What you need to know about giving birth

Childbirth is often treated like a medical procedure, and it's easy to forget that it is a bodily function and a natural process that is a major part of a woman's life. Though it can be painful, giving birth is a wondrous event that many women look back on and cite as one of the most important moments in their lives.

Pregnancy and birth must be closely managed, though, to reduce the risk of birth defects or birth injury. As the big day approaches, careful preparation is your key to success.

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Stages of Labor

It is important that you know the four different stages of labor and have a birth plan ready to go when labor hits, regardless of whether you've opted for natural childbirth, a home birth or a hospital birth under a doctor's supervision.

Cramps and contractions mark the first stage of labor. This stage typically lasts a minimum of five hours and is defined by short, mild contractions that feel like menstrual cramps. The contractions get progressively longer and sharper as you approach labor's second stage.

In the second stage of labor, the baby enters the woman's birth canal. You will feel a strong, instinctive need to "push," which leads you into the third stage: the actual delivery. The fourth and final stage of labor is when your body stabilizes and your heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure gradually return to normal levels.

Natural Childbirth and Other Alternatives

If you've opted to have a natural childbirth without hospitals or doctors, it is strongly recommended that you hire a midwife. A midwife is a health professional who specializes in helping pregnant women deliver babies naturally, safely and with minimal complications. Lamaze breathing techniques, or similar alternatives, will help you manage your physical discomfort as you deliver the baby.

Proponents of water birth argue that it is easier on the newborn, which is immersed in water while in your womb. If you are interested in a water birth, make sure you perform it with the assistance of trained professionals, as water inhalation and infection are both significant risks.

Once your happy, healthy baby has arrived, you're clear to print your birth announcements! Regardless of the childbirth method you prefer, this momentous occasion deserves to be commemorated.