“If you aren’t sure you’re in labor, then it’s not time to go to the hospital.”
I’d heard this gold standard of advice countless times in the months leading up to my second birth.
I was worried that after my first birth experience, where my water broke and my labor was induced at the hospital, that I wouldn’t know what it felt like to have labor begin naturally.
Since I’d only really experienced back labor the first time around, I wasn’t even sure I’d recognize what a regular contraction felt like.
Because I had a 75 mile drive to the hospital, my midwives had suggested that rather than following the 4-1-1 rule (contractions 4 minutes apart, lasting 1 minute, consistent for 1 hour), I come when contractions were “10 minutes apart and painful.”
The mom vloggers of Youtube, my midwives, and Dr. Google all assured me that I would just know when I was in labor.
But I didn’t!
We were within an hour of having a car baby, and we never even knew.
In today’s post, I’m going to take you through all the details of my second birth story, including exactly what contractions felt like, the way my labor progressed in a very short period of time, and overall what it was like to have a natural birth in a hospital.
I just want to preface this story by saying that to me, this was a positive birth experience! I will be very real and honest with you about the more painful and traumatic parts of this birth, but I do want you to know that overall, I’m very satisfied with the experience that I had, even if it wasn’t exactly what I imagined for a natural birth!
Also, my apologies for the lack of pictures. Believe me, I’m far more disappointed than you. Everything just happened way too fast!
If you want to compare my natural birth to my experience with an epidural, you can check out my first birth story here.
My Birth Goals
Going into this second pregnancy and birth, I knew very strongly that I wanted to have a natural, unmedicated birth.
Without retelling my entire first birth experience, I was really disappointed that I didn’t advocate for myself better and ended up having an epidural. I felt like I’d let myself ride the assembly line and that things could have gone very differently.
While I did have some specific goals for this birth, I chose not to write a formal “birth plan.” I wanted to keep my expectations very flexible.
Some of my birth wishes were:
- An unmedicated, natural delivery
- Freedom to move
- Intermittent/minimal monitoring
- Coaching & guidance from my midwife
- No interventions unless medically necessary
- Pushing in whatever position felt natural
I was open to laboring and/or birthing in water, but I wasn’t set on it. I didn’t have a specific position I wanted to deliver in, but I did try to educate myself on the options.
This time around, I felt much more prepared to advocate for myself and the birth I wanted, and a huge part of that was education. I finally took a birth prep course, which I hadn’t done previously, and even though I had given birth before, it was really helpful.
As with my first pregnancy, my due date came and went.
I tried really hard to keep at the front of my mind that this was the end of a season– for me, the end of my second pregnancy and being a mom of one, for my daughter as being an only child and having all of our attention, and and for all of us as a family of three.
I also reminded myself frequently that babies are much quieter on the inside.
But honestly, I was feeling huge (so much bigger this pregnancy, despite gaining far less weight), and I was SO over it. My sciatica kept had gotten to the point that I couldn’t walk any enjoyable distance, and I didn’t have the energy or motivation to want to do anything.
Probably the most discouraging part was that I wasn’t experiencing any labor-is-coming symptoms. Each morning, I woke up so disappointed that labor hadn’t started during the night. For whatever reason, I just figured if it hadn’t started during the night, it wasn’t going to start during the day (unless my water broke).
I hit 41 weeks and I started to lose faith in my body’s ability to begin labor naturally. My midwives had scheduled an induction for 41 weeks + 5 days, and I really really didn’t want to be induced. It just didn’t make sense to me that a woman’s body would so meticulously spend ten months crafting a human being only to keep it trapped inside to the point of danger.
I wanted to give my body as much time as possible to do its thang, but with each passing day, I became more and more anxious.
Did my water break?
Eight days past my due date, I still wasn’t feeling any special way. Mostly the same: big and blah.
I spent the morning in bed–gestating, I told my husband–not expecting anything to happen.
A couple of days prior, I had noticed what I thought might be part of the mucous plug, but as far as I could tell, I hadn’t lost the actual thing based on my first pregnancy (but who knows). Since then, I had noticed a slight increase in discharge, but didn’t think much of it. I was, after all, 41 weeks pregnant.
That day, though, probably around 3 p.m., I noticed the fluid had a pinkish tinge–barely noticeable, but when you’re 41 weeks pregnant, you notice everything. It made me start to wonder had my water broken? And if so, how long had it been ruptured? With my first pregnancy, it was very obvious when my water broke.
I figured if it had broken, I would know eventually, right? Honestly, I thought it was wishful thinking and was probably nothing.
At that point, I tried to turn my attention toward tidying my house. Even though I didn’t think anything was happening, I tried to make a concerted daily effort to get my house back to a condition that I would want to come home to, should baby time ever actually come.
Another visit from Braxton?
As I was tidying, I started to have what I thought were Braxton Hicks contractions.
I was no stranger to good ol’ Braxton. He’d plagued me relentlessly from the start of my second trimester, and having frequent, strong, even back-to-back Braxton Hicks contractions was very common for me this pregnancy, often triggered by physical activity. Like tidying my house.
So again, I didn’t pay much attention.
As I went about cleaning, though, the contractions became a bit more uncomfortable than I was used to. I wondered if it’s just because I was SO pregnant, or if it could be something more.
But I was confused, because these buggers were coming very close together, and I thought true labor was supposed to begin more gradually. My little mini-contractions were only a couple of minutes apart, if that, but I thought by the time real contractions were that close together, I would be pretty far along, and they would be a lot more painful.
While I seriously doubted this was the real thing, I decided to sit down to see if they fizzled out once I was still.
I pulled up a contraction timer on my phone, and read a story to my toddler while tracking these “contractions.” P.S. I hadn’t really said much to my husband at this point–only that the Braxton Hicks contractions felt a little extra today.
Once I was sitting, the contractions spaced out a little bit, coming every 3-5 minutes.
My husband walked through our bedroom on his way to the bathroom and saw my timer out. When he noticed the times were only a few minutes apart, he snapped to attention. “Don’t you think we should go to the hospital!?”
I told him I wasn’t even sure they were real contractions yet since they started so suddenly, but were barely more than uncomfortable. He looked doubtful, but obviously, he could only go off of what I told him.
The Thing That Finally Sent Us to the Hospital
Around 5 p.m., I went to the bathroom to see if I could tell any better whether my water had broken. When I checked, however, the toilet paper was bloody. My heart dropped, sure I would have to go to the local emergency room rather than my hospital of choice 75 miles away.
I told my husband and immediately went and phoned the on-call midwife at the hospital. I was really worried because of all of the time-to-go-to-the-hospital signs I’d heard of, bleeding was not among the normal ones.
I gave my midwife all the details and she very calmly suggested I start heading that direction. “No rush,” she even said. She thought that, most likely, my water had broken and pointed out that sometimes it can be bloody because of the cervical changes.
I was SO relieved that she hadn’t said something along the lines of, “GET THE HECK TO THE EMERGENCY ROOM NOW!”
Even so, I had a gut feeling we needed to move quickly, despite her reassurance not to rush. Our hospital bags were pretty much ready, so we gathered everything up, got the pets squared away, and hustled out to the car. (BTW, my contractions were definitely starting to feel like contractions.)
Fortunately, we had wonderful friends on call ready to accept our toddler at the drop of hat, and even more fortunate, they were right along our route to the hospital.
Once we were on our way with our toddler in good hands, my contractions spaced out just a little. They had gotten as frequent as 2-3 minutes apart, but now were more consistently 3-4, lasting around a minute each.
Interestingly, they would sometimes come in sets of two, with one stronger contraction followed immediately by a weaker one and then the three to four minute break.
The drive was shockingly unexciting (in a good way). My contractions had definitely gotten more painful, but were still very manageable. I could breathe through them easily, and many I could even still talk through. By the time we got to the hospital, they were a little closer together again, about every 2-3 minutes.
What Contractions Feel Like
Just a quick intermission here…
I know one of the top questions on a pregnant mama’s mind is: “What do contractions feel like?”
Even as a second time mom, I still wondered that!
So I am here to tell you, from my experience, exactly what contractions were like.
Remember, this is just from MY experience, so it might not be the same for everyone. Please also keep in mind that I am not a medical professional, and nothing I say should replace the advice or information from your doctor or midwife.
What do Braxton Hicks contractions feel like?
Braxton Hicks contractions are the practice contractions your body uses to prepare your uterus for labor. They may not always be comfortable, but they shouldn’t be painful.
They should subside if you rest, drink water, and/or change position, as opposed to real contractions which will not go away. Their timing shouldn’t be regular or predictable, and according to Dr. Google, you shouldn’t have more than four in an hour.
My first pregnancy, I couldn’t even figure out what they were. If I ever had them, they were so mild I couldn’t even identify them.
This time around, they started strong right from the beginning of my second trimester.
You can feel your whole uterus get hard and firm. If your bump is showing, the contraction may even be visible, and your partner can almost certainly feel how hard your abdomen is. You might feel like your baby is stretching you out to the max (even though you’re actually contracting).
Into my third trimester, they were strong and frequent. I would get more in an hour than I could keep track of, and they would be intense enough to slow me down (though they were NOT painful, they were definitely a hard squeeze). The strength and frequency were definitely greater on the days I’d had less water, so they were a good reminder to hydrate.
Do contractions feel like menstrual cramps?
My first pregnancy, the night of my due date (after having my membranes swept) I woke up with unpleasant, period-like cramping. I started timing them, thinking it was the start of early labor because so many mom blogs had told me contractions resembled menstrual cramps. Not surprisingly, the cramping faded away within a couple of hours, and I was left bummed (and tired).
From my personal experience, I would say no, contractions do not feel like menstrual cramps.
Yes, I did definitely have cramping that was just like period cramps, but not during labor. Actual contractions felt much different.
You should absolutely consult with your doctor or midwife on what to expect, but I personally would not liken this type of cramping to true labor.
Make sure to tell your care provider if you experience any cramping preterm!
What do contractions feel like?
With my second labor, the real contractions started out feeling like the all-over squeeze from the Braxton Hicks contractions with an extra band of tightness around the bottom that wrapped around from the back of my hips. That additional tight band was barely more than uncomfortable at first, but it was discernable and eventually did become painful.
As the contractions became more painful, I could feel a solid pressure at, I imagine, my cervix, which I’m confident was the feeling of the baby’s head. With each contraction, it kind of felt like I suddenly had a really heavy lead ball sitting in my uterus that increased in weight as the contraction built and lightened as the contraction eased.
And that’s basically what they felt like all the way up until my baby was born, except for the 30 minutes or so of back labor from having to lay on my back in triage. It just got more intense as labor progressed, and the “lead ball” felt heavier each time.
What is back labor like?
My first experience was all back labor, and I’ll be real with you, it sucks.
Having now been through both back labor and ‘normal’ contractions, I can tell you I’d way rather have the regular contractions.
Remember the lead ball I mentioned in the last section? Well instead of feeling it pressing down toward the birth canal, with back labor, it feels like it’s weighing on your spine.
In my first birth story, I described it as feeling like someone trying to pull a bowling ball between the vertebrae of your spine with a string.
In my opinion, it’s a lot harder to cope with, and I 100% believe my first labor would have been very different had I not been stuck on my back in the hospital bed the entire time. That’s why it’s so important to advocate for yourself!
Obviously, you don’t know what you don’t know and you won’t know what contractions are like until you’ve felt them, but I hope this description helps to give you a little bit better of an idea what labor feels like and what to expect!
At the Hospital
I walked myself up to triage while my husband got our bags and parked the car. I got changed into the hospital gown, my husband joined me, and the nurse came in to begin the great inquisition.
As she got started, I noticed it was about 7:15. She had me lay back reclined on the hospital bed, and strapped the two monitors around my bump– one for me, and one for baby.
She asked how my pain was on a scale of 1-10, ten being the worst pain I could imagine. I said maybe a 3-4 because I still wasn’t in that much pain.
In order to admit you to the delivery unit, most hospitals either need to confirm that your water broke by testing for amniotic fluid, or that you’re in active labor based on how much your cervix is dilated. My first delivery, the hospital required that you measure at least 3 cm dilated, but I’ve heard of others looking for 6 cm.
So one of the first things she needed to do was find out if my water had indeed broken. (I don’t know why they didn’t check to see if I was dilated from the very beginning, but they didn’t.)
I could feel my bed pad was getting wet, as you would expect when your water breaks, but when she moved my hospital gown to get the the sample she needed, we could see that I was actually bleeding.
She didn’t seem concerned about it, but I still felt a little uneasy.
By 7:30, I was becoming very uncomfortable lying on my back with the monitors on. The position caused me to feel the contractions very strongly in my back, which in my opinion, is much worse than ‘normal’ contractions, and the pressure from the monitors made each contraction more painful.
With the back labor and monitors, I was definitely having to concentrate a bit more on staying relaxed and breathing through the contractions.
I let the nurse know my 3-4 pain measurement was now more like a 4-5.
I couldn’t wait to get up and moving around.
Finally, closer to 7:45, the midwife came in to check how dilated I was.
By this point, I was moaning through contractions and closing my eyes. It took nearly all my concentration and focus to keep my body relaxed, which I find is extra challenging with back labor.
My midwife considerately waited until I was between contractions to check, but I could tell they were getting even closer together. The whole “natural birth” idea was becoming less and less appealing.
I dreaded what the midwife would say. My first birth, I spent the entire night suffering through really painful back labor only to have my doctor tell me I was a mere three centimeters dilated after all those hours.
To my total shock, she told me I was six centimeters, and fully effaced to boot! I could have cried. I was so thrilled! I was pretty sure I’d have a baby by midnight!
“I think you might be in labor!” she joked (because obviously, I was). “We’re going to go ahead and get you into a delivery room.”
I thought that would be the last I’d see of her that night since she was supposed to be getting off at 8 p.m., and she probably thought the same. Neither of us expected she would be the one to catch my baby.
Even though they were admitting me, it was still a while before they brought a wheelchair to move me down the hall. I can’t say exactly how long, though, because at that point, I completely lost track of time.
The Thousand Mile Hallway
Since they were admitting me (and I’d been monitored for over 30 minutes), I asked the nurse if she could take the monitors off, and if I could sit up.
Being able to sit up without the monitors was more comfortable and immediately cured the back labor, but the contractions rapidly intensified.
Like I said, I don’t know when they brought the wheelchair, but eventually, it finally appeared.
I moved to the chair, and the nurse was about to take me down the hall, but I asked her to wait a moment because I was having a rough contraction (and let’s be honest, they all were by then).
She waited, but the contraction didn’t end.
It got very intense, and I started to feel strong rectal pressure. I felt like begging the nurse to take me to the bathroom, but I knew that it was actually the baby coming. And words were well outside of my grasp right then anyway.
At the same time, I began to experience a burning sensation as things stretched. No way, I thought. It couldn’t be, could it? The infamous ring of fire? But I had just measured 6 centimeters!
The nurse must have been able to hear a shift in what my husband calls my “primordial vocalizations” because she said, “We’re going to go now,” and started wheeling me down the hall… very quickly.
I could feel myself getting louder as my nurse raced me to the delivery room. I heard the little doula in my head chiding me to lower my tone–my pitch sounded like I was losing control– but by then I was well past the point of managing the pain.
If my primal yelling sounded frantic, it was because my body had claimed complete control, and I was just along for the ride, hanging on for dear life.
I wish I could describe to you just what the pain felt like between climbing into the wheelchair and delivering my baby into the world, but I can’t. It was absolutely indescribable– worse than any pain I could ever have imagined.
By the time we reached the delivery room, my noisy wheelchair ride had managed to attract every nurse within a mile radius.
I heard one of them trying to bring me back into the real world, calling my name and telling me to breathe. When I opened my eyes, my vision was framed with nurses, though I don’t recall any of their faces.
I remember squeaking, “Help me,” and saying, “It’s burning!”
At that, one of them reached down to check, and called out, “I have a head!”
I swear, I thought I was delivering that baby in the wheelchair, but blessedly, the contraction from hell let up for just a brief enough moment that I could jump out of the chair and onto the bed.
Someone told me to get in whatever position felt natural, and I didn’t even think about it– didn’t have time to think about it. I climbed straight onto my hands and knees.
I remember in that moment, all I could think about was how badly I wanted a sip of water. I tried to ask for some, and at first, the midwife misheard me. “I’m pretty sure your water has already broken,” she told me.
“No, I need a drink!” I rephrased.
Another enormous contraction took over, and I told them, “I have to push!”
I think I understand now to some extent what people mean by an out of body experience. I heard someone yelling in pain and realized it was me. Even in the middle of giving birth, I was embarrassed for not being able to stay quiet. (Isn’t that silly?!)
I pushed with everything I had, but the effort was not voluntary. That baby was COMING, and there was no stopping it. I felt the ring of fire peak, and her head was out. Celebrations from the nurses, but I barely noticed.
My body pushed again, and out came the rest of her. I could feel everything, including a lot of blood. You don’t think about being able to feel the shape of their little bodies, with their arms and legs, but you can. I heard a mild squawk, as if Baby herself was just as surprised to have arrived already.
But I stayed where I was.
Where was the euphoria all of the natural birth resources touted? I just felt stunned, and everything down there hurt.
“Katie? Your baby is out… Do you want to see her?”
“I need a minute,” I panted.
After a second, they asked hesitantly, “…do you want us to pass her through to you?” (I was still on my hands and knees, so she was behind me.) I’m not sure I even said anything.
Finally, they just kind of popped her through under me into my frame of vision.
It was not love at first sight.
I didn’t feel the same instant connection I did with my first.
She was very bloody, and a good bit chunkier than my first babe had been. She pretty much looked like a potato.
I think one of the first things I said to her was, “Wow, you’re big!”
I picked her up and my husband and a couple of extra hands helped me turn over. She was still attached to me.
Once the cord stopped pulsing, they had my husband cut it, and we moved on to birthing the placenta. It didn’t feel great, but obviously it was a lot easier than birthing a baby.
This time, I was present enough to remember to ask to see the placenta. My midwife (the nighttime midwife now, because the one who checked me at 6 cm and caught the baby finally got to leave) actually showed me the different parts and explained what I was looking at. It was a lot bigger than I expected.
She checked me for tears, and found a small second degree tear that needed some stitches.
A nurse gave me some numbing shots, which was not fun, and then my midwife did the stitches. I’m sorry to say, that was not the most painful thing she had to do to me that night– not by a long shot.
The Next 12 Hours – Postpartum Hemorrhage
If hemorrhaging/post-birth complications are topics you think might be triggering to you, then feel free to skip down to the conclusion!
And this is where most birth stories end, but you would be missing out on half of the story if I stopped now!
Like I told you before, I could feel a lot of blood when Baby Girl was born. As I was laying in the bed afterward, I could tell it was still coming. Every few minutes there would be a pretty significant gush.
At the same time my midwife had given me the numbing shots for the stitches, a nurse had given me a shot in the leg for the bleeding.
I could tell my midwife was starting to look concerned about the amount of blood, and the fact that it hadn’t stopped.
Every few minutes, my nurse would push really hard on my uterus (which was pretty painful if you couldn’t guess), and another gush would come.
I asked my midwife, “If this had been a home birth, would you have sent me to the hospital?”
Without hesitation, she answered very affirmatively, “Yes.”
It is absolutely NOT my goal to scare you out of a homebirth if that’s something you’re considering. It’s just something to keep in mind that even if you have a low-risk pregnancy, some complications you just can’t anticipate. If I had had a homebirth, I would have been totally fine, but it would have sucked to have to be separated from my brand new baby and bussed to a hospital.
Since the shot in my leg hadn’t done the job, my midwife ordered the next step… in the form of meds stuck up my bum.
When that didn’t seem to be working either, my midwife sat down at the foot of my bed and apologized profusely for what she was going to have to do.
Since my uterus didn’t seem to be shrinking fast enough, and I was still bleeding so heavily, she was going to have to sweep the inside of my uterus with her hand to try and scoop out any blood clots and make sure no pieces of the placenta had been left behind.
And she did it four joyously fun-filled times.
Yes it hurt. Yes I yelled.
I was sure she was going to have to redo all of the stitches she’d just put in, but I guess they’re pretty tough.
And then she gave me another shot in the leg.
I tell you, I couldn’t catch a break that night, but my baby was healthy and safe in the arms of my husband (and I wasn’t pregnant anymore!), so that made it bearable.
At my postpartum appointment, I’ll ask what the final tally was on my total blood loss, but during birth, I lost 1400 mLs, and in the first few hours following, over another liter. Altogether, I think I might have come close to three liters that night.
There was no clear reason why. My midwife thought possibly because everything happened so fast. She was concerned that I might need a blood transfusion.
Throughout the evening, my nurse kept hoping to be able to move me to a mother/baby room, but each time, my bleeding was still too heavy.
I think it was a little after midnight when she finally decided to try getting me up out of the bed to see if I could walk.
At first, she had me sit on the edge of the bed to see if I felt dizzy. I was fine, so she had me stand up and wait again. I was still fine, so I started to take a step, but after one step, I knew I shouldn’t go any further.
I didn’t feel dizzy or nauseous– I didn’t feel anything specifically; I just felt something wasn’t right.
The tough-guy voice in my head told me to just push through, but thankfully I ignored it. Good thing.
In the moments following, I started shivering. Mildly at first, like there was only a chill in the room, but soon I was shivering uncontrollably. I could tell my own skin was cold to the touch, and is it any wonder with no blood left in my body?
My nurse called for a big pile of heated blankets, and within a few minutes, I was nice and toasty. But alas, it meant they couldn’t move me yet.
After that, my nurse monitored me closely but didn’t try to do anything else for quite a while. My husband took the opportunity to snooze for a bit, but I was still reeling from how quickly everything had happened and laid awake processing.
Finally, closer to four in the morning, my nurse and a nurse from the mother/baby unit brought in a bed to move me. They couldn’t use a wheelchair, I guess since I’d been deemed a fall risk. I imagine the also wanted to keep me horizontal as much as possible.
Once I was moved, I finally slept.
Well, for an hour. Because for the rest of your hospital stay, someone is in your room doing something every. single. hour.
Fortunately, I didn’t need a transfusion. I recovered quickly with no further complications and we were able to go home after only one more night in the hospital.
A Positive Natural Birth Experience
To wrap things up, I just wanted to say again that, to me, this was a positive birth experience!
Yeah, some parts were definitely a tad traumatic. It was not at all the natural birth experience I expected!
I don’t know if my experience was a little extra painful because of how fast Baby pummeled through, but during the delivery, I definitely had a moment where I thought, “I NEVER WANT TO DO THIS AGAIN!”
If you’re scared about the pain of childbirth, here’s the good news I have for you: 1) by the time you’re was in enough pain to feel like you can’t do it anymore, you’re usually right there at the finish line (transition!)** and 2) while the pain of delivery might be extreme, the worst of it is over so fast.
And in the aftermath, the memory of the pain will probably fade.
By the next afternoon, I was already looking forward to my next pregnancy.
Feeling the intensity and strength of what was happening inside of my body to bring a baby into the world was absolutely awe-inspiring and so empowering. Also rather humbling because while my mind (and “primordial vocalizations”) felt completely out of control during the end, my body was completely in control. It knew what needed to happen and it got the job done. It blows my mind to think about.
But let me also say… If you decide you want an epidural, there is NO shame in that. I even question myself if I really want to go through that much pain again.
Don’t let anyone make you feel like your experience is less valid because you didn’t birth like a cow in a field.
**If you’re in a lot of pain early in the process, it could be your position (see my first birth story). Try to work with your care providers to manage the pain through movement and different positioning.
Now I want to hear from you!
What are your goals for birth? What are you anxious or worried about?
If you’ve already given birth in the past, what was your experience like? Would you change anything about it?
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