labour birth

Labour and Birth

For many women, the prospect of labour and birth can be daunting. Whether we are expecting our first baby or our seventh, as the time approaches, we experience a mix of emotions, including love, and hope, and anticipation and fear. Fear is to be expected at some level by anyone heading into an event as life-changing as birth. For first-time mums, it may be the fear of the unknown.

For women who travelled this road before, the fear may revolve around the memory of a previous journey. These fears have been a part of birthing since time began. They play an integral role in the primal nature of our birthing behaviours.

Then vs now

Historically, our mothers, aunties and sisters would have been our guides. Storytelling was our education; however, this knowledge had its limitations, medically speaking. As medical knowledge around pregnancy and birth grew so did our knowledge around the management of birth-related risk. This increased knowledge is excellent news. It is well known that regions of the world that don’t have access to medical facilities have a much higher maternal and neonatal death rate. How much higher we may never know because if they don’t make it to help, we don’t know that they ever needed it (1).

However, in the process of saving mothers and babies, we lost a big part of what had been our birthing culture. Combined with our rapidly expanding world and associated communication technology, we have also become less community-oriented. Whereas it used to take a village to raise a baby, now it seems it merely takes a smartphone (2).

Birth stories

The stories that teach us what to expect from birth are not handed down from women to woman. We learn them from a variety of sources, including television and the internet. The stories handed down to us by our mothers and aunties and peers now depicts a generation of women who have been medically managed.

For some, this is lifesaving and a highly appreciated fact. For some, it is what constitutes normal. Others remember it as a traumatic experience and an event that shapes not only their relationship with that child but with birth itself (3). Fear no longer revolves around the unknown, but what we think we know, and the act of giving birth.

The onset of labour

The onset of labour is rarely as dramatic as television and movies depict it to be. Nor is labour as fast. The waters breaking and a baby being born five minutes later – on the way to hospital – is an extremely rare occurrence. Most labours have a slow build-up, allowing our bodies and minds to adjust and provide some of our natural pain killers (endorphins) to help us through the process.

Where we labour or with who is not a matter to be decided here – these are matters that will be determined by each woman in consultation with her care providers. Such decisions take into account any factors that may affect the outcome of the birth, and the facilities available to them.

What is most important is that women labour where they feel safe, comfortable and supported in their decisions and their birth. When this happens, she can relax, and her hormones will work as they should without undue stressors or influence. These are the factors that influence whether a woman emerges empowered and in awe of herself or walks away, feeling like a bystander in her own experience.

Dr Janelle McAlpine (PhD), Clinical midwife
Photo by Maria Sbytova used under license from