Two weeks before the birth of my second child, I woke in the middle of the night in a panic. Almost nine months had gone by without more than a passing thought of the labor and delivery of this child. Three years earlier, after five hours of labor (and at four centimeters dilated), I received an epidural for the birth of my daughter. I vowed that next time I wouldn’t wait so long! I was about to surprise myself.
“As humans, everything is filtered through with our past experiences,” says Amy Schroder, RNC and Parent Education Coordinator at Hartford Hospital in Connecticut. “Moms expect [labor and delivery] will be shorter and easier the next time around.” Generally, second childbirths do tend to be faster and easier. “Statistics show that the first labor, which includes your first contraction to the delivery of the baby, is usually 12 to 14 hours. The second time it can happen in six to eight hours,” says Schroder.
But like babies, every childbirth experience is different. “Never make assumptions,” says Janelle Durham, MSW, Doula and Education Director for Great Starts Birth and Family Education Center in Seattle, Washington. When we expect the same thing, we can make it harder on ourselves if the outcome is different. Chances are that this experience will be different—maybe easier, maybe not; maybe shorter, maybe not.
The Three Ps
There are many factors that can make a subsequent childbirth experience different—some of which we have no control over. Schroder refers to these factors as the three Ps of childbirth—power, passage, and passenger.
Power refers to the force of the contractions, which varies from every labor to labor, regardless of the mom.
Passage is the reproductive tract, which includes the birth canal and all the structures. “With the first pregnancy, there is a lot of resistance in the passage because no baby has ever passed though here before,” says Schroder.
Yet the body may react differently the second or third time around. “Your body has done this before,” says Durham, explaining why subsequent births can be easier.
Passenger refers to your baby. It’s not just a matter of size, however. The baby’s position is important in determining how long and how easy a labor is. If the back of the baby’s head is pressing on the mother’s tailbone instead of facing upward, the mother will experience back labor. “Back labor is very painful, can take much longer, and up to 15 percent of women can have back labor,” says Schroder.
Although you can’t control the force of your contractions or what position the baby will be in, your attitude is something you have control over. Depending on your previous birth experience, moms can go into their next child’s birth with a positive, anxious, or relaxed state of mind.
“Experienced moms are definitely more relaxed,” says Durham. The more relaxed you are, the more you’re working with your body, which can quicken the process.
The first birth experience can be scary for many women because of the fear of the unknown. “Even if you had a hard first birth, you did it,” says Durham. And that is something to be proud of.
Although most experienced moms tend to be more relaxed, anxiety can set in if their previous experience was less than pleasant. Meredith Bach had a difficult first pregnancy and delivery. “I had worried so much through my second pregnancy that it would be like my first, and when it wasn’t and it was so beautiful, I knew why people do it over and over again,” says this Franklin, Tennessee mom.
Kim James, of Seattle, Washington, had an unexpectedly different experience from her first child. “My second daughter’s birth was longer, more difficult, and required the use of more medical interventions. I also used pain medications with this birth, which was unplanned.” Even though her second birth experience was more of a challenge, she didn’t feel as if it was “worse.” “Birth is birth—sometimes it’s shorter or longer or easier or harder.”
Most moms agree that there was much less preparation the second time around. Part of the reason is you may already be more confident about what to expect. Yet the biggest reason may be lack of time—you’re so busy with your other children that there is little time for reading or enrolling in a childbirth class. But if you are pregnant, Baby is coming (maybe soon!) and you’ll need to get prepared. Here are some suggestions:
Talk about It:
Durham suggests that parents think about their past birth experience(s). “What do you want to be the same? What would you change? What are your goals for this birth?” Talk with your partner about what worked and what didn’t. Use your previous experience as a learning tool.
My husband and I discussed what helped (his communicating for me to the nurses and doctors when I couldn’t talk) and what didn’t (his coaching my breathing). During the second birth, his main job was to watch the contraction monitor and tell me when I had reached the peak of my contraction, which was extremely helpful. We worked more as partners through each contraction, which moved us closer to the reward: the birth of our baby.
Take a Refresher Childbirth Class:
“[Even] if you had an epidural the first time and liked it, don’t ignore the breathing and relaxation in the refresher class—you might need it,” says Schroder, who delivered her first child with an epidural and her second child without medication. “The second time the breathing really worked for me. I believed in it; I didn’t believe in it the first time.”
All the breathing techniques I learned in the six weeks of childbirth education class did me absolutely no good during the birth of my first child, but the second time I went into labor, I used the breathing techniques that I was reminded of in the refresher class and found I had much more control over my labor pains for a much longer period of time.
In the grand scheme of life, the three trimesters of pregnancy fly by and before you know it, you’ll be meeting your sweet new baby for the first time. So even though you may feel you’ve “been there, done that,” have a plan—but also have a plan B. Keep your options open and be open to the fact that childbirth doesn’t always go the way you hope it will. And that’s OK—you’ll have different stories to tell to different children, each as unique as they are!