The Roadmap of Labor: A Framework for Teaching About Normal Labor

By Penny Simkin, PT

Regular contributor, Penny Simkin developed the roadmap of labor as a teaching tool. Today, Penny shares how she uses the roadmap of labor to help families in her childbirth classes to understand normal labor from a physiological standpoint. She hopes that her students will take away an understanding of comfort and coping mechanisms along with recognizing the emotions a mother might be experiencing and how a partner can help with both the physical and emotional aspects. Penny is one of the Plenary Speakers at the upcoming Lamaze International/DONA International Confluence scheduled for later this month in Kansas City, MO. Read how Penny, a master childbirth educator, with this handy tool, helps parents understand what to expect during labor and birth. – Sharon Muza, Community Manager, Science & Sensibility

Introduction

© Sarah Sweetmans

© Sarah Sweetmans

Childbirth educators strive to provide timely, accurate, woman-centered information. We adapt our content and teaching methods to the time allowed, and the variety of learning styles, educational levels and cultural backgrounds of our students. We hope to build trust in the normal birth process, and instill the confidence and competence necessary for parents to meet the challenges of childbirth, and also to communicate effectively with their maternity caregivers.

In this paper I describe a teaching aid, the roadmap of labor, and some ideas to help guide parents through normal childbirth, from early labor to active labor, transition, and the resting, descent and crowning-to-birth phases of the second stage. The discussion of each stage and phase includes what occurs, women’s and partners’ common emotional reactions, and advice on comfort measures and ways to work together to accomplish a safe and satisfying birth.

I do not describe how I teach about routine or indicated interventions, complications, pain medications, or surgical birth. Aside from space limitations, the real reason lies in my firm belief that when expectant parents appreciate the pure unaltered (and elegant!) physiological process of labor, they have more confidence that birth usually goes well, and they may feel reluctant to bypass it (with induction or cesarean) or alter it unnecessarily. Normal labor becomes the clear standard against which to assess the benefits and risks of specific interventions and the circumstances that increase or decrease their desirability.

If I combined the discussion of straightforward labor with complications and common procedures (along with their risks, benefits, and alternatives), parents would have a fragmented and confused perception of childbirth and an almost impossible burden of separating normal from abnormal, and elective from indicated procedures. All these topics must be covered, however, if parents are to participate in their care, whether labor is straightforward or not. Therefore I teach these topics in subsequent classes, using normal birth as the reference point. I also follow this approach in some other writings.1,2

Initiation of labor, the six ways to progress and signs of labor

There are some key concepts that childbirth educators can use to raise parents’ awareness and appreciation of events of late pregnancy and normal birth and how they can help the process flow smoothly. Parents need to understand these concepts well, so they can use the roadmap of labor to best advantage, and play a more confident and active role in labor.

For example, before introducing the roadmap, the teacher should inform parents about the hormonally- orchestrated processes in late pregnancy that prepare for birth, breastfeeding, and mutual mother-infant attachment. This is important because teachers face two common challenges: first, parents’ impatience to end the pregnancy due to discomfort, fatigue and eagerness to hold their baby; and second, the possibility of a long, discouraging pre-labor phase.

These challenges make parents more accepting of induction or vulnerable to the belief that there is something wrong. Parents need to understand that labor normally begins only when all of the following occur:

• The fetus is ready to thrive outside the uterus (breathing, suckling, maintaining body temperature, and more).
• The placenta has reached the point where it can no longer sustain the pregnancy.
• The uterus is ready to contract, open and expel the baby.
• The mother is ready to nourish and nurture her baby.

If parents understand that fetal maturity is essential in initiating the chain of events leading to labor, they may be more patient with the discomforts of late pregnancy, and less willing or anxious to induce labor without a medical reason.

The six ways to progress to a vaginal birth

Progress before and during labor and birth occurs in many ways, not simply cervical dilation and descent, which is what most people focus on. Labor unfolds gradually and includes six steps, four of which begin weeks before labor and involve the cervix. The cervix moves forward, ripens, effaces and then dilates. When parents understand that a long pre- or early labor is accomplishing necessary progress – preparing the cervix to dilate – they are less likely to become anxious or discouraged that nothing seems to be happening. The two other steps involve the fetus: the fetal head repositions during labor by flexing, rotating, and moulding to fit into the pelvis; and lastly, the fetus descends and is born.

Three categories of signs of labor

By placing these in the context of the six ways to progress, parents may be better able to recognize the differences between pre-labor (often called ‘false labor’) and labor.

Possible signs of labor

These include: nesting urge; soft bowel movements; abdominal cramping; and backache that causes restlessness. These may or may not continue to the clearer signs of labor and may be associated with early cervical changes.

Pre-labor signs

The most important of these is the first one:

Continuing ‘nonprogressing’ contractions (that is, over time,the pattern remains the same; they do not become longer, stronger orcloser together)
Possible leaking of fluid from the vagina
Possible ‘show’ – bloody mucus discharge from the vagina
With these signs, the cervix is probably not dilating significantly, but is likely to be ripening and effacing (steps two and three of the six ways to progress).

Positive signs of labor

The most important of these is the first one:

Continuing, progressing contractions, i.e. contractions that become longer, stronger, and closer together (or at least two of those signs). These progressing contractions cause cervical dilation (steps four and five of the six ways to progress), which is the clinical definition of labor.
Spontaneous rupture of the membranes (SRM), especially with a gush of fluid. This happens before or at the onset of labor in about 8% of women at term.3 It most often happens late in labor. SRM is only a positive sign of labor in conjunction with continuing progressing contractions.

The roadmap of labor

I have created a visual guide to labor progress using the metaphor of a road map. It shows key labor landmarks, and appropriate activities and measures for comfort as labor progresses (see Figure 1).4 Parents can use it during labor as a reminder of where they are in the process and what to do. Teachers can use it as a tool for organized discussion of normal labor progress, and as a backdrop for discussing laboring women’s emotional reactions, and how partners or doulas may assist. Health professionals can use it to help parents identify where they are in labor, adjust their expectations and try appropriate comfort measures.

© Penny Simkin

© Penny Simkin

Normal labor pathway

The roadmap portrays three pathways. The main brick road represents normal labor and shows helpful actions, positions, and comforting techniques to use as labor progresses. The twists and turns in the brick road indicate that normal labor does not progress in a straight line; the large turns between three and five-to-six centimeters and between eight and ten centimeters indicate large emotional adjustments for the laboring woman, and present an opportunity to discuss emotional support and comfort measures for the partner or doula to use. After ten centimeters, the woman’s renewed energy and confidence are represented by the second wind sign. Along with discussion of emotional support and comfort measures, the teacher can offer perspective and practical advice for partners and doulas, to use both when the woman is coping well and when she feels challenged or distressed.

The roadmap provides a clear and effective way to teach about normal labor. It keeps the discussion focused purely on the physiological and psychological processes, without inserting discussions of pros and cons of interventions, complications, or usual policies and hospital practices that alter labor.

© Sharon Muza

Image Source: © Sharon Muza

Once parents have a solid understanding of normal labor, the teacher can explain usual care practices and possible options for monitoring maternal and fetal well being during labor. She can also discuss labor variations or complications and treatments with medical (including pain medications), surgical or technological procedures. With this approach, parents are better equipped to discuss risks, benefits and alternatives, because they can distinguish situations and conditions that are more likely to benefit from the intervention from those in which the intervention is optional, unnecessary, or harmful.

Planned and spontaneous rituals

The normal labor road suggests measures to use for distraction, comfort, and progress. Distraction is desirable for as long as it helps. The Relax, Breathe, Focus sign reminds parents to use this pre-planned ritual for dealing with intensifying contractions when distraction is no longer possible. Parents need to rehearse these rituals in childbirth class (i.e. slow breathing, tension release, and constructive mental focus) and use them in early labor. They set the stage for the spontaneous rituals that emerge later in labor (as women enter active labor), when they realise they cannot control the contractions or continue their planned ritual, and give up their attempts to do so, though sometimes after a stressful struggle. Spontaneous rituals replace the planned ones. They are not planned in advance – they are almost instinctual – and almost always involve rhythmic activity through the contractions – breathing, moaning, swaying, stroking, rocking, or even letting rhythmic thoughts or phrases repeat like a mantra.

The three Rs

The spontaneous rituals usually involve the three Rs: relaxation (at least between contractions), rhythm, which is the most important, and ritual, the repetition of the same rhythmic activity for many contractions. In order to give herself over to spontaneous instinctual behavior, the woman needs to feel emotionally safe, uninhibited, accepted unconditionally by partner and staff, and to be mobile in order to find comfort.

The motto ‘Rhythm is everything’ means that if a woman has rhythm during contractions, she is coping, even though she may vocalize and find it difficult. The rhythmic ritual keeps her from feeling totally overwhelmed. The goal is to keep her rhythm during contractions in the first stage. Once in second stage, however, rhythm is no longer the key. The woman becomes alert and her spirits are lifted. An involuntary urge to push usually takes over and guides her behavior.

The role of the partner in labor

The partner helps throughout labor, comforting the mother with food and drink, distraction, massage and pressure, assistance with positioning, and constant companionship. Sometimes a doula also accompanies them, providing continuing guidance, perspective, encouragement, and expertise with hands-on comfort measures, positions, and other techniques gained from her training and experience.2

The role of an effective birth partner includes being in the woman’s rhythm– focusing on her and matching the rhythm of her vocalizations, breathing or movements – by swaying, stroking, moving hand or head, murmuring softly in her same rhythm. Then, if she has difficulty keeping her rhythm, and tenses, cries out or struggles – as frequently occurs in active labor or transition – her partner helps her get her rhythm back, by asking her to focus her eyes on their face or hand and follow their rhythmic movements. This is the take-charge routine, and is only used if the woman has lost her rhythm, is fearful, or feels she cannot go on. Partners who know about this are less likely to feel helpless, useless or frightened. Simple directions, given firmly, confidently, and kindly (‘look at me,’ or ‘look at my hand’), rhythmic hand or head movements, and ‘rhythm talk’ with each breath (murmuring, ‘Keep your rhythm, stay with me, that’s the way…‘) are immensely effective in helping the woman carry on through demanding contractions. During the second stage, rhythm is no longer important; now the partner encourages her bearing-down efforts and release of her pelvic floor, and also assists her with positions.

The motto “Rhythm is everything” means that if a woman has rhythm during contractions, she is coping, even though she may vocalize and find it difficult.

The detour for back pain

A second pathway, a rocky, rough road, represents the more difficult ‘back labor’, which may be more painful, longer, ormore complicated than the normal labor pathway. Fetal malposition is one possible cause. The measures shown for back labor are twofold: reduce the back pain and alter the effects of gravity and pelvic shape to encourage the fetus’s movement into and through the pelvis. It helps a woman endure a prolonged or painful back labor if she and her partner use appropriate comfort measures, and if they know that dilation may be delayed while the baby’s head molds or rotates to fit through, or that changing gravity and pelvic shape may give the extra room that the baby needs to move into an optimal position.

The epidural highway

toerrishuman.jpg

© J. Wasikowski, provided by Birthtastic

This third pathway represents a dramatically different road – smooth, angular, man- made, more comfortable – but it comes with extensive precautions and numerous procedures, monitors, and medications, which are necessary to keep the epidural safe. The woman adopts a passive role while the staff manage labor progress, and monitors the mother’s and fetus’s well being closely. The excellent pain relief and chance to sleep are the usual rewards. Discussion of how to work with an epidural in order to optimize the outcome is beyond the scope of the paper, but the basic principle is: treat the woman with an epidural as much as possible like a woman who does not have one! This essentially means,‘Keep her cool. Keep her moving. Keep her involved in the work of pushing her baby out. And don’t assume that if she has no pain, she has no distress! Do not leave her alone.’

 

Conclusion

The roadmap of labor provides a useful framework for teachers to explain the psychological and physiological processes of labor, and a variety of activities for comfort and labor progress for women and their partners to use. By focusing on the normal unaltered process, parents learn to separate the norm from the numerous interventions that alter the process, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The intention is to give them confidence that they can handle normal labor and to participate meaningfully in decision-making when interventions are suggested.

Do you use the roadmap of labor as a teaching tool in your childbirth classes or with your clients? How do you use it? I would love to hear the innovative ways that you have found to incorporate this valuable tool in your classes. Please share with Penny and all of us in the comments section. – SM

References

  1. Simkin P. Moving beyond the debate: a holistic approach to understanding and treating effects of neuraxial analgesia. Birth 2012;39(4):327-32.
  2. Simkin P. The birth partner: a complete guideto childbirth for dads, doulas, and all other labor companions. 4th edition Harvard Common Press; 2013.
  3. Marowitz A, Jordan R. Midwifery management of prelabor rupture of membranes at term. J Midwifery Womens Health 2007;52(3):199-206.
  4. Simkin P. Road map of labor. Childbirth Graphics; 2003. Available from: www.childbirthgraphics. com/index.php/penny-simkin-s-road-map-of- labor-interactive-display.html

About Penny Simkin

Penny Simkin is a physical therapist who has specialized in childbirth education and labor support since 1968. She estimates she has prepared over 11,000 women, couples and siblings for childbirth, and has assisted hundreds of women or couples through childbirth as a doula. She has produced several birth-related films and is the author of many books and articles on birth for both parents and professionals. Her books include The Labor Progress Handbook (2011), with Ruth Ancheta, The Birth Partner (2008), and When Survivors Give Birth: Understanding and Healing the Effects of Early Sexual Abuse of Childbearing Women (2004), with Phyllis Klaus. Penny and her husband have four adult children and eight grandchildren. Penny can be reached through her website.

Copyright © NCT 2014. This article first appeared in NCT’s Perspective journal, edition March 2014. http://www.nct.org.uk/professional/research

9 Comments

The Roadmap of Labor: A Framework for Teaching About Normal Labor

September 10, 2014 07:00 AM by Guadalupe Trueba, LCCE, FACCE, CD(DONA), BDT(DONA), CLC
Glad to translate into Spanish, since it's a wonderful teaching tool for couples in Lamaze childbirth classes. Guadalupe Trueba

The Roadmap of Labor: A Framework for Teaching About Normal Labor

September 15, 2014 07:00 AM by Annie Craven
Great read, thanks so much for sharing! I love the Road Map of Labor and how detailed it is, a definite must for every pregnancy.

The Roadmap of Labor: A Framework for Teaching About Normal Labor

October 7, 2014 07:00 AM by Alessandra
Did you translate this into Spanish? I am looking for Spanish documents for clients. Thanks! Alessandra @Guadalupe Trueba

The Roadmap of Labor: A Framework for Teaching About Normal Labor

October 8, 2014 07:00 AM by Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH, AdvCD(DONA), LCCE, FACCE
I love this tool - it's so flexible. I use it in #LamazeClass as well as in talking with individual clients.

For permission to translate in

May 6, 2015 07:00 AM by Sharon Muza, BS, LCCE, FACCE, CD(DONA), BDT(DONA), CLE
For permission to translate into German or any other language, please contact the NST- they own the copyright to the text (not the images) "Copyright ?? NCT 2014. This article first appeared in NCTÉ??s Perspective journal, edition March 2014. http://www.nct.org.uk/professional/research"

Wonderful Reading! Has this be

May 6, 2015 07:00 AM by Gerlind
Wonderful Reading! Has this been translated into German? If not: I have a publisher at hand and would love to have this ready to use for my classes in Germany...

I'm a lecturer in faculty of n

August 31, 2015 07:00 AM by ayat
I'm a lecturer in faculty of nursing and i need to use this tool in research but how i can measure the effect of this wonderful tool on the women during labour or by another way what is the outcom of using it and how we measure it . thanks

Road map to labour

July 4, 2016 09:15 PM by Heidi

Hi, I would love to use the road map to labour for my clients, how can I order the tear pad or laminated version? I live in Sweden. Kind regards

Such a great tool!

October 12, 2017 06:31 AM by Amy Kelley

I love this article and Penny's visual diagram of labor and the 'roadblocks' that might come up, how we handle them with position change, support from doula/partner, food/drink, water therapy, etc.  I will definitely use this in my Childbirth class!

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