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My first birth was traumatizing — here's what changed with my second

Gemma Hartley is a freelance writer with a BA in writing from The University of Nevada, Reno. She lives in Reno with her husband, three young kids, an awesome dog and a terrible cat.

These 4 things made all the difference when it was time to give birth

My son and daughter were born only two years apart. Both births lasted about 21 hours. Both births took place in the same hospital. Both were full term. I elected for an epidural both times. However, the experiences were as different as night and day. My son’s birth was a nightmarish experience where I felt like I had no control and was under-informed on absolutely everything being done to me. The experience left me traumatized and afraid to give birth again. My daughter’s birth, however, was amazing — an experience during which I felt strong and calm from start to finish.

I realized in retrospect there were a few key things I could have done to avoid some of the trauma of my first birth experience — the things I did differently the second time around. Of course, it would have been impossible for me to have an ideal birth the first time around. There are some things you simply can't know until you've experienced them firsthand. While there is no way for a first-time mom to feel as experienced and knowledgeable as a second-, third- or fourth-time mom, hopefully you can still learn from my two contrasting experiences. These four things made my daughter’s birth so much better, and I wish I had known them earlier.

1. Brush up on a variety of birth stories

Be prepared for a variety of birthing possibilities, even if your heart is set on a particular birth plan. When I was pregnant with my son, I knew I wanted to try for a natural birth. I immersed myself in books and documentaries and methods for having a successful drug-free birth. No pain medication, no epidural, no nothing. That was the only experience I was prepared for, so I was at a loss when plans changed midway through.

When I was later pregnant with my daughter, I read lots of birth stories and talked to friends who had gone through all-natural home birth, C-sections and medicated hospital births. Hearing the experiences of others helped me feel prepared and unafraid of the unknown. The second time around, I knew that the outcome was really out of my control, so the best I could do was be prepared for anything.

More: What I would say to myself as a first-time mother

2. Prepare for all scenarios

Learn about drugs and their side effects, even if you plan to have a natural birth. If I had known that Demerol could slow down labor and make you feel disoriented, I never would have taken it during my son’s birth. The nurse described it like it was Tylenol going into my IV, and I believed her. After that point, I lost all control and felt drunk, my labor all but stopped and many other interventions were necessary because of it.

When my daughter was born, I was well aware that my plans might need to change, so I armed myself with the knowledge I needed to make decisions I was comfortable with. If I wasn’t sure about something (because let’s face it, I didn’t have time to read up on every single thing while pregnant and parenting a toddler), I made sure to ask my nurse or doctor questions until I felt fully informed.

3. Choose your team

Surround yourself with a great team if you want a great birth. If your mom stresses you out, don’t have her in the room. If you have a nurse you don’t like, ask for a new one (yes, you can do that, and I definitely did). If you can’t have your own doctor in the middle of the night, talk to the on-call doctor until you feel at ease. When my son was born, I dealt with a lot of different hospital staff members, and many of them bullied me into decisions I later regretted, interventions I didn't feel fully comfortable with (such as breaking my water), putting me on Pitocin and using vacuum-suction to deliver my son.

During my daughter’s birth, I knew I wanted only one nurse and my husband in the room with me. I had a good conversation with the anesthesiologist, so I felt comfortable when it came time to have my epidural. Everyone around me made me feel comfortable and supported, which was exactly what I needed. If someone was making my birth experience more difficult, they didn’t belong anywhere near me.

4. Speak up

This is your birth, and you should have a say in how it goes. I wish I had been vocal about my desire to have my son placed on my chest as soon as he was born. I had to wait an agonizing amount of time to hold him for the first time, all because I never asked if I could have him first.

The second time around, I was very clear about what I wanted, whether it was a chocolate pudding or a walk around labor and delivery or having my baby placed against my chest for some immediate skin-to-skin. I felt so much more in control by being able to call some of the shots, even if it was just for small things.

More: Yes, I had an epidural. No, my childbirth wasn't pain-free

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