Wondering what the big day will be like? What to take with you to the hospital? How to experience as little pain as possible? Here's a special delivery day guide, just for you.
packing hospital bag
Credit: Aimee Herring

Before I had my first baby, I packed my bag for the hospital with all sorts of handy things: tennis balls for my husband to roll around on my back, the cutest nursing nightgown I could find, and a whole box of nursing pads. Reality: I didn't want my husband to touch me, the slits on the gown were too small for my new double Ds, and my milk didn't even come in until I got home. Yep, labor hindsight is 20/20. Learn what other moms, obstetricians, and labor nurses suggest for making the hospital visit as pleasant as it can be.

Do your paperwork

When you go on your hospital tour, find out if you can preregister and fill out any information right then and there. Ask for copies of forms you'll have to complete, and pack the ones you've finished in your hospital bag to take back with you -- it's nearly impossible to focus on paperwork while contending with contractions. Also, talk with your doc about your ideal delivery; for a list of points to consider, visit americanbaby.com/birthprep. Now you're ready to have a baby. (See Your Blueprint for Labor, below.)

Chill out

After Baby is born, if you've delivered vaginally, your nether region will probably be sore. "Ice it immediately," advises Jennifer Gunter, M.D., an obstetrician in Marin, California, who is also board-certified in pain management. While you're awake, apply an ice pack for 15 minutes and then take it off for 15 minutes. Some hospitals offer sanitary napkins that have a twist-activated cold pack inside so they cool while absorbing postpartum bleeding. (What will they think of next?) If your room has a freezer, chill a witch hazel hemorrhoid pad and tuck it on top of your sanitary napkin. After the first 24 to 48 hours, warm water tends to be more soothing. Chances are, the postpartum goody bag that the nurses give you will include a plastic bottle with a nozzle. Fill it with warm water, squat over the toilet, and use it as a portable bidet. The warm water makes it easier to urinate after delivery and helps reduce any burning sensation.

Get moving

Narcotic pain relievers such as Percocet and Darvocet offer almost guaranteed relief after delivery, but they can also constipate you, so ask for a laxative and use it right away. "You do not want to get backed up and have to push all over again with a tender bottom," Dr. Gunter says. For the same reason, drink lots of fluids, eat high-fiber foods, and walk the hospital halls as much as you can: Before birth, gravity gets a baby moving; after, it helps move other important business.

Sleep it off

Most moms are so excited after giving birth that they feel as if they drank a gallon of espresso, which can make it difficult to rest and recuperate. Cue up a mellow playlist and try to grab some winks. First, though, ask your nurses if they'll take your vital signs when they bring Baby to you for a feeding, so they won't have to wake you twice.

Take some time alone

Yes, your baby is exquisite, and it's only natural that relatives are lining up to get a peek at their new family member. Still, after you deliver, you'll probably want to limit visitors to your partner, the grandparents, and a best friend. Don't feel bad about that: You certainly don't need an audience while you're figuring out how to feed, burp, and change the baby. "I've actually seen moms delay feeding because they don't know how to ask their visitors for privacy," says Gloria Newman, manager of outpatient women's services at Mercy Hospital, in St. Louis. Rather than presiding over a crowd, ask your husband to upload photos of your sugarplum to Facebook or a personal website to satisfy the curiosity of pals. And if you change your mind and decide you do want company, just call -- your closest friends will come running to your side.

Get ready to meet your roomie!

If you're not in a private room, when the curtain separating the beds is pulled aside, greet the mom next door warmly. Ask about her labor and her baby; she'll probably ask about yours too. Poof: You're pals! If you need something and your family isn't there, she's got your back, and vice versa. As you might recall from college dorms, a little consideration goes a long way toward happy cohabitation. Say things like: "Let me know if you need some quiet. My parents are here, and we can go to the lounge." With any luck, she'll extend you the same courtesy. (Pssst: You might also want to pack a pair of silicone earplugs in case she snores. Offer her a fresh pair if you do!)

Don't nix the nursery

Rooming in is great for bonding with your baby, but when you're sleeping, you won't be bonding -- you'll be sleeping! For safety's sake, it's best not to nod off with your baby in your arms. "With my second son, I used the baby nursery so I could sleep for a few hours. The nurses brought him to me whenever it was time for him to breastfeed," says Liz Richards, of Portland, Oregon. "Once you're back at home, you're on your own, so take advantage of the extra helping hands while you can." If you want to breastfeed only, ask the nurses to place a sign above Baby's bassinet that specifies No Bottles. They'll bring your hungry little one to you when she cries.

Baby your body with good grub

You're going to be plenty hungry post-delivery, and the hospital tray isn't always brimming with the most appetizing options (understatement alert). So have vitamin- and antioxidant-fortified snacks on hand, such as granola bars, fruit, and juices. "Dairy can be constipating, which is why you'll want to wait until your normal bowel function returns before adding it to the menu," says Roberta Kline, M.D., an ob-gyn in Glastonbury, Connecticut. Healing requires adequate levels of zinc, selenium, and vitamin D, along with many other nutrients; a good multivitamin also helps, Dr. Kline says. Be sure to drink plenty of water, especially if you're nursing. "To help you get into the habit of drinking when you breastfeed, keep a glass of water within easy reach of the hospital bed," says San Francisco nurse practitioner Barb Dehn. A refillable water bottle can come in handy too.

Make the nurses feel appreciated

Nursing staff can be so overloaded these days that at times it may be difficult to get their attention. Become a favorite patient by being polite from the get-go. Cluster your requests for acetaminophen, juice, and baby advice. And a little buttering up never hurts: Have a candy dish in your room, or preorder a basket of fruit and enclose a card from you and the baby. That's what Sara Abbott, a mom of two who lives outside of Boston, did before the birth of her second child. "My husband and I actually chose to spend Thanksgiving at the hospital when I could have been released early," she remembers. "It was like being in a hotel with a bunch of sweet grandmothers."

When in doubt, ask

Your postpartum hospital stay is pretty much the only time you'll be surrounded by so many baby-care experts at once, so don't be shy about asking for help. "Many problems can be prevented or easily solved by simply asking a few things," Dr. Kline says. "There are really never any stupid questions!"

Buh-bye, pain

They don't call it labor for nothing, but there are more ways than ever to manage that pain. And it's a good idea to explore them before you're in the throes: "If anything is predictable about labor, it's that it's unpredictable," says William Camann, M.D., director of obstetric anesthesiology at Brigham and Women's Hospital, in Boston. Know your options -- and keep an open mind.

Relief without meds

  • Relaxation "The most important thing to try and keep relaxed during labor is your mind," says Stacey Rees, a certified nurse-midwife in Brooklyn. When you fear pain, you tense up, which makes the pain worse and causes you to tense up even more.
  • Moving around Walking, swaying, changing positions, and rolling on a birthing ball can ease the pain and help labor progress by putting the force of gravity to work on your behalf. "If you have back labor, for example, you'll probably find your way to your hands and knees, which can relieve pain by getting the baby to rotate," says Eileen Ehudin Beard, a certified nurse-midwife and senior practice advisor for the American College of Nurse-Midwives.
  • Breathing Whether you're hee-ing or haa-ing, panting or inhaling deeply, as long as you focus, you'll find relief.
  • Massage Summon your partner to apply gentle counterpressure on your back, rub your swollen feet, or massage your temples to distract you.
  • Hydrotherapy Birth pools, big tubs that allow you to immerse yourself, are more and more common in birth centers and hospitals alike. The warm water is soothing. "And the buoyancy helps lighten the pressure," Rees says. "We call it the midwives' epidural."
  • Sterile-water capsules To relieve intense back pain, some midwives offer these, which are injected just under the skin near the sacrum. The procedure causes intense stinging at the injection site, but that subsides in 30 to 45 seconds, providing you with pain relief for up to two hours.

Relief with meds

  • Epidural It's given through a slow, continuous drip and works in 10 to 15 minutes. Most hospitals use patient-controlled epidural anesthesia, which allows you to press a button for more. You should still feel enough pressure to be able to push. It's very rare that you'll miss the window of opportunity to get an epi, especially if this is your first baby, Dr. Camann says. Unless your little one is already coming out, it's not too late! A very small percentage of women with blood-clotting disorders or scoliosis, or who have had back surgery, may not be candidates -- or the epi simply might not work as well for them. But for the vast majority, the procedure is A-OK. Contrary to what you might have heard, getting an epi doesn't put you at a higher risk for C-section, but it does add about an hour to labor.
  • Spinal and combined spinal-epidural A spinal block, known as a spinal, is a onetime injection into the spinal fluid in your lower back. It works in seconds and leaves you numb from the waist down for about 45 minutes. It's standard protocol for most elective C-sections. Sometimes doctors do a spinal-epidural combo for women who are far along in labor.
  • Opioids When an epidural isn't possible, some moms-to-be opt for painkillers such as Nubain, delivered via IV or IM (intramuscular). Unlike spinals and epidurals, this kind of medication can make you drowsy and nauseated. Also, doctors won't administer them too late in the game. "When used close to delivery, opioids may also make the baby sleepy," Dr. Camann notes. "That can make it harder to breastfeed."

Originally published in American Baby magazine in 2011. Updated in 2014.

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