When you’re pregnant with your first baby, the idea of giving birth can be a nebulous concept, like embarking on a cross-country trip without a map. For many first-time mothers, it’s easy to worry or fear birth as it’s hard to know exactly what to expect. And when an experience is so often described as “transformational,” it’s tough to truly define. So we asked some fellow mamas to share what surprised them most about giving birth for the first time. Here’s what we found out.
What to know about giving birth for the first time: Advice from real moms
1. Postpartum bleeding
“I was surprised by the bleeding after birth. I know now that it’s normal, but it kind of freaked me out at the time.” —Rachael
Most women bleed for about six weeks after they have a baby. The lochia, as it’s known, starts out like a heavy period.
After a few days, the bleeding will become lighter in both flow and color, and then turn pinkish, then yellowish, then white and finally clear. The timeline varies for everyone. You may also have a few small blood clots, especially when you stand up after sitting or lying down for a long time.
When to call your provider: If you have several blood clots or a clot the size of a golf ball, or if you fill a pad with blood in an hour or two, call your provider right away (2 a.m. phone call totally justified).
2. Every birth is different
“I heard so many stories about birth and kept trying to picture what mine would be like based on what everyone else was saying. But I now I realize that every experience is just so different. Honestly, I wish I had focused on me a little more during my pregnancy, and worried less about what everyone else was doing.”—Renee
You may find that you’re constantly being told other people’s birth stories. And that’s awesome, as long as you’re finding it helpful and inspiring. But if you get to a place where you feel stressed as you’re listening, or are hearing things that make you worry, it’s okay to ask people to save their stories until after your baby is born. Every birth really is unique, so try to focus on what you want your story to look like.
3. Your nurse = your hero
“One thing I didn’t expect was how important the nurses were vs. my doctor during the labor and birth process. I loved my OB and she was super important during my whole pregnancy, but it was really the nurses who took care of me that got me through it.”—Kate
If you’re having a hospital birth, there is a good chance your provider will be taking care of multiple birthing people at the same time. So while they should be in to check on you frequently, chances are they won’t be by your side for most of your labor. Your nurse, on the other hand, will probably be taking care of only you, so they’ll be with you for much more of your labor.
4. What crowning feels like
“I wish I had known what it feels like just before the baby came out, and maybe how to cope with the sensation.”—Aubrey
During pushing, the time when you can finally start to see the baby’s head is called crowning. It usually lasts for at least a few contractions, and many women describe as an unpleasant burning sensation.
Here are a few things to know:
- The burning sensation is actually your skin naturally stretching around the baby’s head. It is doing exactly what it is supposed to. So while it may not feel awesome, try to take comfort in knowing that it’s very normal (and will be over very soon).
- When the baby is crowning, instead of doing big long pushes, switch to short gentle pushes (and lots of breathing). This will help baby to ease out and give your perineum (the skin on the outside of your vagina) time to stretch.
5. After-birth cramping
“I didn’t know that I’d have cramping after the baby was born, and it would be a bit uncomfortable.”—Melissa
After birth, your uterus will start to shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size.
It does this by contracting, or cramping (bonus: it’s also helping to stop the bleeding).
This cramping can be especially intense during breastfeeding: When you nurse, your body releases a hormone called oxytocin, which is the hormone the causes contractions. So while it can be uncomfortable, remember that it is very much on purpose and helping you to heal!
The good news is that this only lasts for about three to five days. Talk to your provider about taking an anti-inflammatory medication for the first few days after birth to help with this discomfort.
P.S. During the first few days after you give birth, your medical team will ask to press on your lower belly periodically. They are checking to make sure your uterus feels firm and healthy. It can be a little uncomfortable, but it’s only temporary.
6. Remember to plan for you
“I didn’t really plan for taking care of myself after birth—I had everything ready for the baby, but didn’t remember that I’d need some TLC too!”—Jamie
You’re about to welcome new life into the world, so of course you want to make sure everything is perfect for them.
But remember: YOU are the one who has been growing (and will soon be birthing) that new little being. Factor in some serious healing time for yourself: rest, eat well and nurture yourself. And a big one… ask for help!
See if you can line up people to be on call to help you for the first month after you give birth. You can even send them this list of suggestions about how to help a new mother.
7. You’ll still have a belly for a while
“I thought I’d magically be able to wear regular sized clothes again. It took a good two to three months, and now, almost six months in, my body is still shifting and changing a ton.”—Nina
It takes a while for your uterus to return to its pre-pregnancy size. And, your body has gone through (and will continue to go through) tremendous changes. You’ll probably be most comfortable in maternity clothes for at least the first month or so after giving birth (or way longer, who are we kidding).
Be gentle on yourself. Forget the bounce-back. Remember, YOU JUST MADE A BABY.
8. Don’t forget why you’re here
“The minute my baby was born I was like ‘Ohhhhhhhhh, okay. That was totally worth it.’ I remember my birth, of course, but honestly it was just a blip in time compared to what comes after—and I have to say, it IS totally worth it.”—Delia
No comment needed.
If I’ve learned one thing about pregnant women during my seven years as a midwife, it is that pregnant women are planners. We like to anticipate and prepare for everything! But it can be hard to really envision what the whole process is going to be like, and sometimes it’s difficult to even know what questions to ask.
A version of this story was first published June 24, 2021. It has been updated.