As told by Second Time Parents Alisha and Gavin.
Gavin and Alisha took the Complete Birth Preparation Group Course in November. When I met Alisha she had her heart set on a home birth following a traumatic first birth experience. Spoiler alert* she didn't have a home birth, far from it, her birth ended in a medical emergency - but yet she is still able to reflect on the experience now as being positive. Read on to discover why, in Alisha and Gavin's own words.
" It was registering that my contractions were powerful but I wasn't feeling any pain or discomfort and so the midwives concluded that their machinery was faulty!"
It has taken me a while to write my birth story because for a long time I saw it as something traumatic. I hadn't yet got the perspective to look back at it and realise that there were so many positive aspects to it and so many averted crises that it is actually a story about the strength to overcome adversity and bring my baby home to his family.
For the birth of my first child, Scarlet, I thought I had written a birth plan. I hadn't. I'd created a wish list, much of it a cultural copy / paste (ie, I'll have my child in the hospital where I'll get the best care, I'll see if I can breastfeed etc). I didn't research because I didn't know what to research. I expected birth to be painful and I hoped my pain tolerance was high enough for me to deal with it and not need drugs. I didn't plan for any eventualities. I just assumed it would be fine, or I'd need a c-section. So long as it wasn't a forceps delivery (I'd read terrible things about them), it would be fine.
What happened was a cascade of medical interventions which I now believe were completely unnecessary. When labour started, I basically just waited until it became too painful to deal with, counting the time between contractions and watching some junk tv about rogue landlords. When I got into hospital I was frightened and in agony. I asked for an epidural. The midwife laughed at me. I was 3cm dilated and I panicked. I no longer believed I could do it. I accepted diamorphine and that got me through the majority of labour. At 8cm dilated the anaesthetist became available and I had an epidural. I was not advised by any health care professionals not to do this at this late stage. Only my husband tried to disuade me, but I was in such blinding pain, I'd have accepted anything at that point. I couldn't advocate for my needs properly and I had no plan for this eventuality. My contractions stopped and after 2 hours I was put onto the synethtic oxytocin drip. My contractions surged back but I couldn't feel them properly. I was unable to push my daughter out and she was delivered by forceps after 13 hours in established labour.
I feel a horrible sense of guilt writing about that first birth, knowing that it could have been so different for us both. When I became pregnant with Ethan, I was determined not to let that happen again. I was physically fit, going to the gym 3-5 times a week. I took a course on the physical process of labour, I read books and I searched and searched for a face to face hypnobirthing course because I knew that staying calm and present was key to the birth I wanted.
Still, life does not bend to our will. I planned for a home birth, in water, with my husband at the forefront of support and the midwives in the background! I wanted meditation music and ambient lighting, a roaring fire (he was due 19th January) and affirmation cards strung about our living room.
I had a partial placental abruption at 37 weeks. It shouldn't have been a surprise really - my last scan had showed that his growth had slowed and the placental blood flow appeared to be diverting more blood to his brain and less to his growth. His heart rate was strong and so the hospital recommended just monitoring. The following day the bleeding stopped and I was given a choice as to whether to induce or go home and hope I didn't start bleeding again. My dream home birth was off the cards, but I believed I could still achieve what I really wanted from this birth, which was a quick, painless, drug free labour and a gentle water birth. The hospital were great, they allowed my husband and I to take the day to discuss and in the end we decided that it was better to go ahead with induction rather than risk a possible emergency situation happening later on. One thing I was sure of was that my placenta was not going to get any more efficient over the coming days!
I was very clear that I didn't want a chemical induction and one of the midwives was quick to offer me the alternative of a mechanical induction, ie, a Cook's balloon. I hadn't heard of this before, but they explained what would happen and I felt this was the right choice for me. There was a chance my labour would be kickstarted in this way and I would still be able to have a natural birth. My husband and I spent the day walking around the loch and the woods next to the hospital and by late evening, I was 4cm dilated. As I needed to find childcare for my daughter the next day, I was able to play for time and agreed to have my waters broken late the next morning. I did everything I could think of to make it happen naturally - I spent the morning rolling about on my pregnancy ball sniffing clary sage! But it wasn't to be, they broke my waters and told me they wanted to start me on the synthetic hormone drip straight away. I declined and asked how long they would be happy to leave me to go into labour on my own for. They said 2 hours. The fact was, I was already in labour, there was a constant CTG scan to monitor Ethan's heart rate and it also measured contractions. It was registering that my contractions were powerful but I wasn't feeling any pain or discomfort and so the midwives concluded that their machinery was faulty! I felt calm and present. My husband had been incredibly supportive and had brought in my aurora light, photos of us on our holidays, with our daughter, he'd brought in electric candles, crystals and aromatherapy oils. I had my birthing playlists and some fun music too - all of which contributed to maximising oxytocin and promoting relaxation. Every midwife who came in to check on me over those few days said what a lovely relaxing, atmosphere it was and how they felt calmer as soon as they walked into the room. I was confident and in control of my decisions. I am so proud of myself looking back on that time. After a lifetime of battling anxiety, I had got a handle on it and beaten my demons.
We moved all of our stuff to the AMU, had some lunch and went for a walk. My contractions were by this point really intense, but not painful. I had learned so much about the positions for labour from the Hynobirthing course and my favourite one was where you basically hug your partner. So this is what I did until I couldn't walk any more and then we returned to the AMU. An angry seeming midwife accosted me and told me I needed to be put onto the hormone drip. I declined and asked her to start the bath. She didn't because she didn't believe I was in labour. Luckily she then handed over to another midwife who was excellent. She had read my birth plan and was so supportive, gentle, unobtrusive and respectful. I got into the water and laboured for 3 hours without pain relief and without pain. I had gone inside myself and time had stopped existing - exactly how nature intended us to labour.
I had one moment when I thought I couldn't do it any more and that was when I realised I was in transition. I started pushing and felt so connected to my body I couldn't understand why he wasn't coming out. It felt like I should be able to push him out. I asked the midwife why it wasn't working and she said she didn't know. That was when I knew something was wrong.
There was only about 7 minutes between that point and Ethan being born, but it felt like forever. His heart rate had started to drop with each push. I was taken out of the water but thankfully because I was drug free and I understood what was happening, I knew straight away what positions to try to widen my pelvis. When I still couldn't push him out I was transferred to the dreaded chair with stirrups! The midwife tried to free him and that was the first time it really hurt. Turned out she had torn me in 2 places, one of which needed stitching. The emergency team were called and the top consultant came into the room and freed Ethan so quickly I didn't even know he'd entered the room. 2 pushes later and he was out. The umbilical cord was wrapped around his neck and abdomen, and his shoulder had become stuck behind my pelvic bone. For a second couple of seconds I didn't know if he was alive and then he cried. I got my wonderful golden hour in the quiet AMU, holding my baby skin to skin and eating lashings of toast and jam. It was a wonderful sense of accomplishment to have completed my beautiful family.
How do you FEEL about your birth experience?
In the days after I had Ethan, I really struggled with the fact that I had had 2 obstetric emergencies and an assisted delivery despite working so hard towards the birth I wanted. On reflection I can now see that because I was informed and prepared, I made the best decisions I could for me and my baby and stayed in control of the birthing process. Without that I might have been looking at a re-run of my first birth or even a caeserean. Ethan was severely jaundiced at birth and we were in the hospital for 10 days which felt soul destroying at the time, but I now know that a short, drug free labour and delayed cord clamping, plus the absence of cortisol and adrenaline pumping through my body will have contributed to his recovery and future health. I gave my baby his best chance.
As told by Gavin:
The preparation really did help; getting together the affirmation cards, the lights etc. Even though when we initially went to the hospital we didn't take our pack with us, I was able to go back and get it when I dropped Scarlet off with our friends. I really wanted to ensure that the environment was right for Alisha and make sure we had what we wanted for the birth. It was great to see how much it helped Alisha. Learning about how the uterus worked and how to manage your contractions really helped. We were able to go for a walk just 4 hours before Alisha gave birth to Ethan. The midwives were shocked and didn't believe Alisha was in labour.
I'd learnt what Alisha really wanted in the birth, which was my presence but not my voice. That was very different from the first time around where we were just trying everything. It felt like we were more in control and more aligned. We got the water birth and the other elements that were important to us. Alisha had control of the situation throughout the labour and I was very proud of her. We had figured out the priorities for the birth and realised that it wasn't the home birth in itself that was the most important thing for Alisha, but breastfeeding and skin to skin. We had a plan and an alternate plan all the way through. As each event happened, it was almost implicit what we would do next, we didn't have to talk about it. It was so much easier than the first time around, not because we'd already had a child but because of how prepared we were.
Once the midwives knew there was an emergency, it was very slick. We were very lucky that the top consultant was available and was able to help. As a birth partner, I just wanted to make sure that Ethan and Alisha were ok. I felt more prepared and organised the second time around. I couldn't be more proud of Alisha and the way she gave birth to both Scarlet and Ethan, but wish we'd been more prepared first time and potentially had a slicker experience both times. Seeing Alisha and both Scarlet and then Ethan together in the post birth moments was simply magical. I got to cut the cord both times.
How do you and your partner feel the course helped you prepare for your birth experience?
It helped us to work out what our priorities were for the birth and to plan for different scenarios. We learned so much about how the uterus and hormones work and some brilliant techniques for maximising oxytocin and managing adrenaline. It helped us to understand our rights and how to advocate for ourselves in what can be quite an intimidating hospital setting. The time spent discussing this on the course and also in the homework enabled us to become really aligned and this built more trust between us. I was completely confident that my husband could advocate for what I wanted and needed should I become unable to do this for myself. The course also helped me to build self-belief. I honestly think I could not have laboured without pain had I not fully believed it was not only possible but also natural.
Alisha's birth story of beautiful smiley Ethan is a story of such strength and belief. It is not perfect but it is positive - and that is what is so important here. Had Alisha not been prepared for birth, as she states, she could view it very differently and as traumatic as her first.
There are no guarantees in birth, just as there are no guarantees in life. But you have a choice about how prepared you can be and that preparation mentally can make all the difference!