What's That Smell?

09.09.11 How we deal with odors and body fluids


There’s no getting around it, labor and deliver is messy business. That’s why nurses work hard to develop fast, close, personal and professional connections with our patients. Personal enough that we can do what we have to do without too much embarrassment and professional enough to respect our patients’ dignity and privacy, even when we’re all up in their business.

We want our patients to trust us to handle their most intimate care during a time of great vulnerability. Sometimes I’ll open our conversation like this: “Is there anything you want me to know or any worries you want to share, that might help me take care of you?” Here are two of the most common responses that question gets:

1) What if I smell bad? 2) What if I poop?

Every woman (well almost, some don’t seem to care at all, but they’re rare), worries she’ll sweat, bleed, leak, fart, vomit, pee or poop during labor and that she’ll smell bad around her husband, family and friends. It may seem like this should be on the bottom of the list of things to worry about when you’re in labor, but seriously, it’s at the top. That may be because the other items on the list are too frightening to mention, like:

• What if my baby or I die in labor? • What if my baby has a surprise birth defect? • What if I’m a lousy mother or • What if I don’t like my baby?

See what I mean? Compared to those (which are on the back of many women’s minds), concerns about pooping and smelling bad are ones you can actually tell someone about and maybe even have some control over.

Chances are very good, you might get a little stinky while having your baby because that’s just part of the glamour of labor. I always reassure my patients, no matter what happens, I’ll help them stay as clean as possible. Most women realize that’s about the best we can do and they’re cool with that. Some patients, however, want a magic plan that guarantees they won’t emit any bodily fluids or odors during labor and delivery. To them I say, “Uh, sorry, but that’s just how the body works.”

So, at the risk of being really gross, let’s break it down. What’s that smell and what can we do about it:

Sweat – Labor is hard physical work and you’re going to get sweaty. If you start with a shower and rinse off occasionally during labor (or better yet, labor in the tub), then the smell of clean sweat won’t be stinky at all. You’ll smell like an athlete. Cool compresses, frequent sponge baths and a fan are enough for most women.

Blood – Some women have heavy bloody show and some barely bleed at all. Your nurse will keep an eye on you to make sure you’re not bleeding too much. Blood has a salty, metallic smell, kind of like iron. A bath or shower during labor along with occasional, sponge-offs are all you need. Your nurse will put clean towels and padding under your bottom to keep you as clean and dry as possible.

Amniotic fluid – There’s usually a big gush when the amniotic membrane ruptures. After that, you’ll leak anywhere from a trickle to a flood throughout the rest of your labor. Rinsing off in the shower will help you feel fresh and your nurse will give you piles of huge feminine hygiene pads (they look like Depends) to keep you clean.

• Healthy, clean, amniotic fluid smells like seawater. If there’s an intrauterine infection (called amnionitis), it’ll smell really foul. That’s not normal, not common and usually signals big trouble.

• It’s not unusual for yellow, black or green colored meconium (baby’s first poop) to be present in amniotic fluid. That doesn’t necessarily indicate a problem and doesn’t generally change the odor of amniotic fluid.

Farts – Let’s make a deal on this one – if you have to fart, go for it and I’ll pretend it never happened. Contractions, hormones, and stress all work against us to irritate our bowels and make us gassy. Don’t worry about it. As Shrek says, “better out than in.”

Vomit – Try to give us a signal if you feel it coming and we’ll make sure you have a bucket or basin nearby. If you’re caught by surprise though (hey, it happens), we’ll help you shower or give you a sponge bath, change your gown and bedding and clean the surrounding area.

Pee – We’ll help you up to the bathroom often or (if you have an epidural) t empty your bladder occasionally with a catheter, but it’s really common to spring a leak, especially during pushing.

Poop – See farts above re: bowel irritation. Now, same deal applies. If you can’t get to the bathroom fast enough or something slips out during pushing, don’t get stressed about it. Your nurse will clean up so quick you may not even realize it happened. We’re fast, thorough and prepared for this and we know it’s at the top of your worry list.

Now, just a quick note to those rare patients who aren’t on regular visiting terms with their shower: Please, if at all possible, just take a fast one (and use soap) or clean up a few strategic body parts with a washcloth during early labor. We don’t expect perfect hygiene and we don’t give a hoot about shaving, nail polish, makeup or curled hair, but it’ll help you feel more comfortable during labor if you start clean. If that’s not possible, then don’t worry, that’s what nurses are here for and we’re really good at personal, professional care.

Jeanne Faulkner, R.N., lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and five children. Got a question for Jeanne? E-mail it to labornurse@fitpregnancy.com and it may be answered in a future blog post."¨"¨

More about Jeanne

This Fit Pregnancy blog is intended for educational purposes only. It is not intended to replace medical advice from your physician. Before initiating any exercise program, diet or treatment provided by Fit Pregnancy, you should seek medical advice from your primary caregiver.