The 12 Biggest Surprises in Labor

The moment your belly begins to show, the entire world may assault you with opinions and stories about labor.

Often, well-meaning (we assume) strangers source from their own experiences to tell YOU what BIRTH is LIKE!

If you’re listening closely, you’ll hear that what they’re really telling you is what they were surprised by.

Often, my role as a doula is just to tell people in real time that these surprises are normal.

That gook in your underwear? Normal.

That dying cow noise that feels so good to make? Normal.

That hairy back on your precious newborn, Sally? Normal.

So here are 12 of the biggest surprises new parents experience at their first rodeo:

The 12 Biggest Surprises in Labor

1) All the waiting:

Birth can be a long tedium of very little action. 

There’s waiting to go into labor (average first timer goes into labor 8 days past her due-date).

Waiting for early labor to turn into active labor (Early labor can last for days. It can stop and start. Rarely is there a rush to go anywhere for a long time.)

Waiting to move from the triage room to the labor room (you might be hanging out a few hours before being admitted).

Waiting for the baby to emerge (A first labor lasts about 18-24 hours on average. Expect a day or two of hard work.).


2) What it means when your “water breaks”:

I would like to thank our media for this one.

The dramatic water-breaking-oh-shit-run-to-the-hospital moment is so rare.

In fact, only 13% of labors begin with “Spontaneous Rupture of Membranes”.

Amniotic fluid occasionally comes out in a made-for-TV gush, but just as often is a little trickle.

Some docs and midwives do want their patients to check in to the hospital as soon as their water breaks. Some have them labor at home for several hours before heading in.

It’s a great question to ask your Care Provider prenatally!

3) Behavioral changes:

That lovely hormone Oxytocin, the one that causes contractions, also begins to shift a woman’s behavior during active labor.

There are more details in my post, “How to Talk to a Woman in Labor”.

Essentially, you can expect her to be non-verbal, slow to answer, acting sleepy or “high”, to lose sense of time, making some low moans and to be immersed in her physical body.

It’s like a private Rave.

The 12 Biggest Surprises in Labor

4) How alone you may be:

Depending on the approach of the doctor or midwife you’ve hired, how busy their case-load is that day and what’s happening in the birth, it is really common to be left alone to labor for long stretches of time.

I hear this uttered a lot during labor, “I didn’t expect we’d be alone so much!”. 

And the nurse may be the professional you see the most!

Doctors check in, they may come by for exams or to discuss interventions and they’re around more during pushing.

Midwives do all of this and may “labor-sit” if it seems unobtrusive and they have the time.

But expect it to be the two of you (or three if you have another supporter) the majority of the labor.

5) Feeling powerless:

This is a big one for partners.

Not being able to take her pain away.

Not being able to make things happen.

A doctor says they’ll be by in an hour to check on you, but then other births keep them gone for three hours.

People disappear out of the door and into a void.

That nurse call button (or that doula) sure becomes handy.

6) You may not get your doctor or midwife during labor:

MANY clients I work with are surprised that they may not work with their primary doctor or midwife when they go into labor.

If they have had all of their appointments with the one provider, but that provider works in a huge practice of 6-12 others, then the odds are high that the couple will deliver with someone they’ve never met.

The 12 Biggest Surprises in Labor

7) Not knowing:

Even if you’ve read all the books, watched all the Youtube and taken the 12 weeks of birth classes, you still have no idea what will happen next in YOUR birth.

That’s a real thing to cope with.

How much longer?

Will this intervention lead to more interventions?

Will everyone be ok?

Where is my staff?

Are we doing the right things?

8) Sleep deprivation (during birth):

Everyone warns you, usually with a little condescension, about the sleep deprivation of having a newborn.

“Sleep now!” they smirk.

(We all hate that guy. You aren’t alone.)

But little is said about the sleep deprivation during labor.

80% of labors begin at night. Labor is often up to 24 hours. YOU DO THE MATH.

And even with an epidural to rest, parents can be kept awake by beeping machines, staff check-ins and uncomfortable chairs.

The 12 Biggest Surprises in Labor

9) Pushing takes time:

Thanks again, media overlords.

On TV someone just yells “push!” enthusiastically and the mother delivers her baby in a couple minutes.

In real life, however, the average first time parent pushes for 2-3 hours!

I’ve attended births in which the baby emerged after a single contraction of pushing and I’ve attended births in which the mother worked to push for 8 hours!

It’s usually a slow emergence with a lot of sweaty work.

During most of this time, there’s nothing to see. It isn’t until the very tail end of those 2-3 hours that the head is even visible.

10) Once visible, the head can be, uh, surprising:

The first part of the baby’s head looks just wrong.

I’ve seen that ashen look on partners’ faces when they first glance at their emerging baby during pushing.

There are a couple of factors that make your baby seem deformed at first:

  • The skin may be squished like a Shar-pei puppy,
  • the bones in the skull mould into a cone shape and sometimes even overlap like a steamer basket,
  • the tip of the cone shape makes it appear that the head is smaller than it is,
  • the baby’s color is bluish.

The 12 Biggest Surprises in Labor

11) What newborns FIRST look like:


Blue/white, unbreathing, cheesy, slimy aliens. 

Most of the time they take that first breath, quickly pink up and are dried off.

Especially if this transition takes a couple (looooong) moments, that first appearance can be shocking.

Unless you’ve been to a birth before, then you don’t know how normal an alien baby is.

12) What good parents you are:

You do what needs to be done.

You deal with all of these surprises.

You learn flexibility and connection and trust. 

You come out having learned a little more about yourselves and about life.

The 12 Biggest Surprises in Labor

While these are some of the most common surprises, this list is in NO WAY comprehensive.

In fact, go ahead and bank on one or two surprises of your own.

That’s what makes labor the unknown – you can’t know it all ahead of time.

It’s also what makes it an adventure.

If you’ve already had your baby, what surprised you through your journey? If you’re still on that sacred ground before labor, what anecdotes or stories have surprised you?




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