The biggest surprises about labor and delivery revealed.

You can never know exactly what will happen during your unique labor and delivery. But preparing for childbirth and educating yourself beforehand can help you manage your expectations and ready you for your new arrival. The information below is based on what real moms have to say about getting ready for labor and delivery.

Birth Surprises: Preparing for Childbirth Ahead of the Big Day

You'll start noticing changes in the third trimester.

During the third trimester, you'll notice changes that may affect how you feel. In fact, these changes occur because your body is already getting ready for labor and delivery, even if you still have a while to go before your due date. Here are some differences that you can expect with your third trimester:

  • You'll gain weight, typically at a rate averaging about one pound a week during the last trimester.
  • As your baby grows in size and places pressure on nearby organs, you may experience episodes of shortness of breath and back pain.
  • You may urinate more frequently as pressure is placed on your bladder, and you might have episodes of incontinence.
  • You may find it harder to get comfortable, and sleep may become more difficult. You may prefer to sleep on your side.
  • You could experience more fatigue than usual.
  • You may have heartburn, swelling in your feet and ankles, back pain, and hemorrhoids.
  • You may have "false labor" contractions known as Braxton-Hicks contractions. These Braxton-Hicks contractions begin to soften and thin the cervix, preparing it for the delivery of the baby. But unlike true labor contractions, they are irregular, do not occur more often as time passes, and do not become stronger or more intense.

Don't be afraid to enroll in birth classes.

Some moms may feel hesitant about enrolling in birth classes. However, birth classes can actually be fun and helpful while giving you the confidence you need for the big day. Here are some birth class options to keep in mind as you’re preparing for childbirth:

  • The Lamaze method uses approaches such as focused breathing, massage, and labor support that can be beneficial during the actual childbirth process.
  • The Bradley method emphasizes natural childbirth and relies heavily on deep breathing techniques.
  • Many childbirth education classes discuss a combination of the Lamaze and Bradley methods (along with others) to teach expectant parents about the birth process and ways to make the delivery successful, comfortable, and enjoyable.

Creating a birth plan can be helpful.

Some education classes encourage their participants to develop a "birth plan," and may provide guidance in helping you do so. The birth plan is usually a written document for both you and your doctor in which you'll record your own preferences for labor and delivery. For example:

  • Where will you be delivering your baby?
  • Based on your doctor's instructions, do you plan to go directly to the hospital when labor begins, or will you call the office first?
  • What arrangements have you made for transportation to the hospital or birthing center?
  • Do you have a doula or want to participate in a doula program? (A doula provides various forms of nonmedical support in the childbirth process.)
  • Who would you like to deliver your baby (an obstetrician or a nurse midwife)?
  • Who do you want to be present to support you during the childbirth experience?
  • What position would you prefer to be in during delivery?
  • What are your preferences for pain medication (if any is going to be used)?
  • What options would you consider if unexpected circumstances develop (e.g., the need for an episiotomy or a Cesarean section)?
  • If you deliver prematurely, does the facility have adequate resources to take care of your prematurely born infant?
  • Not only should you talk about and share this document with your doctor, but also let your family members and friends know of your decisions.

The start of labor is unique for every woman.

On TV, it looks so easy—there’s a gush of water, a frantic drive to the hospital, a few pushes, and the baby is born. Part of learning how to prepare for delivery is separting the fact from fiction and realizing that it's not always like it is on TV. In reality, it can be a bit trickier. In fact, for some women, it’s hard to tell false labor from the real deal.

  • Water breaking: For some women, their water breaking is the first sign that the birthing process has begun. It can be a gush of water, like on TV, but for other women, however, it’s a trickle. In some cases, it can be hard to tell the difference between amniotic fluid and urine. Your best bet? Call your doctor. Tell her you’re unsure if your water just broke but describe any odor or the color of the liquid. She’ll probably have you come in for an exam. On the other hand, your water may not break until a health-care provider helps it along at the hospital.
  • Contractions: Telling the difference between Braxton-Hicks and true labor contractions can be confusing. Generally, true contractions have a regular pattern and last for 30 to 70 seconds. But your doctor is only a phone call away if you need to consult.

Labor is a journey.

The first stage of labor—when you’re dealing with contractions but not ready to push—can last from 12 to 19 hours. Remember, it may be a slow process, but there are things you can do to make it easier:

  • Take a bath (with your doctor’s OK, if your water broke) or a shower.
  • Go for a walk
  • Change positions when you start to feel uncomfortable.
  • Try to breathe during contractions.
  • Have someone roll a tennis ball (with some pressure) on your lower back to relieve any pain.
  • Rock on a rocking chair or birthing ball.
  • Use music to help you relax.

Above all, remember that your baby isn’t on a schedule—sometimes slow and steady is best. As long as he is safe, your health-care team will let him call the shots.

Your body will need a little time to bounce back.

  • After you deliver your baby, you might experience a few unexpected things.
  • Afterpains: You might have afterpains for a few days. It’s your uterus contracting. You may feel it most strongly when you’re nursing or if you’re taking medication to reduce bleeding. Don’t worry; it’s normal and should go away in a few days.
  • Heavy vaginal discharge: You’ll get what seems like a very heavy period after giving birth, and the blood may contain small clots. Contact your doctor, however, if you have a foul-smelling discharge, soak more than one sanitary pad in an hour, pass clots larger than a golf ball, or have a fever of 100.4 degrees F or higher.
  • Hot and cold: Your body is adjusting to new blood and hormone levels; this can make you feel either sweaty or chilled.
  • Leakage: It’s not uncommon for some urinary incontinence to occur, especially after a prolonged labor. It might happen when you sneeze, cough, or laugh.
  • Weight: You might be surprised that you don’t lose all the baby weight after having your little one. You’ll probably lose about 13 pounds (which includes the weight of the baby, amniotic fluid, and placenta). Over the next week or so, you’ll lose water weight, too.

Once all the work is done, the best surprise may be how perfect your baby is to you. Because even though preparing for childbirth can be a hassle at times, at the end of the day, the excitement and joy you feel at meeing your new baby will make all of it totally worth it.