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I'm a parenting editor and these are 15 things that surprised me about giving birth

Pregnant woman touching her belly
Pregnant woman touching her belly (Getty)

If you’ve had a baby, you’ll know that many new mums like to talk about their births. We’ve been through an incredible experience/endurance challenge/horrific ordeal (delete as appropriate) and we need praise. We are out the other side!

Giving birth to your first baby may not be quite what you expected and there are invariably highs and lows. I remember writing a lovely birth plan and I’m not sure I followed any of it on the day.

I have two children, aged 12 and 10, so while my birth experiences aren’t that recent, I think we can all agree that getting a baby out of your body hasn’t changed that much in a decade. Some aspects of birth really surprised me, that either no one had told me about or I had not paid full attention to beforehand.

Here are 15 things I was not expecting…

I was not aware I was in early labour

I remember it vividly. Making scones with my mother-in-law, hanging out with my mum at home and then chatting on the phone to my friend saying, ‘I’m kind of having these period type pains but it’s nothing really,’ then going to bed. I thought it was Braxton Hicks practice contractions.

From watching movies, I expected labour pains to come on with a bang and to be keeling over. It really wasn’t like that for me. I went to bed as normal then woke up with stronger tummy pains at midnight (why do babies like arriving at night?). I knew it was happening then.

Speed bumps quickened my contractions

This was not my favourite part at all! Not that I have a top five most joyous moments, although meeting my baby was clearly the winner. En route to the hospital, we encountered several speed bumps which seemed to make my contractions come even faster. This was a shock and not enjoyable.

(Catherine Delahaye)
(Catherine Delahaye)

My TENS machine was incredible

I’d been recommended to use the TENS machine for my labour and it was honestly the best thing ever. In hindsight, we should have practiced attaching the suction pads in advance, because the doctor seemed to take an age to fit them to my back as my contractions became more intense.

I’m a bit of a wimp with pain, but the TENS machine makes pulsating sensations which completely distracted me from the contractions by producing an equally strong sensation. I loved having control of the remote it comes with – it gave me a feeling of control over the birth process.

My waters did not break

I was expecting my waters to break in a big sploshy puddle like on TV shows. This did not happen. My waters were stubborn. I got to the hospital, went through all the contractions until it was time to push and then the midwife broke them for me, which was all very weird.

Distraction is everything with contractions

It sounds obvious and I’m sure I knew this beforehand, but for some reason, the number of contractions and short gap between them was a massive shock for me. I would have a contraction that would last God knows how long, then it would stop, and I’d have a minute’s break (which felt like nothing) and then ANOTHER contraction. I was like, ‘Another one?!! Why?! Why so soon?!’ I was not happy.

Fortunately, I discovered that thinking about something else during a contraction helped me manage the pain. I asked my husband to tell me stories and memories; I’m quite a visual person so imagining scenes in my mind helped a lot.

MORE:Princess Kate's birth stories with babies George, Charlotte and Louis

Gas and air were my friends

When I wrote out my birth plan, I’d intended to use gas and air if I felt I needed it, which on the night I did. It was amazing. In fact, you couldn’t get it out of my hand. When I had my second baby, I felt lightheaded when I first took the gas and air, but with baby number one, it was great and helped me manage the pain.

(Guido Mieth)
(Guido Mieth)

I couldn’t move

You always hear birth stories where the woman is walking around the room in labour, sitting on the birthing ball etc, but for some reason, I could not move off my back. Everything else was a no. I did not expect this at all. It just shows you need to go with the flow and expect the unexpected.

My midwife wasn’t there the whole time

Again, I don’t know why this was news to me, but I expected the midwife to stay by my side for the entire labour. I mean, of course she couldn’t – labour takes ages and she had things to do. I remember feeling cross every time she left me, which feels silly now, but at the time I took on some diva ‘bring my midwife back’ mentality. I wasn’t even on my own as my husband was there.

Seeing my baby’s eyes for the first time

That moment when you hold your baby and they look up at you is the most incredible feeling in the world. There are no words to describe it. You’ve been through this huge process, and then they are there in your arms with these tiny little fingers and cute eyes staring at you. It’s magical.

I had to shower soon after

I’m not sure what I thought would happen right after birth, but of course you need to have a wash because birth is messy. I did not want to move though and thought, 'Oh yes, I can stare at my baby and have a nice sleep now.' Wrong! The midwife helped me into the shower (hardest shower of my life) and the rest is a blur.

Baby being held by mother
(Frank Herholdt)

The post-birth cuppa is the best tea of your life

When you’ve just birthed a human and the nurse or midwife asks if you want tea and toast, it’s honestly like winning the lottery. I’m not sure who says no to this offer, but I remember the divine feeling even now.

Maternity wards are hot and noisy, but the nurses are amazing

I can still remember the shock of being expected to look after my baby straight after the birth. I don’t know who I thought was going to do it – of course it was me – but I was shattered, I wanted to recover, but nope, motherhood started now.

With several mums and babies on the ward, it was understandably noisy – visitors would pop in and chat and the babies would cry. Sleeping was a challenge. I also didn’t want to stop watching my baby in case something was wrong, so I felt more and more exhausted. After a while, a kind nurse wheeled my son's cot next to her desk and watched him while I slept. I still love her for this.

I still have no idea why I packed my big, cosy dressing gown and fluffy slippers in my hospital bag the first time around. Maternity wards are super-hot to keep the air warm for the newborns so all I needed was a summer gown and flip-flops.

Changing the first nappy was terrifying

I had done NCT classes and practiced putting a nappy on a doll. Theoretically I knew what to do, so why did I put this off for two days after birth?! I laugh now as I’ve changed so many nappies since but that first one was a big deal.

I somehow managed to get everyone else to do it – husband, family members, midwife – until finally it was just me there with my little boy and I had to try. And it was fine. I remember having the same fear over bathing him for the first time, which again, turned out to be fine.

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Feeding was not easy

I think I’d always imagined that I would have a baby, pop it on the boob and ta-da, feeding would happen. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that simple, and for me, it was something both the baby and I had to learn how to do. It took time and practice and help from the nurses.

I remember crying at home because I couldn’t get the hang of it and calling a breastfeeding expert for advice, who was brilliant. Oh, and without the Lansinoh nipple cream, I would not have persevered.

Feeding my baby every two-three hours was a definite shock to the system and I don’t think anything can prepare you for the sleep deprivation, but once I got into a routine things were better. Sometimes I felt I was on a loop of feed, change nappy, baby sleep.

To any new mums or mums-to-be reading this, at the time it can feel so tough, but this period doesn’t last long, and babies soon stretch longer between feeds.

Staring at my baby became a hobby

It really did. You’ve created this little person and they are so cute, I would lose hours to just lying and staring at him. By the time my second baby came along, I didn’t have this luxury as I was chasing a toddler around, so new mums, enjoy the staring phase – it’s so precious.

HELLO!’s Homes Editor Rachel has just welcomed her first baby and tells us:

"What I wish they told me is to make sure everything is prepared at home for the post-partum care. I didn't really think about that part. You're too busy worrying about the birth and you don't really think about how you're going to be in absolute agony post-birth and you need to have everything to hand. In the bathroom, definitely have all your essentials organised."