Your cervix is fully dilated when it has stretched open to the maximum. This provides the opening through which your child will pass. During the late stages of dilation, you may hear the doctor say that the baby's crowning—the baby's head is visible at the cervical opening.
Think of it this way: You have been carrying this fetus for nine months. It now weighs about seven pounds or more, and your body needs to provide an opening large enough for this baby to slide through when the time comes for its permanent eviction. How your body does this is truly miraculous. It happens so naturally that you can feel unimportant in the scheme of things. When your baby is ready to be born, your body gets to work, and it is so well designed for the task that you can set your self and ego aside and just let your body take over.
Contractions, or labor pains, serve a very important purpose. Each contraction opens the cervix, one step at a time. When the cervix is fully dilated, the baby's head normally crowns, and it is time for him or her to be born. (Crowning, of course, only occurs when the baby is positioned normally for birth—traveling head first into the cervical opening.)
But all the clinical information in the world can't really capture the experience of labor. Sometimes, it helps to hear about the real-life experience of others. Here are a few of my own encounters with labor:
My second child was born without benefit of even minimal anesthesia. I was in my total earth mother phase back then, and was really ready to go back to nature—I was even on the verge of choosing a home birth. In the end, however, I compromised with my doctor on a hospital birthing room and he supported my decision to go natural.
I am not a masochist by any means and I do not like labor pain. During this birth, I was in active “holy-Toledo-it-hurts” labor for three hours. It was certainly an easier overall experience than the birth of my first child had been, but it was also more difficult. I still contemplated husband-homicide.
The biggest part of the problem was that this child, my son, had a very big head. So, while my labor in delivering him was shorter (11 hours shorter!) it was far more memorable. Sort of like giving birth to a pumpkin.
Now, when you're dealing with something like this, you go for whatever relief you can get—and if you're not taking medication, you find yourself some alternatives.
I remember grabbing my husband's hand and squeezing it during contractions. And when he had to leave the room, I grabbed my doctor's hand instead. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I later learned that it is actually better not to squeeze someone's hand—squeezing makes you tense up, while relaxing actually makes the contraction less painful.
Be careful about the whole hand-squeezing business—women in labor have been known to grip and squeeze so powerfully that they can break their partner's (or doctor's) hand.
I found out I was pregnant again only a few months after giving birth to my son. I was understandably not ready to go through all that again. The memory of my last delivery was just too fresh to allow me to enjoy what was otherwise a wonderful and uneventful pregnancy. Still, I intended to deliver this one naturally as well.
When I went into labor this time, my contractions were only five minutes apart—a detail I refrained from sharing with my husband. At the time, we lived on a farm about thirty minutes from our hospital, and even I was concerned that we might not make it in time. While my husband is usually not the hysterical type, under extreme duress he's been known to get a little crazy. Since he was driving and I wanted to make it to the hospital in one piece, I bit my lower lip, crossed my legs, and hoped for the best.
Transitional labor is that stage of labor when your contractions are closest together and the final progress to delivery is achieved.
At the hospital we learned that I had about one hour more of transitional labor ahead of me. This is the phase where you hate everyone and use the most obscenities. The labor was intense, but this time out I finally caught on to what the birth experience was all about—I finally figured out how to influence my own pain experience.
All my natural childbirth training had told me to use two special pain-management techniques: to visualize and to breathe into the contractions. I had tried these techniques in labors past, but this time they worked. I was finally able to relax enough during labor to see that breathing a certain way really does reduce the pain.
During labor it's easy to lose patience with your birth coach (the partner or friend who goes through the training classes and comes with you to the hospital). When your coach starts telling you how to breath, you're likely to snap back with something X-rated—after all, you're the one doing all the work, right? But your coach is really trying to help, by reminding you to breathe properly when the busy-ness of birthing might make you forget.
During this delivery I was able to listen to my higher self, the angels, God, or maybe just my own good sense and work with my unborn child to make the birth experience positive for both of us. So, for once, I really put the tools I'd learned in childbirth classes to good use:
I also spoke to myself, saying, “I am strong and I will not object to pain that brings on new life.” I relaxed my body as completely as I could and imagined waves of water each time a contraction would begin, reach crescendo, and then recede. I gave myself affirmations, told my baby how much I loved her, and soon my darling 7 pound, 2 ounce baby girl was born. It was a very happy moment when the doctor put her in my arms and I realized that that was all there was to it.
When you are going through labor, particularly natural childbirth, visualize your baby, talk to it, and breathe into the contractions. Go through it with your baby and try to overcome your fear. You will be amazed at what a difference it makes.
In a normal delivery, your body really will tell you what to do. This is important, because you can draw upon your faith in something higher than yourself, whatever you believe, to relax and conquer your fears. Fear, after all, is the enemy of childbirth. It causes the laboring mother to tense her body, breathe erratically, and work against her own progress.
We are not used to pain—we see it as a negative thing—but in childbirth, pain is your friend. It is the result of your body's efforts to profoundly change the internal configuration of your womb so that the infant can be expelled. The important thing to keep in mind is that your response to the pain—tensing up against it or relaxing into it—can make a big difference in the amount of pain you feel.
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motherhood © 1999 by Deborah Levine Herman. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
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