Knowledge and care practices for pregnancy, labour and delivery have changed over the years. If you have questions about how things are done now, your doctor or midwife can help answer them. Childbirth education classes are another great way to find out what to expect during labour and delivery.
We know much more about nutrition, exercise and harmful chemicals than we once did. For instance, we have learned that certain birth defects like spina bifida are partly caused by the lack of a vitamin called folic acid. Knowing this, women can reduce their risk by taking folic acid tablets for at least three months before they start trying to get pregnant, and then taking prenatal vitamins during pregnancy. Forty years ago, drinking alcohol in pregnancy was thought to be safe. Smoking was once thought to be okay too. Now, of course, women are advised not to smoke or drink when pregnant.
There are many old ideas about what a pregnant woman should eat, what types of exercise and activities are safe, and how much weight she should gain. Instead of taking advice from family members, be sure to ask your doctor or midwife if you have questions.
Tests have gotten much better over the years. Before home pregnancy tests were invented, women could not find out whether they were pregnant until much later in the pregnancy. Ultrasounds and accurate ways of listening to the baby’s heartbeat have been developed too. Before that, there were lots of surprises – happy ones like healthy twins, but also life-threatening ones like placenta previa (where the placenta covers the opening of the uterus) and breech position (where the baby does not come head first). Now, we often know if these problems are present and can take steps to keep mother and baby safe.
Some things have changed so recently that even your older sister or second-hand pregnancy books may pass on outdated information! For instance, until very recently, pregnant women were told not to sleep on their backs. The fear was that pressure from the growing uterus would block the flow of blood to the legs and to the baby. As brand-new research has measured blood flow and found that it is not so affected, many caregivers now tell pregnant women that they can sleep in any position they want.
Before epidurals, pain relief options in labour were much more limited. If your grandmother gave birth in a hospital, she may have experienced something called ‘twilight sleep.’ Drugs were given to the mother during labour so that she would not remember anything! Now nearly all women are awake to see their babies born.
Years ago, husbands usually were not allowed in the delivery room. Now, your partner (and often a parent, friend or other support person) is welcome to be present for the birth.
At one time, most of a woman’s labour would happen in a large room with a lot of other patients in it. Just before the baby was born, the mom would be rushed down the hall to the delivery room. Now, most women labour and deliver in one room. Thankfully, a woman usually has this room all to herself! In some hospitals, women even stay in that same room until they are ready to go home. In others, they move to a different room after the baby is born.
Years ago (and even today in some countries), most women who had their babies in a hospital would have an episiotomy. This cut was made with scissors to enlarge the opening to the vagina and help the baby be born. Now it is realized that episiotomies are not usually needed, and that a natural tear will be less painful. As a result, episiotomies are much less common now. They are usually done only if there is a problem that makes it necessary. Enemas (to empty the bowels before delivery) and shaving of the pubic area are also not normally done in Canadian hospitals, as they are rarely necessary.
Care after delivery has changed a lot too. In the past, babies were kept in the hospital nursery most of the time, and only brought to the mother every four hours for feedings. Nurses would often give the baby a bottle during the night so the mother could sleep. Now, most moms and babies stay in the same hospital room. (In a few hospitals, fathers are allowed to stay overnight too.) This way, the parents can learn how to care for the baby, and the baby can be fed whenever it is hungry.
In the past, new moms and their babies commonly stayed in the hospital for seven to ten days after delivery. This gave them lots of time to figure out how to breastfeed (if they decided to do so) and care for the baby, as well as catch up on sleep! After a week of resting, and feeling fairly comfortable with baby care, they may have been ready to entertain a house full of visitors. Now, most women stay in hospital for about 24 hours after a vaginal delivery, and two to three days after a C-section. So expect to feel very tired when you return home. You will likely still be trying to get the hang of feeding and caring for your newborn. You do not have to welcome company right away, if you do not want to!
Birth practices around the world can be very different. For instance, in some countries when the mother is pushing, a nurse will use her hands to push very hard on the top of the uterus. This is believed to help the baby come out. However, it is dangerous because the uterus can split open, or even be pushed out of the body. This is not done in Canada.
In many countries, most women have their babies at home, sometimes without a doctor or midwife to help. In Canada, most babies are born in a hospital with the help of a doctor or midwife. Some are born at home with a midwife.
In some places, most women have C-section deliveries, even if they have a normal pregnancy. In Canada, most women have vaginal births unless there is some reason why they need a C-section.
In some countries men are still not allowed in the delivery room.
It is hard to compare a birth in Canada to a birth in other countries where things can be very different. While these stories are interesting, they may not give you a good idea of what to expect for your own delivery.
Remember, no story is useful if it is meant to scare you. Some women love to tell labour horror stories. Exceptionally difficult births are just that – the exception. In most cases, the story is exaggerated anyway. There is no reason why you should listen to these stories if they upset you. If someone is telling you a frightening story, it is okay to ask her to stop!
Despite all of the differences, many things about pregnancy and childbirth do not change over the years or across borders. Just as for your mother and your grandmother, this is still a thrilling and sometimes overwhelming time. Most women are excited and a little bit frightened – not just about labour, but about motherhood too.
Common symptoms like nausea, back pain and tiredness are the same ones experienced by women all over the world. Talk about these common concerns with other women, no matter where or when they had their babies, to feel better about what you are experiencing.
As long as your friends and family are not scaring you with their stories, enjoy them! You can learn something helpful from each new story you hear. If a story confuses you, ask your doctor or midwife for the latest and most accurate advice.