Before falling pregnant, I thought having a baby would 'just come naturally to me'. Then I had my first child, Miriam, five months ago – and realised I couldn't have been more wrong. But thanks to some celebrity photoshoots that make pregnancy seem like a glamourous, hassle-free sabbatical, you'd be forgiven for thinking the same as I once did. So, I want to lay bare the reality of childbirth – in all its, urm, glory and wonder. I'm not here to scaremonger (but I will tell you straight), and of course every woman's experience of childbirth will be different, so I can only vouch for my own. That said, hopefully I can give answers to some of the questions you may have but have always been 1) too embarrassed, 2) too scared of causing offence or 3) too damn grossed out to ask...
1. Can you have sex during pregnancy, and does it feel weird?
The official advice is that, as long as you haven’t experienced any heavy bleeding during pregnancy, you can enjoy as much sex as you like. It’s even encouraged in the final weeks before the baby arrives because orgasms can kick-start contractions. But if I'm honest, when you’re tired and nauseous, sex wasn't always top of my priority list. And yeah, it does feel weird. For me, a tiny person wriggling around inside you gives 'getting jiggy' a whole new meaning.
2. Ok, so what does labour actually feel like?
One friend describes it as being punched and kicked all over her body. The best way I can explain contractions is this: you know just before you vomit? That wave of nausea that comes over you and wrenches the contents of your stomach into your mouth? Well, that’s what it feels like, except more painful and with less sick (if you’re lucky).
It starts with period-like cramping that gets steadily stronger until no amount of bouncing on a birthing ball can ease the pain. This progresses to all-out waves of intense contractions that cause you to double over. Then comes the second stage of labour (yep, you’re only a third of the way through at this point) – this feels like immense pressure on your bottom, accompanied by a burning sensation (don’t worry, it’s probably just your vagina tearing as the baby’s head emerges!) Luckily this doesn’t last long, and the rest of the baby usually just sort of slides out. Finally, you have to deliver the placenta (as if birthing a baby wasn’t enough!) – sometimes this falls out naturally, otherwise you are given an injection to expel it.
3. And is it as as painful as everyone says?
Err, yes. Natural childbirth is intense, but there are some great tools that can help. Hypnobirthing is a drug-free way of managing labour pains. It uses a combination of breathing exercises, visualisations and affirmations to distract your brain and calm you down.
“We know that fear and stress can influence the progress and outcome of labour”, explains hypnobirthing coach and antenatal yoga teacher Lisa Toth. “If you're scared during labour, your body will release adrenalin, meaning the womb muscles will work less effectively as they are deprived of blood and oxygen. This can make labour longer, more intense for mother and baby and more painful. Hypnobirthing can help combat this."
It’s hard to believe that breathing and picturing waterfalls could actually help when birthing an eight-pound baby, but hypnobirthing worked for me. Of course, epidurals are a good way to numb the pain, and the painkiller pethidine can help you relax, too.
4. Does every woman poo herself during labour?
Sometimes, a babe isn’t the only thing finding its way to the evacuation point during labour. According to King’s College Hospital midwife Michelle Harrison, the chances of 'pooing' during childbirth are pretty high – around 60-70% of women do (sorry).
“The baby needs every millimetre of space to pass over the pelvic floor and deliver,” she explains. “The soft tissue of the rectal passage is flexible and can be flattened to allow this. If there is any faecal matter in front of the head, then this will be pushed out. It's usually only a small amount, and many women will open their bowels in early labour anyway (often a sign that labour is starting).”
I know this sounds horrifying, but honestly? Embarrassment was the last thing on my mind. You’ll either be so high on gas and air, or zonked out from pethidine and pushing, that you wouldn’t care if ten pink elephants did the Macarena out of your vajajay. Plus, the midwives wipe up all the, ahem, excretions.
5. And the odds on tearing?
Not great. According to the British Journal of Gynocology, 90% of women tear during childbirth. This ranges from a scratch that heals naturally to a fourth-degree tear, where the injury reaches to the rectum or anus (eek).
Before labour, you are given advice about perineal massage – to relax and prepare the skin between the vagina and anus – which you’ll be encouraged to do with your partner. Personally, I don’t think rubbing your flange for a couple of weeks with some olive oil makes any difference. The idea that a half-stone rugby ball being pushed through a hole the size of a 10 pence piece won’t result in some collateral damage, is wishful thinking. Having said that, my friend’s sister gave birth to a ten-pounder without tearing. May the odds be in your favour.
6. How quickly does your tummy return to normal?
It’s different for everyone and depends on several factors: how much exercise you did before getting pregnant, whether you experienced any injuries during labour, how committed you are to eating healthily and exercising after birth, and whether you got stretch marks or not.
According to Kellie Moore, Head Trainer and owner of Jelly Belly, a company that helps pregnant women and new mums keep in shape, the post-labour problem areas are the pelvic floor and abdominal wall. “It takes patience, hard work and sometimes life-long changes to ensure your body gives you what you need as a mum”, she says. “You may not get your figure back exactly as you want it, but you can feel stronger and fitter than before."
7. Does breastfeeding ruin your boobs?
The impact of breastfeeding on your breasts is something I was unprepared for. Firstly, no one tells you how difficult it is. If there’s one thing you take from this article, let it be this: if you choose to breastfeed, nipple shields are a total lifesaver. Just pop them on before feeding your baby and they’ll protect the delicate skin from friction and cracking. After a few weeks, once your boobs have adjusted, you likely won't need them anymore.
There's also the dreaded 's-word': sagging. "It's simply pregnancy itself that often causes sagging," says lactation specialist Vanessa Christie. “For most women, automatic breast changes (subtle or otherwise) start in early pregnancy and continue after birth, when the milk-making ducts start to develop (whether you choose to breastfeed or not) and the ligaments supporting the breasts can stretch." So, unfortunately, it's natural processes that can ultimately cause sagging. But it can help to get your breasts measured to ensure your bra provides the best support, exercise regularly and use a breast cream, such as .
8. Will I regret it?
This is probably the question you're most afraid of asking. And if I'm being completely honest, there were moments in those first couple of months when I wondered if it was worth it. When I was so tired that I get into the shower without realising my clothes wre still on. When I wondered whether I'd truly fall in love with this tiny little person that just burped and hurt my breasts. When I was bored to tears by the groundhog-day-routine of feeding, winding and nappy changes.
It's not uncommon not to fall in your love with baby straight away. The NHS says these 'baby blues' are normal during the first few weeks. If they last longer, sometimes symptoms can develop into post natal depression - a common problem, affecting more than 1 in every 10 women within a year of giving birth. But there is lots of support, and it's important to seek help and speak to your GP. (The offers info and advice, too).
Do I think it was worth it? Yes. And hopefully there will be moments that show you why, too. When see the progress your baby is making, and how she is thriving because of you. How she looks at you like you're her entire world, because you are. How every smile and chuckle is a reminder that you’re doing a damn good job (trust me, you are). And playing in the park all afternoon with a tiny version of yourself, and smelling that new baby smell every morning? That's not too shabby either.