From not being able to stay mobile during labour, to a stressful postnatal ward, Laura’s birth experience left her with a lot of unanswered questions. With hindsight, she knows how to feel more in control next time round.
“I wanted to stick to my active birth plan”
I’d planned to have my baby in the midwife-led unit at the hospital. But by the time my boyfriend John got me there after my waters broke in the middle of the night, I knew I wouldn’t be able to labour there.
There was meconium in my waters, so I had to go to the labour ward. I was really disappointed because I liked the look and feel of the birth centre a lot more than the labour ward, and I knew that being in a midewife-led unit would have meant I was statistically less likely to have interventions.
But I’d written my birth preferences (or a birth plan as many people call it) focused on staying active and upright in labour and felt positive that I could still stick to them as much as possible on the labour ward, to avoid unnecessary interventions.
“The contractions went from zero to ten in half an hour”
When we got to the labour ward, the consultant doctor explained that I needed to be induced – the baby had to be born as soon as possible because of the meconium.
I asked if it was necessary for the induction to happen straight away, but I wasn’t given a clear answer. That was the first in a series of events that made me feel like I wasn’t as informed or involved in making decisions about the birth as I’d wanted to be.
I was given a pessary to induce labour at 4am, and my labour came on extremely quickly. Half an hour after the pessary was inserted the contractions had gone from zero to ten.
I remember being very surprised at how much the pain ramped up, but pleased that my NHS and NCT antenatal classes had prepared me for how an induction can make this happen.
John was aware that inductions can take a really long time for some women, so he had set up his camp bed, air mattress and duvet on the floor ready for sleeping.
But at that point, he took one look at me, could see that things were happening really quickly and said “I’m going to put the TENs machine on you now”. As soon as he’d put it on me, I knew I needed it and found it really helped to work through each contraction.
“I didn’t feel like the midwife listened in the early stages of labour”
Although my midwife was very caring and encouraging while my contractions were getting stronger and closer together, she also insisted that my labour would progress more slowly than it was, as is often the case with first-time mums who are induced by pessary.
She didn’t take into account the fact that my body clearly had reacted very well to induction and the contractions were coming quickly, and she didn’t seem to believe me when I said that I needed to push just a couple of hours after the pessary was inserted.
The midwife also didn’t want to do a new vaginal examination to check how dilated I was.
I know now, from the debrief I had after the birth, that she didn’t want to increase the risk of infection to me and my baby by doing more examinations, but that wasn’t explained to me at the time which made me doubt how far through labour I was.
“I couldn’t get into the position I wanted to be in”
I’d really wanted to have an upright labour, walk around and get into different positions to get comfortable. But I was asked to get up on the bed to be monitored, and I wasn’t able to get off again.
The contractions happened so quickly I couldn’t actually manoeuvre myself. The staff kept saying that they just needed a couple more minutes to monitor the heartbeat, but those minutes just went on and on because with each contraction, the sensor belt moved off my tummy.
At that point, I was so in the zone of being in labour that I didn’t even think about asking why they didn’t use the wireless monitoring that I knew they had at the hospital, so I could try to get into different positions.
But after the birth, the monitoring was something that I kept thinking about. They knew I wanted to stay active and mobile in labour, and they had the equipment for it, so why didn’t they use it?
As it was, I ended up on my side, leaning on the side rail of the bed, which actually worked really well for giving birth. But I wish I’d had the opportunity to move around more as I’d wanted.
“Pethidine was the one thing I didn’t want”
To get through the contractions, which were now very strong, I used the TENS machine and gas and air, as well as shouting and screaming. It wasn’t a ‘bad’ scream for me – I was using it as a release to deal with the pain my way. But I got the feeling that the midwife didn’t enjoy me vocalising at all.
In my birth preferences, the only pain relief I’d said that I didn’t want was pethidine, as it can make the baby sleepy after the birth. And yet, the midwife kept suggesting that I should take it.
She argued that it would wear off by the time the baby was born many hours later, but I felt certain I was already very close to giving birth.
It was so frustrating because I was in the middle of contractions so I couldn’t talk. John had to fight my corner about not wanting this type of pain relief.
“It didn’t feel like I was the one in control”
The fact that my midwife thought my birth was supposed to progress slowly, like a textbook induction, and that she kept trying to give me pethidine were the main things I really didn’t like about my labour. It didn’t feel like me and my body were the ones in control.
When a different consultant came into the room to check on me and put a clip on the baby’s head for better monitoring, he also said: “Do you want to be examined?” I was so relieved and immediately said yes.
So he did a vaginal examination which confirmed that I was fully dilated and could start pushing – which was a huge relief.
“I just kept saying: ‘It’s my baby! It’s my baby!'”
During the pushing stage, the midwife was absolutely fantastic. She was really encouraging and got John involved. He crouched down with his head right next to mine and counted down from ten to help me push for longer.
I found the pain of the contractions during the first stage worse than the pain when pushing – I think because it intensified so quickly. Although I had a second-degree tear which was incredibly painful, it was a localised pain and I even remember thinking “This is temporary and is getting my baby out, so it’s ok.”
As Jennifer was born, I just burst into tears. Although I don’t remember it, I apparently just kept saying “It’s my baby! It’s my baby! It’s my baby!” over and over again.
We were able to stay in the room where I’d given birth for hours afterwards, which was fantastic. It really gave us time to take Jennifer in. The staff cleared up everything, got us some coffee and toast, and left us to it. It was really lovely.
“I was really overwhelmed after the birth”
We knew we’d have to stay in for 24 hours, so they could make sure Jennifer suffered no ill effects from the meconium. After a few hours, we were transferred to the postnatal ward where there were four beds in the room with a bathroom down the hall.
I was a mixture of delighted and overwhelmed with having given birth and having my new baby. I couldn’t even sleep at night because I was so excited.
In the morning, I couldn’t remember where to go for breakfast and didn’t know if I was supposed to take Jennifer with me to the bathroom, and there was nobody to offer help or assistance.
At one point, I remember saying to a member of staff “I’ve never stayed in a hospital before, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing”. I think they’re so used to being in that environment that they forget not everyone else is familiar with it.
“The midwives on the postnatal ward didn’t have enough time”
It seemed to me like the midwives were so busy they didn’t have enough time for all the mothers and babies and, unfortunately, that resulted in them not being able to give me individualised care.
I was also really disappointed with the breastfeeding advice I was given. After the first few hours, it got excruciatingly painful, and I kept asking the midwives for help but no one gave me hands-on help.
They all just glanced over and said: “It looks fine” and one of them even said: “Your nipples have to toughen up”, which I knew was not true.
I wondered if the advice could have been better if the midwives had more time to give. The breastfeeding support worker who visited me at home was able to give amazing, personalised, non-rushed help.
“I had to sign a piece of paper saying I wouldn’t shake my baby”
The whole day was a bit of a whirlwind with so much to do and get through. Just going to the toilet and having a shower with a newborn to look after was complicated, but Jennifer and I also had to have tests done, I had to put my lunch order in and fill in lots of paperwork – all at the same time.
The final straw was when they wanted me to watch a video about not shaking your baby. I said that they could put the video on, but I didn’t have the capacity to watch right then as there was already too much to take in.
Since I didn’t watch the video, I was then made to sign a piece of paper to ‘promise’ that I wouldn’t shake my baby.
If somebody doesn’t have the mental capacity to watch a video, it’s surely an indication that they are stressed or not coping well – exactly what the whole phenomenon of shaking your baby is about.
I really don’t feel that making someone sign a piece of paper is in any way duty of care for the mum or baby.
“I could raise all my questions at the birth debrief”
It was so lovely to take Jennifer home the day after the birth. If I hadn’t been so keen to get out of hospital, I think the experience might have been more overwhelming. But because I just wanted my own space, it was really nice – I couldn’t stop staring at her!
For the first ten days after birth when I had midwife visits at home, I felt really supported because I knew that people would come around and check up on us. But thoughts about the birth and my experience of the postnatal ward still lingered.
When I was offered the chance to have a birth debrief with senior midwives from the labour ward and postnatal ward a couple of months after the birth, it was really helpful.
I was able to raise all questions I had around why the midwife kept trying to give me pethidine, why she didn’t want to give me vaginal examinations and why the wireless monitoring wasn’t offered, as well as share my thoughts about my treatment on the postnatal ward.
The debrief answered many of mine and my boyfriend’s questions and made us feel a lot more positive and reassured about the whole experience.
- Read more about how Laura arranged her birth debrief, and how it helped both her and her boyfriend.
“Always remember that it’s your birth and your body”
Since the birth, I’ve become involved with my local Maternity Voices Partnership and found it a really rewarding way to help improve maternity services for other families using my own experience.
I think one of the most important thing to remember when preparing to give birth is that it’s your birth and your body. The medical professionals are there to give you advice and help you, but you always have a choice over how you are treated. And it’s a lot easier to make informed decisions if you have the right information beforehand.
Researching what happens in labour and where and how you’d like to give birth, attending antenatal classes, going on a tour of the maternity unit and getting your birth partner involved in your birth preferences are all ways that you can feel more informed and relaxed.
Ask your midwife or doctor if there’s anything you’re unsure of – both during your pregnancy and when giving birth. Make a list of questions and write down answers, because if you’re anything like me, baby brain will make you very forgetful.
I also think it’s really important remember the postnatal period. For me, the first few days and weeks after birth were a rollercoaster of joy, bewilderment, tiredness and bulging boobs!
Try to reach out for support before you’ve really started to need it, for example from your health visitor, the NCT or PANDAs. That might be six days after the birth or when your baby’s several months’ old – there’s no right or wrong here. Be kind to yourself.
More from Which?
- Your rights during pregnancy and birth: All women have the right to have their choices and their dignity respected by health professionals.
- What happens after you’ve given birth? We go through how your place of birth can affect the first hours and days with your new baby.
- Postnatal mental health: Find out where to find help and support if you, or someone close to you, are struggling emotionally after birth.