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"Best of" Week: Talk Birth

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What to Expect When You Go to the Hospital for a Natural Childbirth

There is a fairly “normal” course of events for women having a natural birth in a hospital setting. In order to be truly prepared to give birth in the hospital, it is important to be prepared for “what to expect” there and to know how to deal with hospital procedures. All hospital procedures/routines can be refused, but this requires being informed, being strong, and really paying attention to what is happening. I hope this list of “what to expect” with help you talk with your medical care provider in advance about hospital routines and your own personal choices, as well as help prevent unpleasant surprises upon actually showing up in the birthing room. This list is modified from material found in the book Woman-Centered Pregnancy and Birth. I am not saying that is how your specific hospital operates, but that many American hospitals function in this manner.

  • Expect to have at least some separation from the person who brought you to the hospital, whether this separation is due to filling out admission paperwork, parking the car, giving a urine sample, being examined in triage, etc.
  • Expect to remove all your clothing and put on a hospital gown that ties in the back.
  • Expect to have staff talk over you, not to you, and to have many different people walk into your room whenever they want without your permission and without introducing themselves.
  • Expect to have your cervix examined by a nurse upon admission and approximately every hour thereafter. Sometimes you may have multiple vaginal exams per hour by more than one person.
  • Expect to have an IV inserted into your arm, or at minimum a saline lock (sometimes called a Hep lock).
  • Expect to be denied food and drink (at best, expect clear liquids or ice).
  • Expect to give a urine sample and perhaps a blood sample.
  • Expect to have an ID bracelet attached to your arm.
  • Expect to have to sign a consent form for birth and for application of a fetal monitor that states that your doctor will be responsible for making the decisions about your care (not you).
  • Expect to have a fetal heart rate monitor attached around your belly—two round discs on straps that will often stay with you continuously until you give birth (or, at best, for 15 minutes out of each hour of your labor).
  • Expect to have your water manually broken at about 4 centimeters (or at least, strongly suggested that you allow it to be broken). After this point, expect to be encourage to have an electrode screwed into the baby’s scalp to measure the heartbeat and a tube places in your uterus to measure your contractions.
  • Expect to be offered pain medications repeatedly.
  • Expect to receive Pitocin at some point during your labor–”to speed things up.”
  • Expect to be encouraged (or even ordered) to remain in your bed through much of labor, especially pushing.
  • Expect to either have your legs put in stirrups or held at a 90 degree angle at the hips.
  • Expect to be told you are not pushing correctly.
  • Expect to hold your baby on your chest for a few minutes, before it is taken away to be dried, warmed, and checked over.
  • Expect the baby to have antibiotic eye ointment put into its eyes (without telling you first).
  • Expect to have your baby suctioned repeatedly.
  • Expect to be given a shot of Pitocin to make your uterus contract and deliver the placenta.
  • Expect not to be shown the placenta.
  • Expect your baby to be given a vitamin K injection.

I think it is important to note that what you can expect is often different than what you deserve and that what you can expect often reduces or eliminates your chances of getting what you deserve. In my classes, I’ve made a conscious decision to present what women deserve in birth and though I also talk about what they can expect and how to work with that, I think sometimes they are left surprised that what they actually experience in the hospital. At minimum, what you deserve are Six Healthy Birth Practices (as articulated by Lamaze):

  1. Let Labor Begin on Its Own
  2. Walk, Move Around, and Change Positions Throughout Labor
  3. Bring a Loved One, Friend, or Doula for Continuous Support
  4. Avoid Interventions That Are Not Medically Necessary
  5. Avoid Giving Birth on the Back and Follow the Body’s Urges to Push
  6. Keep Mother and Baby Together – It’s Best for Mother, Baby, and Breastfeeding

As an example of what I mean about what you can expect clashing with what you deserve, consider the second healthy birth practice “Walk, Move Around, and Change Positions Throughout Labor”—monitoring and IVs directly conflict with the smooth implentation of a practice based on freedom of movement throughout labor.

So, how do you work with or around these routine expectations and your desire for a natural birth?

  • Discuss in advance the type of nursing care you would like and request that your doctor put any modifications to the normal routines in your chart as “Doctor’s Orders” (if your doctor is unwilling to do so, seek a new medical care provider!)
  • Labor at home until labor is very well-established.
  • Go through the above list of “what to expect” and make a decision about how to handle each one on a case by case—you may choose to actively refuse something, you may be okay with accepting certain procedures or routines, and you can develop a coping plan for how specifically to work with any particular issue.
  • Take independent childbirth classes and learn a variety of techniques and pain coping practices so that your “toolbox” for working with labor is well stocked.
  • Hire a doula, or bring a knowledgeable, helpful, experienced friend with you. It can help to have a strong advocate with you (this may or may not be a role your husband or partner is willing to take on).
  • Another tactic is to “never ask permission to do what you want, but to go ahead and do it unless the hospital staff actively stops you.” (An example of this is of getting up and walking around during labor)
  • “Many people, if they can find no other way to get around a dangerous or unpleasant hospital policy, unobtrusively ignore it”—a good example of this is with regard to eating and drinking during labor. Restricting birthing women to ice chips or clear liquids is not evidence-based care. Bring light foods and drinks and quietly partake as you please.
  • Leave the hospital early, rather than remaining the full length of stay post-birth. This can minimize separation from baby and other routines you may wish to avoid.
  • For some additional ideas see my post, “Can I really expect to have a great birth?

Finally, and most importantly, “birth is not a time in a woman’s life when she should have to FIGHT for anything,” so if you find that you feel you are preparing yourself for “hospital self-defense” I encourage you to explore your options in birth places and care providers, rather than preparing for a “battle” and hoping for the best. If you feel like you are going to have to fight for your rights in birth, STRONGLY consider the implications of birthing in that setting. Also, as The Pink Kit says, “hope is not a plan”—so if you find yourself saying “I hope I can get what I want” it is time to take another, serious look at your plans and choices for your baby’s birth.


This post originally appeared on Talk Birth on September 9, 2009 and was submitted by the author for “Best of” Week. 


More of Molly’s favorites:

Birth is a Consumer Issue

Becoming an Informed Birth Consumer

Fetal Monitoring


Molly Remer, MSW, ICCE is a certified birth educator, writer, and activist. She is an LLL Leader and editor of the Friends of Missouri Midwives newsletter. She has two wonderful sons, Lann (6) and Zander (3) and lives in a straw bale house in central Missouri. She blogs about birth at http://talkbirth.wordpress.com and midwifery at http://cfmidwifery.blogspot.com.


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Reader Comments (9)

I like the idea of just going ahead and doing it unless they try to intervene. I had a friend that wanted to labor in the tub during her 2nd. VBAC at the hospital. The nurses had said she had to stay out. She went ahead and got in and continued to refuse to get out. The nurses brought more staff in trying to tell her she needed out and monitoring. She ended up refusing until she was ready to push, and ready to get out.

With the eye gel, make sure you sign a waiver if you don't want your baby to have it!

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan

Great post! The line that really spoke to me was, "If you feel like you are going to have to fight for your rights in birth, STRONGLY consider the implications of birthing in that setting." With my first, I was primed and ready for the fight. Even so, I felt pretty powerless. I managed to avoid a lot of the "typical" hospital procedures, thanks to my amazing doula. But if I had taken the above advice, I would not have so much ANGER about my birth experience. That's why with my second I switched to midwifery care and never looked back.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterLori

This is indeed one of my favorite Molly Remer posts! And I didn't know she lived in a straw bale house. COOL!

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAmy Romano

Thanks, Amy--Built the house ourselves with plenty of blood, sweat, and tears (literally)! I think there are pix somewhere on my Facebook page.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

Great post! My upcoming VBAC is in about 3 1/2 weeks (ish), and I have to do it in a hospital. I like the idea of not asking permission... I think I will keep that in mind for the birth!

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterAudrey

YES. Every mother who wants to "try a natural birth" at the hospital needs to read this. I wish I had. And now that I know that ALL the things on this list are indeed true, I did opt out of "hospital self-defense."

About the eye ointment, how ridiculous is it that they put it in my son's eyes WHEN HE WAS A C-SECTION BABY. Just another example of pointless "protocol" that is applied to everyone whether they need it or not.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterJill

And if your midwife is out of town when you go into labor, expect to have your birth plan, where you've specified your wishes on all these things, glanced at, and then dropped on the floor and stepped over by all the random strangers that come into the room, and whom you have to ask to please leave and allow you some privacy. And expect to have to fight the doctor and 2 nurses who do stay, on each and every point, all the way through. But at the end of the day I did manage a natural birth, with no interventions, in a very natural-birth-unfriendly environment. So, all things considered, my birth experience was OK. In spite of them, not because of them.

September 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterRachel_in_WY

It’s good to know what to expect if you have to choose between a hospital birth and an unattended childbirth. I have had two prior c-sections and was turned down in my last pregnancy by every single midwife in my state for a home birth or birth center birth. I understand their position. They have to be able to serve the majority of home birth clients, and their right to practice here is precarious at best. A bad outcome, even if it had nothing to do with midwifery care, would probably put that midwife out of business, and seriously threaten the ability of others to practice. I finally found one physician willing to “allow me a trial of labor”. Unfortunately, that pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. It is so very, very wrong that the few short weeks I carried my baby were spent in a state of stress and panic over choosing a care provider that, ironically, I never even met for a prenatal appointment. And it is even more wrong that my only choices are accepting a hospital environment or going it alone.

September 25, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterregime

Great article! I like so many of the women who responded wish I had read this article with my first child. I wanted a natural birth and had to fight the nurse (2nd shift. The first nurse was very supportive) the entire time.She continuously offered pain medication and after laboring for 11 without medication I Unfortunately ended up having a c-section. It was the worst experience of my life. I had an anxiety attack on the table and I have since developed panic attacks as a result.
I am currently preganant with my 2nd child and have been told that I will have to have another c-section because during the first I had 2 fibroid tumors removed. My doctor says it's just to dangerous.
I haven't had a second opinion, but I am feeling unsettled about not being able to as least try. Any information or advice from those who have experienced something similar or not is welcomed?

Wanting to go it natural in Missouri....

November 21, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterWendy
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