Labor and Delivery Tools: Decoded

Ever wonder what all that equipment is they have in the birthing room? Here's the inside scoop on the most common equipment used to help bring your baby into the world.

Labor Tools Natthawon Chaosakun/Shutterstock
If you have watched one of the many shows about the miracle of birth to help you prep for your own experience, you may have seen some equipment that looked...well....a little scary. No need to be afraid! Here's the most common tools of the trade, and when you might end up needing them.

Intravenous (IV) Line

Labor, especially for a first-time mom, can be a very long process, and you may not be allowed to eat or drink during that time. So many women will have an IV line placed to replenish fluids, says Sherry Ross, M.D., an ob-gyn at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif. An IV is a catheter placed in your vein to drip in fluids or medication. If you don't have a full IV hooked up to a bag of fluid, you might have a heplock or saline lock, which is basically the needle and catheter with a cap on it. That leaves you line-free (not connected to the IV bag), but the vein is still accessible just in case an emergency arises.

Note: If you plan to have a natural birth, you may be able to refuse the IV. However, you'll likely have to get one if you want an epidural, to allow the doctors to increase your fluid levels to reduce the chance of a very common side effect of epidurals—a sudden drop in blood pressure.

Fetal Monitor

This computer screen sits on a tower or shelf. "Fetal monitoring is used to monitor the fetus' heart rate and the mother's uterine contractions during the labor and delivery process," says Angela Jones, M.D., an ob-gyn and founder of AskDrAngela.com. There are two types of fetal monitoring—external and internal. With external monitoring, two belts are wrapped around your stomach. One has a small monitor that detects the baby's heart rate. The other belt measures the length and frequency of the contractions. Sometimes monitoring goes on for the entire labor; other times it's intermittent, with the staff checking the heart rate and contractions periodically. There are even monitors that allow patients to walk around while it keeps track of the heart rate and contractions, Jones says.

If the staff can't get good monitoring externally, they'll use internal monitoring. With this method, a fetal scalp electrode is attached to the baby's scalp to monitor his heart rate, and an intrauterine pressure catheter (IUPC) is inserted into the uterus to monitor the frequency and strength of contractions, says Ross.

Urinary Catheter

If you get an epidural, you won't be able to feel the urge to urinate, so you may need a catheter to empty your bladder, says Ross. Because the epidural comes first, you won't really feel any discomfort when the catheter, a long tube, is placed into your bladder and connected to a bag to collect your urine.

Amniotic Hook

The amniotic hook (also known as an amnio-hook) looks like a knitting or crochet hook, and it's used to rupture your membranes (or break the bag of water) if it doesn't happen on its own, says Jones. Here's how it's done: Your doctor will insert two fingers into your vagina and through the cervix to check to make sure you're dilated. If you are, she'll insert the amnio-hook and snag a hole in the amniotic sac. A large gush of fluid usually follows. The exam to check your cervix can be a little uncomfortable but rupturing the membranes itself isn't painful, Ross says.

Forceps

These aren't as common as they once were, but some old-school docs still use them. Forceps look like large salad tongs and are used to assist delivery for a variety of reasons: you're exhausted and can't push anymore; you have pushed for a long time, but the baby needs help making it through the last part of the birth canal; or the baby is showing signs of stress and needs to be delivered quickly. The way forceps work is they are inserted into the vagina and placed around the baby's head. Then, when you push during your next contraction, the doctor will gently pull on the forceps to help deliver the baby. A forceps-assisted delivery can cause bumps or bruises on the baby's face or head, but these usually heal within a few days.

Vacuum Extractor

This is the preferred tool for an assisted delivery, and it's used for the same reasons as forceps. During a vacuum extraction, a small suction cup is placed through the vagina and on top of your baby's head. Then, next time a contraction comes, you'll push while the doctor gently pumps a handle on the device to help pull the baby out. After a vacuum extraction, your baby's head may look a little swollen or cone-shaped, but it should go away within a few days.

Umbilical Clamp

After your baby is born, the doctor will clamp the umbilical cord. Some providers use a clamp that looks like a plastic hair clip with locking teeth; others use a hemostat—a stainless steel tool that looks like scissors, except it doesn't cut and the handles have a locking mechanism to hold it in place. The doctor clamps the cord in two places so that there's no blood flow from the baby or the mom as the cord is cut, says Ross. Neither you or your baby will experience any pain from the clamping or cutting.

Scissors

There will be several pairs of scissors in the delivery room. Hopefully, only one will be used—to cut your baby's umbilical cord. Scissors may also be used if you need an episiotomy, a cut to the perineum (the skin and muscles between your vagina and anus) to widen the vaginal opening. Fortunately, episiotomies aren't as common nowadays. "Most physicians only perform episiotomies when they are absolutely necessary," Jones says. "For instance, when the baby needs to be delivered immediately for the baby and/or mother's safety," she says. If you do get an episiotomy, or you tear while pushing, your doctor will also use scissors to cut the sutures during the repair.

Sutures

These may not be much to look at—they're usually in a small plastic pack—but these bad boys do a really good job of holding things together. Literally. You'll need sutures (which you may know of as "stitches") if you get an episiotomy or have tearing during delivery. If you have an epidural, you won't feel the doctor stitching you back up. If you didn't have an epidural, he will use a local anesthetic to numb the area before stitching.

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