Just before her last pushes to bring her first child into the world, Sherry Boykin, of Clarks Summit, Pennsylvania, was shocked to see eight people enter the delivery room. "I vaguely remember that they introduced themselves, but I was surprised that no one needed my permission in advance to invite anyone and everyone to witness my labor," she says.
Such surprises can put a damper on your birth experience, which is why it's important to know what to expect. While specifics vary by hospital, learning the answers to the following questions will help you be better prepared on delivery day.
One key part of an empowered birth is your hospital tour. It will typically include the basics of where to check in and a walk-through of a birthing room, the operating room, a recovery room, and the nursery. Sooner is better than later, but touring your hospital or birthing center any time between 20 and 32 weeks of pregnancy should give you time to prepare. "Maybe everything will be in line with what you're looking for; if not, it's much easier to change hospitals when you're only halfway through your pregnancy," says Catherine Ruhl, certified nurse-midwife and the director of women's health programs at the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses, in Washington, D.C. Another reason to schedule it on the early side: You'll still be comfortable enough to walk around the hospital for an hour!
During the tour, ask what's available where you'll labor and deliver. In most newer hospitals, everything will happen in the same room -- likely a private room with a bathroom and a shower, says Alexander L. Lin, M.D., assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. But if you're hoping for a water birth, for example, make sure you ask. "Some hospitals may be equipped with a limited number of birthing tubs," Dr. Lin explains. Inquire about any other smaller "extras" that may be options too. Stacie Krajchir-Tom, of Los Angeles, arrived to deliver her baby and was surprised that a birthing ball and bar were not available for her. "I had noted these in my birth plan and was told that they would be," she says. While most hospitals do have birthing balls, they may only have so many, so it's best to bring your own if it's important to you.
You'll also likely be shown all the equipment and machines used in the delivery room. "Most delivery rooms try to have more of a homey feel, but there is emergency and monitoring equipment hidden behind panels in the walls or tucked to the side," Dr. Lin says. "Ask, 'What are all these machines? What am I going to be hooked up to?' Knowing what's normal can reduce your anxiety." Atlanta mom Kristin Hunt agrees. "I wish I had asked whether my hospital uses portable electronic fetal monitors," she says. "I wanted to have the freedom to walk around during my labor."
Does your birth plan include being surrounded by soft candlelight as your hubby videotapes your baby's arrival? Be prepared: Flames and recording devices may be verboten. While comfort items such as heating pads and music are generally allowed, for legal reasons many hospitals have policies prohibiting photography and video when a doctor or a nurse is doing a procedure -- such as suctioning, taking vitals, or actually delivering the baby, says Dr. Lin. "You might be very disappointed if you discover that, after expecting to document the moment." Open flames are never allowed, because of the fire hazard; there are oxygen tanks in the delivery room, after all. Instead, you could bring battery-powered mood candles and aromatherapy oils.
Also consider all of the electronic items that you might want to plug in and charge. Your best bet: "Bring all the equipment that you need for labor fully loaded," says Tamara Hawkins, R.N., founder of Stork and Cradle childbirth and parenting preparation center, in New York City. "There are minimal outlets for your use in the labor room. Don't even think about bringing a surge protector -- yes, that has happened! Many electrical outlets are designated for medical equipment."
While making a baby was an intimate experience, birthing a baby is not. Nurses, residents, medical students, and anesthesiologists may be in and out of the room throughout your labor and delivery.
Hospitals have different policies about how many guests are allowed as support for a laboring mom. "Typically, two or three people is never a problem," says Dr. Lin. If you want to include a larger group, he adds, they may be able to rotate in and out of the delivery room from the family waiting areas, especially if you have a long labor. However, some hospitals want your support team to be the same people the whole time, so look into the specific rules at your hospital. And fair warning: If you elect to get an epidural, your partner and other relatives or friends will probably have to leave while it is being administered.
It's most likely that one nurse will be assigned to check on you, but it may not be the same one nurse during your entire labor. (Most hospitals have 12-hour shifts for labor-and-delivery nurses.)
Of course, your ob-gyn will be there for the delivery, but during your labor an on-call doctor or the hospital's medical team will probably check on you instead. And if you're delivering at a teaching hospital, a resident may assist your ob-gyn, or medical students may be brought in to observe, as mom Sherry Boykin experienced. But you always have the option to ask whether the extra personnel are necessary, says Dr. Lin. Your best bet: Discuss whom you'd like to have in the delivery room, along with other important elements of your birth plan, with your doctor before you go into labor.
Originally published in the February 2015 issue of Parents magazine.