Have you ever wondered what labour and birth are like from a baby’s point of view?
What do babies feel or sense as they are being born?
We often put all the focus on the labouring woman – where she will birth, what coping techniques and support will be available, and what sort of interventions she wants to have or avoid.
While we want to have a healthy baby at the end of our birth experience, we tend to think of babies as passive passengers during labour. Each stage of labour presents a different stage in a baby’s journey to be born.
Birth From Your Baby’s Point Of View
Here’s what a baby will typically go through during three stages of labour:
First Stage Of Labour
During the early part of labour, you will probably feel contractions every 20 minutes or so. These contractions are usually quite mild and your baby will feel them as a gentle squeezing around her body.
Babies often follow a regular pattern of movement and sleep during prelabour and even early labour. Your baby might move about to get into a better position for birth, turning her head to one side and tucking her chin to her chest so that the back of the head can lead the way. This applies pressure to the cervix, assisting the process of cervical dilation.
As labour progresses, your body releases oxytocin in increasing amounts. Contractions become longer, stronger and closer together, dilating the cervix. Your baby’s head is pushed down onto the cervix, and the uterus begins to shorten, reducing the available space. Your baby is probably feeling somewhat squashed in there.
Some babies actively help out during contractions. Many mothers can feel their babies wriggling or pushing with their feet during contractions. Other babies become quiet and still as they are squeezed by the strong uterine contractions. This is a protective mechanism that allows them to cope with lower levels of oxygen during contractions.
As the uterus contracts, it compresses the blood vessels that carry oxygen to the placenta. The baby’s heart rate slows, to conserve oxygen, blood and energy during the contraction. After the contraction is complete, the baby’s heart rate picks up, as the placenta continues to deliver oxygen and blood.
During contractions, the pressure also squeezes the fluid from the baby’s lungs, preparing them for taking in air for the first time. This is one reason why babies who are born without labour (via elective c-section) often have respiratory problems after birth.
Second Stage Of Labour
Once full dilation has occurred, the strong, involuntary contractions of the uterus will push your baby downward into the birth canal. Thanks to nature’s design, your baby’s head can pass through the vagina. The skull of a newborn baby is soft, and the plates of the skull are not fused. This allows each plate to shift and move, so that the head can fit through the birth canal. When they are born, babies usually have cone shaped heads, which go back to their normal shape in the following days.
Imagine trying to squeeze yourself through a very narrow space that has some yield. During the journey through the birth canal, babies feel a lot of similar pressure. Your baby’s head leads the way and her head and chest begin to turn to face your back as they enter your vagina.
Your baby will be tucked into position, but still able to wriggle and move a little. As some babies do, she might actively push with her feet against the uterus as she descends, and kick as her head is born, which can be a surprise if you’re not expecting it.
The pressure of the head being born is probably the strongest sensation your baby will feel during birth. It can be a slow process. As each contraction pushes your baby down, she will slip back up the vagina, allowing your body to stretch gently. You will be working hard during this state of labour, and very ready to meet your baby.
Once your baby’s head is born there is a pause while her head and shoulders turn or rotate, allowing the rest of the body to be born more easily. She won’t begin to breathe yet because there is still a lot of pressure on the chest.
Most babies are born with their eyes closed but open them very soon after birth. Vision is the last sense babies develop in the uterus and they can’t see well, or far, when they are born. Your baby will be able to see your face if you hold her at the level of your breast. Depending on where you are giving birth, the light might be much brighter than anything your baby has experienced for the last 9 months, so it’s a good idea to make sure the lights are dim in those first moments after birth.
Once the baby’s head and shoulders have turned, another contraction pushes the baby further. Often at this stage mothers will actively push and the baby’s body is born in one go. The baby can be picked up and placed on the mother’s stomach or chest, depending on how long the umbilical cord is.
When your baby is completely born, her central nervous system will react to the sudden change in temperature and environment, triggering the first breath, which might sound like a gasp, splutter or cough.
This usually happens within 10 seconds of a baby being born. These first breaths can be the most difficult babies will take for their entire lives, as their systems make the transition from being dependent on the placenta for oxygen, to breathing air through their lungs. These first breaths might be shallow and irregular and the baby might begin to cry. While it is commonly believed all babies cry at birth, to kick-start their lungs, this is not true. Some babies don’t cry when they are born but will cry if they aren’t united with their mothers immediately after birth.
As you hold your baby, your smell and touch assure her of safety and comfort. Bonding begins immediately, as your baby gazes at you, often intently, as though she recognises you – which she does! Your smell, taste and voice are already familiar to your baby. Her most important need is to be close to you, and the time following birth is critical for her transition into a new world. You can read more about how important this process is here. Your baby is born with a number of automatic instincts that will amaze you.
Your baby’s experience of birth is affected by the choices you make about where and with whom you birth. Natural, undisturbed labour and birth enhance your experience, and make birth a much safer and positive journey for your baby.
If you or your baby require medical assistance for birth to happen safely, being aware of your baby’s view of birth can help you make informed decisions about your medical care.