The Tortoise and the Hare

Average first-time mamas will labor around 18 hours, with an average first-time 2nd stage (pushing) lasting around 2 hours. For some reason, though, our bodies didn't read the textbooks and might  not necessarily know that they are 'supposed to be' 18 hours of gradual labor, resulting in averagely, 2 cm dilation every few hours... 

(note the sarcasm)

Some women (read most women) fall somewhere on either side of these averages... 

Some women have what we call marathon labors. These are the slow and steadies, the tortoise labors, the long and languorous, the gradually tiresomes. Other women have speedy births, short and sweets, the hares of the bunch, the fast and furious, the giddy-up and git er done. 

Both types of labors have their benefits and their drawbacks. And I would like to talk to you about both, and tips on how to manage both, because you never know which type you will be, the tortoise or the hare, until you are in the midst of it. 

The Tortoise
Why might a labor be long and lengthy? Oftentimes, there are underlying physical factors, such as babies position, mom's body, or maternal hereditary precursors... Other times, it is the emotional side of things, such as relationship upsets, distrust in your birth team or birth place, fears of becoming a parent or of the process itself.

Slow and steady labors have their benefits. Many women say that their slow and steadies were much more manageable and easier to stay on top of the contractions. Many women even consider their tortoise births as 'pain free'. Drawbacks? Often times these are the labors that hasty care providers deem 'failure to progress'. These also tend to be the labors where moms forget to stay hydrated and nourished and their bodies tire too soon because of it. Positive outlook and healthy habits/good support are so important for tortoises.

Best odds are to encourage body and mind health until your birthing time begins.
  • Encourage your baby to be in alignment as much as possible by working on positions that encourage optimal fetal positioning
  • Consider chiropractic care to ensure the best odds that your body will be in alignment as much as possible
  • Keep yourself mentally healthy by voicing concerns, talking through relationship issues, enlist the help of a close and trusted friend or professional to listen, and ensuring that you have a healthy outlook on pregnancy, birth, and parenting by protecting your space.
If you happen to be the Tortoise in labor and birth, here are some great tips on how to bide your time wisely during labor/birth:
  • Stay on Schedule! One of the easiest tools for early or long labors is to simply ignore that you are in labor. I know, easy for me to say. A good rule of thumb is this: whatever you would normally be doing at that time of the day/night, stay true to schedule and do those things. Did you have plans to have lunch with a friend? Still have lunch with a friend. Would you normally be taking a midday nap or is it the middle of the night? Go to sleep! Did you want to get some last minute shopping done for the baby or wanted to grab some snacks from the store for your birth team? Now's the best time to shop! The less you pay attention to it, until your labor demands you pay attention to it, the less apt it is to seem quite so long.
  • Keep Stoked! The fire that is... keep your fire stoked... get it? FUEL yourself. You will need fuel (good, nutritious snacks) and hydration (water, labor-aid, gatorade, etc..) to keep your body energized/hydrated and give your uterus the fuel it needs to remain active for any length of time.
  • Cover That Clock! Put something over the faces of the clocks in your home and resist the urge to look at your watch/phone (partners this means you too!). Ever hear the term 'a watched pot never boils'? Well, a long labor never benefits from staring at the clock. It will only give you a tangible/visual confirmation of just how long you have been at it. Likewise... 
  • Timing, Smiming! This is a hard one to retrain partners about. Timing can be a helpful tool or a repetitious bane on labor! When you think you might be in labor, sure, time a set of around 3-5 contractions to get a good base line for how far apart they are, how you are feeling during them, and how long they are lasting. Then, put the stopwatch and pad of paper up and away. When your labor changes (i.e. getting stronger, making you slow down or stop mid-stride, making you breath/make noise through it, etc...) time another set of 3-5. Whenever you do this, update your birth team. When you are done, put the list and the watch away
  • Stay Home! Stay where you are most comfortable. Home is a great suggestion (wink). Eat at your own table, poo on your own toilet, wash in your own tub, and sleep in your own bed.. This is so much better than this. Use the former as much as possible. Don't just the gun and run to your place of birth until things are really hot and heavy. You will be more comfortable and once you go to your place of birth (especially if it is a hospital) points one through three on this list are nearly impossible to be adhered to... you will be reminded of just how long you have been in labor and exactly where you are at.
  • Go With the Flow! It is not uncommon for slow and steady labors to ebb and flow... some contractions might be closer together and stronger, some less strong (although they may or may not space out)... If your body needs a break, it may actually give it to you, sometimes actually stopping for a short while for you to take a nap, regroup, have a snack, and refill your energy tank. Tune in to that body wisdom and do what your body says to do. 
  • Keep Your Fingers Out! When you decide that it is time to go to your place of birth or call your midwife to be with you at home, consider keeping cervical checks to a bare minimum. Cervix' are shy as it is and don't like to be messed with/watched. Plus, rather than encourage a woman with the news of how far along she is, more often than not, cervical checks only discourage mom, her birth team, and yes, even her care provider. Trust your body to know how long it needs to open the best and trust your baby to know what he/she needs will be given to him... in their own timing. 
  • Tune In! And finally, when you can see the finish line and your body is opened completely, don't expect it to be downhill from there and start exerting all of your energy to roar that baby out... unless your body is doing it for you! It's not uncommon for mamas to take between 2-4 hours to bring their babies from 10cm to born. If your body is not giving you that 'urge to push', just hang out, relax, recuperate, eat something, drink something, and take this time to reiterate your 'immediately after birth' plans. When you get the urge to push, tune in to the urge and push when the feeling comes, and don't when the feeling leaves. Conserve your energy and realize that baby is edging down with each urge.
The Hare
Why might a labor be a race to the finish? Again, oftentimes, there are underlying physical factors, such as babies position, mom's body, where mom starts her labor (i.e. if she has been walking around at 5cm before labor starts OR a small/premature baby), or maternal hereditary precursors... Other times, it is the emotional side of things, such as complete trust in the process or an undisturbed birth.

Short and sweet labors have their benefits. I have heard so many times that women 'would give anything' for a speedy birth. It starts fast and ends fast... as one woman said 'I can do anything for 4 hours or less!'. It means that when it starts, it starts in a sprint and all many women need to do is hang on for the ride... Drawbacks though? I have heard many women who have had fast births say 'I wish I could have been more present for it' or 'I wish I could have had more time to get on top of the labor, it just went from 0-100 with no warm up/no gentle progression'. Again, healthy habits/good support are so important for hares, and a chance to reflect on the flip side are so important.

To ensure that you are prepared for the possibility of being a hare:
  • Practice relaxation and make sure your partner is part of it. If you have a fast birth you will want to know how to achieve as much deep relaxation as possible so as to be able to get on top of things/be present. 
  • Read Emergency Childbirth. Just in case.
  • Be sure that your birth team knows your desires for birth so that, if you ask for medication during a fast birth, they know how to encourage you to stay the path.
If you happen to be the Hare in labor and birth, here are some great tips on how to ride the wave of labor/birth:
  • Early Contact! Be sure to clue your birth team in as soon as there is a rhythm that might mean that this is it. Partner, stay put, until/unless there is someone else that mom wants to be there in addition to you, you are her anchor to help her stay rooted. 
  • Timing is Everything! Many whirlwind labors start with contractions close together (5 minutes apart) but contractions are short. Unlike with Tortoise births, if yours start close together, but are short, keep an eye on them. If they quickly turn into 1 minute long or longer and become uncomfortable quickly, again, let your birth team know. 
  • In and Out! Reminders to use the bathroom often (once every 30-45 minutes) will decrease the chance of baby hanging out on top of your bladder more than necessary. Also, since you are sprinting on down labor land lane, you need water and food just as much as the tortoise. Your choices should be quick energy though!
  • Rotation and Dilation! Even though most fast labors mean baby is just gliding down into the pelvis, it doesn't negate the need to be up and moving. To ensure that baby has ample room to rotate through the pelvis as your cervix melts away, be sure to remain as upright as possible, or as hip-OPEN as possible. 
  • Listen To Your Body! If your body says to go to your place of birth earlier than what you had planned, listen to that intuition. If your body says that you won't make it, consider that it very well could be right (most times is right). If you get to your place of birth, only to be checked and told you are not very dilated, consider that it really has no bearing on how close you are to being done - patience and peace will help you to open right along with your contractions! It's not uncommon to 'slow and steady' dilate to a certain point and then open wide rapidly.
  • Stay The Path! If it looks like you might have changed your mind about birthing without medication, chances are, you are probably really close to the end. Hang in there and ride each wave, leaving it behind and enjoying the calm between each wave. 
  • Be Hands On! With rapid labors oftentimes comes rapid births. When you feel the urge to push, consider putting your own hands on your vulva/perineum/baby as baby begins to crown. This will allow you to really check in with your body, regulate your breathing/pushing, and provider your own perineal/vulvae support to minimize the chances of tearing and really ease baby out nice and slow. 
Regardless of if you are a tortoise or a hare in labor, remember that it is not a race to the finish line, and we all get a 'medal'. Staying the path, regardless of where the journey takes us in the end, is the measure of motherhood. Remember, whether it's fast or slow, your baby and body know the way to go!

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