Labour and birth experiences

Many mothers and a few fathers spoke at length about their experiences of labour and birth. Most of the women had a vaginal birth for at least one child. Caesarean section was also common, as were instrumental births (forceps or vacuum suction-assisted) and episiotomy, and pharmacological pain relief during labour. The women we spoke to found labour and birth a unique, life-changing, and emotionally intense event.

Many women went into labour spontaneously. Most of these women had a vaginal birth while some had emergency caesareans. Levels of pain relief and intervention during labour differed. A number of women who gave birth vaginally with minimal or no intervention were happy about their experience. Deb, a mother of two, described her first child’s birth: ‘I had a natural birth with him. No pain relief. Everything was great’.

Others felt more ambivalent. Beth’s midwives said her labour and water birth had been ‘amazing’, yet she felt like she had been in a ‘traffic accident’. Other women experienced more intervention than hoped.

Alice said she had a ‘rough birth’ involving an attempted forceps and a vacuum suction delivery before she haemorrhaged and had to have an emergency caesarean.

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Reasons for induced labours included gestational diabetes, high blood pressure, being overdue, a slowdown in the baby’s growth, or labour not starting within 24 to 72 hours after their waters breaking. Induction methods women talked about included amniotomy, application of prostaglandin gel (CERVIDIL), and injection of synthetic oxytocin (SYNTOCINON). A couple of women whose labour was induced did not find this a difficult experience, however most felt it negatively impacted on their overall labour and birth.

Nellie described feeling like a ‘failure’ and out of control during her labour and birth after being induced because her son was overdue.

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Rose contrasted the induced labour she had for her second child with her spontaneous labour for her first baby.

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Many women experienced caesarean births, either as emergencies or planned. Reasons for emergency caesareans included: pre-eclampsia, hypertension, placenta praevia, or the baby being too large, distressed or in the wrong position. Some women who experienced emergency caesareans were relieved that the pain was going to stop after a long labour. Others described feeling disappointed, traumatised, or silenced if not given the chance to talk about it.

Elizabeth’s emergency caesarean was ‘the scariest thing’ to ever happen to her.

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Elective caesareans were performed for different reasons. One mother decided to have a caesarean because of her baby’s large size. Another father’s ex-partner had an elective caesarean because their baby had gastroschisis and needed surgery immediately after birth. Some migrant mothers who gave birth in their country of origin had elective caesareans because it was common practice there. Apart from Tolai, all parents of twins had elective caesareans.

Jane described her reasons for choosing an elective caesarean for the birth of her twins.

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Childbirth is a painful experience for most women. Several women wanted to avoid pharmacological pain relief during labour, while others wanted a pain-free birth. However, women’s labour and pain management experiences were often different from their expectations. Many women were not prepared for the level of pain they experienced. This was particularly so for a number of women whose labours were induced or augmented.

Cecilia described being shocked by how painful her contractions were and her ability to deal with the pain.

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Gas, pethidine injections, and epidural anesthetics were common methods of pharmacological pain relief. Several women found these methods effective. Rumer, a mother of two, described her epidural as ‘amazing’. Others expressed disappointment at pain relief medication failing to work properly or at all. Several women found their epidurals worked unevenly, while some said gas or pethidine made them nauseous or drowsy. A few women’s labours were too rapid for them to have an epidural.

Sara L had two epidurals and gas during a very stressful labour. Neither method provided any relief.

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Some women chose non-drug methods of pain relief including labouring in warm water, practising relaxation, meditation or breathing techniques, massage, or active birthing positions. During her first labour, Beth said following her hairdresser’s advice to hold on to a chair and step up and down as if she was ‘on hot sand’ was helpful.

Several women described being faced with or experiencing other interventions such as internal examinations, episiotomy, and forceps or vacuum-assisted delivery. Beth refused to have an internal examination because a friend had told her it was painful. Some women described ‘the cascade of intervention’.

Rumer described experiencing multiple interventions despite planning a ‘natural’ birth.

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Women with more than one child talked about how different each birth had been. Many women felt that their second or later births were better than their first, sometimes referring to these as their ‘healing’ births.

Maree didn’t have the birth she wanted with her first child, but was much happier with her second baby’s birth.

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However, this was not the case for everyone. Sarah M was ‘proud’ of her first two drug-free births, but her third baby was premature and born under difficult conditions. Erin had an emergency caesarean for her first baby, attempted a VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean) for her second but did not succeed, and went on to have another four caesareans. She survived the rare and life-threatening condition of placenta percreta with her final baby.

After experiencing a difficult first birth, some women took a different approach to the second birth, for example by hiring a doula, having a VBAC, or giving birth in a birthing centre. Many women’s second births were faster than their first. Some women experienced a precipitate delivery, and either nearly did not make it to hospital or delivered en route.

Beth’s second baby was born in the car on the way to the birthing centre.

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