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What is a Vaginal Birth?

By A. Gabrenas
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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A vaginal birth is delivering a baby through the vaginal canal. In most parts of the world, the majority of babies are born via vaginal births. Many women have the option of having a vaginal birth in a number of different settings. Sometimes medical interventions may be to assist with the birth, however, by definition, a vaginal birth does not involve surgery.

During pregnancy, the baby develops inside a woman’s uterus. The bottom of the uterus, called the cervix, normally stays fairly tightly closed, helping to hold the baby in. At the end of the pregnancy, when the baby is ready to be born, the woman’s body starts to produces hormones that soften the cervix and allow it to open. When true labor begins, more hormones cause the uterus to contract and the cervix to open quickly, preparing the body to deliver the baby. Once the cervix opens to about 4 inches (10 centimeters), the baby is usually ready to be pushed out of the uterus, through the cervix and vagina in a vaginal birth.

Many women who plan to have a vaginal birth may be able to choose where they want to deliver the baby. Options often include at home, in a birthing center or in a hospital. Women who plan natural births, where the baby is delivered via vaginal birth without the use of pain medication, usually have the most options on where to deliver the baby. For women who are at higher risk for complication or who plan to use pain medication, however, health-care providers generally recommend a hospital birth.

Interventions are not required for many vaginal births, but they may be needed in some cases. For example, if the baby needs to be born before the body starts producing childbirth hormones, interventions can be used to promote labor. These may include breaking the amniotic sac or administering a synthetic hormone to induce labor, and can help start the contractions and cervical opening needed to have a successful vaginal birth. Other interventions may include pain medication, to help reduce the discomfort of contractions, and the use of forceps or a special vacuum to help pull the baby out of the vaginal canal if needed.

Delivering a baby using any or all interventions up to surgery is still considered a vaginal birth. In some cases, however, a woman may not be able to deliver her baby this way. When this happens, health-care providers usually make an incision in the abdomen and uterus so they can pull the baby out with their hands. This type of birth is known as a cesarean or C-section, and is the only alternative to a vaginal birth.

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Discussion Comments

By pleonasm — On Oct 12, 2014

@croydon - I guess you only ever hear stories about birth going wrong, but it seems like I've heard a lot of those. When I was born, apparently the nurses didn't believe my mother was that close to needing to push and didn't call the doctor until I was already crowning.

I was born with my thumb in my mouth which the doctor would have prevented if he had been there, because I did a bit of damage and my mother ended up having to have a lot of stitches.

I guess there's not really such a thing as a routine birth though.

By croydon — On Oct 11, 2014

@clintflint - I think most midwives will encourage women to take whatever position feels the most natural, including squatting when giving birth. It's only really medical doctors who (less often now) insist on being able to see exactly what is happening.

And there are definitely advantages to that as well. Giving birth is still a dangerous thing for mothers and babies and sometimes you just need a doctor to be able to sort things out so vaginal birth risks are lowered as much as possible. And they can't sort things out if they can't see what needs to be done.

By clintflint — On Oct 10, 2014

I read an article recently that went into the fact that we actually mostly do vaginal birth all wrong. Because doctors want to be able to see the birth canal and the infant, they get women to lie on a bed and have done for many years now. They've spread this all over the world, and to some extent it's not too harmful if you have modern medicine there to back up your procedure.

But it's not a natural position to give birth. The natural position is to squat so that the birth canal is naturally spread open and gravity helps with the pushing and that's the way that traditional birthing has been done almost everywhere for most of human history.

So in countries where there isn't great health care, switching to a more difficult position because most of the Western world endorses it has probably caused a lot more problems than it has solved. Which is why they are trying to get most places to switch back now.

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