Labor at night story number one: My husband and I were biking back from dinner with my oldest brother. I hit a terrific pothole and the bike flew through the air. Nine months pregnant, I gripped the handlebars so hard my knuckles turned white. I went into labor that night around 11:00 p.m.–two weeks before the baby’s official due date. Since I was sure the baby would be two weeks “late,” I went into labor a full month before I was expecting to give birth. I didn’t realize then that it is very common for women to go into labor at night.
What happens when you go into labor at night? Most of us get very excited and snap into a flurry of action, thinking we’d better do everything we need to do right away, since, after all, we’re in labor. We pack a hospital bag, call our family, alert our birth support team. We wake up our partner. “I’m in labor, it’s happening! Today’s the day!” That’s what I did. And now, with the hindsight of many years, that’s what I wish I hadn’t done.
When we stay up all night in a frenzy of activity in early labor, we risk making it harder to give birth. And that’s what happened to me. My labor lasted twenty two hours. During those last agonizing hours, my husband and I were totally exhausted and sleep-deprived. The hospital staff was impatient, a fact they communicated to me in both words and actions. A visibly angry nurse checked my dilation roughly, disgustedly pulling off the gloves afterwards and scoffing, “Nothing, not even a dimple,” before turning on her heel and leaving the room. I had been in labor for 15 hours with contractions every two minutes apart. She has no memory of me but her words are seared into my memory. I cannot remember ever being so demoralized. A doctor told me I was “being selfish,” for not wanting to “speed things up.” He scolded me that I should think about my family, not just myself. His shaming worked and I ended up with Pitocin (a synthetic hormone used to augment labor) and an epidural (a spinal form of pain relief).
There I was–young, wide-hipped, in excellent physical shape, desperately wanting a natural childbirth, and thrilled beyond belief to finally become a mother–hooked up to machines and an IV, shaking uncontrollably from both terror and a reaction to the medication, tethered to the bed as tightly as if I had been chained there.
When you go into labor at night, it’s better not to rush things. It’s better to stay lying down, resting between contractions. Get into the tub if the contractions are too distracting. If you can’t rest or quiet your mind, watch a funny movie that makes you laugh. The laughter will help you relax. And then watch another one. Whatever you do, don’t keep yourself awake timing contractions. Try not to wake your partner until you can’t bear it any longer. By then he or she will probably be awake, having heard the sounds you are making with each surge. Or wake your partner if you need them to be with you but don’t do anything–just be there, together, allowing your body to do its work. Let your partner hold you, bring you hot water for the tub, give you a massage. Kiss if you feel like it. The more relaxed you are, the easier it will be for your body to open a channel for this new life emerging into the world. Your labor may last twelve hours but it may last three or four days. There’s no reason to hurry if you go into labor at night. I promise.
Gloria Lemay, a Canadian midwife, says it so sagely. Heed her wise words, mamas:
That first night can make all the difference and yet so many couples act
like it’s a party and don’t realize they are sabotaging their births right
at the beginning. Staying up all night in the early part does two things–it
throws off the body clock that controls sleep and waking and confuses the
brain AND it inhibits the release of the very hormone you need to dilate
effectively. You know that it can take days to recover after a night of
partying or after working a graveyard shift. Don’t start your birth with
that kind of stress on your hormone system.
When you begin to have sensations, I urge you to ignore it as long as you
possibly can. Don’t tell anyone. Have a ‘secret sensation time’ with your
unborn baby and get in as dark a space as you can. Minimize what is
happening with your husband, family and the birth attendants. What would you
rather have–a big, long dramatic birth story to tell everyone or a really
smooth birth? You do have a say over your hormone activity. Help your
pituitary gland secrete oxytocin to open your cervix by being in a dark,
quiet room with your eyes closed. Gloria Lemay, Vancouver.”
Labor at night story number two: It was a cool October day and we had been walking in the woods. My two daughters were asleep in their gabled room at the top of the stairs of our little red farmhouse in New England. It was the day after the baby’s expected due date. It was 11:00 p.m. and I got up to go pee. I felt a rush of liquid, which I thought was my water breaking though I was not sure. I sat quietly for a little while on the couch in the walk-through room that doubled as a guest room and my home office. Then my body started contracting. I could feel the surges of energy as my uterus began to open up. Even though this was my third labor, I felt my heartbeat accelerate and fear flood me. Eleven p.m. just like the first time. My water breaking to start labor, just like the first time. But I did not want it to be like the first time. I did not want the same labor as I had had in the hospital in Atlanta. I let myself weep softly. My husband was fast asleep. Not wanting him to be exhausted, I decided not rouse him. Instead I took his blue, red, yellow, and green terrycloth robe, the one Aunt Jan bought him when he was a teenager, and started stitching up the places where it had come unraveled. I’d wanted to fix this robe for a long time. I sat in that walk-through room in our small home, my husband sleeping in our bedroom, my daughters sleeping in theirs, and sewed. The surges kept coming, each one hitting me with more force. After letting myself cry, I called the midwife we had chosen to attend our birth. She had ten children, all of whom had been born at home, five unassisted. “I want to let you know my water broke,” I whispered into the phone. “But I think it will be awhile. You don’t have to come now. Come when you want to.”
I lost track of the time. I was too wrapped up in the secret beginning of birth and my uneven stitches to pay attention. Maybe she sensed something. Maybe she heard it in my voice, interrupted by a contraction, but I think she came right over, tiptoeing into the room where I was quietly sewing. Maybe I was also crying. I don’t remember.
A little while after the midwife arrived, I woke my husband. He stayed with me while I labored in the shower. We kept the lights down. Everything was quiet and calm. Our curious, alert, and oh-so-beautiful son was born about four hours after my water broke. Everything went so much better that time. I felt protected and safe. I was surrounded by people I could trust, and who trusted in me and in my ability to give birth. No shaming. No hurrying. Just a baby being born into love on a starless night at the end of October in a little red farmhouse in New England.
What time of day did you go into labor? What do you think of this advice? What kind of birth experience did you have or do you hope to have in the future? We’d love to read your thoughts in the comment section below.