Pregnancy and labour go hand in hand with old wives tales. But while we may be able to dispel old ways to predict the sex of the baby, or labour inducing home therapies, is there any truth to labour being easier the second time round? A common perception is that a woman’s body will know what to do in a second labour and the whole experience will be easier than the first time.
Research has shown that compared to the first labour the duration of the second labour and even the oxytocin requirements in the second labour are significantly reduced. So does a shorter labour suggest it is an easier labour?
Approaching the birth of her first child, Kristy was concerned about labour and the birth process. Nineteen long hours later, with oxytocin and intervention she was cradling her beautiful daughter, with a sense of overwhelming exhaustion. Two years later she anticipated the birth of her second child very differently “I was more scared going into this labour than I was the first one because I knew what to expect in terms of pain, I knew how bad it was going to be.”
But it seemed the old wives tale was true for Kristy. Labour was only five hours and there was no oxytocin or intervention. “Your body does know what to do the second time round, it is like it has a memory, and I really listened to my body and did what my body wanted to do.” However, Kristy was quick to point out that a shorter, less complicated labour was not easier. “It is not easier in terms of the pain; the pain was more intense and I still had to get through it, both mentally and physically.”
Can women anticipate a second labour to be quicker and perhaps with less intervention? Midwife Liz Wilkes, from My Midwives and President of Midwives Australia, does agree that “second labours are generally shorter than first labours.” So it does seem that “for the majority of women this means that they typically experience it as a ‘better’ ‘easier’ experience, however it is not always the case.”
“For some women a very short labour means they have less time to adjust to what is happening.” Liz says that transition is usually much shorter “usually minutes, a few contractions” meaning the part of labour that was often very tough in the first birth is gone before the woman realises she is in it. “Most women welcome this, but for a few, it may be an out of control experience.”
Jacqueline thought everything was going perfectly in her second pregnancy; she finished work five weeks before her due date, ready to settle in for some rest and nesting. Finishing work on the Wednesday, she fell ill with a stomach virus on the Thursday and went into her second labour on the Friday. “The first time I was more prepared, I was focused and could get through it, whereas this time I was caught by surprise and the whole thing felt like it was out of my control.”
Seventeen hours of labour the first time left Jacqueline apprehensive about what was about to happen; only to be surprised with a five hour second labour. But this mum does not think it was easier. “Labour was stronger and the pain was more intense because it was in a shorter period of time.” Jacqueline encourages that “quicker was better because it is not drawn out and it is reassuring knowing that your body does know what it is doing.”
Yet her words of advice to anyone facing a second or subsequent labour are perhaps more truthful than any wives tale could ever be. “Like every child is different, I think every labour is different and whether it is your first or second, you can only prepare so much and you should never expect it to be easy.”
While the perception may be that labour is easier the second time round, perhaps it is more so that mothers are more confident, more in-tune to the demands of and the capability of their body. Second time mothers may have also shed the inhibition and initial fears that cloaks labour the first time round. And while it seems labour can be quicker for subsequent births, quicker is not a scapegoat for easier.