Have you heard the one about putting a knife under your bed during labor to "cut the pain in half"? We're not buying that for a second. But there are other more believable yet still dead wrong labor myths that contribute to the confusion around giving birth — as if it weren't confusing enough already. We spoke to an OB-GYN, a midwife and a doula to get the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth about labor.
1. "Spicy food, castor oil, sex and bumpy car rides will bring on labor"
Sorry to shatter your illusions, but none of the old wives' tales about inducing labor have any solid evidence to back them up. That doesn't mean you shouldn't tuck into a hot curry or enjoy some sexy time — just don't do it just to make your uterus contract. Because it probably won't. Your baby will come when it's ready, whether you like it or not.
2. "You need to go to the hospital as soon as you go into labor"
"No way!" says NYC midwife Kara Manglani. This is especially true — or rather, the myth is especially untrue — if it's your first baby. "Early labor can last days before true labor kicks in," reveals Manglani. "And once you are in true labor, you likely still have six to eight hours before the baby is born."
Her advice? Stay home until your doctor or midwife tells you to come to the hospital — often, when contractions are four minutes apart and lasting 60 seconds for at least one hour. Some warning signs you are in advanced labor (and should go to the hospital right away) are contractions coming one on top of the next, a strong urge to push and a lot of pressure in your backside, like you need to poop. In some cases, your doctor may want you to come in earlier, for example if you are high-risk or if you have had fast labors in the past.
3. "Labor starts with your water breaking"
Not true, says OB-GYN Dr. Kecia Gaither. In fact, for women whose pregnancies go full-term, less than 15 percent of labors begin with the water breaking. "Most times, your health provider will likely 'break your water' to augment the labor process," explains Gaither. And if your water does break of its own accord, don't expect a dramatic flood like you see in the movies. Normally, it feels more like a trickle than a waterfall. The most important thing to know about your water breaking — however it happens — is that it means you're in the early stages of labor. Time to call your doctor!
4. "Wide hips make for an easy labor"
Considering that billions of women of all shapes and sizes have given birth — again and again for thousands of years — you might think the phrase "childbearing hips" would be put to bed by now. Alas, no. "What a woman’s hips look like on the outside may not reflect what’s going on inside, says Gaither. "It’s the pelvic bone structure which determines the ease of labor." What does make for easier labor is better alignment of the spine and pelvis. And unfortunately, Gaither adds, "some pelvises may be too small or curvy to allow a vaginal delivery." Luckily, we have C-sections for that!
5. "Epidurals make labor last longer"
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, about 61 percent of women delivering vaginally in the U.S. opt for an epidural — despite the myth that this will prolong labor. A 2017 study published by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists will hopefully help to debunk that idea. Researchers compared a group of women who had an epidural to a control group who didn't. All 400 first-time mothers self-administered epidurals during the initial stages of labor, but when it was time to push, half of them continued to get pain meds, while the other half were given a placebo. After finding those who got the placebo pushed for an average of 51 minutes while those who continued to receive medication from the epidural pushed for an average of 52 minutes, the researchers concluded that "a low concentration of epidural local anesthetic does not affect the duration of the second stage of labor."
6. "Labor is strictly a 'nil by mouth' event"
Eating during labor is still prohibited in many hospitals, but this is an outdated practice that has only recently been addressed by medical professionals. "It originated in the '40s because the kind of anesthesia that was used on pregnant women (inhaled ether or injection, inducing 'twilight sleep') during labor would actually put them at risk for aspiration — a major issue for pregnant women at the time," explains doula Monique Cowan. "Since then, anesthesia has become far safer, but the policy of giving women nothing but ice chips has prevailed. Recently, however, the American Society of Anesthesiologists has said women at low risk for cesarean should be allowed to eat and drink during labor if they desire." Quite right. It's not called labor for nothing, you know.
7. "Twins can only be delivered by C-section"
Yes, twins are often delivered via cesarean due in part to how common cesareans have become (and also because of policies that seek to keep doctors from being sued for malpractice). But it's absolutely possible to deliver twins vaginally, says Cowan. Still, "with the likelihood that at least one twin will be breech or turn breech during labor, most doctors will not allow their pregnant patients to deliver vaginally," says Cowan. But there are some who will.
8. "A C-section is less painful than a vaginal birth"
As a mom who has had both, I can personally call bullshit on this one. While a vaginal birth can be more painful at the time (depending on what pain meds you take), the recovery from a C-section is often far more painful. And if anyone tries to tell you that having a C-section is "the easy way out," remind them that it's major abdominal surgery. (Then smack them in the face.)
9. "The baby comes out after a few pushes"
Again, the movies have a lot to answer for. While some women may only push a couple of times before their baby is born, it is not abnormal to push for up to two hours and in some cases longer. "I always remind women to conserve their energy and rest between contractions because pushing takes a lot of energy," says Manglani.
10. "Babies should be bathed right after birth"
For centuries, residual vernix caseosa, the cheesy coating that keeps a baby’s skin protected in the amniotic bath of your uterus, has been washed off their skin immediately after birth. But research has shown that it is actually best not to wash the baby right after birth. In fact, the World Health Organization has for years recommended waiting at least six hours and ideally at least 24 hours post-birth to give babies their first bath — but it's only recently that practitioners have caught on. "The vernix on your baby's skin helps protect them from infections, heat loss and more," says Manglani. "It's absolutely fine to wait until you get home from the hospital to give your baby their first bath."
While debunking labor myths is important (and well overdue), what is most important for every birthing woman, her partner and her family is to remember that every woman is unique — and so is every pregnancy and birth. "There are many different variations of 'normal' and what fits or works for one woman may not for another," says Cowan. "Trust your body and your instincts and do what feels right for you."