Labour Anatomy 101
Let me start by saying that if you are a woman, your body is designed to grow and birth a baby. Do I believe that is a woman's soul purpose? Hell no! However, my point is that your body is physiologically designed to grow (you have a uterus) and birth (you have a birth canal) a baby.
Let's talk labour anatomy & hormones. Birth isn't rocket science, it's a complex process, but it's quite simple when you break it down. Let's start from the top. So, you have unprotected sex, or the condom breaks, or you go through IVF treatments. Whatever the situation is, a sperm meets an egg and viola, a little bundle of cells start to multiply, attaches onto the uterus (implantation) and starts to grow. It grows and grows and grows until it is full term. Just an FYI, full term is somewhere between 37 and 42 weeks. Yes, you are technically due for 5 weeks, 40 weeks is just an estimated due date. Your uterus does not have a calendar attached.
If you want to check out one of my labour anatomy videos, you can find them on YouTube. It covers a lot of the same content.
This is where it gets a little more complex. No one really knows why or when labour will start. Some researchers believe that the baby releases oxytocin as a signal to initiate the process. Conversely, some believe that the mothers body releases oxytocin first. For those of you who don't know, oxytocin is a hormone that is released from the hypothalamus (a fancy part of your brain) and tells the uterus to contract. It's also the same hormone that floods the body when you fall in love. Funny huh! However, before the uterus starts to contract another hormone is released to soften and move the cervix, namely prostaglandin.
What we know for sure is that prostaglandin and oxytocin are two hormones that initiate labour. Think of those two hormones like a drip, at first, they start slow and steady, building up to a larger drip as labour progresses along. Now, as the uterus contracts a few magical things are happening. One, uterine muscles are pulling the cervix up into the wall of the uterus. Most of this muscle building happens at the top part of the fundus. As the cervix is being pulled up the result is that it starts to dilate. Two, a different muscle group gently pushes the baby down. Simply put, the two muscles groups work together, one pulls the cervix up and builds a big wall of muscles at the top of the uterus, while another helps by gently pushing the baby down.
There are other hormones at play during this process too. If you are relaxed and welcoming of labour, you will be releasing lots of oxytocin and prostaglandin, but your body is super smart and has a built-in antidote to labour pain. The antidote is called endorphins. The combination of the three hormones is a powerful cocktail. They keep you relaxed, feeling content, loving etc. I have been in labours where women literally fall asleep in-between contractions and slowly rouse when the next contraction starts. A euphoric like state. It’s amazing to watch. However, that is not what we commonly see on the media. That’s another blog post though.
Moving forward, the above isn’t true for everyone. Some people are not welcoming of labour, some people are rattled with fear and are not accepting of the process (no judgement, girl!). Not surprisingly, their bodies produce stress hormones, namely cortisol. Now, cortisol is an important hormone, but when in stressful situations it acts like a fight or flight response. Therefore, it can interfere with the production and release of oxytocin and prostaglandin, potentially making labour longer and seem much more painful. The antidote to cortisol production is simple. When women are accepting, supported and encouraged during labour their stress levels remain lower. Easier said than done when we constantly inundate women with fearful images of birth in the media. Again, another blog post, ha ha.
I digress, one way or another, the body will work hard and hopefully the cervix will dilate to 10 centimeters. When it does, your labour may potentially slow, so you are able to rest. What I mean is that it isn’t uncommon for contractions to space themselves out. I have seen women contract every 2-3 minutes during transition (the last 2 centimeters of dilation) and then every 5 minutes once they hit 10 centimeters. I have witnessed people rest for upwards of a 20-minute period just before spontaneous pushing starts. Now, during this rest think about what is happening, you’re not just chilling, no, no. They body is super crafty. During this phase your perineum (the area between your vaginal opening and anus) is being flooded with hormones. These hormones tell it to become malleable and stretchy so by the time you are pushing out your new babe, it can handle it like a boss. That’s right, your vagina is a BOSS.
So, the long of the short of it is. The more knowledge you have, hopefully you become more comfortable with the process of labour.
If you want to check out one of my labour anatomy videos, you can find them on Youtube