Labor & Delivery

Birth Story: Moments After I Heard ‘He’s Not Breathing’

written by ERIN STYBIS

It’s 2 am. I’m lying on the cold, hardwood floor next to Jack’s crib. He looks positively peaceful swaddled tightly in his pale green blanket, eyes shut while he dreams. I, however, am exhausted, but cannot sleep. Instead, I watch for the rise and fall of his chest, checking to ensure he’s breathing. I’m terrified he’ll stop breathing. I know I’m acting a little paranoid, but I can’t help it because it’s how my son’s life began – with a lack of breath.

This is the story of a birth that did not go as planned, and what happened next.

As the end of my third trimester drew near, I entertained visions of myself post-delivery, reclined in my hospital bed, my face flushed from labor, snuggling my newborn skin-to-skin. All I had to do was make it through labor. Giving birth worried me, but I was blessed with a complication-free pregnancy, so I anticipated labor would be painful but basic.

I didn’t think the vague birth plan I’d scribbled in the back of my planner – get the drugs, donate umbilical cord, deliver a baby – was too much to ask. What I didn’t realize was I had some unwritten expectations for my delivery day.


Labor day

Strong contractions woke me at 3:30 am. Woooah, baby, they hurt like hell! I rolled over and shook my husband awake. “Jay, I think it’s time,” I whispered.

Together, we timed my contractions. They’d started on Sunday, but now it was Monday morning and they were coming every five minutes. With shaking hands, I called my OB/GYN office and waited to be connected. I detailed my contractions to my doctor. “It’s time for you to have your baby,” she said. We grabbed our bags and high-tailed it to the car.

Speeding through the darkness on the ride to the hospital, I was overcome by a Christmas-morning kind of excitement. I couldn’t wait to meet my baby boy. I wondered what he’d be like, who he’d resemble, how labor would feel, and what would change once he arrived. Would the name we carefully chose for our son fit? Would Jay faint? I let my thoughts distract me as my contractions grew more intense.


I didn’t think the vague birth plan I’d scribbled in the back of my planner – get the drugs, donate umbilical cord, deliver a baby – was too much to ask. What I didn’t realize was I had some unwritten expectations for my delivery day.


The hospital was eerily quiet when we signed in. I waddled into the delivery room with the following assumptions: that my epidural would work, that I’d deliver vaginally, and that I’d get to hold my crying, beautiful baby right away.

None of these things happened.

Labor lasted a lot longer than I imagined it would. I remember lying in my hospital bed, breathing hard as my contractions rose and fell in waves. I remember coughing and wheezing because at the end of an easy pregnancy, I unluckily caught a cold. I remember gripping my husband’s hand with all my might and finally pleading for an epidural. The relief was immediate. I dozed off then woke up in a haze to the nurse telling me she needed to break my water. Finally, it was time to push.

This was the part of labor I’d been waiting for, the part that filled me with anticipation and dread. The nurse instructed me to take a deep breath, hold it, and push to the count of 10. As the contractions came, I pushed with all my might. But every time I tried, I couldn’t make it to 10 without coming down with a coughing fit. I felt miserable and delirious, but I kept pushing.

Two hours passed. The baby hadn’t made much progress. I pushed and pushed and suddenly I felt the pain sharpen. My epidural was wearing off. I read looks of concern on my doctor and nurses’ faces and started to get scared. I pushed for half an hour more, the pain worsening each minute. Sweat poured down my temples and tears nipped at the corners of my eyes. It felt like an eternity had passed when my doctor asked gently if I was ready to call it. “You mean a C-section?” I asked, crestfallen. “Not yet.” I pushed harder.


Two hours passed. The baby hadn’t made much progress. I pushed and pushed and suddenly I felt the pain sharpen. My epidural was wearing off. I read looks of concern on my doctor and nurses’ faces and started to get scared.


At the three hour mark, we finally called it. They had to – I had a fever and my baby’s heart rate was elevated. The medical team prepared me for surgery; I broke down and sobbed.

Lying on the cold operating room table, my mind raced: What happened that made us resort to this? Was my son alright? Had I failed him?

Then, the nurses announced they extracted him from my body. Finally! I thought, relieved. I waited to hear his cries.


“He’s not breathing!” someone yelled. My heart stopped.

A flurry of activity commenced and I heard staff performing infant CPR. I wept, big, heavy tears. I mouthed a silent prayer – please, please, please, please let him live.

Then, after what seemed like an eternity, I heard the light cries of a newborn baby. My newborn baby. Oh my God, he’s okay.



Someone brought him over to me so I could kiss his head and then whisked him away to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.

The nurses sent my husband to the NICU to be with Jack, but they shuttled me off to a back room to wait, alone, while they readied a maternity suite for me. I couldn’t stop crying or worrying about our baby. I called my mom — who was still en route to the hospital — then I called my friend. I could barely describe the situation, but she knew to come and sit with me while I struggled to make sense of my son’s birth. I had so many questions, mainly: Would he be okay? Why did this happen to us?

Finally, the suite was ready. By that time, my mom and Jay arrived, him filling us in on our son’s status and sharing pictures, my mom comforting me. My husband explained that Jack’s lungs were filled with mucus when he was born, which is why he wasn’t breathing. My heart sunk. In my insistence to push, I’d likely threatened his chances of survival. What if we hadn’t called it in time…I couldn’t bear to think about it. I said goodbye to my friend, and the nurse showed us to the new room.

“When will I get to see him?” I demanded while she pushed my wheelchair.

“Soon, we hope,” she replied. “We need to give you some time to rest. He’s doing really well.”


A New Beginning

At 6 am the next day, they cleared me to visit Jack. Groggy and tired, I extracted myself from my hospital bed into a wheelchair, wrangling my IV and catheter cords along. My husband wheeled me to the NICU, my stomach flipped with excitement.

Meeting my son for the first time took my breath away. Cradling him from my wheelchair, I stared at his sweet face, small blue eyes and tiny hospital cap. I noticed the array of cords hooked to his body – just like me. I wondered how he felt, and if he suffered much at the beginning. Now, at least, he seemed relaxed. “Hey buddy,” I whispered, tears catching in my eyes, “It’s nice to finally meet you. I’m your mama.”



Later, back in my hospital suite with my husband, we puzzled over how to announce our son’s birth. Neither of us felt particularly happy or ready to share, so we didn’t. It wasn’t until days later, when Jack was out of the NICU and with us in the suite, we announced his birth on social media. On our fifth day in the hospital, the doctor cleared us to go home.

The first few weeks at home were a blur. Days and nights bled together as I repeated the following pattern: nurse, cuddle, swaddle, rock, nap, repeat. The demands of mothering a newborn meant meeting my own needs came second. In between nursing sessions, I snuck bites of food and cat naps.

My entire body ached – my stomach, forever tattooed with the scar of my C-section; my nipples, sore and chapped; my lower region…I shudder thinking about it. I felt drained and bewildered and fearful and overwhelmed, but also a strong, sure sense of love. The love I felt for my son startled me with its force. I loved watching my husband become a dad. And I loved our little family.

Yet in those early months, I wrestled with deep anxiety that our son might die. I was overjoyed and grateful he was healthy, of course. But the trauma of his birth stayed with me. Randomly, I found myself crying in the bathroom or while nursing my son. Even after I put Jack to sleep, I’d often hold the baby monitor up to my face, squinting at the screen while looking for the rise and fall of his chest, watching until I was satisfied and could fall asleep. Sometimes I’d stay in Jack’s room and lay on the floor beside his crib, vigilantly watching him breathe. I was terrified of SIDS. I almost lost him once; I couldn’t lose him again. In hindsight, I think all that checking, checking, checking was my way of coping with trauma.

Friends and family visited and brought us chicken casserole, hazelnut cake, and dozens of diapers. We told them Jack’s birth story – the parts of it I could muster. My body grew stronger. Jack grew bigger and began sleeping in longer stretches. I slept longer, too. Slowly but surely, I began to lighten up and fret less about his health.



When I finally summoned the courage to post Jack’s birth story on my blog, I received a flood of encouraging messages from friends who had emergency C-sections and/or NICU babies. Suddenly I felt less alone. My experience, however isolating, wasn’t uncommon. I began to feel at peace with Jack’s dramatic entrance into the world.

What I know now, nearly two years later: Time, tears, and testimony helped me grapple with the pain of my son’s unexpected birth. Accepting my strong feelings and sharing my story healed me. There’s great power in claiming and sharing our stories – not just birth stories but of all parts of this motherhood journey – highs, lows, and the mundane in between.

Author Elizabeth Stone wrote, “Making the decision to have a child – it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking outside your body.” Caring for children forces us to confront our deepest fears and insecurities in a world where life isn’t guaranteed. Motherhood is, ultimately, an act of surrender.

I’ll never forget my son’s birthday. It was a terrifying, glorious day. The day he seized his first breath. The day I became a mother.