If we trusted modern film and TV portrayals of labor and birth, we would all believe that the first sign of labor is that your water will break unexpectedly. A huge gush will splash all over you and the grocery store floor where you were peacefully doing your shopping, all over your friend’s new car, or some other inconvenient and embarrassing place. You will immediately be in extreme constant pain and probably start screaming and breathing hard and fast. You will grab on to the nearest passerby and it will be an emergency requiring you arrive at the hospital immediately. About one hour later, you will be sitting in your hospital bed with a beautiful three-month old baby in your arms and everything will be lovely. Last but not least, your mascara will be totally on point.
Cue the DJ stop sound effect.
This TV version of labor and birth is highly inaccurate. My doula partner, Amy, and I often joke that we should have a job consulting filmmakers on how to portray labor and birth with more accuracy so the world can see what it’s really like.
Here are some facts about labor that you may not know:
1. Only about 10% of women experience the rupture of their membranes (water breaking) before they have gone into labor.
For most women this doesn’t happen until they are well into labor. So, at the end of your pregnancy, you don’t need to be in constant fear that your water will break, creating havoc wherever you are. It could happen. It has happened. But for 90% of women, it will not happen.
2. When your water breaks, sometimes it is just a trickle of water and not an explosive gush as seen on TV.
There could be a small puncture or tear in the membranes allowing a small flow of water to leak. Yes, this is still a sign that you could be going into labor soon, but it’s often far less messy and emergent when put into perspective.
3. If your water breaks before labor has started, you can reasonably predict your labor will start within the next few minutes, hours or potentially within the next day.
There are variations to this, of course, and occasionally an induction of labor is necessary. However, the chances of you immediately and at once screaming with unbearable labor pains are slim.
4. For most women, especially first time mothers, labor pains start out very mild and they grow in intensity gradually over time.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, the average timespan that women are in labor is 6 – 18 hours. As experienced doulas, this is also what we witness on a regular basis. Contractions progressively get stronger and closer together and there is usually time to adjust to these changes as they happen.
5. There is a break between contractions.
The pain of a contraction usually lasts about one minute long and then you have a break for anywhere from two to five minutes or more. During this break, you rest, put your head down and relax. You will feel the next contraction as it begins to ramp up. You will have a moment to prepare yourself and get into your best coping mode or position. Again, there are variations to this, but for most women the pain ebbs and flows.
6. There is such a thing as precipitous labor (rapid labor) that can be as short as three to five hours.
The CDC estimates that only about 2% of women have labors that are this quick. It is not impossible, but it is not the norm, all day, everyday experience as TV would have you believe.
Hopefully this helps to remove some of the stress and fear perceived when watching labor and birth in make-believe land.
We don’t expect a movie or TV show to depict every minute of a 6 – 18 hour labor in all its glory. But is it too much to ask for to present the onset of labor accurately, at least once in awhile? A woman having a mild contraction, then having a break, then having another slightly stronger contraction and then a break – imagine that!?
Director, feel free to pan away and show another scene altogether at that point because this might get boring — but hey — that is what happens in the majority of cases! Well, I’m not trying to make a living on the big screen entertaining people with drama, so what do I know?