First-time mamas, you have so much to be excited about as you anticipate finally meeting your little one. And while you may have read all the books, heard all your friends’ birth stories, have a doula lined up, and are feeling relatively confident in what to expect, there’s just something special (and a little nerve-wracking) about giving birth for the first time.
There is just SO much to think about when it comes to what to expect during labor for first-time mamas, and much of it focuses on the physical side—contractions, dilation, mucous plugs—but there’s also a lot of mental and emotional preparation that needs to happen as well.
When we reached out to experts for their top tips about what to know about giving birth for the first time, most of their advice focuses on the mind-body connection and how it relates to a positive birth and postpartum experience. So while you’re packing your hospital bag and practicing breathing exercises, you can also keep these tips in mind.
Here’s what to know about giving birth for the first time
The average week to give birth for first-time moms may not match the due date
First things first: That date you have circled on your calendar? It may not be the day you actually give birth. “It’s important to remember a due date is an estimate, nothing more!” says Melissa Dennis, MD, an OB-GYN in Chicago with over 20 years of experience delivering babies. “Patience is key while waiting for labor to begin.”
Lawana Brown, MSN, WHNP-BC, WHNP Program Director, and Assistant Professor for the School of Nursing at Regis College shares that, “An online search of available research articles puts the percentage of mothers delivering on their due date at about 4% to 5%.” So as you creep closer to the 40th week, know that you and your baby are right on track even if labor hasn’t yet begun.
Babies don’t always follow birth plans, and that’s OK
A birth plan can be a way to discuss and outline all your preferences for labor and delivery—from who you want in the room with you to what kind of pain management you prefer. It helps you think through what you envision for an ideal birth. “Birth plans are a good way for you to let your provider know what your wishes are,” says Brown.
But once you go into labor, the baby may not follow your plan. Dr. Dennis prefers the word preferences over plan. “If things do not go according to plan, disappointment can follow, and as your physician, I want to maximize joy during this experience!” she says. She suggests sharing with your provider to discuss all the available options, so you’ll be mentally ready for all scenarios.
Birth classes can increase confidence during labor
If you’re like most first-time mamas, the unknowns can keep you up at night. “Part of the anxiety of pregnancy and birth is not knowing what to expect,” shares Stephanie Hack, MD/MPH, board-certified OB/GYN, and mom of three (including a newborn). A birth class can help ease some of those fears by teaching you about what to expect and even some pain management techniques. Brown adds, “I had four babies, and each time I did the birth preparation class. It takes away some anxiety when you know what to expect.”
On the other hand, Kelli Burroughs, MD, department chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, also points out that birth classes aren’t for everyone. “For some individuals, these classes provoke anxiety due to the amount of detailed information.” In this case, learning what to expect from friends or family members, reading books or watching documentaries could be more helpful than in a structured class setting.
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Positive thoughts can curb anxiety in the delivery room
As your labor progresses, keep thinking about how amazing it will feel to finally meet your baby. “Believe in yourself and your ability to have a successful pregnancy. Women’s bodies are designed to bring forth life into our world,” says Dr. Burroughs.
You can practice affirmations and thoughts with your partner during prenatal visits. One study even found that having a positive attitude about labor and labor pain was associated with shorter delivery. While you can’t necessarily control how you feel in the moment, thinking positively about what your body is capable of could help.
Address mental health to make life easier before, during and after labor
Thankfully, discussions surrounding mental health and childbirth have become more mainstream in recent years. “Addressing depression and anxiety prior to pregnancy is just as important as addressing high blood pressure,” says Dr. Burroughs. “The healthier a woman is physically and mentally prior to pregnancy, the less risk associated with exacerbation of underlying medical conditions.”
Even if you’ve been feeling great throughout your pregnancy, it’s normal to feel some anxiety in the days leading up to your due date or even once contractions begin. If you feel overwhelmed, talk to your partner or doctor about your feelings and seek out help.
Support systems are key to a successful labor and postpartum experience
Think of a support system as your cheerleader during pregnancy and labor. “I have always described labor and delivery as the end of a marathon,” says Dr. Dennis. “It’s exhilarating but can also be mentally and physically challenging.”
Dr. Dennis believes that creating a support system before labor is essential. “In addition to leaning on partners, family and friends, meeting with a mental health provider and pelvic floor physical therapist proactively provides support and knowledge to first-time parents… and knowledge is power.”
Brown also reminds new mamas, “Celebrate the strength of this body that allowed you to carry a life and bring it earthside!” And Dr. Hack adds, “Take pictures, celebrate, and enjoy the experience as much as you can.” You’ve got this mama, and the reward is worth all the hard work.
Kelli Burroughs, MD, is department chair of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital.
Lawana Brown, MSN, WHNP-BC, is the WHNP Program Director and Assistant Professor for the School of Nursing at Regis College. Lawana began her nursing career working as a Labor and Delivery RN and has worked in women’s health her entire nursing career.
Stephanie Hack, MD, MPH, is a board-certified OB-GYN who provides authentic, evidence-based information about motherhood, women’s health and wellness via her Lady Parts Doctor podcast and IG account @Ladypartsdoc. She is a mom of three boys, including a newborn welcomed in September.
Melissa Dennis, MD, is an OB-GYN in Chicago with over 20 years of experience delivering babies. She now serves as the Chief Medical Officer for Partum Health where the focus is on providing whole-person care to growing families.
Beigi SM, Valiani M, Alavi M, Mohamadirizi S. The relationship between attitude toward labor pain and length of the first, second, and third stages in primigravida women. J Educ Health Promot. 2019;8:130. Published 2019 Jul 29. doi:10.4103/jehp.jehp_4_19