Imagine for a moment that one twitch of your nose is all it would take to land you with a gentle thud on the other side of baby’s delivery so you could do a little information gathering—you know, see exactly what’s waiting for you at every stage of labor so you can brush aside all of your anxieties, start sleeping with your eyes closed, throw some things in a bag, maybe make one quick trip to the store, freeze some meatloaf, and go have your baby. That would be so fantastic, wouldn’t it?
If the thought of packing your hospital bag has you wishing you were instead packing for an Everest trek, you’re not alone. When it comes to figuring out—and fitting in—the items that will ease labor, it’s not hard to see how the line between what’s essential and downright absurd can blur. While there’s no way to know where your labor bag will finally weigh in until after your big day, there is another tried and true way to prepare. So put away the checklists, stop googling, and take inventory as one woman just home from the hospital empties the contents of her labor bag. It’s time to learn the old-fashioned way: from someone else’s mistakes.
I’m the type of woman who nearly opted for a home birth in order to avoid the entire affair of the labor bag. Just the act of choosing the luggage was enough to get my baby kicking. Filling it—and ultimately fearing responsibility for being without the crucial items I would need to deliver—was unbearable. So I did what I always do when I’m forced to pack: I stuffed my bag so completely there was no point in attempting the zipper (even with my pregnant self sitting atop it), then crammed a couple of brown grocery bags full of more essentials for my husband to carry to the car behind me. (What was he going to say, “No”? He might next time!) Let’s start with the useless.
Here’s a good rule of thumb to follow: If any of the items in your labor bag could also be found in a bag you’ve packed for a romantic getaway, take them out. Believe it or not, I came out of my natural childbirth preparation class thinking the following were essentials:
Flameless tea lights and frosted votive holders
Reality: You’re not throwing a dinner party! My husband tells me he scattered a couple on the windowsills, but my laboring mind can’t verify his story. Dim the lights instead.
Lavender massage oil
Reality: Here’s the thing—this seems like a can’t-miss in prelabor practice, but the truth is skin sensitivity increases as contractions escalate and you may not want to be touched at all. Same goes for sense of smell. Aromatherapy can backfire in the delivery room.
Mini electric fan
Reality: Yes, I was hot—I took my clothes off.
My piece de resistance useless item? A thong panty to wear home under my maternity jeans. If I could go back and slap myself, I would. Trust me, girls: You will secretly love those disposable mesh panties the hospital gives you—and you are days away from even your best granny panty.
These are the items that need candid consideration and may be better left behind depending on your birth plan. “Pack your birth bag according to the type of birth you are looking for,” suggests Chris Just, CNM, MSN, executive director of prenatal education at Isis Parenting in Massachusetts. “Those who want an epidural sooner rather than later may not use many items traditionally recommended in childbirth education. However, women who want to delay their epidural or have a natural birth may need a bigger bag of tricks.”
Books, magazines, playing cards
Reality: Not if you’re attempting a natural birth, or you know your partner won’t let you win at gin rummy.
Reality: You want your partner as hands-free as possible to escort you into the hospital; this is not the time you want him making a second trip to the car. Ditch the pillow and bring your favorite case.
Nursing bra and pads
Reality: Until your milk comes in, a comfy T-shirt will do the job.
Reality: If you want to watch your baby being pushed out, the hospital will have a mirror far superior to the one you use at home to tweeze your eyebrows.
Reality: This can effectively promote relaxation during labor and be a very positive distraction as contractions build, but it’s best to practice this one at home before taping pictures of the Dalai Lama to the hospital wall or carrying a vase full of water and flowers in from the parking lot.
Bottom line: Save the space for the baby gifts and hospital swag you’ll go home with!
I still would have delivered my baby without them, but these are the items I was truly grateful to have in my bag:
Birth plan: There is nothing more important than your caregivers knowing your labor, birth and postpartum goals. That said, keep it to one page. Also, it doesn’t hurt to bring baked goods for the labor and delivery nurses.
Cup with drinking straw: Did you know that hydration can actually shorten labor? Have your partner offer you the straw in between every contraction for effortless sipping. Alternate H2O with your favorite electrolyte replacement drink.
Music: My custom iPod playlist brought me through my final 10 hours of hard labor, energized my exhausted midwife in the long hours after dusk and before dawn, and is among my cherished mementos.
Regardless of whether your labor bag grows or shrinks after reading this article, don’t be surprised if what you find in the end is that all you needed was some music, a cup and your partner. Pack away, but remember, you are all your baby needs to come out.