The Emotional Signposts of Labor

July 14, 2020

written by: Lo Mansfield, MSN, RN

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It took me about two seconds as a labor nurse to realize that when most babies are born, it looks nothing like it does in the movies. Rarely does someone’s bag of water break on the sidewalk, babies usually take a loooong time to come out, I’ve never heard a woman actually breathing in a “hee hee hoo” pattern, and most mamas look like they’ve been through war (but just so joyful) once that baby is on their chest.

Basically, that FRIENDS episode, The One Where Rachel Has a Baby: Part 1 is just not true.

When I got pregnant with my first, there was a part of me that was pretty sure I didn’t need to attend a birth class. My career had shown me so many things, both good and bad. What could a birth instructor possibly teach me that I didn’t already know? But I wanted to try to have my baby without drugs and I wanted my husband to understand the process and how he could help me. So I put my “know it all” nurse brain aside and gladly sat down next to my husband on that classroom floor.

Labor is not just a physical process

Not surprisingly, our labor class spent a lot of time discussing the physical occurrences of birth. Dilation, effacement, stages of labor, pushing time, pelvic size – all of it was addressed. We also spent a night talking about pushing techniques, husband support, breathing techniques, relaxation, and ideal scenarios. All sounds normal, right?

When our birth instructor began to talk about the emotional signposts of labor, I was hooked. So much of my nursing practice was related to the physical signs of labor and birth. I couldn’t remember ever being taught about the emotional signs a mama displays. As I listened to her teach about each of the emotional signs – and what they meant – I couldn’t help but remember all of the mamas I had cared for. I had watched so many of them march through those emotional signs, but had never fully realized how concisely they indicated what physical labor changes were occurring.

Emotional signposts of labor

Typically, labor is taught to occur in stages – first stage (labor), second stage (pushing/delivery of baby), and third stage (delivery of placenta). The first stage of labor will (typically) be a woman’s longest. That first stage is further broken down into three phases – early labor, active labor, and transition.

Most women know most of this. What many women are not taught is that there are emotional signposts that line up with each of the phases of that long first stage of labor. And if you are privileged to birth a baby or watch someone you love labor and birth a baby, you’ll likely be as surprised as I was by how true these emotions are.

EXCITEMENT: The 1st emotional signpost occurs during early labor. The mama is likely smiling, taking pictures, anxious, chatty, and restless. Many mamas continue to talk through their contractions.

SERIOUSNESS  If a mama is getting serious, she is exhibiting the 2nd emotional signpost of labor and she has likely moved into active labor. Many women lose modesty, move very slowly and deliberately, stop talking through contractions, and are extremely focused.

SELF-DOUBT: Is mama confused? Scared? Has she given up and no longer thinks she can do it? These feelings are the 3rd emotional signpost. She has likely stopped trusting herself, her partner, and her body.  She’s probably ready to call it quits. But, the baby is close!

Sounds interesting, but what do I do with it?

Birth is such a personal process. Everyone’s story is so different, so intimate, so perfectly and beautifully theirs. But, as a witness to hundreds of births, including my own two, I cannot deny that during labor most women’s bodies are designed to follow similar processes. The more you know about the process, the better you’ll be able to deal with all of the (certain) highs and lows of labor.

Whether or not you want to have your baby naturally, tuck these emotional signposts into the back of your brain. Share them with your partner. Talk about it with your doula. My husband and I perfectly remember the moment in both of my births when the self-doubt started – both of our girls were born an hour later!

When you’re laboring, let the seriousness, the confusion, the doubt, and the fear all be an encouragement to you and your partner. Labor is one big emotional roller coaster, but those ups and downs also mean you are making progress. You are doing it. You are that much closer to holding that baby in your arms.

|This article was first published on Motherly|



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For more information about the emotional signposts of labor and additional tips about natural birth, Natural Childbirth the Bradley Way was a great resource for my husband and myself. Since that labor class, we’ve had three babies naturally; all of my labors were totally guided by my emotions instead of monitors or cervical exams. 

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About the Author

Lo Mansfield MSN, RNC-OB, is a specialty-certified registered nurse in obstetrics, postpartum, and fetal monitoring who is passionate about families understanding their integral role in their own stories. She is the owner of The Labor Mama and creator of the Your Body, Your Birth courses. She is also a mama of three, a University of Washington graduate (Go Dawgs), and is currently an expat in Haarlem, Netherlands. 

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