We are all familiar with how birth unfolds on the big screen. Mom’s water breaks in a most dramatic fashion and she instantly starts to panic or have crazy contractions. Her partner suddenly becomes inept or confused and unsure. A mad rush to the hospital ensues with mom sweaty and screaming, demanding for any kind of drug upon entry to the hospital. It’s no wonder there is fear surrounding birth with it routinely being depicted as an unbearable and miserable experience. Who would look forward to or willingly endure *that* level of pain?
Fear of pain in labor is often listed as one of the top concerns for expecting moms. Since our experience with pain (prior to childbirth) often indicates a medical emergency and given the portrayal of birth in popular shows and movies, it is no wonder. However, there is a secret that we need to share with all expecting mommas.
The secret is this: The pain experienced in labor is totally different from the pain we typically experience that would indicate a medical issue. In fact, labor pains are something that our bodies are designed to handle and they serve a very important purpose.
Pain in childbirth is PURPOSEFUL.
Unlike the pain of a bad cut or broken bones, the intense feelings experienced in labor have a purpose. Contractions of the uterus help to open the cervix and birth our babies. Throughout an undisturbed labor, our bodies produce a beautiful cocktail of hormones that allow us to work through the sensations we experience. Oxytocin brings on the waves of contractions and prepares mom to love on and bond with her baby. Meanwhile endorphins, nature’s pain killers, are released to ease the level of discomfort and transport mom to that other realm where she gathers her inner strength to birth her baby. We can also reframe the way we think of contractions. Rather than anticipating them as painful, we can acknowledge that the sensations we are experiencing are the tightening and stretching of the uterus and the growing pressure is baby moving down and through the pelvis. With every purposeful contraction, mom is that much closer to bringing her baby earthside. Knowing and recognizing that our bodies are working for us in labor, not against us, can go a long way in easing the fear associated with pain in birth.
Pain in childbirth is ANTICIPATED.
As a mother’s labor unfolds, oxytocin is increasingly released and regulated by her brain to create contractions that are longer, stronger and closer together. It is important to note that if oxytocin is regulated by the mother’s brain, it will not create contractions stronger than mom can bear. Contractions become closer together as labor progresses, establishing a pattern that allows mom and her birth team to anticipate the next contraction. Perhaps mom’s labor has a more irregular pattern? Her body still alerts her so that she can recognize the sensation signaling the next wave. Comfort can also be found in the fact that our bodies build in breaks between every contraction.
Pain in childbirth is INTERMITTENT.
Perhaps part of the fear of childbirth pain comes from the thought that it is painful throughout. The average first time mom may have a birth that lasts around 19 hours, but this does not mean that 19 hours are spent in pain. Nancy Bardacke’s Mindful Birthing puts this beautifully into perspective. She points out that in active labor with contractions being five minutes apart and lasting for sixty seconds, “in one hour of the first stage of labor, there will be only about twelve minutes of intermittent transformational pain.” It is also important to understand that the contraction peaks about 30 seconds into the contraction and typically is only at the peak sensation for about 3-5 seconds before ebbing. This means that during a 60 second contraction, we only experience the peak of the sensation for roughly the length of a breath. Nancy reassures us that with the 5 minute apart 60 second long contractions in active labor, in an hour “there are only about twelve breathes, or sixty seconds, of maximum pain.” Recognizing that our bodies are designed to have rest between contractions, and that even during the average 60 second contraction we are not experiencing intense sensations for the whole 60 seconds can really give peace of mind to an expecting mom.
Pain in childbirth is NORMAL.
Ultimately, understanding that the sensations felt in childbirth are normal may be the most important key to unlocking mom’s inner strength and confidence. Childbirth is not a medical emergency. It is a normal, physiological process that our bodies are made to accomplish. Just because a body experiences pain does not mean that the body is being harmed, particularly where birth is concerned. Without intervention, a mom’s brain produces the perfect amount of hormones needed to keep contractions strong and effective without being more than her body can handle. Labor pains are not sharp, shooting sensations, but rather are akin to what an athlete may experience after a marathon or challenging workout. The sensations experienced are the tightening and stretching and pressure of mom’s uterus (an incredibly powerful muscle) hard at work to birth her baby.
We need to change the script when it comes to childbirth.
Bringing a baby into this world is called labor because it is challenging work. However, it is a task that women’s bodies are created to accomplish. Acknowledging that birth is a normal, physiological process rather than a medical emergency can go a long way in shifting our birth culture and the way we approach and discuss childbirth. Birth is a profound and empowering experience for a family. Society spreads the message that birth is painful and therefore we should fear it, but what we should be talking about is how women are strong for the task. Women are made to birth.
Image credit: Snap Life Photography