at my lower back again. After an hour or so I moved into the bath for a change in positions. I was consistently vocalising through every contraction. I found the contractions very painful and intense, but in my mind I felt I could manage the pain as long as I was making noises that I could feel in my throat.
My partner and I settled into a pattern that we used for the next 8 hours.
During contractions my partner kept reminding me to keep breathing long and deep and to keep my vocalisations low in tone. As soon as I started going higher pitched he helped me get them back lower. One thing that I think was critical was at the end of each contraction we would do a big sigh to mark the end of that contraction and make sure I was aware I now had a short time to relax. My partner would say “breath out the pain” and to “let the pain go” at the end of a contraction so we could mark that it was over. He would also tell me to relax specific parts of my body, including places like my jaw, shoulders, arms as well as pelvis/lower back/thighs.
We had some mantras that we kept repeating that I liked from Yoga - particularly “I am safe. I am healthy. I am happy. I am at ease with life. Zoe is safe. Zoe is healthy. Zoe is happy. Zoe is at easy with life.”. Later on it become much simpler with just “I can do this” and “here and now”. The latter was very helpful as it was easy to start becoming overwhelmed thinking about the contractions and pain that would be coming later, so the “here and now” mantra helped us to focus on what was happening right now, which was relaxing and preparing for the next contraction only.
At the same time my partner patted my upper back, put cool cloths on my face and along with the midwife kept giving me water, Gatorade and icy poles. While we’d attended the active birth workshop and practised some massage techniques, I couldn’t stand being touched on my lower back so patting/stroking of the upper back was very reassuring. I also appreciated the advice to eat in early labour as at this stage it was all I could do to catch my breath and sip liquids in between contractions.
10:30pm: started to feel an urge to push but an examination revealed I was 9.5cm dilated and Zoe hadn’t fully descended yet so no pushing yet.
My partner later described this time: “The contractions continued to ramp up even further. This seemed to be a common theme - just when you thought that the contractions were as bad as they were going to get and were unbearable, they just got worse, and Jess just found an even more intense primal way of vocalising.”
1:15am another examination as I was getting strong pushing urges. Thankfully at this stage Zoe’s head had descended much further and had fully passed the cervix, so pushing could start. As my waters hadn’t broken, it was agreed that the midwife would break my waters and to check for meconium given how long labour had be going for.
As fate would have it, there was meconium present so we were required to relocate to another birthing suite where there was more monitoring equipment. We moved (with some difficulty as I could only take a few steps in between contractions) to a different room without some of the tools I’d been using, but I hopped on the bed facing backwards - I was on my knees and leaning over the back of the raised bed head. This is where I stayed all through the pushing stage as it felt the most natural and I couldn’t stand being on my back.
Our midwife was focusing on attaching a CTG to monitor Zoe but my position plus technical difficulties made it hard so a fetal scalp monitor was attached. Despite all these changes (moving rooms, addition of monitoring) we still felt in control as we’d discussed well before labour that we’d trust in our midwives and their judgement if things starting moving beyond what we had knowledge about. It also helped that at this stage I didn’t really care what was going on around me - I was in a place within myself where nothing would really disturb me.
2.30am: very big pushes at this stage. The midwife said slow down as she was crowning, so my partner instantly got me panting (hot chips breathing!) thanks to the active birth workshop.
Saturday 2.51am one huge push and Zoe’s head came out, and another and she was here!! 3.6kg and 51 cm long.
But here is where things definitely weren't what we'd expected. There was a paediatrician present for the birth, just in case there were any complications relating to the meconium. I’d wanted delayed cord clamping but this couldn't happen given the meconium and the need to inspect Zoe straightaway.
I heard Zoe cry once which was reassuring. But as I was still essentially facing the wall, by the time I turned around in the bed Zoe was at the resuscitation station with neonatal nurses and the paediatrician working on her. She'd inhaled a significant amount of meconium and was really struggling to breathe. She was taken straightaway to NICU (neonatal intensive care) and was placed on a ventilator for two days while meconium was suctioned from her lungs. My partner went with her, while I stayed to deliver the placenta and get attended to after birth. There was a point where I was alone in a room (which was unintentional by the nursing staff) where I thought that this was so far removed from the after-birth image I’d imagined. That stereotypical image of the exhausted but elated mum holding her very new baby with a proud partner was what had kept me going through pregnancy and labour.
Instead I only saw Zoe for the first time about 6 hours after birth and at this point she was on morphine with lots of tubes and machines attached. Our journey had only just begun - our first cuddle wasn’t until three days later after she was successfully taken off the ventilator, and we started breastfeeding six days after she’d been born (I’d been expressing milk that was fed to her via a tube until then).
While the way our labour ended sounds terrible (and in a way I felt cheated), I made my peace with it very quickly as the prompt medical attention was completely necessary. It gave Zoe the best start possible, and a week after her birth we took a normal, healthy and happy baby home from hospital despite the seriousness of what initially happened.
Overall I found labour incredibly hard. But I was able to have the birth I wanted where I tested the limits of what I could endure and survived it without pain relief. My partner also found it physically and emotionally draining watching me through labour. For both of us however, having practised and prepared (with flexibility in mind) made all the difference. I was very grateful to our midwife team for the way they helped us through the changes in labour (as well as afterwards) and they appreciated that we were able to adapt as required to a difficult situation.
Jess attended Pregnancy Yoga, Active Birth Yoga and our Active Birth Couples Workshop with Suzanne Swan.